I mentioned a few weeks ago that Norman Geras had been kind enough to invite my to contribute a post to his Normblog series, Writer’s Choice. In the end, I contributed a lengthy piece about Kipling that we agreed should be split into two. I am now reposting them on my blog. The first of them follows; the other is here.
It took me a long time to decide who – or what – to write about for this piece. I felt instinctively it should be a book that reached back to my childhood, but which one, and why?
I was a bookish sort as a child – a tendency encouraged by the fact that we didn’t have a TV, which was rare among my peers even in the 1970s – and books formed such a large part of my emotional life and feel such a rooted part of my identity that it would be a kind of dishonesty to choose something less worn or well-beloved from the shelf.
Looking back I think the loss or suspension of self I experienced in books was perhaps a way of exerting or applying a measure of control over my world, keeping down whatever devils one had discovered reason to fear, a steadying hand, a harbour, as if each book were a kind of walled garden or city I could wander through invisible and safe. This was escapism, yes; but I suspect it was also an escape into a vision of what adulthood might be like, a version of a possible future guarded from shadow and dread alike by the notional securities of age and maturity.
In search of such comforts, and in search of company, too, and a host of other satisfactions I cannot or do not care to name, I dived readily into countless worlds – not undiscerningly, since there were certainly books and writers I heartily disliked – but always eager to worm into almost any title I could find.
And even now in middle age, that idea, learned over childhood’s long slow days, of a book as offering some kind of primal solace, a hand-held flexible god, has not left me. When my mother died a few years ago, I remember looking up at the rows of books on the shelves at home – themselves marking countless memories of her, of the inquisitive wisdom of her conversation – and feeling grief’s hard and breath-wrenching punch for the first time because she would never pick them up again or enquire happily into their joys and consolations.
But still, which book to write about?
Before there were books I hunkered down with myself, there were those books I first encountered through my father, sat on my bed later than he should, reading to me those things close to his heart from his own childhood and beyond, in his dry gentle voice, warm and smooth and measured: everything from classics like AA Milne and Lewis Carroll, to the likes of Thurber and Leacock, by way of Conan Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard stories and other less common fare.
And in the end, it is one such book I have chosen: Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
I can clearly see in my mind our old family copy of it, a red hardback with colour plates, its cover warped and pages stained by a brief part-immersion in soapy bath water courtesy of a careless ten-year old boy. In fact, I can still see myself dropping it. Such was my adoration of books as artefacts that the small and careless slip of my hand which saw The Jungle Book disappear into warm dirty water seemed a kind of defiling, solace sliding into ruin.
Overwrought, I know, but still… I was very bookish.
Kipling is of course a writer of extraordinary and exquisite power, and he excites – indeed, demands – reactions from his readers, whatever age they happen to be. As a child you are, I think, aware of that: even when, as in The Just-So Stories, he is addressing us in the sweetest of endearments, he never falls to patronising his audience, and the artful interlacing of image, sense and rhythm in his prose for children is as supple and allusive as anywhere in his work. Indeed, in The Jungle Book and elsewhere, his prose invites the highest level of concentration and engagement – and it rewards in equal measure.
With the other treasured books of my childhood, I find that when I turn to them again now I can readily experience the same old pleasures and enjoy their sundry warmths – and feel warmed by the nostalgia of it too. But with Kipling there is always more.
I have wondered whether that is because I feel compelled to read Kipling more closely because of his reputation. After all, his name still comes steeped in the received image of him as a quasi-racist apologist for the follies of empire – and I do wonder whether, therefore, with this idea of him in mind, I am inclined to interrogate the work more deeply in a way I would not, frankly, with The House At Pooh Corner.
There is a depth to Kipling’s writing and to the thought behind the writing that is – or seems to me – incomparable. Consider, for instance, his description of the Bandar-log, the monkey people, in The Jungle Book, published in 1894. We are used to countless children’s books featuring a whole ark-full of anthropomorphic creatures. There is nothing wrong with that, nor is it a new thing. We might use as a benchmark, for example, the creatures of the Wild Woods in The Wind in the Willows – a delightful book, I hasten to add, published the following decade – with Kipling’s monkeys. The former are quite obviously and unavoidably clumsy embodiments of the working class, the untutored mob as vermin whose aspirations must be quashed. As a child of ten – raised as I was in a left-wing household – that was embarrassingly evident even to me.
