26 Jun 2019
Paula Morris takes us inside the shadow of Katherine Mansfield and her days at the Menton residency on the French Riviera
From late February until the end of June this year I’ve been based in Menton, the final stop on the French Riviera before the Ligurian coast of northern Italy. More specifically my husband, Tom Moody, and I have been living in Garavan, Menton’s garden district, squeezed between cliffs and the sea, lush with flowers and foliage.
When we arrive, oranges and lemons clot the trees lining Menton’s streets, squashed fruit a menace on the footpaths. By the time we leave bougainvillea and jacaranda trees are in bloom, and every day feels dusty and scorching hot. The bars and restaurants along the marina are mostly open, though some are hanging out for the tourist onslaught of July and August. There’s live music at weekends, and Tour de France wannabes racing along the Promenade du Soleil in their sponsored Lycra.
Menton – photo by Tom Moody
Before the late 20s, Menton was back to fishing-village quiet every summer. From the late nineteenth-century it was the winter destination of choice for the wealthy, fatigued and delicate of northern Europe. They came from Britain, Germany, Russia and other parts of France seeking a cure for – or at least a respite from – TB and other ailments. Many of them are buried in one of the two crowded, precipitous cemeteries above Menton’s Old Town. Some of the surviving grand hotels have suitably expat names – the Balmoral, the Royal Westminster. One of the most lavish, the Winter Palace, was the haunt of English and Russian aristocrats; now it’s luxury apartments. Like much of the French Riviera, Menton is still home to thousands of people from elsewhere, many of whom retreat here in retirement, or spend no more than five months a year in their holiday flats or villas, to avoid French tax residency.
Villa Isola Bella
Katherine Mansfield arrived here in the winter of 1920, before American writers and artists, and the rich people who supported them, made the Riviera fashionable in the summer. She brought with her the typically impossible dream of better health, after an earlier stint west along the coast in Bandol. Menton was mild in the winter and relatively cheap, so she could make the stipend from her father go as far as possible. For most of her time here she lived in the Villa Isola Bella in Garavan.
Avenue Katherine Mansfield – photo by Tom Moody
And because she was here, I’m here as well – the 49th recipient of the Mansfield Menton Fellowship, and only the third Māori writer to be awarded the residency. Each year since 1970 a New Zealand writer has spent a period of months in Menton, with access to a writing studio at the base of the Villa Isola Bella, Mansfield’s home here: in the mayor’s office they call it the Mémorial. It’s an impressive roll call: Janet Frame, Maurice Gee, Bill Manhire, Witi Ihimaera, Marilyn Duckworth, Michael King, Fiona Kidman, Lloyd Jones, and so on. In the past writers got too little money, or lots of money, depending on the state of sponsorship; in the past some were able to stay for the best part of a year. Currently the appointed writers are here for at least three months, depending on how far they can stretch money, and how long they can manage time away from work at home.
Of course, part of me wishes I was here in the days when writers got a large sack of money and a luxurious number of months, but it’s unrealistic for many of us who apply. We have jobs and families. Sometimes a short, intense residency is the thing we need to get some work done, because a prolonged break from real life is impractical. Many writers I know, especially ones with children, find even three months away too great a logistical and financial problem: you still have to pay rent or a mortgage at home, and not everyone’s partner or children can step away from their own lives and obligations.
Villa Isola Bella – photo by Tom Moody
Not here for a holiday
After we arrived in France, someone told me that he didn’t think the writers who came to Menton should spend their time working: they could do that at home. Instead, he declared, they should spend their time soaking up the atmosphere of the south of France, and travelling about the place.
I want to write more than anything else in the world
But I didn’t come here for a holiday. Menton is visually stunning, with its ice cream-coloured Old Town, dramatic cliffs and perched villas, and certainly the region offers a ludicrous number of stimulating sights and experiences, from the Matisse Chapel in Vence to the covered market in nearby Ventimiglia. However, much as I would have loved to idle away more time along the coast, in Provence or in northern Italy, as well as visiting every museum and artist studio from here to Marseilles, I want to write more than anything else in the world. At home I find it fiendishly difficult to make time for my own work: I convene the Master of Creative Writing programme at the University of Auckland, and have many other professional and community commitments. Last October I was invited to appear at the Vancouver Writers Festival, and when I was not taking part in or attending events I stationed myself at a table in the hotel restaurant, reading student manuscripts on my laptop.
