Pierce Butler is an Irish-born writer and teacher living and working in Boston. He is the author of two books published by Beech Hill Publishing: the novel A Child of the Sun, and An Index for G.I. Gurdjieff’s All and Everything. He has written two other novels, A Malady (Co-op Books, 1982) and A Riddle of Stars (Zoland Book, 1999); a critical study of Sean O’Faolain (Twayne/Macmillan, 1993); and numerous short stories and essays. He has worked with 4th Way groups in Massachusetts where he read All and Everything more than once; in creating the index for Gurdjieff’s book, he draws upon 40 years’ experience as a professional indexer. He also practices in the Soto Zen tradition and leads meditation groups for inmates of the Massachusetts prison system. He teaches writing and literature at Bentley University and lives in Waltham, Massachusetts, with his wife, Susan Holbert.
His most recent book, A CHILD OF THE SUN (Beech Hill, 2016) is an historical novel about the last days of the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield.
PREFATORY NOTE to A CHILD OF THE SUN:
A Child of the Sun is a novel based on the writer Katherine Mansfield’s time at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man (aka the Prieuré), a school established in 1921 by George Ivanovich Gurdjieff to provide practical training in esoteric discipline. The novel arose from my love for KM’s writing and for Mr. Gurdjieff’s teaching, which I have studied and practiced for more than 30 years.
I chose to write primarily in the voice of KM’s journal, which leaves off when she departs Paris for the Prieuré in September, 1922. In this journal, KM frequently gave titles to her entries, drafted her letters, and wrote of herself in the third person, and I have adopted these conventions. I’ve drawn on the many accounts of life at the Prieuré, but my main sources of inspiration are the published journal and KM’s letters to her husband, John Middleton Murray (JMM). My hope is to give an imaginative account of KM’s inner life during her last three months, as she might have written it herself, had she been inclined, with the detachment and honesty of the journal. KM was a sensitive young woman who was drawn to Gurdjieff’s teaching, experienced his compassion, and faced death with great courage and attention.
A few words about the originals of my characters. Growing up literary in an upper middle-class family in distant New Zealand, Katherine Mansfield longed for London, the center of the literary universe. In many respects she was the black sheep of her family, and though she succeeded in persuading her parents to allow her to pursue a literary career far from home, her personal behavior brought about a permanent estrangement. KM was a brilliant conversationalist who delighted in malicious wit, a writer with an exquisite sense of form who sometimes sacrificed honesty for aesthetic effect, and a freethinking woman whose bold exploration of her sexuality resulted in a number of liaisons that even her bohemian circle regarded as indiscreet. In 1922, she was on the verge of literary celebrity. She was the friend of Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence, and her remarkable stories were changing the way people thought about the form. But she was also deeply unhappy in her marriage to Murry—and she was dying of tuberculosis. When she abandoned the nomadic life of an invalid in search of the ideal climate and put herself in the hands of Gurdjieff, she was taking a step into the unknown.
A spiritual seeker of Greek and Armenian parentage, G. I. Gurdjieff had traveled extensively among esoteric communities in the East, fled the Revolution in Russia, and brought to France and England an eclectic teaching that combined Christian spirituality with Sufi mysticism. He was little known in the West, but he was preceded by the Russian mathematician P. D. Ouspensky whose writing introduced KM to Gurdjieff’s ideas. The Gurdjieff Institute occupied the Prieuré de Basse Loges, a magnificent chateau in the woods of Fontainbleau that had once been the residence of Mme. de Maintenon. His work at the Prieuré had attracted the attention of many writers and artists, among them Alfred Orage, editor of The New Age, who had published KM’s early work and encouraged her interest in Gurdjieff.
A Child of the Sun is a work of fiction. The story is grounded in the historical record, except in regard to the character of Patrick whose relationship with KM is purely fiction. Anyone who is familiar with the history of the Prieuré will recognize Fritz Peters in the character of Patrick—and will know that Peters was a child at the Prieuré two years after KM’s sojourn there. I created this fictional relationship to give expression to the longing for a child that appears so frequently in KM’s published journal and letters. The child that Fritz Peters was at the Prieuré is also close to my heart, and the character of Patrick gave me the opportunity to explore his predicament, as well as the nature of Gurdjieff’s relationships with the children and adults of the Prieuré.
In order to go to the Prieuré, KM had to put aside the reservations of her husband and literary friends. She was accompanied by her friend Ida Baker, aka Lesley Moore (LM), who had her own apprehensions about the place and did not stay, although she remained in France in order to be close at hand. Seen from the perspective of her writing, KM’s life is as a going-forth from a place of innocence and certainty, a solitary passage through an inhospitable landscape, and—as the cloud of her illness increasingly darkens the horizon—a destination that seems to offer little comfort. But her time with Gurdjieff is an episode that, like the finely crafted end of a meandering story, gives form and meaning to what has gone before.