Friday, July 1, 2011

Rudyard Kipling/Craig Raine

July, 2011:  About ten years ago, my father gave me the complete Kipling.  I loved Kim and The Jungle Book, but hated The Light That Failed, and didn't think much of one or two other volumes that I looked at.  In an effort to rectify my low opinion of Kipling, Geoff recently lent me A Choice of Kipling's Prose (1987), selected by Craig Raine.  Every one of these short stories is a jewel.  Thankfully, Raine didn't let the title of the selection put him off including some of Kipling's poems, too; I find poetry hard to read, as it is so dense and rich, and seems to demand repeated poring-overs - the kind of attention that I give to songs - so to have a few of Raine's favourites slipped in between stories was a good way of making prose-readers eat their poems (the way Geoff used to slip a whole lot of spinach into the spag bol he used to make for us children).
It's hard to write about short stories; each story ought to have at least a paragraph, and, alas, I don't want to spend that much time on the task.  One thing that made me love him was his great interest in every person who crossed his path.  He makes two old English ladies having afternoon tea together just as interesting, colourful and moving, as, say, the ill-fated love affair between a Hindu woman who and an Englishman (she ends up having her hands cut off).  And although I usually dislike dialect being put down in print - because it divides us into 'people who speak properly' and people who don't - when Kipling does it, it is because he has such a fine ear for voices, and the words people use is clearly of profound interest to him.  His ability to replicate a person's verbal style is miraculous.  His own voice is almost inaudible, so that I will find myself thinking, "Who told me that story about the handsome man getting his come-uppance?"  Then I'll remember - it was the story Love-o'-Woman, where the handsome man is dying, and all he can think about is a certain past love.  He finds her working in a brothel; his affair with her 'ruined' her.  
'"Fwhat do you do here?" she sez, an' her voice wint up.  'Twas like bells tollin' before.  "Time was whin you were quick enough wid your words - you that talked me down to Hell.  Are ye dumb now?"  An' Love-o'-Woman got his tongue, an' sez simple, like a little child, "May I come in?" he sez.
'"The house is open day an' night," she sez, wid a laugh; and Love-o'-Woman ducked his head an' hild up his hand as tho' he was gyardin'.  The Power was still on him - it hild him up still, for, by my sowl, as I'll never save ut, he walked up the veranda steps that had been a livin' carpse in hospital for a month!
'"An' now?" she sez, lookin' at him; an' the red paint stud lone on the white av her face like a bull's-eye on a target.
'He lifted up his eyes, slow an' very slow, an' he looked at her long an' very long, an' he tuk his spache betune his teeth wid a wrench that shook him.
'"I'm dyin', Aigypt - dyin'," he sez.  Ay, those were his words, for I remimber the name he called her.  He was turnin' the death-colour, but his eyes niver rowled.  They were set - set on her.  Widout word or warnin' she opened her arms full stretch, an' "Here!" she sez.  (Oh, fwhat a golden miracle av a voice ut was!)  "Die here!" she sez, an' Love-o'-Woman dhropped forward, an' she hild him up, for she was a fine big woman.

I can see I'm going to have to read the introduction (I rarely do), as it reveals some of the many secrets encrypted in his stories - Love-o'-Woman was dying of syphilis, of course!  And "I'm dyin', Aigypt - dyin'" is a quote from Anthony An' Cleopatra!  And the nephew in another of my favourite stories, The Gardener, is actually an illegitimate son!  I should have known this from:
...though she was, at the time, under threat of lung trouble which had driven her to the south of France.

Perhaps I would have picked that up if he had added, "for nine months." 

His stories about India, or ghosts, or lovers, are like dreams, and have stayed in my mind only as pictures or brief moments without their contexts, but his stories about war are memorable, maybe partly because they're written with intent.  My father says Kipling was a real "warmonger" until his son was killed in battle (but which one - the Boer or WWI?).  The Madonna of the Trenches is about a traumatised soldier  who had been at 'Butcher's Row' in France, where corpses were used as sand-bags to keep back the tide of mud.  This was all right in winter, but "all those trenches were like gruel in a thaw", and when the duckboards were missing a slat, you'd unavoidably tread on the corpses, and they'd "creak".  To the reader, it seems more than understandable that this would leave a person permanently unhinged.  But Kipling's Brother Keede (a local doctor) doesn't buy it, and over the course of the story, he unlocks the real cause of Brother Strangwick's anxiety.  Kipling is telling a good story, but he is also making the point that when you have been calibrated to the daily horror of war, walking down Butcher's Row is as traumatising as say, cleaning out a grease trap (which is pretty disgusting).  But do we want to reach that level of calibration?  

He writes just as well about the people left at home in England, and how they become calibrated - not to say hardened - to the constant dying around them.  Mary Postgate is a story about a 'lady's companion', an inert woman who has no family of her own, seems to have no desires, no impulses or emotions, excepting a slightly maternal attachment to her lady's nephew.  He dies in WWI, and she gathers together his belongings and burns them in the incinerator at the bottom of the garden.  An enemy pilot chances to have parachuted down to the ground nearby, and is mortally wounded.  As Mary incinerates, she listens to him dying.  Mary, when young, had a lot of experience with people dying - her mother, father, "cousin Dick", and "Lady McCausland's house-maid".  One line reveals her as she was when young, before life had cauterised hopes and emotions out of her: "Her long pleasure [in listening to the soldier's death rattle] was broken by a sound that she had waited for in agony several times in her life."  Mary Postgate might be the strangest anti-hero ever.  The Gardener is the other war-at-home story that really struck me - struck me so hard I cried, and not just a tear or two!  Helen goes to Belgium to see where her 'nephew' has been buried:
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.
This is one of those descriptions that is so odd and specific, I suddenly realised I was reading a first-hand experience, though Kipling has hidden himself in a woman's body.  The mass slaughter was one thing that made me cry; but the other tragedy was the grief of Helen, a self-contained, controlled, sensible, cool-blooded Englishwoman.  Her grief is so low-key, it isn't expressed in any way - she doesn't cry, she doesn't get flustered, she doesn't feel sick.  The only expression of her grief is via someone else, a man she takes to be a gardener at the mass cemetery.  He looks at her with "infinite compassion" - and that's the first and only suggestion that Helen might not be coping with the experience as well as we think she is; in fact, might be looking distraught and grief-stricken.  He looks at her slip of paper:

"Come with me," he said, "and I will show you where your son lies."

She had said "nephew", but he took it in spirit, and reinterpreted it (correctly, as the introduction points out) as "son".  She doesn't correct him.  All this small-scale drama is extremely moving - I suppose I can be recalibrated, too, and accept that subtle feelings are as significant as tumultuous ones.  Being a tumultuous feeler, I hesitate to say "or more significant!" - though perhaps they are, in that they occur, for one such as Helen, less frequently.  

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