Katherine Mansfield: from “In a German Pension”

April 4, 2009

posted by Caroline Picard

I came across this little book of stories today and was quite intrigued. Katherine Mansfield was born in New Zealand in 1888, moved to England, contracted tuberculosis in 1917 and died in 1923. I was particularly interested in this short piece, because it feels so much like a literal and awkward transcription of relative strangers having a polite breakfast. In the midst of which they seem to constantly step on and off of toes….anyway, you can see what you think.

mansfield

Germans at Meat

by Katherine Mansfield

pub. 1911

Bread soup was placed upon the table. ‘Ah,’ said the Herr Rat, leaning upon the table as he peered into the tureen, ‘that is what I need. My Magen has not been in order for several days. Bread soup, and just the right consistency. I am a good cook myself’–he turned to me.

‘How interesting,’ I said, attempting to infuse just the right amount of enthusiasm in my voice.

‘Oh yes–when one is not married it is necessary. As for me, I have had all I wanted from women without marriage.’ He tucked his napkin into his collar and blew upon his soup as he spoke. ‘Now at nine o’clock I make myself an English breakfast, but not much. Four slices of bread, two eggs, two slices of cold ham, one plate of soup, two cups of tea–that is nothing to you.’

He asserted the fact so vehemently that I had not the courage to refute it.

All eyes were suddenly turned upon me. I felt I was bearing the burden of the nation’s prepsoterous breakfast–I who drank a cup of coffee while buttoning my blouse in the morning.

‘Nothing at all,’ cried Herr Hoffmann from Berlin. ‘Ach, when I was in England in the morning I used to eat.’ He turned up his eyes and his moustache, wiping the soup drippings from his coat and wasitcoat.

‘Do they really eat so much?’ asked Faulein Stiegelauer.

‘Soup and baker’s bread and pig’s flesh, and tea and coffee and stewed fruit, and honey and eggs, and cold fish and kidneys, and hot fish and liver? All the ladies et too, especially thte ladies.’

‘Certainly. I myself have noticed it, when I was living in a hotel in Leicester Square,’ creid the Herr Rat. ‘It was a good hotel, but they could not make tea–now–‘

‘Ah, that’s one thing I can do,’ said I, laughing brightly. ‘I can make very good tea. The great secret is to warm the teapot.’

‘Warm the teapot.’ interrupted the Herr Rat, pushing away his soup plate. ‘What do you warm the teapot for? Ha! ha! that’s very good! One does not eat the teapot, I suppose?’

I wanted to say that was only the preliminary canter, but could not translate it, and so was silent.

The servant brough in veal, with sauerkraut and potatoes.

‘I eat sauerkraut with great pleasure,’ said the Traveller from North Germany, ‘but now I have eaten so much of it that I cannot retain it. I am immediately froced to–‘

‘A beautiful day,’ I cried, turning to Fraulein Stiegelauer. ‘Did you get up early?’

‘At five o’clock I walked fro ten minutes in the wet grass. Again in bed. At half past five I fell asleep and woke up at seven, when I made an “overbody” washing! Again in bed. At eight o’clock I had a cold-water poultice, and at half past eight I drank a cup of mint tea. At nine I drank some malt coffee, and began my “cure.” Pass me the sauerkraut, please. You do not eat it?’

‘No, thank you. I still find it a little strong.’

‘Is it true,’ asked the Widow, picking her teeth with a hairpin as she spoke, ‘that you are a vegetarian?’

‘Why, yes; I have not eaten meat for three years.’

‘Im-possible! Have you any family?’

‘No.’

‘There now, you see, that’s what you’re coming to! Who ever heard of having children upon vegetables? It is not possible. But you are too busy with your suffrageting. Now I have had nine children, and they are all alive, thank God. Fine, healthy babies–though after the first one was born I had to–‘

‘How wonderful!’ I cried.

‘Wonderful,’ said the Widow contemptuously, replcaing the hairpin in the knob which was balanced on the top of her head. ‘Not at all! A friend of mine had four at the same tme. Her husband was so pleased he gave a supper-party and had them placed on the table. Of course she was very proud.’

‘Germany,’ boomed the Traveller, biting round a potato which he had speared with his knife, ‘is the home of the Family.’

Followed an appreciative silence.

The dishes were changed for beef red currants and spinach. They wiped their forks upon black bread and started again.

‘How long are you remaining here?’ asked the Herr Rat.

‘I do not know exactly. I must be back in London in September.’

‘Of course you will visit Munchen?’

‘I’m afraid I shall not have time. You see, it is important not to break into my “cure”.’

‘But you must go to Munchen. You have not seen Germany if you have not been to Munchen. All the Exhibitions, all the Art and Soulf life of Germany are in Munchen. There is the Wagner festival in August, and Mozart and a Japanese collection of pictures–and there is the beer! You do not know what good beer is until you have been to Munchen. Why I see fine ladies every afternoon, but fine ladies, I tell you, drinking glasses so high.’ He measured a good washstand pitcher in height, and I smiled.

‘If I drink a great deal of Munchen beer I sweat so,’ said Herr Hoffman. ‘When I am here, in the fields or before my baths, I sweat, but I enjoy it; but in the town it is not at all the same thing.’

Prompted by the thought, he wiped his neck and face with his dinner napkin and carefully cleaned his ears.

A glass dish of stewed apricots was placed upon the table.

‘Ah, fruit!’ said Fraulein Stiegelauer, ‘that is so necessary to health. The doctor told me this morning that the more fruit I could eat the better.’

She very obviously followed the advice.

Said the Traveller: ‘I suppose you are frightened of an invasion too, eh? Oh, that’s good. I’ve been reading all about your English play inthe newspaper. Did you see it?’

‘Yes.’ I sat upright. ‘I assure you we are not afraid.’

‘Well, then, you ought to be,’ said the Herr Rat. ‘You have got no army at all–a few little boys with their veins full of nicotine poisoning.’

‘Don’t be afraid,’ Herr Hoffmann said. ‘We don’t want England. If we did we would have had her long ago. We really do not want you.’

He waved his spoon airily, looking across at me as though I were a little child whom he would keep or dismiss as he pleased.

‘We certainly do not want Germany,’ I said.

‘This morning I took half a bath. THen this afternoon I must take a knee bath and an arm bath,’ volunteerde the Herr Rat; ‘then I do my excerises for an hour, and my work is over. A glass of wine and a couple of rolls with some sardines–‘

They were handed cherry cake with whipped cream.

‘What is your husband’s favorite meal?’ asked the Widow.

‘I really do not know,’ I answered.

‘You really do not know? How long have you been married?’

‘Three years.’

‘But you cannot be in earnest! You would not have kept house as a wife for a week without knowing that fact.’

‘I really never asked him; he is not particular about his food.’

A pause. They all looked at me, shaking their heads, their mouths full of cherry stones.

‘No wonder there is a reptition in England of that dreadful state of things in Paris,’ said the Widow, folding her dinner napkin. ‘How can a woman expect to keep her husband if she does not know his favorite food after three years?’

‘Mahlzeit!’

‘Mahlzeit!’

I closed the door after me.

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