Thursday, December 6, 2012

Onward with Kipling's short stories - I'll just go straight to the rough stuff

I’ll wander back to Kipling.  An older Kipling, although the teen prodigy stills makes an appearance.  After reading the contents of his 1888 stunt, when Kipling published seven books in a single year, I moved on to his next collection, the 1891 Life’s Handicap, and I enjoyed myself enough that I am halfway through the 1893 Many Inventions (and reading it on the computer – I must really be enjoying Kipling, because I hate that).  Along the way I have skipped at least three books, a novel, a co-written novel, and a short travel book about the United States, and there is also a book of poems that I have read.  Kipling is a writer whose productivity becomes almost irritating.

Both collections contain a mix of new stories and some scrounging from the Kipling newspaper archives, so the lengths range from four pages to fifty, and the substance swings wildly from short jokes to tragedies to long jokes to ghost stories to fictional statements of purpose.  Some stories are problematic masterpieces, while others are so trivial I wonder why Kipling wanted to re-publish them.  Well, I have a guess about that.

Although I would not mind trimming the trivia, the reason to read the books as they were first published is simple – every attempt at a Selected Stories of RK is obliged to skip some of the good stuff, maybe a lot.  “Good” is not always the right word.

For example:  two of the stories in Life’s Handicap are told to the “Kipling” narrator by the German naturalist Hans Breitmann.  “Reingelder and the German Flag” (orig. 1889) is the second story in the book; “Bertran and Bimi” is second from the end, 330 pages later.  Breitmann speaks with a thick accent and is written accordingly, as if designed to aggravate an entire class of readers other than me:

‘We lifed upon soup, horse-flesh, und beans for dinner, but before we vas eaten der soup, Reingelder he haf hold of his arm und cry, “It is genumben to der clavicle.  I am a dead man; und Yates he haf lied in brint!”’

I give you the point of the anecdote there, the actual joke.  Reingelder is a herpetologist hunting for a particular Uruguayan snake.  When he finds the snake he blithely carries it around, assured by “[h]is big book of Yates” that it is not poisonous although it obviously is.  The joke, to be clear, is the dying professor’s insistence that Yates was not simply wrong but actively lied in his book.

If that seems kinda awful, “Bertran and Bimi” is much worse.  Breitmann tells of a naturalist he knew in New Guinea (Bertran) whose best friend was a jealous orangutan (Bimi).  Bertran eventually decides to marry:

‘Only I say, "Haf you thought of Bimi? If he pull me away when I talk to you, what will he do to your wife? He will pull her in pieces.  If I was you, Bertran, I would gif my wife for wedding-present der stuff figure of Bimi."  By dot time I had learned some dings about der monkey peoples.’

And then events take the horrible turn we would all expect, expressed as horribly as possible by Kipling and Breitmann, although Breitmann sees the point of the anecdote a little differently than I do.  Contemporary reviewers called the story “a kind of thing that ought never to have been written” and “detestable… not in the least saved by being extremely cleverly written.”

Now I am getting somewhere.  Tomorrow, more of brutal Kipling, something much worse than this.


  1. He called him Hans Breitmann?? The man was shameless.

  2. Shameless - yes! Although Kipling has adapted Breitmann to a complex and ambiguous purpose. I believe these are the only two Breitmann stories.

    For reference (what is Doug talking about?) see this earlier discussion of Hans Breitmann.

  3. This reminds me I need to read more Kipling next year; I keep putting off The Light That Failed.

  4. Oh man you have no idea what's coming up next.
    In the short story collections you've read so far Kipling was a brilliant young man (un muchacho genial in Borges' phrase). But in his next two collections, The Day's Work and Traffics and Discoveries, Kipling became the greatest short story writer the English language had seen. It only took Kipling half a dozen tales from those two books to accomplish this. The bridge builders, The Maltese cat, A sahibs' war, Wireless, They and Mrs. Bathurst are like nothing else before. Kipling wrote many more masterpieces after them, but he never surpassed that magnificent achievement.

  5. Really? Yes yes yes. I have read enough already that I need no persuasion. Every other story in Many Inventions has contained a jaw-dropper or two or three - "did I read that right" moments.

    Very pleasing news!

    Miguel, I had honestly been planning to skip or postpone The Light That Failed but I have begun to suspect that I will have to read it for informational purposes if nothing else. It is apparently full of references to Bysshe Vanolis's bleak masterpiece "The City of Dreadful Night." How can I resist? I cannot.