Title: Recollecting Mansfield

Author: Margaret Scott

Publication details: Random House

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Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Recollecting Mansfield


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My apartment was below the level of the upper street. You entered the big building and went down a flight of steps to a little high-walled stone courtyard open to the sky, which accommodated some large rubbish bins. There were locked doors on the opposite wall. One of these led into my apartment and the other was that of my neighbour whose name, Lorenzi Paul, was written on one of the two letter boxes at the top of the stairs. Under his name was the word Peintre. I thought it an excellent idea to be living in the South of France next door to a painter.

He emerged proprietorially while I was moving in — a thin elderly man with long restless limbs like an agitated insect. He hopped around offering advice, imparting information and asking questions in a kind of French that bore no audible relation to the language that Miss Bone had taught me at school. It was clear, though, that he was full of goodwill and for this I had cause to be page 59immediately grateful. The first thing I discovered about my new apartment, before I had even unpacked, was that the lavatory was blocked. Luckily, my Cassell's English/French dictionary being still beyond reach, I remembered that a plumber was un plombier and I went next door to ask M. Paul (as I called him) if he knew of one. He gave me a long stream of unintelligible information, then dashed up the stairs and came back in a couple of minutes with a young man carrying tools with which he fixed the problem. For this I was not charged.

My friendly neighbour was obviously trying to work out who or what I was. Clearly I was a foreigner but not a summer tourist because it was too early in the year for them. What on earth was I doing in Menton? When my work table was carried down the stairs and into my apartment his curiosity overflowed. A day or two later he knocked on my door in the middle of the day and appeared to be inviting me to join him for lunch. I was out of my depth here. What lay behind it? What would my acceptance signify? In any case, I was in the middle of something I didn't want to abandon. I thanked him but declined, pleading busyness and indicating my big table full of photocopies of manuscripts. He seemed to accept this with sympathy and understanding and scuttled away. A few minutes later he reappeared, carrying a tray with my lunch on it: fried fish on one plate, meatballs in beans and tomato sauce with potato on another, a piece of lemon, a piece of cheese, a loaf of bread, an apple, une demi-bouteille de vin rouge. Ashamed of myself by then, I insisted that he bring his own lunch to eat with me. He soon reappeared with his food still in saucepans, tipped mine back into these, put them all on my gas rings turned low (no doubt he was more familiar with my apartment than I was) and produced a bottle of marsala pour un apéritif. Later, when we had served up the meal, he suddenly remembered he would need his teeth and dashed home again.

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We 'talked' for a couple of hours and, considering he had not a word of English and my small store of schoolgirl French was different from his, we managed wonderfully well. I had recourse to my Cassell's often enough but most of his chatter just flowed past me, occasionally brushing me with a familiar word. I found that his last painting job had been the town hall, and that his wife had died two years ago and he was lonely without her. He talked a great deal about what happened in the war and I very much wished I could understand him because Menton is so close to the Italian border that it was difficult to imagine what it must have been like to live there during those times. Certainly his war was exceedingly dramatic, his account of it punctuated with leapings up and down, detonations, bursts of carefully aimed machine-gun fire. At one point he shouted, 'Schweinhund!' 'Schweinhund!' I shouted back. 'I know what that word means.' This pleased him inordinately, apparently suggesting that I understood what he had been talking about. He jumped up, ran to the door of the apartment, beckoned me over and pointed to the walls of the little courtyard which I could now see were pockmarked with bullet holes.

And somehow, through my lame and poverty-stricken French, he ascertained the essentials about me — Néo-Zélandaise, veuve, trois enfants, here for six or seven months to work, fellowship, Katherine Mansfield's letters. Of course he had never heard of Kathérine Mansfield so we did not need to mention her again. My addressing him as Monsieur Paul seemed to amuse him and he responded, still amused, by addressing me as Madame Margaret (presumably the postman had supplied my first name). When I began to receive mail from the French bank addressed to Mme Scott Margaret I suddenly realised that Lorenzi was his surname, Paul his given name. By this time I was somewhat embroiled. He had done me many small kindnesses and I was grateful to him. But he had written a totally unrealistic plot for this piece of fiction in page 61which I, willy-nilly, had been assigned a main part. I was pretty sure quite early on that his intentions were, alas, honourable, but I couldn't see, within the bounds of ordinary civilised behaviour, how to blight them.

