Wednesday, December 31, 2008

`A Great Professional'

“You often feel about something in Shakespeare or Dostoevsky that nobody ever said such a thing, but that it’s just the sort of thing people would say if they could – is more real, in some sense, than what people do say. If you have given your imagination free rein, let things go as far as they want to go, the world they made for themselves while you watched can have, for you and later watchers, a spontaneous finality.”

Monday night I suffered a rare bout of sleeplessness. I finished reading one book and floated around several others, dog-paddling, but nothing grabbed me and I wasn’t ready to go back to bed. Sometimes, when fatigue or endorphins have lulled my critical faculties, and pleasure outweighs the Strictures of Art, I think Rudyard Kipling is the greatest storywriter who ever lived. No other holds me as strongly now, well into middle age, as he did when I was a boy. Then it was The Jungle Book and Just So Stories. Now it’s likelier to be Kim or something from The Best Short Stories of Rudyard Kipling, edited by Randall Jarrell in 1961 and still the best one-volume selection. That’s what I reached for early Tuesday morning.

The pleasure begins with Jarrell’s introduction, “On Preparing to Read Kipling,” from which I quoted above. As a critic Jarrell is best remembered for savage and very funny dismissals of mediocre, trumped-up writers, but he also performed valuable reclamation work. His essays on Whitman, Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and Christina Stead, among others, helped salvage them from misunderstanding or obscurity. One of the books I prize most in my library is a 1965 edition of Stead’s 1940 novel The Man Who Loved Children, complete with the introduction Jarrell wrote shortly before his death.

Jarrell claimed he reread Kim yearly. In his introductory essay, he tries to revive Kipling’s critical reputation (probably impossible in so politically blinkered an era) through sheer exuberance. He shares his love and assumes it will prove contagious. That hasn’t happened but Jarrell joins an impressive list of Kipling admirers among writers, including Henry and William James, T.S. Eliot. Orwell, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Borges, Kingsley Amis and Guy Davenport. Here’s Jarrell:

“Kipling is neither a Chekhov nor a Shakespeare, but he is far closer to both than to the clothing-store-dummy-with-the-solar-topee we have agreed to call Kipling. Kipling, like it or not, admit it or not, was a great genius; and a great professional, one of the most skillful writers who has ever existed – one of the writers who has used English best, one of the writers who most often has made other writers exclaim, in the queer tone they use for the exclamation: `Well, I’ve got to admit it really is written.’”

And this lovely bit of whimsy:

“If I had to pick one writer to invent a conversation between an animal, a god, and a machine, it would be Kipling. To discover what, if they ever said, what the dumb would say – this takes real imagination; and this imagination of what isn’t is the extension of a real knowledge of what is, the knowledge of a consummate observer who took no notes, except of names and dates…Knowing what the peoples, animals, plants, weathers of the world look like, sound like, smell like, was Kipling’s métier, and so was knowing the words that could make someone else know.”

So, which stories did I choose to reread, hoping they would ease my passage to sleep? First, “The Man Who Would Be King,” for its own familiar pleasures and for John Huston’s wonderful film version, with Sean Connery and Michael Caine. Then “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” that sad retelling of Kipling’s youth and the trauma of losing his native India. Finally, one of the great stories in the language, “Wireless.” Guy Davenport wrote ingeniously of it in Objects on a Table. I’ll tease you with a single Davenport sentence: “Trust Kipling to have seen in wireless telegraphy the art of Keats.”

Trust Kipling, too, to make for restful, absorbing reading. I closed the book not out of boredom but satisfaction, and soon fell asleep. Only hours after waking did I discover Tuesday was the 143rd anniversary of Kipling’s birth in Bombay.

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