The Bandar-log, though, are brilliantly and thoroughly imagined – and not only in the externals. Kipling sees them and their society from the inside – as he did with all his characters – capturing not only their behaviour – their fights, the exhilirating terror of their flight through the trees – but also a profound sense its intricate dynamics, poised and ready to swoop in a heartbeat from anger to indolence and back.
When he wrote, of course, not one in a thousand of his readers would have seen a troupe of monkeys crashing from bough to supple bough through the canopy of a sub-tropical jungle, so in a sense he had a free hand. Nowadays, in the unlikely event that we have not seen just the things that he describes already on countless documentaries, we could summon up an apposite film clip in seconds on YouTube. But whereas most written descriptions of nature do not survive a reader’s own actual encounter with the subject matter, Kipling’s transcend it. What we see confirms the poetic truth of his evocation; reality merely serves to reinforce the vivid clarity and power of his prose. Few writers wield an imagination strong enough to leave its impress on the observable world; Kipling is certainly one of them.
Kipling’s own childhood – as described in his wonderful, if incomplete and evasively brief, autobiography Something of Myself, as well as in stories such as ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’ – was one of exultant and terrifying extremes. Born in India, his earliest memories are replayed as an idyll, being led among the wayside crosses and Hindu temples – with their kindly gods, barely glimpsed in the darkness and shadow – by his nurse or his bearer, who between them told him endless Indian tales and songs and taught him to speak in their vernacular, a language so intimately known to him in childhood that he claimed to dream in it, and needed prompting to switch to a more hesitant English when speaking to his mother or father.
But it was customary for colonial children to return to England for their education, and when he was six he and his younger sister, Trix, were sent to spend six years being raised by a professional guardian – rather than a family member – in Southsea, who specialised in taking in the offspring of families in the services.
“We had had no preparation or explanation,” Kipling’s sister wrote of the experience. ‘It was like a double death, or rather, like an avalanche that had swept away everything happy and familiar.”
Kipling’s own account of those years is even less favourable.
“It was an establishment run with the full vigour of the Evangelical as revealed to [the woman of the house]. I had never heard of Hell, so I was introduced to it in all its terrors…
“If you cross-examine a child of seven or eight on his day’s doings (especially when he wants to go to sleep) he will contradict himself very satisfactorily. If each contradiction be set down as a lie and retailed at breakfast, life is not easy. I have known a certain amount of bullying, but this was calculated torture – religious as well as scientific…
“My eyes went wrong, and I could not well see to read… My work at the terrible little day school where I had been sent suffered in consequence, and my monthly reports showed it… One report was so bad that I threw it away and said that I had never received it… I was well beaten and sent to school through the streets of Southsea with the placard ‘Liar’ between my shoulders…
“Some sort of nervous breakdown followed, for I imagined I saw shadows and things that were not there… A man came down to see me as to my eyes and reported that I was half-blind. This too, was supposed to be ‘showing off’, and I was segregated from my sister – another punishment – as a kind of moral leper. Then… Mother returned from India. She told me afterwards that when she first came up to my room to kiss me good-night, I flung up an arm to guard off the cuff that I had been trained to expect.”
Thus Kipling was freed from his personal hell, but the experience certainly scarred him, and although we cannot know how he might otherwise have grown up, he would suffer throughout his life from breakdowns and the bleak deep hollows of depression. Later, in India, aged about 20, he describes how “I entered my house one hot-weather evening… when I felt I had come to the edge of all endurance… [T]here was no more in me except the horror of a great darkness, that I must have been fighting for some days. I came through that darkness alive, but I do not know how.”
