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Tony Grist

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Beginning Many Inventions [Feb. 14th, 2010|12:05 pm]
Tony Grist
I'm still reading Kipling. I won't blog every story, because If I did I'd find myself making the same general points over and over again. The collection I currently have in hand is Many Inventions, first published in 1893. My copy once belonged to a chap called Sir John Dodd.

Kipling has left India and is living in rooms in a building (which still exists) down the side of Charing Cross Station.  He's young, unmarried and more famous than it's possible for a very good writer to be in these latter days. Many of the stories hark back to India, but London- and England- are beginning to be noticed. In "A Conference of the Powers"  the narrator introduces a bunch of young subalterns, fresh from the frontier, to a distinguished literary gent who is half Henry James and half Thomas Hardy. This is as frankly autobiographical as Kipling ever gets. The old friends (the subalterns) charm and astonish the new friend (the distinguished novelist) and drag him off for a night on the town. There are misunderstandings- all on the side of the novelist- but things pass off more easily in the fictive world than they did in real life where, round about this time, the actual Kipling- torn between old and new-  suffered a breakdown.

The moral of the story- not stated too baldly or explicitly- is that civilisation depends upon the efforts of its coarse, fighting men. The space in which the novelist flourishes can only exist because someone else is prepared to go out into the jungle and chase dacoits. It's the old, timeless argument for empire, and one our politicians still deploy.

The masterpiece of the collection is "The Finest Story in the World", in which the narrator races to retrieve the unvalued, past-life memories of a half-educated London clerk before the young man's other concerns wipe them out.  With its mash-up of Hindu mysticism, social satire and images from a vividly imagined, heroic past it anticipatesThe Waste Land.  If I say that Kipling is subtler, smarter and more in control of his material than Eliot I shall be speaking heresy, but that doesn't mean it's not true. This story comes out of the same anxiety about identity as A Conference of Powers, but takes the exploration to another level.  To call it "The Finest Story in the World"  was-  however deep the intended irony-  an amazing piece of chutzpah. But why not?  It's certainly a contender.

[User Picture]From: rosamicula
2010-02-14 12:50 pm (UTC)

on the ships at Mylae

I linked The Finest Story in the World to the Wasteland in an essay when I was an undergraduate. I think (heretically) there is more restraint and less omphaloscopy in the Kipling, and that his restraint is naturally a product of his class and upbringing and the comcomitant silencing of some perceptions and emotions. Eliot was wearing a different kind of straightkacket, one more suited to the new century and one which permitted him to produce art that is justly celebrated as great. His innate Englishness is what makes Kipling so easy to dismiss now, because he was yesterday's man then and everything he writes chimes like threnody for Empire.

I think there is more compassion in Kipling. The fact that I think this is A Good Thing is probably a sign I'm getting older.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2010-02-14 01:41 pm (UTC)

Re: on the ships at Mylae

But the Englishness in Kipling is very much a mask- and one that is constantly in danger of slipping. This is a man who was born in India and spoke Hindi before he spoke English, who encountered London as a foreign city, flirted with the idea of taking US citizenship- and only finally put down roots- in Sussex- in middle age. The persona of the narrator- the bluff, worldly-wise narrator- is very much under attack in these stories. He over-reaches, he is made a fool of- and the authority- ultimate authority- almost always lies elsewhere- in the person of a subaltern fresh from the frontier, or the drunken Irishman Mulvaney or- as here- the sleek, Bengali playboy, Grish Chunder.

Kipling is another who "does the police in different voices".

Yes, there is deeper compassion in Kipling. Eliot despises his "young man carbuncular" and that's that. Kipling makes fun of Charlie Mears, but it's relatively gentle fun- and it involves the recognition that this silly, common, young man is merely the temporary case for a soul that rowed in a Greek galley and went adventuring to Vinland.

I'm coming to think of this collection- Many Inventions- as the break-down collection. Mental health issues and issues of identity are all over the place. There's a persistent sense of modern civilised life as a flimsy construct that might at any time by smashed apart by dacoits or mental illness or a remembrance of past lives or- quite literally in a story that's coming up- by monsters from the deep.

I think Eliot was steeped in Kipling. It's no accident he edited a collection of Kipling's Collected Verse- nor that in the introduction to that collection he rather subtly denigrated Kipling's achievement.
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[User Picture]From: sovay
2010-02-14 05:36 pm (UTC)
This is a man who was born in India and spoke Hindi before he spoke English, who encountered London as a foreign city, flirted with the idea of taking US citizenship- and only finally put down roots- in Sussex- in middle age.

You should read Jane Gardam's Old Filth (2004), if you have not already. Aside from being a really terrific novel, it's a story about Raj orphans and partly a fantasia on Kipling's "Baa Baa, Black Sheep," therefore on the life of Kipling himself.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2010-02-14 05:41 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the recommendation. I'll look out for it.
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