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.