Monday, October 14, 2013

Michael King on Menton and Patrick White

To mark Katherine Mansfield’s birthday, the 70th in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is a letter to the editor from Michael King, in the December 1996/January 1997 issue.

I’m sure I speak for all New Zealand writers when I say I am delighted that ECNZ has taken over sponsorship of the Katherine Mansfield Memorial Fellowship. I am less delighted at the effects its promotions may have on literary history, however. ECNZ’s ad (QUQ, November) shows a picture of the Katherine Mansfield Room in Menton, France. The memorial plaques in either side of the door have mysteriously become windows (did some disgruntled fellow punch them out?); the heavy wrought-iron gate, which helps to ensure the writer’s privacy, has disappeared. More seriously, the text announces that writers will work in “the same room where Katherine Mansfield produced some of her finest pieces . . .”

Not so. That room is out of bounds in the privately owned Villa Isola Bella above the KM Room. The room in which the fellows work was, in Mansfield’s time, the cave or cellar. The only person I found in 1976 who had lived near the property when Mansfield was there, Mme Yvonne Arbogat, was adamant that the room had been used for the storage of gardening tools, The only way Mansfield could have worked there was as a gardener, cleaning implements. The “most celebrated occupant” of the KM Room, therefore, was not Mansfield, as the advertisement alleges, but Janet Frame, who was there as KM Fellow in 1974.

One further piece of literary history. One of the most celebrated visitors to the room was Nobel laureate Patrick White, in 1976. His first words on entering this revered cultural shrine were: “Where’s the dunny?”
Michael King
Coromandel Peninsula