Saturday, August 30, 2014

Kezia Burnell

Katherine Mansfield
The child Kezia Burnell stands in for the writer Katherine Mansfield in her family stories “Prelude” and “At the Bay,” and the delightful story “The Doll’s House,” all set in New Zealand in the 1890’s. It is this little kid, resistant to class and wealth consciousness and fascinated by the world, that makes these family stories incomparable.

Kezia’s family moves from Wellington to a small suburb at the edge of a bay, a beautiful spot where the early morning mist recedes, leaving “the leaping, glittering sea so bright it made one’s eyes ache to look at it.” On the day of the move there is no room in the buggy for Kezia and Lottie, so they are made to stay in town with a neighbor, and go out with the store-man later. The neighbor boys tease them asking them whether they would like strawberries and cream for tea, when all there is to eat is bread and dripping. Kezia “sat with her head bent, and as the tear dripped slowly down, she caught it with a neat little whisk of her tongue and ate it before any of them had seen.”

The girls have never been out so late. Kezia falls asleep in the wagon and when she wakes they are stopping in front of a long, low white house with a verandah where the lights flicker from room to room as someone walks through with a lamp. It is Kezia’s grandmother, come to welcome them. In the morning Kezia explores the garden, finding a tall, mysterious plant, swelling up with cruel leaves and a tall fleshy stem. Her mother says it is an aloe, which blooms once every hundred years. When the cousins come to play the next day, they watch Pat the Irish handyman chop the head off a duck. The children are terribly excited, but Kezia wraps her arms around Pat's legs and demands he put the head back on. At dinner her father slices into the duck with great pride.

Stanley, Kezia’s competitive father, swims early in the morning in the bay. When he goes off to work each morning, the women folk he leaves at home heave a sigh of relief! The children rush to the beach to spend the day with their cousins, Kezia stopping to wait for her younger sister who cannot climb over the stile. Their aunt Beryl bathes with a cold society woman and their mother dreams the morning away in a steamer chair under a manuka tree, beside her latest child, a son. She has little energy and leaves the work of the household to Kezia’s energetic grandmother.

In the evening Kezia and her siblings and cousins assemble in the washhouse, each of them a different animal. Pip, the bull with a pack of cards, explains the game. “It was very exciting, sitting there in the washhouse; it was all they could do not to burst into a little chorus of animals before Pip had finished dealing.” It grows dark and the children wish someone would come to collect them. Finally, Lottie screams when she sees a dark face pressed against the window. It is their uncle, come to take the cousins home.

When the children are given a wonderful doll house so big it won’t fit in the house, it is put on wooden boxes in the courtyard. The side of the house swings back to reveal the rooms inside, carpeted and wallpapered, with furniture. “But what Kezia liked more than anything, what she liked frightfully, was the lamp.” The dolls were too big, looking like they didn’t belong, but the lamp was perfect. The Burnell children are allowed to ask their school friends, two by two, over to see the doll’s house, everyone except the Kelveys who are shunned because they are the daughters of a washerwoman and an unknown father. Kezia wants to ask the Kelveys to see the doll house, but her mother says she may not. When she does sneak them into the courtyard to see it one day, her Aunt Beryl surprises them and drives them off. Upon leaving, the younger Kelvey says to her sister, “I seen the little lamp,” sharing with Kezia reverence for the beautiful little object.

As a young woman Katherine Mansfield couldn’t stand the provincialism of her home and demanded to go live in England. “Prelude” was an early story published by Hogarth Press in 1918. The other two were written somewhat later, when she was no longer able to return to New Zealand due to her deteriorating health. She wrote to her father “the longer I live, the more I return to New Zealand. A young country is a real heritage, though it takes one time to remember it. But New Zealand is in my very bones.” Mansfield died of tuberculosis at 34.

