November 12th, 2008

The Janeites

This is one of Kiplings later stories, published at a time when his reputation was in decline and his talent at its sharpest and most refined.  Three men are talking in a Masonic Lodge shortly after the end of the first world war. One of them, the main speaker, Humberstall,  has been blown up twice, which has affected his memory and his nerves. The Lodge specialises in men like him and offers them, without patronage, therapy through work and ritual. Humberstall's story emerges as he polishes the woodwork of the Lodge's 18th century organ.

He's not so much an unreliable narrator as a not fully-comprehending one. He gives us bits of a picture and we have to fit them together and supply missing connections.  There were three men (as in the story frame)- citizen soldiers who had bonded across rank and class in a shared love of the works of Jane Austen.  For Humberstall- interpreting what he doesn't know in terms of what he does- this bond is a kind of Masonry. One of the men- the alcoholic professor, now mess steward-  tutors Humberstall in Austen- for cash- and he gets to enter the "lodge". The unit receives a direct hit from a bomb- in the last great German offensive of the war- and the other three are killed.  Humberstall is the last of the Janeites. Only he isn't.  He carries on talking Austen- because Austen has taken him over-  and a nursing sister- a fellow initiate- finds him a place on an over-crowded hospital train.

It's a story about war, healing, class and the redemptive and enduring power of art.  It's a text that keeps on giving.

Kipling is a master craftsman- a writer who weighed the value of every word. Which makes him a lot like Joyce, when you come to think of it- a comparison I think worth making because it suggests how modern, how experimental a writer he is.   Also, like Joyce, he demands very careful reading- with full attention to the sub-text. Again like Joyce- he must be an absolute bugger to translate. His place in the canon has been denied him because the literary establishment doesn't like his politics- though he never dabbled in fascism- as so many of the gold-standard modernists did- and he wasn't an anti-semite either. Certain of his things are ridiculously popular, others- like the Janeites- will probably only ever appeal to the few. 

It has always annoyed me that the world doesn't "get" Kipling- that it's still dismissing him as a bristle-moustached jingo ("Such a coarse soul" as one of my University tutors protested) when he's actually so subtle, so humane, so very great - but on the other hand there's a pleasure in belonging to a small band of initiates- bonding across all manner of divisions- in our shared love for a favourite, undervalued writer. I've met some of my brothers and sisters here on LJ.

You know who you are, my fellow Kiplingites.