Thursday, January 03, 2019

'Because Our Fathers Lied'

Robert Chandler is best-known as the translator into English of Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, one of the last century’s essential novels. We can also thank him for giving us two other novels by Grossman, Everything Flows and Stalingrad, and the nonfiction collection The Road. He has translated or co-translated, among other Russian writers, Platonov, Pushkin, Leskov, Lev Ozerov, Teffi and Hamid Ismailov (an Uzbek who lives in England and sometimes writes in Russian). He has also translated Sappho and Apollinaire. Apart from introductions to various translations, I had never read any of his criticism or other prose. Several weeks ago, I wrote a post about Kipling, and Chandler wrote in a comment: “I see Kipling as one of the very greatest of English poets, and I have just been writing a short article about him for Granta.” The piece is titled “Best Book of 1919: The Years Between by Rudyard Kipling,” and here is a sample:

“Kipling was sometimes strident, and sometimes mistaken. Nevertheless, we are impoverishing ourselves if we dismiss him as a drum-beating imperialist. In his best work his imagination ran far deeper. Though a non-combatant, he is – along with Edward Thomas and Wilfred Owen – one of the greatest of our war poets.”

It’s unfortunate that lovers of Kipling’s work, eighty-three years after his death, must still defend his genius. No one has written better short stories in English than Kipling. Randall Jarrell said he reread Kim every year (a practice I have adopted), and described Kipling as “one of the great stylists of his language, one of those writers who can make a list more interesting than an ordinary writer's murder.” He could imagine himself into anyone or anything. No one wrote better about work, children, animals and, arguably, war. Turner Cassity in “He the Compeller,” an essay collected in Politics and Poetic Value (University of Chicago Press, 1987), thought so:

“The best poems of combat have been written by those who experienced it (was Homer blind or blinded?), but the best poems of military life, the best in English, at any rate, were written by a war correspondent.”

That is, Kipling. No one wrote so confidently about almost everything (which is not always a virtue, even in his case). His subject when it came to war was always the common soldier, the man in the trench. He is seldom banally pro-war or anti-war. Chandler focuses on “Epitaphs of the War,” written during World War I, in which the poet’s son was killed in the Battle of Loos in 1915. Here is “Common Form,” which might have been written about another war half a century later:

“If any question why we died,
Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

In “The Children,” written in 1917, Kipling mingles horror and grief in the final stanza:

“That flesh we had nursed from the first in all cleanness was given
To corruption unveiled and assailed by the malice of Heaven—
By the heart-shaking jests of Decay where it lolled in the wires—
To be blanched or gay-painted by fumes— to be cindered by fires—
To be senselessly tossed and retossed in stale mutilation
From crater to crater. For that we shall take expiation.
        But who shall return us our children?”

Consider the title of Chandler’s essay (whether his or an editor’s). What other books were published in 1919? Max Beerbohm’s Seven Men.  À l'Ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs, the second volume of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. H.L. Mencken’s The American Language. P. G. Wodehouse’s My Man Jeeves. I’ll leave it to the readers to judge the competition.

1 comment:

Robert Chandler said...

Thank you, Patrick - and all the best for 2019!
I'll just provide a link to a beautifully written little essay I came across a few days ago. It is about "Gethsemane", another of Kipling's First World War poems: