Wednesday 22 July 2020

Je ne Parle pas Français | Katherine Mansfield #ShortStory

Je ne Parle pas Français, or I Do Not Speak French was written in early 1918 and published in Bliss and other stories (1920).

There is a rather long and complicated story about the publication of this particular short story. It started life as a pamphlet published by Heron Press, which was run by John Middleton Murry (Katherine's husband at the time) and his brother, Richard Arthur Murry. They produced only 100 copies of the story in this format. The press was situated in the home of Murry and Mansfield in Hampstead Heath. Of the 100 copies, 20 were damaged. From the 80 left over, about 60 were sent out to reviewers in early 1920.

Anthony Alpers (The Life of Katherine Mansfield |1980) writes that "this little private-press edition in which it first appeared is very rare... Few know the story in its intended form.

The December 1920 Constable publication of Bliss and other stories, contains an edited version of Je ne Parle pas Français. Apparently the end of the story in the original is rather different. 

The Norton Critical Edition edited by Vincent O’Sullivan (2006) contains the unedited version. The highlighted text below reveals the original story.
One day when I was standing at the door, watching her go (the African laundress who worked for his family when he was 10 yrs old), she turned round and beckoned to me, nodding and smiling in a strange secret way. I never thought of not following. She took me into a little outhouse at the end of the passage, caught me up in her arms and began kissing me. Ah, those kisses! Especially those kisses inside my ears that nearly deafened me. 
"And then with a soft growl she tore open her bodice and put me to her. When she set me down she took from her pocket a little round fried cake cover with sugar and I reeled along the passage back to our door.
My reaction:
  • Wow! That's a HUGE reveal!
  • The edited version left me wondering why this memory was so significant to Raoul.
  • Did the lack of attention from his parents, make the affection from the laundress significant?
  • But instead, we have a situation of power and sexual abuse of an older woman over a young boy.

Raoul never yet made the first advances to any woman:
"Curious, isn’t it? Why should I be able to have any woman I want? I don’t look at all like a maiden’s dream . . . ."
My reaction:
  • By this point of the short story, I was convinced that Raoul was gay. 
  • The extra sentence would seem to suggestion that perhaps he was bisexual.

Towards the end of the story Raoul says goodnight to a prostitute:
Not until I was half-way down the boulevard did it come over me—the full force of it. Why, they were suffering . . . those two . . . really suffering. I have seen two people suffer as I don’t suppose I ever shall again. . . . And . . . . ‘Goodnight, my little cat,’ said I, impudently, to the fattish old prostitute picking her way home through the slush . . . . I didn’t give her time to reply.
My reaction:
  • One of the few times in this story where we see Raoul thinking about others.
  • The extra sentence reminds us that he inhabits a fairly squalid part of Paris, despite his higher aspirations.
And so on and so on until some dirty gallant comes up to my table and sits opposite and begins to grimace and yap. Until I hear myself saying: ‘But I’ve got the little girl for you, mon vieux. So little . . . so tiny. And a virgin.’ I kiss the tips of my fingers—‘A virgin’—and lay them upon my heart.
My reaction:
  • Without the 'virgin', this paragraph reads like a boast.
  • With the 'virgin' it makes Raoul sound like a pimp!

The story’s original ending continues on from the 1920 censored text:
I must go. I must go. I reach down my coat and hat. Madame knows me. ‘You haven’t dined yet?’ she smiles. ‘Not, not yet, Madame. I’d rather like to dine with her. Even to sleep with her afterwards. Would she be pale like that all over? But no. She’d have large moles. They go with that kind of skin. And I can’t bear them. They remind me somehow, disgustingly, of mushrooms.
My reaction:
  • The edited end, just ends.
  • A man in a cafe, thinking about his next meal.
  • The original reasserts the sexual nature that infuses the whole story.
  • As well as reinforcing Raoul's ambivalence about the female body.
Francis Carco 1923

Raoul is apparently based on Mansfield's lover Francis Carco, a man with whom she had a brief affair with in 1915. Alpers claims that Mansfield is referring to Carco's cynical attitude towards love and sex via Raoul. 

Her story An Indiscreet Journey (1915) is also based on her journey through the war zone to spend four nights with Carco in Eastern France. 