I had a number of visitors. Charanne Kurylo, when she heard from me that Mary Murry still possessed Mansfield's little green Chekhovs, arranged with Mary to fly to England to examine them, and then decided to travel via the South of France and visit me for a few days. We swam and talked about Mansfield and enjoyed ourselves until I had to ask her to make way for Andrew Packard, an old friend of Harry's and mine from our Auckland days. A physiologist on the staff of the Zoology Department at Auckland University, Andrew had left New Zealand not long before Harry's death for a position in Naples and had remained there for about 10 years. Towards the end of his New Zealand period he had also worked in Dunedin for a time and we had put him in touch with Charles Brasch. It was to Andrew that Charles had addressed his verse sequence 'In Your Presence'. Now at Edinburgh University, Andrew still went back to Naples from time to time, and on this occasion had a few free days that he would be able to spend with me. I was delighted at this — he had many very happy associations — but I could not have both my guests at the same time, so I asked Charanne if she could move into a room in town for the few days Andrew would be here, and she was quite happy to do so. Andrew made everything come alive, at least for 24 hours, after which we went to a local restaurant for dinner and I ate mussels that gave me a dose of food poisoning. Andrew ordered me to stay in bed the next day (I didn't have much option) and he spent the time ministering to me. At some point Monsieur Lorenzi knocked on the door and when Andrew opened it my neighbour's eyes bulged to see me in bed and a strange man in the room. Fortunately Andrew's French was up to the task of explaining the situation.

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Before that calamity, however, I was swept off my feet by Andrew, first running to catch a train to the charming village of Roquebrune, where Mansfield used to visit her friends Sydney and Violet Schiff. We walked about and came to some woods with a sign up saying private. Andrew said, 'Come on, what can they do — kill us?' This seemed to me both admirable and foolhardy but I followed him. We walked through those beautiful woods where the only sound was a solitary nightingale singing its long song. I had never heard a nightingale before and I was entranced. Walking back, we reconstructed as much as we could of Keats's Ode.

And at some stage — was it before or after the mussels? — we went to Monaco, admired the fairy-story palace with its lawns that looked painted, and its lively, crowded little streets. And we went to the famous Oceanographical Museum (which Mansfield, too, had greatly admired). Andrew, as a marine zoologist, was very much at home there and enjoyed telling me much about the creatures we were looking at that wasn't explained in the displays. Before long, a group of silent, listening people surrounded us, moving with us when we moved. Later in the year Andrew returned to Monte Carlo to join Jacques Cousteau who was making a Tv documentary about crayfish, on which Andrew was an authority. He sent a telegram to Menton inviting me to join him there for a couple of days and meet Cousteau, but I couldn't — or didn't — go.

I enjoyed reading Mansfield's reactions to Menton, good and bad, and her delightful observations of what, in Italy, she called 'the insetti', though she usually meant by that word creatures that bite. I, myself, was attracted by the lizards, so it was fun to read this in her letter to Murry of 27 September 1920:

The lizards here abound. There is one big fellow, a perfect miniature crocodile who lurks under the leaves that climb over a corner page 63of the terrace. I watched him come forth today — very slithy — and eat an ant. You should have seen the little jaws — the flick flick of the tongue, the queer rippling pulse just below the shoulder. His eyes, too. He listened with them — and when he couldn't find another ant he stamped his front paw and then seeing that I was watching deliberately winked, and slithered away.

There is also a wasps nest in the garden. Two infant wasps came out this morning & each caught hold of a side of a leaf & began to tug. It was a brown leaf outside the size of three tea leaves. They became furious — they whimpered — whiney-pined — snatched at each other — wouldn't give way & finally one rolled over & couldn't roll back again — just lay there — kicking. I never saw such a thing. His twin then couldn't move the leaf at all. I pointed out the hideous moral to my invisible playmate.

Then again, a couple of weeks later, using their private pet names, Boge (for Murry) and Wig (for Mansfield):

Good God! There are two lizards rushing up the palm tree! A Boge & a Wig. Lizards glister Heaven bless them. In the trunk of the palm high up some tiny sweet peas are growing & some frail dandelions. I love to see them. As I wrote that one lizard fell — simply fell with a crash (about 5000 feet) on to the terrace — and the other looked over one of those palm chunks — really it did. I've never seen such an affair. It was Wig that fell — of course. Now she's picked herself up & is flying back. She seems as good as new — But its a mad thing to do.

