Another staffer and I went to the school library in the morning to pick books for reading aloud in class. She was more optimistic than I, choosing collections of stories by Jack London and W. Somerset Maughm, and the fat old Modern Library compendium of Donne and Blake, the edition in which I, as a boy, first read both poets. She wanted to read the “No man is an island” passage from Donne’s “Meditation XVII.”
I picked volumes of Hans Christian Andersen’s tales and Edward Lear’s nonsense verse, The Juniper Tree (Randall Jarrell’s selection from the Brothers Grimm) and one of my favorite story collections, also edited by Jarrell, The Best Short Stories of Rudyard Kipling.
With my lunch I had packed Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems but instead I read a Kipling story I picked almost at random, “A Matter of Fact.” Three journalists – an American, a Dutchman and an Englishman (the narrator) -- are aboard a tramp steamer “going to Southampton in ballast, and [we] shipped in her because the fares were nominal.” Kipling starts out steering us through Conrad’s seas, but the prose is more vivid and less portentous than the Pole’s, and Kipling is never at a loss for what he imagines, and seems to know how everything works and the proper name for everything:
“The sea was as smooth as a duck-pond, except for a regular oily swell. As I looked over the side to see where it might be following us from, the sun rose in a perfectly clear sky and struck the water with its light so sharply that it seemed as though the sea should clang like a burnished gong. The wake of the screw and the little white streak cut by the log-line hanging over the stern were the only marks on the water as far as eye could reach.”
I won’t disclose the story’s rather melodramatic central event, which verges on science fiction, but the journalists, portrayed as raffish and hard-boiled at the start, choose not to write about it, at least as journalism. It turns into a story about stories, without becoming tiresomely “metafictional,” and the title cliché earns layers of new meaning. Here’s the conclusion, starting with the American reporter asking the narrator:
“`What are you going to do?’
“`Tell it as a lie.’
“`Fiction?’ This with the full-blooded disgust of a journalist for the illegitimate branch of the profession.
“`You can call it that if you like. I shall call it a lie.'
“And a lie it has become; for Truth is a naked lady, and if by accident she is drawn up from the bottom of the sea, it behooves a gentleman either to give her a print petticoat or to turn his face to the wall and vow that he did not see.”
What a spirited defense of fiction as truth – in a work of fiction. In his introduction, Jarrell quotes a letter William James wrote his brother Henry about Kipling (both admired his work extravagantly):
“He has such human entrails, and he takes less time to get under the heartstrings of his personages than anyone I know. On the whole, bless him.”
Back home, I read more Kipling and some Bunting, including an ode written in 1924, when Kipling had another eleven years to live. Especially keep the second stanza in mind as you read Kipling’s story:
“Weeping oaks grieve, chestnuts raise
mournful candles. Sad is spring
to perpetuate, sad to trace
immortalities never changing.
“Weary on the sea
for sight of land
gazing past the coming wave we
see the same wave;
“drift on merciless reiteration of years;
descry no death; but spring