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.