I wonder if Mansfield was writing a homage to Carco's style of writing or did she think that Carco was gay but didn't know it, bisexual or was this her dig at a failed lover? Either way, Raoul is about as camp as you get in 1918 literature. And a not very pleasant fellow. I suspect the affair did not end well (I hope to know more when the bio about Mansfield that I've ordered finally arrives).

Raoul's penchant for stylish clothes, his flamboyant mannerisms, delusions of grandeur, cutting remarks, and his love/lust infatuation with Dick, the Englishman are all textbook versions of Havelock Ellis' sexual inversion theory, that was prevalent at the time.
My name is Raoul Duquette. I am twenty-six years old and Parisian, a true Parisian. About my family - it really doesn’t matter. I have no family; I don’t want any. I never think about my childhood. I've forgotten it.

Raoul was a gigolo, a dandy, crass, conceited, superficial and sexually ambiguous. He was an unreliable narrator with huge gaps in his story. The whole time I was reading this story, I had a Carly Simon earworm of 'You're So Vain' playing in the background. Raoul loved being front and centre and seemed to be playing to an imaginary audience the whole time. At the same time he was a social outcast, with no family that he will speak of, hanging out in seedy bars and cafes, pretending to be something he isn't, or just hoping that acting the part will make him so.
If a person looks the part, he must be that part.

He pretends to take us into his confidence, but we can never really trust him. He ends up revealing more than he thinks, although we're still left in the dark about pretty much everything. Perhaps this is how Mansfield felt after her brief affair with Carco?

There were a number of themes explored from the use of public and private spaces, the English vs the French and life as a stage (a homage to Shakespeare perhaps?). Metaphors abound with dogs, cats and a mouse, suitcases (to be unpacked) and mirrors (that reflect the surface not the substance).
‘But after all it was you who whistled to me, you who asked me to come! What a spectacle I’ve cut wagging my tail and leaping round you, only to be left like this while the boat sails off in its slow, dreamy way . . . Curse these English! No, this is too insolent altogether. Who do you imagine I am? A little paid guide to the night pleasures of Paris? . . . No, monsieur. I am a young writer, very serious, and extremely interested in modern English literature. And I have been insulted – insulted.’

Ultimately, Raoul is not very likeable.

He's selfish and mean and judgemental. 
He's careless and thoughtless. 
One feels pity for him and fears that he will never find the love and happiness he is so desperately searching for. He may speak French fluently, but he does not know the language of love. And maybe never will.

My other Katherine Mansfield posts:


  1. Good heavens! Katherine Mansfield!!!

    1. I devoured KM's short stories in my mid-20' has been a real delight to rediscover them nearly 30 yrs later. I think I mostly read her NZ based stories back then, so I'm finding her French ones fascinating.


  2. My first reaction on reading this story has to be that Mansfield is making use of her husband John Middleton Murray in this narrative.

       Much of the story takes place in a cafe.  Mansfield loved the Cafes of Paris where one could sit for hours for the price of a cup of coffee or glass of wine.  The narrator meets another aspiring writer, a man, and the story turns on their relationship.   I cannot help but read in lieu of what I know of the life of Mansfield and the picture of the male character is hardly flattering.  

    I endorse to all interested in Katherine Mansfield a biography by Kathleen Jones - Katherine Mansfield The Story Teller.

    1. Thanks for the recommendation Mel - I'm very keen to learn more about KM. I've read some conflicting reports about her short life online, and would like to explore the why's and wherefore's of these differing opinions. Although it does sound like her husband was very controlling and determined to present a manicured image of her life after she died.

    2. After Katherine Mansfield’s death, John Middleton Murray would go onto to marry three other women. As Kathleen Jones showed me, each resembled Mansfield and one actually was happy to learn she also had consumption. Mansfield had a weakness for “Guru” like men, who often ended up exploiting her. I did a read through of Mansfield about ten years ago but still return to her regularly.

  3. I've just read this also & yes, she's really putting it to Raoul being the complete 'Parisian' with superficial grandiose but shallow, egotistical, narcissistic characteristics. Francis Carco was cultivated by Willy, Colette's 1st husband, & later wrote books under his own name in the argot of the streets of Paris, although he was born in New Caledonia. I'm sure that she saw right through him being from colonial stock herself!


This blog has now moved to Wordpress.
Please visit This Reading Life to comment.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.