Kezia is a nostalgic look back at a kind, resourceful and courageous little girl sustained by her wonderful grandmother. I doubt Mansfield herself was quite this perfect! But the intuition and the ability to see what was important must have been there. All of the members of the extended Burnell family are wonderfully described in the three stories about them. They each have their personality and their reasons, concisely and vividly rendered. I wanted for a long time to write a screenplay using the stories of this family in their evocative landscape. Mansfield’s stories are rightly celebrated, often feeling as if they were written yesterday. But none are richer than those with the little Kezia at their heart.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Rosa Burger

Rosa Burger, the main character of Nadine Gordimer’s book Burger’s Daughter (1979) is first seen at age 14 outside the prison where her mother has been interned, bringing her a hot water bottle and a quilt. Both her father and mother are white Afrikaner leftists in South Africa during the time of apartheid. They know they will be imprisoned for their beliefs, but continue to do what they can to work toward “the national liberation of the African people, and thus the abolishment of discrimination and extension of political rights to all the peoples of this country,” as her father states in the last speech he is allowed.

Nadine Gordimer
When both of her parents successively die, Rosa is left free, as her friend Conrad says, but wrestling with their legacy. She has work as a physiotherapist, but slips further and further away from the political friends her parents cultivated, seeking a life of her own. But it takes a long time, and she must dig down to understand how conditioned she is to the high-minded political cause which is more important than the individuals who try to perpetuate it.

Her friend Conrad says, “I am the only person alive.” That is the existential truth for him. But for Rosa, it is not. Rosa reminds him of “the bourgeois fate, alternate to Lionel Burger’s: to eat without hunger, mate without desire.” The Burgers embraced communism because at the time it was the only way to get beyond race. Rosa sees that her parents “had a connection with blacks that was completely personal. … The political activities and attitudes of the house came from the inside outwards, and blacks in that house where there was no God felt this embrace before the Cross. At last there was nothing between this skin and that. At last nothing between the white man’s word and his deed.”

Rosa continues moving outward. She wrests a passport from one of the “new Afrikaners” and, though under surveillance, uses it to go to France. She wants to know what it is like somewhere else. Katya, her father’s first wife whom Rosa has never known, welcomes Rosa to her home in a village near Nice. Rosa is taken in to the frivolous community, in which pleasure, food, sunshine, gardens, pets are the only reality. They are thrilled when she meets a man who becomes her lover, a professor down from Paris, Bernard Chabalier. The paintings of Bonnard crystallize the place for her. In them Chabalier points out, it is as if nothing’s happened. Not the growth of fascism, two world wars, the occupation. Katya and her friends live from day to day.

Rosa and Chabalier travel together, he outlines the life she might live with him in Paris. They are very much in love. But in London, Rosa runs into the black man who had lived in her home when they were children, Baasie. He is angry with her, angry that Rosa’s father is extolled while his, who also died in prison, is forgotten. He refuses to see Rosa again. But the talk with Baasie ignites her. She can no longer live in Europe as if nothing was happening. She returns to South Africa and takes a job in a black hospital.

In 1976 during the Soweto riots, the hospital is filled with victims. Rosa sees that it is the children that are now making the demand for human rights, radicalizing their parents. “The children kept on walking toward the police and the guns.” Rosa is detained on October 19, 1977, like hundreds of others, without charges. In the women’s prison she finds ways to communicate with other women she knows, singing and laughing together. Her lawyer expects that she will get out, though will probably be under house arrest.

Nadine Gordimer, who died this year on July 13, did not consider herself as political as the “white hard-core Leftists” working in the atmosphere of apartheid in South Africa. But she was a member of the ANC and aided the revolutionaries. Lionel Burger is somewhat modeled on Bram Fischer, Nelson Mandela’s defense attorney. In the 1960’s when Mandela and Fischer were imprisoned, Gordimer considered leaving South Africa, but decided not to. “I wouldn't be accepted as I was here, even in the worst times and even though I'm white,” she said. Staying was a political act.

Perhaps none of us believe we have done enough to end suffering, yet all of our daily choices have political consequences. In this book, I saw the powerful contrast between the community in France in which each person looked out for his or her own material advantage, and the high-minded community in South Africa fostered by Rosa Burger’s family, which worked for human rights.