Mansfield & Me: A graphic memoir by Sarah Laing (Victoria University Press, 2016), 336pp, $35
There is something to be said for judging a book by its cover. Particularly a book within which the images are as important, as lively and revealing, as the text. The cover of Sarah Laing’s graphic memoir Mansfield & Me is striking in its intensity. At each glance, it is alive with the skill of the artist: the hand-coloured faces of Laing and Mansfield face off. Mansfield’s brown eyes and Laing’s blue are locked, while the vivid geometry of the wallpaper behind them is concealed by smokey smudges or shadows. Katherine’s stare is challenging and bold, while Laing’s is less certain, almost pleading. This cover is at once crisp and present, ambiguous and dreamlike – a perfectly concise indication of the life stories and the relationship to come.
From an arresting exterior and into the inside front cover, the front papers and all the way through to the end, Mansfield & Me reveals the artistry of Sarah Laing’s own hands. The wallpaper from the front cover is repeated in clear blue hand-drawn lines on the inside cover; there are bright flower gardens at the start and finish; the author’s notes and acknowledgements, the contents and the publisher information is all in the looping handwriting of Laing. This is a beautiful object to own – a piece of art.
Mansfield & Me begins with Laing musing on when it was that Katherine Mansfield became embedded within her imagination as a ‘fascinating person’. We’re shown a pre-teen version of the author, thin and a little gangly at her Great Aunt Alison’s home in York Bay. The evocative treasures residing in old homes and the provocative memories of older generations spark Laing’s curiosity when pieces of Katherine’s house turn up in the shed, and the story of ‘that naughty Kathleen’ and her intense relationship with local artist Edith Bendall is mentioned.
The graphic elements of the book realise the melange of memories and history in vivid and visionary detail. The lively, fluid drawings and the more surreal sequences give the impression that the reader has latched on to the mind’s eye of the writer/artist. Laing takes us along a multi-dimensional exploration of her own past intertwining with that of Katherine’s. With the naughty Kathleen having taken hold, the young Laing, floating in the sea with the aid of an inflated wine bladder (her granny’s genius) around the bay from where Katherine and her own family would have summered, the visual story shifts from colour to black and white.
Laing brings Katherine Mansfield to life in an unprecedented way in this book. With thought bubbles, dialogue and illustration, the internal life of Mansfield is given a place alongside the factual history. Facial expressions communicate her early angst over her adolescent infatuation with the beautiful young Edith Bendall, while a thought bubble articulates her anxiety: ‘Oh Oscar, why does your impulse burn so strong within me?’ Throughout Mansfield & Me, Katherine Mansfield’s story is cleverly juxtaposed with Laing’s, often at moments where Katherine’s pioneering personality mirrors or informs Laing’s own explorations and anxieties and, later, her artistic pursuits.
Like many New Zealanders, Mansfield’s short stories are prescribed reading for a teenage Laing. The grotesque play on age, love and innocence in ‘Her First Ball’ intertwines with a self-conscious Laing anxious about meeting boys and achieving that awkward first kiss: ‘no one wants to kiss me now and I’m sweet sixteen,’ she thinks. The voice of the present-day Laing-as-memoirist intervenes to consider the point at which Mansfield wrote ‘At the Ball’. High in the Swiss Alps, Katherine is ill with full-blown tuberculosis, furiously writing. She is all but abandoned by sick-shy Middleton Murray and, desperate for a cure, heads to Paris for treatment that causes heart palpitations and nausea. The image of the heart takes us back to teenage Laing who draws on her feelings of loneliness and despair to write her first short story.
At the point where Laing’s creative dreams gain momentum, we’re shown Mansfield’s frustration with the ‘stultifying colonial small-mindedness’ of New Zealand. Soon after her arrival in London, she accidentally gets pregnant with the help of musician Arnold Garnet. The play between words and image is wonderful here, when in one frame the text reads ‘They practised being married’, while the accompanying image is the pair in bed together naked. With Arnold not committed to marriage, Katherine focuses her attention on singing teacher George Bowden, whom she marries but promptly leaves, being still in love with Garnet. It is the arrival of Katherine’s formidable mother that alters the course of her life, as Katherine is whisked to Germany to wait out her pregnancy alone and devote time to her health while residing at Pension Müller.
The graphic sequence recounting Katherine’s labour and birth bring to the fore the pain and loneliness she suffered in a way that a traditional biography can’t. We see her alone on her bed, belly large; we’re told that she didn’t realise when she was in labour and see her writing to Garnet; she is writhing with pain; and we are shown the dead foetus laid out, umbilical cord trailing around it, when it arrives at only six months, ‘too early to be considered stillborn’. ‘I cannot forget,’ thinks a Mansfield looking forlorn, like a mother who has lost a child. The combined strengths of Laing’s imagination, her skill as an illustrator, storyteller and biographer is very powerful.
Hunger for experience and fumbling for clarity of self mark the extraordinary moments in this book. Laing is incredibly frank. Her memories soar between text and image, allowing us the fly-on-the-wall view of sexual experiences, moments of angst, illness and depression. Readers are constantly rewarded by the multiple languages and voices that Laing employs to fully flesh out her own and Mansfield’s search for creative achievement, and the life experiences that would enable a depth of material to draw on. Increasingly, we see and hear Mansfield enter into Laing’s psyche as she is negotiating anxieties about being too dull and inexperienced to be a writer. For example, in one scene, a new and worldly friend stirs Laing into an unflattering comparison with her own life, and Mansfield enters the scene, perched elegantly on the couch, a ghost inside the brightly coloured memory, asking Laing, ‘Do you know what experience is? Pain. Loss. Death. Is that what you want?’
On 17 September 2001 Laing moves to New York, ‘the terrified new world’, with her new husband, Jonathan. Mirrored against the image of the devastated site of the twin towers is the rubble and ruin of Paris in 1918. The lead up to and scene of Katherine’s war-time marriage to John Middleton Murray slides neatly against Laing’s journey to a highly anticipated and longed-for life in America, both women feeling that things aren’t turning out the way they expected them to.
In many ways, Mansfield & Me is an acute observation and revelation of the artist’s struggle for artistic space and success – the persistent desire to make an impression. Sometime after New York in a period of literary achievement after she publishes her first book (Coming Up Roses, short stories), Laing remains on her quest: ‘I thought I’d be satisfied after I’d published a book. After all, I was a “real writer” now’, she thinks.
Katherine remains with Laing through to the end of the book, which rests on the image of Mansfield’s ‘little lamp’. In their imagined conversations, Katherine is poised and neat of figure and style, always critical of Laing, pushing her to pursue the novel (that empty space in the Mansfield story where early death intervenes). She is a muse, an influence and a taskmaster. Laing contemplates: ‘Katherine’s stories were full of those little lamps – moments of illuminations, flashes of Truth’ … ‘I don’t need to be famous … but I would like someone to really see me … and all the little lamps I’ve made’.
Mansfield & Me is a glittering trove of hundreds of lamps ensuring, completely, that we see Laing’s outstanding talent and that Katherine Mansfield is illuminated as the writer, the woman and the muse, like never before.
CLAIRE MABEY is a literary programmer and a co-director of LitCrawl Wellington. Previous jobs include publishing in Europe, selling second-hand books, and various roles on many arts festivals.