It also gifted him an emotional need for obedience – subservience, even – to fixed order which no doubt informed his political views: for a man prone to mental collapse, rules – like the certainties of empire – offered a solidity, a discipline and rigour, a defence against the shadows and the sensed presence of things that were not there but which pressed hard against his subconscious.
The most explicit manifestation of that need in his work are the Law of the Jungle, which underpin the Mowgli stories in The Jungle Book. Even if you have never read the book, any boy who has had the misfortune to belong to the cub scouts will have encountered them, since the leader of the scout pack is named Akela after the head of Mowgli’s wolf pack and demands absolute obedience to himself and to the law of the jungle he embodies. Myself, I found that a curious request in suburban London, but that’s another story.
Yet while there was a reactionary Kipling who believed in such, Kipling the writer is not the same man. Almost as soon as the Laws have been introduced into The Jungle Book, with the assertion that Mowgli’s acceptance by the pack must be avowed by two of its members – aside from his adoptive mother and father – they are subverted. Mowgli’s sponsors are allowed to be Baloo – an honourary member, being a bear – and Bagheera, the black panther, who is no member at all and who buys Mowgli’s life with the offer of a fresh kill. The law may be the law, and as such it is absolute; but in practice it is a flexible and pragmatic thing after all.
There is throughout Kipling’s work this kind of duality: an acceptance of the need for duty and obedience and and profound, human understanding of the insufficiencies of such an idea. For all that Kipling revered order and accuracy – there has perhaps never been a writer so obsessed to understand the detailed workings of every thing he writes about, and the delightedly precise nomenclature for each part and process – he was also drawn to its inverse.
This can be seen in his life: perhaps as a manifestation of his depression, he discovered not long after he left Southsea that – staying in London for a few weeks, near the Brompton Road, then almost rural – “it happened that the night got into my head. I rose up and wandered about that still house till daybreak… I did not know then that such night-wakings would be laid upon me through my life”. In his early story, ‘The City of Dreadful Night’, such night wakings lure him out into the spectral nocturnal heat of Lahore, among the corpses of the living and the wakeful, restless dead; and the fascination the story expresses with the permeable border between life and death, bare reality and the thrilling emotional opulence of the occult runs throughout his work.
It is also apparent in Kipling’s working methods. As a writer, he was, he claimed, in thrall to his Personal Daemon. “Mine came to me early when I sat bewildered among other notions, and said: ‘Take this and no other.’ I obeyed and was rewarded,” he wrote of a story called ‘The Phantom Ricksaw’, “my first serious attempt to think in another man’s skin… I learned to lean upon him and recognise the sign of his approach… When your Daemon is in charge, do not try to think consciously. Drift, wait, and obey.”
The idea of absolute obedience to something wilfully, powerfully, pleasurably irrational is a paradox that Kipling did not, to my knowledge, address. But I think he cannot have been unaware of its contradiction, since the apparently unconscious pull of such forces is everywhere in his work, seducing him – and through him us – as surely as the night and the city drew him to wander through their terrors until the dawn came to dispel them.
I can see now that, even in The Jungle Book, such an attraction is strongly hinted at. The story has hardly begun before we learn of Tabaqui, the jackal, who “is apt to go mad, and then he forgets that he was ever afraid of anyone… Even the tiger runs and hides when little Tabaqui goes mad, for madness is the most disgraceful thing that can overtake a wild creature”. But Tabaqui is a tale-teller, too, and it is he that introduces the tiger Shere Khan to the book and Shere Khan’s hunt among the men that leads him, and us, to Mowgli.
A good deal of the power of Kipling’s writing comes from this kind of tension. Here was a man who “made my own experiments in the weights, colours, perfumes, and attributes of words in relation to other words, either as read aloud so that they may hold the ear, or, scattered over the page, draw the eye”. He was an ardent and impassioned realist, obsessed with the veracity of detail, as a good former sub-editor should be, but also with the heightened sensuous truths such particularities could impart. Certainties blur and blend into fantasy readily in his work, as if the terrible seductions of the supernatural lie always just beneath the skin of the world, always bleeding through from the other side of some thin and fractured wall.
Part two of this piece can be read on my blog here.