Insupportable

John Bayley

  • A Choice of Kipling’s Prose by Craig Raine
    Faber, 448 pp, £12.50, January 1987, ISBN 0 571 13735 0
  • Kipling’s Kingdom: His Best Indian Stories by Charles Allen
    Joseph, 288 pp, £14.95, January 1987, ISBN 0 7181 2570 3

Charlie Chaplin was not hopeful when the talkies arrived in Hollywood. ‘It would mean giving up my tramp character entirely. Some people suggested that the tramp might talk. This was unthinkable.’ In his introduction, probably the most searching piece of Kipling criticism to date, Craig Raine quotes Chaplin’s words, and his further comment that the ‘matrix’ out of which the tramp was born was ‘as mute as the rags he wore’.

Not any more it isn’t. Samuel Beckett’s tramps are highly conversable persons, whose mode of speech, moreover, does not give the impression that their creator is bending over backwards to find and to give them an authentic voice. Chaplin’s typically rather show-off utterances indicate, not only that he has made himself as cultivated and articulate as any intellectual, but that he is highly conscious of the difference between himself and the creation that he is imitating – the lovably silent little tramp. Perhaps that is why the tramp act has not worn too well. Today an author like Beckett does not seem to distance himself, unconsciously, from the idiolect of his creations, or to assume their difference from himself. Beckett no doubt owes this to Joyce, and to the ‘scrupulous meanness’ whereby the author of Dubliners identifies with the men and women he wrote about. But he probably owes a great deal also to Kipling, who was as popular in Ireland as everywhere else, and not just in the Ascendancy circles in which Beckett grew up. Elizabeth Bowen records that when her house was temporarily taken over in 1922 by the young soldiers of the IRA they avidly seized from the shelves the thin scarlet Kipling volumes and seemed to find themselves and their aspirations given substance and colour in what he wrote. They responded in a way that none of them would have responded to the dialogue, say, of Synge – however authentically that dialogue was made up.

Craig Raine suggests that Kipling always had a marvellous ear for real speech, just as he had a totally compelling eye for detail. While conceding that the early soldier tales can be dismally inauthentic in terms of voice and idiom, he feels that Kipling went on to achieve mastery over dialect, just as he did over the unobtrusive formal devices of the short story. I am inclined to doubt this. Kipling’s genius, or ‘daemon’ as he called it, was certainly many-voiced like that of Dickens: but in both writers these voices seem to come from inside things and people, rather than giving an accurate imitation of acoustic flavour. No one ever spoke like Mrs Gamp, which is why Mrs Gamp speaks so authoritatively for something inside so many people. Kipling is the same. Ortheris and Mulvaney, like Parnesius the Roman centurion in Puck of Pook’s Hill, speak no language: which is why their casual informed references, their offhand expertise, their sententiousness and sentiment, blend together in ways which so many people of the same sort recognise and even begin internally to adopt. Hemingway learnt from the process and made his own on a more tyrannical and limited pattern. In The Valley of Bones and The Soldier’s Art Anthony Powell’s ineffectual Welsh captain also organises his internal speech consciousness on a Kipling model.

But, as Raine emphasises, the area Kipling covers is incredibly wide. It is actually a great deal wider than that of Dickens, who, in spite of the great mass of his novels, compared with Kipling’s production of short stories, is by contrast comparatively narrow, even obsessed. In ‘extending the literary franchise to the inarticulate’, as Raine says, so that ‘the mute are given a say in things,’ Kipling does not, of course, stop short at human beings. Henry James, who admired – indeed adored – him, deprecated this process nonetheless, and in a famous comment once observed that he had abandoned humans for horses, dogs, locomotives and parts of ships. Kipling did give a voice of sorts to all these, and by no means with complete success, as is shown by the fact that none of the tales involved appear in Raine’s judicious selection among his own favourites. And yet James’s stricture is not really perceptive or justified. For although as direct narrators his creatures and objects may seem embarrassingly pat and simplistic, Kipling has an extraordinary power of making whole societies, cultures and artefacts articulate, so that – as in ‘Mrs Bathurst’, one of his most powerful stories – the muddle, stress, strain, hope, joy and confusion of a worldwide ‘United Services’ society seem to find their appropriately multiple tongues. No single narrator sounds quite right in his stories, but the combined hubbub of voices – voices that were once mute – forms a new and indescribably vivid pentecost.

