Monday, December 10, 2012

He looked the picture av innocince an’ forlornsomeness - Kipling's entertainments

Since I wrote about the cruel side of Kipling last week, I will look at something a little easier to handle now.  Friday’s post attracted some helpful and informative comments by people a lot more knowledgeable about Kipling than I am.  Sometimes the right response is to stay out of the way.  Thanks!

In The Portable Kipling, Irving Howe categorizes a number of Kipling stories as “fictions meant simply as entertainments” (xiv), including one from the 1893 Many Inventions titled “’Brugglesmith.’”  The title is a drunk’s pronunciation of his West London neighborhood of Brook Green, Hammersmith, thus the irritating extra quotation marks.  The story is about the night the “Kipling” narrator was saddled with the inescapable drunk, and is full of classic drunky humor:

Then he walked deliberately off the edge of the flat into the water.  Somebody stuck a boat-hook into his clothes and hauled him out.

‘Now,’ he said triumphantly, ‘under the rules o’ the R-royal Humane Society, ye must give me hot whisky and water.  Do not put temptation before the laddie.’

See, a running gag is that Brugglesmith keep saying “Kipling” is the drunk one.

The Kipling Society operates a valuable website that has commentary on every individual Kipling story, so I can learn that “[a]t a discussion meeting in 1961, members of the Kipling Society voted 'Brugglesmith' and 'The Vortex' as Kipling’s funniest stories.”  I would like to have been at that meeting.  I bet the port was excellent.

Irving Howe is taking a shortcut, telling me how the story was “meant.”  I have become a little nervous about Kipling’s intent, which always seems ambiguous.  But Howe is a pro and a pure lark is a good guess for “’Brugglesmith.’”

I would not have voted for it, though, but for another selection from Many Inventions, “My Lord the Elephant,” a farcical Mulvaney story in which our drunken Irish hero is pursued by, rides, tames, and becomes fast friends with a bull elephant:

‘”Now,” sez I, slidin’ down his nose an’ runnin’ to the front av him, “you will see the man that’s better than you.”

‘His big head was down betune his big forefeet, an’ they was twisted in sideways like a kitten’s.  He looked the picture av innocince an’ forlornsomeness, an’ by this an’ that his big hairy underlip was thremblin’, an’ he winked his eyes together to kape from cryin’.  “For the love a God,” I sez, clane forgettin’ he was a dumb baste; “don’t take ut to heart so!”’

I seem to have returned to the cruelty theme.  Has a bully been tamed, or has a bully triumphed?

The best running joke in this one is Mulvaney’s excuse for never telling the story before – the violence that would result when his listeners inevitably called him a liar – combined with “Kipling”’s evasive refusal to say that he believes Mulvaney who “I knew, had a profligate imagination.”  And all of that after beginning the story with this whopper:

Touching the truth of this tale there need be no doubt at all, for it was told to me by Mulvaney at the back of the elephant-lines, one warm evening when we were taking the dogs out for exercise.

Also, “Kipling” has an annoying white terrier named Vicy, presumably short for Victoria.  That is as an aside.

“My Lord the Elephant” has a few hints, beginning with the title, that this entertainment has more to it than gags.  It does build up to some good laughs, though.

Another aside:  although the comic effect of this tale lies in Mulvaney’s telling of it, Kipling has also begun to write more passages like this one, near the beginning:

The sunset was dying, and the elephants heaved and swayed dead black against the one sheet of rose-red low down in the dusty gray sky.  It was at the beginning of the hot weather, just after the troops had changed into their white clothes, so Mulvaney and Ortheris, looked like ghosts walking through the dusk.

Maybe Kipling did not mean much by this story, but he sure wasn't throwing the prose away.

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