A brief survey of the short story part 41
George Orwell thought he was 'morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting', but Kipling's stories are both original and excitingChris Power
Thursday 21 June 2012 12.28 BST
For George Orwell, Rudyard Kipling was "a jingo imperialist … morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting". Frank O'Connor thought him "a damned liar"; Craig Raine has bemoaned his "grating air of worldliness"; Edmund Wilson described his entire body of work as "shot through with hatred". For Barbara Everett he is "the easiest of great writers to find repellent".
But Orwell also admired Kipling; O'Connor considered him, albeit grudgingly, one of the great short-story writers; Raine calls him England's "greatest short-story writer … whose achievement is more complex and surprising than even his admirers recognise". Wilson states, "Kipling really finds new rhythms, new colours and textures of words, for things that have not yet been brought into literature … he is extraordinary as a worker in prose"; and Everett asserts that his work possesses "an extreme originality of technique, which deserves all the recognition it can get." You can't, it seems, be unalloyed about Kipling. He not only divides opinion; he subdivides it.
Kipling was just 23 when his first collection, Plain Tales from the Hills, was published in Calcutta and London. Many of these short, tough-hearted stories about civil and military Anglo-Indian administrators began life as "turnover" pieces in a Lahore newspaper. The economy they demanded persisted in his writing, becoming fundamental to his style. In his posthumously published autobiography, Something of Myself, Kipling wrote: "A tale from which pieces have been raked out is like a fire that has been poked." The influence of Plain Tales is easily discernible in the work of Isaac Babel and Ernest Hemingway, who also worked as journalists. This passage from The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows (1884) is perhaps a single repetition away from signature Hemingway:
One of the Persians got killed in a row at night by the big well near the mosque a long time ago, and the Police shut up the well, because they said it was full of foul air. They found him dead at the bottom of it.
One of Kipling's most famous innovations is his use of dialect, which begins agonisingly with the 'Oirish' of Private Mulvaney in Plain Tales, but which he honed into a powerful storytelling tool. Without it, wrote Edmund Wilson, we wouldn't have had "either the baseball stories of Ring Lardner or the Cyclops episode in Ulysses", to which Raine adds the cockney pub conversation in A Game of Chess from The Waste Land. Meanwhile, Kipling's love of intricate hoaxes, which attains its artistic climax in the Jamesian revenge story Dayspring Mishandled (1928), prefigures Borges.
It is fitting that a narrator so concerned with imparting technical knowledge (how to build a bridge, what being shot is like, the way a boat sinks in calm water – what Pound called "Kipling's 'Bigod, I-know-all-about-this' manner") should have continually developed his technique throughout his career. Some critics maintain, as Raine has noted, that "whereas in the early work excision creates intensity, in the later stories it merely creates obscurity". Certainly ellipsis and ambiguity define Kipling's post-1900 work, which, if not modernist itself, travels on a modernist trajectory. Here, as WW Norton identifies, Kipling "brought to its strange perfection that narrative manner of implication, abstention, and obliquity of which the first considerable example is Mrs Bathurst".
This confounding story of 1904 begins with a detailed description of place – a burning hot beach near Cape Town – and a series of missed connections, both of which take on symbolic importance as four men engage in desultory conversation. They discuss a deserter, his connection to the eponymous Auckland hotelkeeper, and his death in a Bulawayo teak forest, burned to charcoal by lightning. Why did the dead man obsess over a newsreel image of Mrs Bathurst detraining at Paddington? Who is the charred figure found squatting at his feet in the forest? Several theories have been advanced, but Everett thinks decoding the story misses its point. John Bayley sees it as "a perfect artistic embodiment of unreliable narrators and partial views scattered Empire-wide, and also of the fact that most things in life never 'come out'". Its "ambiguous charge of human feeling," writes Everett, "is the very stuff of Kipling's greatest stories".
A similar cryptic energy inhabits They (1904) and The Wish House (1924), which the younger Kipling, beholden to Poe and Maupassant, would have made more shocking and less resonant. The first, written in the aftermath of the death of Kipling's daughter, describes an isolated country house in which the ghosts of dead children congregate. The second – shadowed, like all the stories written after 1915, by the death of his son, John Kipling, at the Battle of Loos – portrays a Sussex cook who visits a "token", or wraith, to take on the suffering of the man who rejected her. Thus her cancer becomes both physical manifestation of her disappointment and symbol of unconditional love. Typically of late Kipling, this moving and disturbing story poses more questions than it answers.
Repressed or thwarted love is a dominant theme in this period, from the strange sadism of Mary Postgate (1915), where a lady's companion appears to orgasm while watching a German airman – whom she may be hallucinating – die at the bottom of a country garden, to its most powerful evocation in The Gardener(1925). The story begins by describing how Helen Turrell's nephew, born of an unsuitable union, came to be in her care. Years after his death in the trenches, Helen travels to Belgium to visit her nephew's grave. The story turns on one word in its closing lines, easy enough to miss, which reveals that he is her illegitimate son, and that the story's third-person narration is in fact an expression of her self-deception. This realisation unlocks the story's freight of sadness, and explains the genteel, buttoned-down quality of its prose. Only once does this mask of reserve slip, when Helen ascends to the cemetery, like a soldier going over the top to face the enemy:
Culverts across a deep ditch served for entrances through the unfinished boundary wall. She climbed a few wooden-faced earthen steps and then met the entire crowded level of the thing in one held breath. She did not know that Hagenzeele Third counted twenty-one thousand dead already. All she saw was a merciless sea of black crosses, bearing little strips of stamped tin at all angles across their faces. She could distinguish no order or arrangement in their mass; nothing but a waist-high wilderness as of weeds stricken dead, rushing at her.
The effect, emerging from such nondescript passages, is pointedly dizzying. Kipling may be unfashionable. He is certainly at times objectionable. But at his best he is also indelible, and a much more exciting, original writer than his reputation allows.