Raine has a poet’s eye for all this detail, for what it vouchsafes and what it implies. He notes‘the sticky pull of slow-rending oilskin’, associated with Kim’s loving care of his Great Game equipment; and the way in which Mulvaney, in ‘Love-o’-Women’, hesitates for a second before attempting an officer’s name when relating how Dr Lowndes ‘ran away with Major – Major Van Dyce’s lady that year’. That Kipling was well aware of the dangers of his own virtuosity in this direction is shown, I think, by ‘The Finest Story in the World’, which can be read either as a straight account of Kipling’s formula for the story proclaimed by the title, or as a subtle parody of that story and its pretensions. Perhaps a bit of both is involved – not an uncommon state of affairs with Kipling. He takes seriously the idea (which Henry James would again have metaphysically disputed) that first-hand experience alone produces absolute authenticity. What does a ship sinking in a calm sea look like? Charlie Mears, the callow bank clerk with third-rate literary tastes, knows with complete authority from his previous incarnation as a Greek galley slave. The water topping the deck ‘looked just like a banjo-string drawn tight, and it seemed to stay there for years.’ The narrator of the story ‘had my reasons’ for asking the question, for a friend of his had once seen the same thing and described it as looking ‘like a silver wire laid down along the bulwarks’ which he ‘thought was never going to break’. The man ‘who had nearly paid with his life for this little bit of useless information’, and whom the journalist-narrator had gone half-way round the world to interview, was, naturally enough, Kipling himself. In Something of Myself he remarks that he once had the good fortune to see a coal hulk sinking in a New England harbour. With no danger to himself, though.

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The following books by Kipling were reissued by Penguin on 2 January:

Just So Stories for Little Children, edited and introduced by Peter Levi, 170 pp., £1.95, 0 14 043302 2
Debits and Credits, edited and introduced by Sandra Kemp, 314 pp., £2.95, 0 14 043285 X
Life’s Handicap, edited and introduced by P.N. Furbank, 320 pp., £2.95, 0 14 043279 5
Plain Tales from the Hills, edited by H.R. Woudhuysen, introduced by David Trotter, 295 pp., £2.50, 0 14 043287 6
The Jungle Books, edited and introduced by Daniel Karlin, 384 pp., £2.50, 0 14 043282 5
A Diversity of Creatures, edited and introduced by Paul Driver, 366 pp., £2.95, 0 14 043295 7
Puck of Pook’s Hill, edited and introduced by Sarah Wintle, 231 pp., £2.50, 0 14 043284 1
Something of Myself, edited by Robert Hampson, introduced by Richard Holmes, 220 pp., £3.95, 0 14 043308 2
Traffics and Discoveries, edited and introduced by Hermione Lee, 344 pp., £2.95, 0 14 043286 8

The following books were reissued by Oxford on 2 January in the ‘World’s Classics’ series:

Plain Tales from the Hills, edited and introduced by Andrew Rutherford, 279 pp., £2.50, 0 19 281652 7
The Man who would be King, and Other Stories, edited and introduced by Louis Cornell, 300 pp., £2.95, 0 19 281674 8
Life’s Handicap, edited and introduced by A.O.J. Cockshut, 324 pp., £2.95, 0 19 281671 3
The Day’s Work, edited and introduced by Thomas Pinney, 294 pp., £2.95, 0 19 281714 0
The Jungle Book, edited and introduced by W.W. Robson, 155 pp., £1.95, 0 19 281650 0
The Second Jungle Book, edited and introduced by W.W. Robson, 215 pp., £1.95, 0 19 281655 1
Stalky and Co, edited and introduced by Isabel Quigley, 325 pp., £2.95, 0 19 281660 8
Kim, edited and introduced by Alan Sandison, 306 pp., £2.95, 0 19 281651 9