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There’s a new essay by Me on Rudyard Kipling’s philosophical story The Eye Of Allah now showing on the Thresholds website.

 Other essays on short stories and their writers can be found here (or by clicking on the image).

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Sunday has caught up with me again. I don’t mean in that religious way, but only that I have no blog post written.

The blank page is always a challenge, and often a defeating one. Oh, go on then: and always a defeating one. Write about what you’re reading, I tell myself. And that’s an odd choice on this occasion, because I’m reading the biography of one of those hyphenated characters that I wouldn’t normally read about. It’s not his name that’s hyphenated, but his subtitle: Soldier, Scientist & Spy.

Richard Meinertzhagen (and yes, I’ve often thought of the pun on that surname), lived just long enough for me to remember him (1878-1967). He was a contemporary of many of my favourite writers. When I worked as a second-hand book dealer his Kenya Diary came into the stock, and I read it. He seemed a bit of a shit, I thought. In fact, I used one of his shittier ideas as the starting point for the story The Rage, which was one of the earliest stories I got into Katy Darby’s Liars league (a now worldwide ‘franchise’ of short story readings). That was the idea that if men don’t kill animals often enough a rage will build up inside them to the extent that they will be prone to kill other men (and women and children, no doubt).

It’s clear, from Kenya Diary, that Hishurtsagain believed this. It’s also clear that he was a very intelligent man, a very observant one, and a very articulate one. Or in other words, he must have had reason to make that suggestion, and will have made it clearly. In the circles of which he was the centre, he must have believed it true, and believed also that he had reason to do so.

I made a visit to Shropshire last week, and met a friend there who greeted me with a copy of Mark Cocker’s 1989 biography of the man. I thought you might like to read this, he said.  So that’s what I’m doing. It is an interesting read. Shocking, and disappointing in its portrayal of human folly, and yes, ‘the rage’.

There’s a context for me, too, in that I have spent the last few months reading though five volumes of Kipling’s short stories. Despite his often criticised attachment to imperialism, Kipling comes over as a much more humane character, more tolerant, more loving one might say (and of all breeds, casts and races), and more understanding than the rather harsh and dogmatic Meinertzhagen. Both men had appalling childhoods – Kipling suffering abandonment to cruel surrogate parents for several years – but Meinertzhagen suffered systematic sexual and physical abuse at the hands of a Victorian schoolmaster, an abuse that was both ignored, and denied by his parents. Perhaps the lives that they both led, and the characters they assumed were to some extent set (as, it seems likely was Dickens’ following his ‘Blacking Factory’ experience) by those abuses. In fact, I would guess it’s overwhelmingly certain.

As I write this I’m at page 96, and wondering if I need to read on. A few weeks ago I heard a programme on Radio 4 in which a convicted and time served terrorist confessed (or asserted) his sense of shame at his past acts. I rather respected him for that, not least because of his particularity in finding the word. Shame for what we have been is a step forward, and admission of it a leap. Perhaps I need to read on to find out if Meinertzhagen made such a leap. I write, by the way, as one who hasn’t.

 

I have to confess that it was Kipling’s short story, The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat, that I didn’t get through in Hensher’s recent compilation of British short stories for Penguin. I’ve found some of Kipling’s shorts impenetrable, or at least too hard a work to do for fun. Yet I can remember absolutely loving The Jungle Book(s) when I was a child, and could recite several of the poems of the ‘camp’ (old meaning assumed, back then) animals. The White Seal was one of the stories included, and I remember that with affection – if not in detail.

Reading H.E.Bates and Frank O’Connor on Kipling though, in their respective histories of the short story form, I can’t help feeling that there is an agenda being brought to (at least) his short stories that goes beyond what one might actually find in them. Kipling is rightly criticised for his support of the Imperialist ethic, and its indivisible racism, but I’m not convinced that the stories, at least, many of the ones that I’ve read, do, in fact, promote that ethic.

Two features of the stories in Plain Tales from the Hills stand out for me. One is that they seem to be very journalistic, by which I mean that they have the quality of seeming to be written by a close observer, which Kipling obviously was. The other is that Kipling quite often seems to be satirizing, not only the characters and manners about which he writes, but the narrators in whose mouths he places the telling.

In these stories at least, and often right at the end, where the ‘meaning’ of the short story is frequently – perhaps always – signposted, Kipling’s narrator makes comments that seem to undermine, rather than underline his ostensible ‘agenda’.