Behind the iron gates
Here in Menton I have a room of my own to work, and because it doesn’t have WiFi I can’t check emails. Another writer warned me that the Mémorial studio was small, but I don’t think that’s true. There’s room for a sofa and other furniture, as well as my desk, and it’s at least twice as big as the rooms I lived in as a university student. It’s much bigger than my dining table at home, which is the shared workspace for me and my husband. And here there’s a blank wall for my pictures and notes and maps, and for squashed insects. True, the room can be a little musty, but I can open the windows (and reek the place up with an orange-scented diffuser). In March it was chilly and cave-like late in the afternoon when the light seeped from the day, but by June I appreciate the cool.
So most days I walk the ten minutes down the hill from our rented flat, with its long terrace looking out at the Med, to the Avenue Katherine Mansfield. I have big jangling keys to unlock the iron gate, the studio’s faded blue door, and the bathroom-around-the-corner door. My notebooks and other materials are waiting for me. The wheeze of passing trains doesn’t bother me; I manage to ignore rat-like rustling in the bushes outside. I prop the windows open with heavy books from the cupboard, because on windy days they slam shut. Then I write, or read, or daydream – usually a combination of all three. I drink tea. Sometimes Tom brings lunch. Few people walk past, and even fewer pause to peer through the iron fence rails and read the Mansfield plaques – in French and English. But if tourists walk through the open gate and knock on the door, hoping for a peep inside, I stay very quiet until they walk away.
Inside Memorial Studio – photo by Tom Moody
To get to the Villa Isola Bella you must turn up a lane, Chemin Fleuri. It’s a short, steep walk, and I’m conscious that in 1920 Mansfield would have found it impossible to manage. In January of that year – when she was living near San Remo in Italy, further east along the coast – her doctor asked her to ‘rest absolutely for two months and not attempt to walk at all’. A week later she moved to a nursing home in Menton; by February, weak and depressed, she was staying with her cousin in Villa Flora here in Garavan. Driven everywhere by car or carriage, Mansfield was conscious of ‘the white sky with a web of torn grey over it; of the slipping, sliding, slithering sea; of the dark woods blotted against the cape’. At Easter she gazed out the villa’s windows at ‘the writhing palms’ and the dust, longing to live alone and work in quiet. The only excursion she notes is a visit ‘to the fish museum in Monaco’ – the Musée Océanographique, still the principality’s most enticing attraction; it opened in 1910, and later Jacques Cousteau was its director for thirty years.
In April 1920 Mansfield retreated to London for the summer, escaping the heat of the Riviera. Her coughing grew worse – ‘at each breath a dragging, boiling, bubbling sound is heard. I feel that my whole chest is boiling’ – and she returned to Menton that September, the month everyone says is the best of all here. The Villa Isola Bella was close to her cousin’s home, and she was tended by a housekeeper named Marie and irritated by her old friend Ida Baker, or L.M., in dogged attendance. Mansfield’s husband, John Middleton Murray, stayed at their house in Hampstead and came for visits. Mansfield chastised herself for not writing enough, obsessing over her hero Chekhov (dead from TB in 1904, when Mansfield was a school girl in London), by turns quaking or raging at her own mortality and lack of productivity.
One evening in late December 1920 she wandered into the garden, where the ‘leaves of the palm are like down-drooping feathers; the grass looks soft, unreal, like moss.’ She could hear the sea and the distant sound of a bell; closer she fancied she heard the sound of someone moving across a ‘dark, lamp-stained yard’, the sound of evening meals being prepared. ‘The charcoal is broken, the dishes are clattered; there is a soft movement on the stairs and in the passages and doorways’.
