“The Excitement of Influence.” Read Stories by Katherine Mansfield and Christine Schutt
From NOON, Two Writers in Conversation Across A Century
First published in The English Review in 1918, “Bliss” by New Zealand–born writer Katherine Mansfield provoked such a strong reaction from her contemporary Virginia Woolf that the latter was moved to write in her diary, “I threw down ‘Bliss’ with the exclamation, ‘She’s done for!’ Indeed I don’t see how much faith in her as a woman or writer can survive that sort of story. I shall have to accept the fact, I’m afraid, that her mind is a very thin soil, laid an inch or two deep upon very barren rock. For ‘Bliss’ is long enough to give her a chance of going deeper. Instead she is content with superficial smartness; the whole conception is poor, cheap, not the vision, however imperfect, of an interesting mind.” T. S. Eliot, on the other hand, found strength in the story’s brevity, saluting “Bliss” as “brief, poignant, and in the best sense, slight.”
Now widely anthologized, taught, and considered a paragon of modernist literature, “Bliss” seems to prove what we have discovered as editors of NOON—that a story that generates powerful feeling, whether delight or fear or revulsion, bears closer examination. Rereading can yield different responses as our relationship to a story or novel or poem—or to an author—changes over time. Woolf’s strong reaction to “Bliss” came after she had championed Mansfield’s earlier work, and upon Mansfield’s death Woolf acknowledged that her work was “the only writing I have ever been jealous of.”
Close to a century later, American writer Christine Schutt was inspired to write her own response to “Bliss,” “The Life of the Palm and the Breast,” which first appeared in her collection A Day, a Night, Another Day, Summer.
Influence in writing is often spoken about as something dirty or shameful, something to be avoided, but here it offers a way for artists to connect across decades, to find courage and company outside the limitations of their own era.
Reprinting “Bliss” alongside “The Life of the Palm and the Breast” offers a way of achieving the impossible—bending time, allowing two artists who never lived in the same moment to greet each other.
Read Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss”
Read Christine Schutt’s “The Life of the Palm and the Breast”
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