In the story Cupid’s Arrows the dead-shot toxophilist, Kitty, deliberately loses an archery competition, in order not to be given the prize bracelet by her unwanted suitor, Barr-Saggott. At the end of the story, facing the opprobrium of the crowd, and of her ambitious mother, she is whisked away by her young, and favoured lover, Cubbin. The narrator’s comment closes the tale ‘-the rest isn’t worth printing.’ This more than hints at a story that most of us would find more interesting, unless we are of the same cast of mind as the narrator. More starkly, in Yoked with an Unbeliever, where an Englishman is made ‘a decent man’ by his ‘Hill woman’ wife (and saved from his mem-sahib ex-fiance), the closing comment is ‘Which is manifestly unfair.’, which we know it, manifestly, isn’t.

Compare those with the ending of Consequences where Kipling’s formidable Mrs Hauksbee has the last word: ‘What fools men are.’, which it seems to me, we are meant to take absolutely seriously. IThere are a lot of women in Kipling, and rarely, if ever shown in a patronising light. They always have admirable qualities, though they may be abused for it by the men in the story, and by those undermined narrators.

In the first story of the collection Lispeth, another Hill-woman, falls for an Englishman whom she believes she will marry. He, and the people at the Christian Mission where she is nursing him, play along with the idea, until he has recovered sufficiently to abandon her. When the truth is finally revealed Lispeth returns to her original culture, for which the Mission people accept no responsibility, seeing it, not as a reflection of their dishonesty, but of her origins. The story hardly reflects a racist contempt, or even an imperialist one, for the abused heroine.

An odd story in the group is A Bank Fraud, in which a manager, from his own salary, perpetuates the belief that his dying assistant – who has been sacked – is still employed, and will recover. The skin colour of the two men is quite irrelevant to this tale, as is their class. It is their personal qualities that matter. The dying man, it must be said, is no friend to the man who is paying him, and keeping his hopes alive. At the end of the story, again, in the character’s rather than the narrator’s voice, we get the statement: ‘I might have heartened him to pull through another day.’ The protagonist in this story is so explicitly altruistic that we cannot doubt him, even though we might marvel at him.

Over and over again, Kipling points up the human qualities behind the choices people make, and the actions they take, whoever they are, and wherever they come from. At the end of The Bronkhurst Divorce-Case the narrator remarks ‘And my conundrum is the most unanswerable of the three.’ That conundrum is ‘How do women like Mrs Bronkhorst come to marry men like Bronkhorst?’ When we’ve read the tale, we’ll tend to agree with him, I suspect.

Then there is the almost flash fiction, at least by length, of The Story of Muhammad Din. The eponymous hero is an Indian child who strays into the sahib’s house, but whose intrusion, though scandalous to his father, is not resented by the sahib. Kipling always puts the ‘S’ word in italics, along with its memsahib version. The eponymous boy never repeats his mistake, but is met in the garden from time to time. The first person narrator greets him ‘with much state’, but then inadvertently destroys ‘some of his handiwork’, a concoction of ‘six shrivelled marigold flowers in a circle’. The destruction is assumed to be deliberate. Then the child falls ill, and despite the grudging treatment of the sahib’s doctor – grudged by the doctor, it is made clear – he dies. The story ends with the first person narrator encountering the father carrying his son to the ‘Muslim burying-ground’. If there’s condescension here, I don’t recognise it, and I think that if you tried to re-write this story and set it in an English country garden, you would struggle to tell it with more, or even the same degree of objectivity. In fact, I might just have a go at that! Frank O’Connor, in his chapter on Kipling  (in The Lonely Voice), writes of doing something similar with Kipling’s The Gardener, and quotes his own alternative first sentences. But they form an example that illustrates the dangers of such an experiment, rather than the value.

I have read only a small portion as yet of Kipling’s short story output, so might well find all that Bates and O’Connor alerted me to. It seems important to me that I have found other than that in what I have read. Reading someone’s short stories might be a route to knowing them, but before and more importantly than that, it is a route to knowing the stories, and, perhaps oneself.

One of my favourite authors is, or put more correctly, several of my favourite stories were written by, James Joyce, but I have a more than sneaking suspicion I wouldn’t have liked him, nor he me. The ‘singer not the song’ is a symptom of commercialism and its attendant need for celebrity. Not merely ‘the stories’ of a writer, but each story stands alone, to be understood, assessed, and enjoyed on its own merits, within the limits of our capacities as readers.