Most of those yards and shuttered tenements are gone now, replaced by five-storey citrus-coloured blocks of holiday apartments, with striped awnings and closed metal blinds. The Villa Isola Bella has been divided into private apartments. The sea is usually quiet in Menton; there’s little sense of tides here, and only the windiest days make waves. Across the lane lie the train tracks and the long platforms of Garavan station. These days Mansfield could have gazed out the window at the French police boarding every train from Italy, searching for illegal immigrants to drive back across the border. There’s no grass around the Villa anymore, just paved terraces and a swimming pool wedged into the hillside at the back, visible from Boulevard de Garavan above, and open only to the apartment owners.
Paula Morris – photo by Tom Moody
Outside the Mémorial, weeds have overtaken winter’s pristine gravel, in places a carpet and in others a prickly hedge. The palm tree en route to the bathroom is elephantine and drooping. Birds swoop and cackle, and dusty lizards scamper when I clank open the gate. Mosquitoes and flies launch themselves through the grilles on my two windows.
‘Not one day shall pass without I write something – original.’
Her pledge while she was here: ‘Not one day shall pass without I write something – original’. (This was my aim as well during the Menton residency – note: an aim rather than a pledge.) ‘I must this evening, after my supper, get something done,’ Mansfield wrote in February 1921. ‘I excuse myself, invent pretexts for not working. Yet is my desire to be idle greater than my desire to work?’ In November 1920 at the Villa Isola Bella she wrote one of her greatest stories, ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’. The ending, she said, she ‘wrote as fast as possible for fear of dying before the story was sent’.
Running out of time
In May 1921 Mansfield left Menton forever, seeking a cure, or at least temporary relief, in the cool of the Swiss Alps. She was ill and weak, still hectoring herself to write more. Nothing was good enough – not ‘The Garden Party’, not ‘At the Bay’. She wanted to begin work on a novel named Karori. She dreamed of New Zealand, and wanted to return there for a year. But the road only led elsewhere in Switzerland and France, to the cold house in Fontainebleau where she died in January 1923.
Menton was not quite the last act of her short life, but she was right to feel that she was running out of time. On my walk home every evening, I cross the railway tracks on Avenue Aristide Briand, and note the sign: ‘Danger de mort’. A century ago, so many non-French residents of Menton, like Mansfield, were in imminent danger of dying. The artist Aubrey Beardsley died here in Menton in 1898, at the age of 25, and is buried in the higher cemetery.
The ashes of Michael Gifkin, the 1985 Mansfield Fellow, are buried in the garden of the Clos du Peyronnet in Garavan: it’s owned by William Waterfield, whose grandparents bought the house and grounds in 1912. (Clive and Vanessa Bell have stayed there; Ford Madox Ford has written in the garden.) William has been a friend to the Mansfield fellows for decades, and hosted one of the 40th anniversary celebrations there.
Clos du Peyronnet – photo by Tom Moody
A golden time
Next year is the 50th anniversary of the residency, and the 100th anniversary of Mansfield’s arrival here. There’ll be celebrations in the town next September, and I’ll come back for them – though by then a new fellow will be working in the Mémorial, of course. One of the previous fellows, Chris Price, described the experience of the residency as a golden time, and she’s right. I’ve finished some things and made much progress on others. I’ve read a lot of books, met interesting people, taken day trips, shopped for food in markets here. I’ve rediscovered my ‘desire to work’, as Mansfield described it, or at least made it central in my life again during these months here in France.
I’ve also begun notes towards something to which I’ll return next year, when I’m back. Rebecca Hill, my niece, visited in March, and she asked me to write something with ‘glamour and mystery’, a story that takes place in the days before cell phones ruined life (and books). We talked about Roman Holiday; we talked about Bonjour Tristesse. Then we agreed, of course, that the novel should be set in Menton.
Old Town Menton – photo by Tom Moody
Applications are now open for the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship, with the successful fellow travelling to France in 2020.
Detailed information about the fellowship and how to apply is available here. Applications close 5pm on Monday 1 July.
This story was originally published on The Big Idea on 26 June 2019.