And then there was the fun she had with an asp, also in a letter to Murry. Reading this, you must remember that in Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra, as Queen of Egypt, was known as page 64'Egypt', and that her love for Antony led her to take her own life by applying to her body asps which were brought to her in a basket of figs. Mansfield, here, on 10 October 1920, has just written a long letter to Murry and signed it 'Your own Wig'. It continues:

Just as I folded that I had callers. A M[onsieur] et Madame showed on to the Terrace. Very gracious but Oh dear! What a ghastly idea it is. What can one say? I can't play 'ladies' unless I know the children I'm playing with. Now there's an asp come out of a hole — a slender creature, red, about 12 inches long. It lies moving its Quick head. It is very evil looking but how much nicer than a caller. I was warned yesterday against attempting to kill them. (Do you see me trying to kill them, Boge?) But they spring at you if you do. However darling, I'll catch this one for you at the risk of my life & put it in your Shakespeare for a marker at the scene where the old man carries in the basket of figs. You will have to hold your Shakespeare very firmly to prevent it wriggling, Antony darling.

Lovingly yours


[Encircling 'Egypt' is a drawing of an asp devouring its own tail.]

By Menton she was charmed, and later repelled. Writing to her brother-in-law, Richard Murry, also in September 1920, she said:

My small, pale yellow house with a mimosa tree growing in front of it — just a bit deeper yellow — the garden, full of plants, the terrace with crumbling yellow pillars covered with green (lurking place for lizards) all belong to a picture or a story — I mean they are not remote from one's ideal — one's dream. The house faces the sea, but to the right there is the Old Town with a small page 65harbour, a little quai planted with pepper and plane trees. This Old Town, which is built flat against a hill — a solid wall, as it were, of shapes & colours is the finest thing I've seen. Every time I drive towards it it is different.

And every time she drove towards it she would have seen, at the end of the quai, the beginning of the Old Town with the window of the room I was to occupy half a century later.

In October she wrote to Murry:

I love this place more and more. One is conscious of it as I used to be conscious of New Zealand. I mean if I went for a walk there & lay down under a pine tree & looked up at the wispy clouds through the branches I came home plus the pine tree — don't you know? Here it's just the same. I go for a walk & I watch the butterflies in the heliotrope & the young bees & some old bumble ones and all these things are added unto me. Why I don't feel like this in England heaven knows. But my light goes out in England, or it's a very small & miserable shiner.

This was the general tenor of her response to Menton through most of the time she was there. But, as so often, illness and disappointment eventually clouded the whole scene, and, the following February, writing to Ottoline Morrell, she said:

I mean to leave the Riviera as soon as possible. I've turned frightfully against it & the French. Life seems to me ignoble here. It all turns on money. Everything is money. When I read Balzac I always feel a peculiar odious exasperation because according to him the whole of Life is founded on the Question of money. But he is right. It is — for the French. I wish the horrid old Riviera would fall into the sea. Its just like an exhibition where every page 66single sideshow costs another sixpence. But I paid goodness knows what to come in.

My own scene had its clouds too. When Charanne and Andrew had gone the old routine reasserted itself. It seemed to me ridiculous that I should be there with no facilities for my work, no friends, cut off from my children, lacking money. I never managed to find any music on my transistor radio, even though there were stations from France, Italy and occasionally Germany coming in. There were no conversations I could ever have, even at the market, that were not an agonising strain. Worst of all, there was nothing to read. I searched for bookshops selling English language books, and found only one with half a dozen books. I bought Jude the Obscure and read it, but it did not increase my gaiety level. There was an English-language collection of books at the town hall, including a small New Zealand section which had, of course, Mansfield, and also, I remember, some Charles Brasch, but these volumes could not be borrowed. They were for display only. Even my work could not really absorb me because all I could do was transcribing and my father's portable typewriter had been damaged on the voyage (probably in Gibraltar) and although it was useable it was not friendly. (I left this typewriter behind in Menton with Mary-Adèle who said she would get it repaired and would put it in the room for future fellows, but I heard no subsequent mention of it so perhaps it wasn't fixable.)

Then I got a message from Mansfield. Transcribing one of her letters, which had been written less than a mile away from where I was then sitting, across a span of half a century, I read this:

If we set out upon a journey the more wonderful the treasure the greater the temptations and perils to be overcome. And if someone rebels and says Life isn't good enough on those terms one can only page 67say: 'It is'. Don't misunderstand me. I don't mean a 'thorn in the flesh, my dear' — it's a million times more mysterious. It has taken me three years to understand this — to come to see this. We resist — we are terribly frightened. The little boat enters the dark fearful gulf and our only cry is to escape — 'put me on land again'. But it's useless. Nobody listens. The shadowy figure rows on. One ought to sit still and uncover one's eyes.

That seemed mysteriously meant for me.

