restricted access The Defects of Kipling
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8 ] The Defects of Kipling1 As the novelty of certain innovations dies away, as the school of literature of which Mr. Kipling is the most illustrious representative, the exotic school, passes with all its blemishes exaggerated more and more into the hands of less brilliant practitioners, so Kipling’s fame is fading, and his unique charm is diminished.2 He himself has made little effort to increase his reputation in his own special province of literature, the Anglo-Indian Orient, and in his late writings has turned to other subjects. This may well be the part of wisdom. For the popularity of his work was due not more to his emphatic and vigorous style, his unquestioned technical merits, than to the unfamiliarity and picturesqueness of his background. Now that a score of writers can boast of an acquaintance with the equator, we are no longer so entranced by the Kiplingesque as we were when cobras had first learned to talk, and bears to bring up small boys “by hand.”3 We are at ease with the Oogly; the China Sea, even with the Kyber Pass.4 Local color, especially in outlandish and unknown places, is always a dangerous literary tool; the author who makes much use of it is liable to become a slave to brilliant landscape and description. He is liable to overestimate its importance, to subordinate characterisation and action to background; and under the influence of strange scenery to exaggerate the strangeness of his men and women. The reader in his turn is deceived; what is so unusual, he imagines, must be true. Accordingly, this kind of story, narrative in unfamiliar setting, is easier than other, because strangeness is easier than truth. Yet truth and strangeness of setting is a possible combination, and a story is often all the better for it. If you lay your plot in Hindustan or Africa, and still create men whose title to existence rests on more than violent action, then you have achieved a genuine triumph. Such a triumph is Stevenson’s “Ebb-Tide.”5 The man who equalled Kipling in narrative and in vivid description of tropical scenery, combined with these qualities fine analysis of character, justice of proportion, and the power to seize the moral significanceofasituation .Comparethe“Ebb-Tide”withmostofKipling’sOriental stories, and you will see how much more control has Stevenson over his material.6 [ 9 The Defects of Kipling The real reason for Mr. Kipling’s failure,7 not the Oriental obsession, which was merely a result, is as evident in the early stories of diplomatic life at Simla, as in his more highly decorated work.8 After all, there is one fatal weakness penetrating and marring almost everything to which Kipling sets his hand; accounting for several of the minor blemishes; it is his restless and straining immaturity. Nothing is so pathetic in literature as the immaturity which the practised brain cannot shake off, nor the practised hand conceal . Always more anxious for the appearance of life than for life itself, the appearance of truth more than truth, Mr. Kipling has maintained the pose of a man of the world, a pose of the young and egotistic. He has seen everything and done everything. The discursive observer of life, the cosmopolitan like Kipling, often misconsiders that intimacy with sailors, barmen, whores, stokers , thieves, all people of squalid and strange professions–he thinks that such acquaintance gives one a knowledge of life. To the properly equipped it will. Most men will gain from such observation only delight in superficial phenomena , the bizarre and the brutal. In The Light that Failed and in Kim, as in many of the shorter stories, there are characters and events which are bizarre and brutal.9 Mr. Kipling was always more anxious to be striking than to be convincing.10 So, even in the earlier work, the middle-class-society tales of which I spoke, one cannot feel perfect confidence, and nowhere am I sure that Kipling is solicitous for accuracy.11 And if these cynical Simla stories are not trustworthy, their only excuse is that they are always interesting, and always effective. What is the reason that Kipling’s stories never lack interest? Surely the vigor which galvinizes every character into action; almost into reality. Aside from Kipling’s incontestibly brilliant technique, it is the most admirable quality in his work, this vast energy. Not so profound or so tragic as Balzac, Kipling approaches that novelist in this respect. The energy and...