So I've been on something of a Kipling kick, aided and abetted most recently by spending the last week hanging out and hammocking up in remote mountains of western New Mexico. Reservoirs in ponderosa grasslands seems to be conducive to Kipling (especially the one only reachable by driving two hours over gravel roads). I'd already read most of his short fiction written before he left India in 1889, but after that, only those stories that make it into selected volumes. (Though of course I grew up on Just So Stories
and Mowgli and Puck.)
I already posted
about rereading Kim
(1901). Before that, there was The Story of the Gadsbys
(1888), Under the Deodars
(1888), and The Phantom Rickshaw
(1888). Since then, it's been Stalky & Co.
(1899), Plain Tales from the Hills
(1888), Life's Handicap
(1891), Many Inventions
(1893), The Day's Work
(1898), and Traffics and Discoveries
(1904), and I'm now partway through Actions and Reactions
One thing that strikes me is that while he lived in imperial India,* he wrote about people living as imperialists, but after he left, he started writing about imperialism -- always in favor. Kim
is the great exception to this, of course, as there he seems to have rediscovered his knack of getting under the skin of people other than his own. Life's Handicap
is the turning point -- its stories set in India are largely of a sameness with earlier stories (close enough in memory to write it fresh?), while those set outside it are of later stories. Not that everything is imperialistic -- but it is indeed notable that his better stories are not About Imperialism, and rarely touch on it. Traffics and Discoveries
is particularly telling, for as a whole it's rather dire (two words: Boer War) but it contains three of his best stories up to then: "Wireless," "Them," and "Mrs. Bathurst."
I am still puzzling over the anonymous first-person narrator who shows up in many tales. Often he has biographical details, when we get any, that suspiciously accord with Kipling's -- and indeed the narrator of "A Conference of the Powers" (from Many Inventions
) is identified in Stalky & Co.
as Beetle in later years, who we know from Kipling's comments is modeled on himself, and that story has at least one character who crosses over into other stories. The narrator of "Them" has, like Kipling, lost a daughter on a timescale commensurate with the date of publication. And yet sometimes, also, this narrator is a jerkass -- such as in "Brugglesmith" and sequels. One wants to, as much as possible, identify these narrators with Kipling, or at least a persona of him, despite the occasional supernatural story among them. Yet it's not at all clear that, crossovers and sequels aside, they are even the same narrator.
I must say, though, that although Kipling was supremely gifted at voices, his dialect writing can get kinda ow, especially when he gets aksenchual. If you thought his mix of Irish, Yorkshire, and Cockney of the Soldiers Three stories was bad enough, check out his handling of American accents in the mouths of horses
At his best, Kipling is very, very good. At his less good ... well. Yeah. That.
It is probably not a good thing to realize that, thanks to those wonderful bits of technology known as "Project Gutenberg" and "cut-and-paste," it is possible to create one's own personal collection of Kipling's best. That way lies madness, or at least distraction.
* I should probably be explicit here and note that I use "India" here in the sense of his time, covering the entire region of eastern Afghanistan, Pakistan, modern India, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Burma/Myanmar.