One morning when I dropped in to the office at the town hall, which at least knew of my existence, I was startled to be told that a man had been enquiring for me. He had come in just that morning and, learning that they expected to see me sometime during the day, he had left a message to say he would wait at the café on the other side of the square. He had not left his name and I couldn't imagine who he might be, but I started to walk across the cobbles. I heard footsteps running towards me from behind and I turned. Alf James threw his arms round me with a great bear hug and his bellowing laugh. I was stunned speechless. Alf! Whom I had said goodbye to in Durban and expected never to see again! We went and had coffee and I learned that he had made it to New York to see the big championship fight he had told me he wanted to see, and then had come back to Europe and decided to look me up. He had been staying at the Negresco, in Nice, had left (I supposed) without paying his bill, and now would like to spend some time in Menton. Could I put him up? Trying to sound as if I were doing him a big favour, I said I did, actually, have a spare bed, and he was welcome to it for a little while on condition that I be left alone for at least part of each day to work, and that there be no sex in the arrangement. He cheerfully agreed to both rules, although he said later that he could not see the reason for the latter. There was no reason — just a feeling I had that it would be a good idea.

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One of Alf's most attractive attributes was his openness to everything — a useful talent in a con man, perhaps. Exposed to Katherine Mansfield, he immediately became interested in her. He asked me a lot of questions about her, read the Alpers biography I had with me, read bits of the published Letters and Journal and even read some of the photocopied manuscripts of unpublished letters — or tried to. At one point, reading one of these, he gave a whoop of surprise as he came across a disparaging remark Mansfield had made about Wyndham Lewis. He said she obviously had good taste and good sense, because his experience of Lewis was that once, after Alf had won a championship fight in Durban, Wyndham Lewis had approached him and sexually propositioned him. Alf was elaborately disgusted.

We settled into some sort of a routine. In the mornings we went to the market for our food and did whatever chores needed doing; in the afternoons I worked while Alf took himself down to the little beach to work on his suntan. (He told me that Mr Onassis said the first thing to do on the road to success is to get a suntan.) Lying on the beach he could clearly see my window, as I could clearly see him, and towards the end of the afternoon when it was time to call it a day, I would hang a towel over my window sill. He always saw this immediately and jumped up, grabbed his towel and bag, ran up the beach, across the street, up the steps and along a few yards to my door. His cheerfully optimistic approach did lighten my gloom, and in fact I worked better when he was there than I had done before.

While I had still been looking for somewhere to live I had given the people at home a poste restante address, so that I had to walk quite a long way to the post office each day to get my mail. And French poste restante will not give you your letters unless you present your passport and pay a fee for each item collected. Mail from home was my lifeline and became disproportionately page 69important to me. (Shades of Mansfield!) One morning when Alf and I were walking to the post office I suddenly remembered that it was a public holiday and so the post office would almost certainly be closed. Alf said cheerfully that it might not be and we would never know unless we went and had a look. So we went and it was open and there were a dozen letters for me. On another occasion, we got to the post office (it was about a mile from home) when I found that I had forgotten to bring my passport. This was a crushing disappointment, but Alf ran all the way home for the passport and brought it back. No wonder I felt better when he was around!

And we enjoyed going to the market each morning to buy the food we would need for that day. In Alf's terms this was slumming it somewhat, since he was accustomed to eating in restaurants, but he never conveyed a hint of that and seemed always to be thoroughly enjoying himself. After he had left Menton and I was at the market alone again, one of the stall-holders smiled at me one day and said, 'Votre mari est beau!' What Monsieur Lorenzi made of him I will never know.

When Alf began to think about moving on I encouraged him to go because I did not want him to become a habit. I gave him, as a memento, Dan Davin's selection of Mansfield's best stories. The volume was small enough to slip into a jacket pocket and he said it would go with him everywhere. His euphemism for serving time was 'resting' and he said the little book would be especially valuable then. He made me feel very sad. I could see that he must have started life with gifts enough to enable him, if only he had been loved, encouraged and educated, to become anything in the world he wanted to be. But, instead, he was a lost soul, a dead weight on society, cobbling together his shreds of self-esteem by inventing a God who smiled on him. An appalling waste.

He did not immediately move very far, however. He went to Nice for a few weeks and from there returned by train from time page 70to time on a Saturday so we could go out to dinner. When he finally left the country he asked if I could lend him a little money, just to get him started on his way. He would pay it back. So I scraped up as many francs as I could — they amounted to $100 in New Zealand currency, which was no small beer to me — and gave them to him. I suppose that was a con, but it didn't feel like it, and I'm sure he really intended to give it back. In fact — another of his dramatic surprises — he turned up in Wellington a year later, looking for me at the Turnbull Library where he knew I was working. He was by then, he said, based in Australia and had brought with him the money to repay me but had just heard from his business partner that he must return immediately, so he had to put the money into an airfare. I took him to my house for dinner that night, and that was the last I saw of him. Poor old Alf — he was almost a marvellous person.