Katherine Mansfield came to Bandol in search of the sun and hope of renewal after learning, in October 1915, that her beloved brother, the youngest of her five siblings and the closest to her, had been killed at the Western front, while in training to use grenades. Leslie Heron Beauchamp, like so many young men of his generation, enlisted in the British Army and died at the age of 21.
She travelled south accompanied by John Middleton Murry, soon to be her husband. They lodged for a few weeks in L’hôtel Beau Rivage, on the seafront, before his return to England at the beginning of December. Mansfield stayed in Bandol to grieve and mourn for Leslie. She gathered her strength walking along the curve of Renécros Bay and through winding streets of Bandol. She found a place that was to become her shelter for a few crucial months in her life, noting in the letters to Murry:
It stands alone in a small garden with terraces. It faces the ‘midi’ & gets the sun all day long. It has a stone verandah & little round table where we can sit & eat or work… It is very private and stands high on the top of a hill. It is called the Villa Pauline…
When I woke this morning and opened the shutters and saw the dimpling sea I knew I was beginning to love this place – this South of France. Yesterday I went for a walk. The palm trees after the rain were magnificent, so firm and so green and standing up like stiff bouquets before the Lord.
In her Journal she kept questioning her will to live and to write, ultimately finding a new resolve in redefinition of writing as her duty and a chance to recreate the world she shared with her brother:
Now – now I want to write recollections of my own country. Yes, I want to write about my own country till I simply exhaust my store. Not only because it is ‘a sacred debt’ that I pay to my country because my brother and I were born there, but also because in my thoughts I range with him over all the remembered places. I am never afar away from them. I long to renew them in writing. Ah, the people – the people we loved there – of them, too, I want to write. Another ‘debt of love’. Oh, I want for one moment to make our undiscovered country leap into the eyes of the Old World. It must be mysterious, as though floating. It must take the breath. It must be ‘one of those islands…’ I shall tell everything, even of how the laundry-basket squeaked at 75. But all must be told with a sense of mystery, an afterglow, because you, my little sun of it, are set. You have dropped over the sizzling brim of the world. Now I must play my part.
John Murry returned to Bandol to rejoin her at the villa “Pauline” in January 1916, and both became engrossed in their projects: Murry working on his first book on Dostoyevsky, Mansfield revising “The Aloe,” the first story that hauntingly evokes a childhood and an adolescence spent in Wellington. New Zealand, which Mansfield left in 1907 never to return to, her extended family, a circle of family acquaintances, and her brother are brought back to life, rendered with great gift of observation and psychological nuance. The revised version of the story, retitled “Prelude,” is one of Mansfield’s finest works (published in 1919 by Virginia Woolf and Leonard Woolf, the second book issued by their newly founded Hogarth Press).
Bobkowski takes detour to Bandol to pay homage to the writer he greatly admires. It’s an emotional moment for him, and a brief visit to villa “Pauline” becomes an occasion to reflect on potentially powerful impact of the best of writing.
Szkice piórkiem 10.9.1940 Serce bije mi tak, jakbym czekał, że otworzy mi sama Katarzyna Mansfield… Mały pawilonik obok “Pauline”, w którym mieszkała. Mały, kamienny stolik, malutki, jak dywanik przed łóżkiem, taras. Na tym stoliku pisywała, że tam na dole, na morzu, zatrzymał się okręt wojenny, że dzień był szary i zimno. Kilka słów – pamiętam i nie pamiętam. Też była wtedy wojna… Usiadłem przy stoliku i patrzyłem. Czy potrafiłbym opisać ten widok stąd tak prosto i naturalnie jak ona? Dobra, prawdziwa proza jest jak suknia od Paquin lub Molyneux: niby nic, a jest w tym wszystko. Coś zupełnie nieuchwytnego. To są odbezpieczone granaty, które autor daje czytelnikowi, którymi go wypycha, aby wybuchły w nim. Czym dłużej eksplodują, tym pisarz jest większy. Wszelkie wspaniałe eksplozje wokół czytającego mogą być wspaniałe, mogą na chwilę ogłuszyć, ale w końcu nie zostaje z nich wiele.
Wartime Notebooks September 10, 1940
My heart is beating as though I expected Katherine Mansfield herself to let me in…
The tiny cottage next to “Pauline” is where she lived. A small stone table, a miniature terrace, no bigger than a bedside rug. On this table she wrote that down below, on the sea, a warship had dropped anchor, that the day was gray and cold. A few words – I remember and I don’t remember. There was a war then, too…. I sat down at the little table and looked around. Would I be able to describe the view as simply and naturally as she did? Good honest prose is like a dress from the house of Pacquain or Molyneux: a little nothing that says everything. Something entirely elusive. They are activated grenades that the author gives the reader, crams into him, so they detonate inside. The longer they keep on exploding, the greater the writer. Spectacular explosions around the reader can indeed be spectacular, can deafen him for a while, but in the end not much remains of them.