Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Truth is a naked lady - Kipling on fiction

I’ll end this burst of Kipling with a glance at what I think is a new feature of the 1893 Many Inventions: statements of purpose disguised as fiction.  The book contains at least four; I will just go over three, which seems like plenty.

“The Children of the Zodiac,” closes the collection.  I do not understand this one and may have mis-classified it.  We follow two children of the immortal zodiac gods, Leo and the Girl, who sound like a 1970s soft rock act and in fact are singers, which is why I think the story has something to do with Kipling’s vocation.  The story seems to be an allegory, not my strength, so who knows.  “Then Leo’s speech was taken from him, and he lay still and dumb, watching Death till he died” but along the way Leo’s songs have taught people to laugh at death.

I am on firmer ground with “A Matter of Fact.”  A ship carrying three journalists, including “Kipling,” is caught in the wake of the eruption of an underwater volcano, and thus see some Weird Things from the depths of the ocean that have been flung to the surface, such as a dying sea monster:

The blind white head flung back and battered the wounds, and the body in its torment rose clear of the red and gray waves till we saw a pair of quivering shoulders streaked with weed and rough with shells, but as white in the clear spaces as the hairless, nameless, blind, toothless head.

At the descriptive level, “A Matter of Fact” is a triumph, especially considering Kipling has made the whole thing up from first principles, and given that the actual point of the story is a consideration of exactly how the story should be told (thus the need for all the journalists).  “Kipling” wins the argument – the only way to tell it is as “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 behoves a gentleman either to give her a print petticoat or to turn his face to the wall, and vow that he did not see.

“’The Finest Story in the World’” is a short story about the importance of precise details in fiction.  This is the one I will skip – you’re preaching to the converted, Mr. Kipling!

“A Conference of the Powers” begins with “Kipling” chatting with three young soldiers on leave in London.  A famous writer drops by, a regionalist like Thomas Hardy or Hall Caine.  One of the soldiers is from the novelist’s region, and is thrilled to meet him:  ‘… I read the book in camp on the Hlinedatalone, and I knew every stick and stone, and the dialect too; and, by Jove! it was just like being at home and hearing the country-people talk.’

The novelist becomes fascinated by the stories of the soldiers.  He is more than a bit naïve to begin with, shocked that the soldiers have all killed:

‘Good heavens!  And how did you feel afterwards?’

‘Thirsty.  I wanted a smoke, too’

But his interest grows, especially once he is told a long, violent, comical account of action in Burma, and in the end he is converted to their view of the world, at least temporarily:

He replied with another quotation, to the effect that though singing was a remarkably fine performance, I was to be quite sure that few lips would be moved to song if they could find a sufficiency of kissing.

Whereby I understood that Eustace Cleever, decorator and colourman in words, was blaspheming his own Art, and would be sorry for this in the morning.

When Kipling called his book Many Inventions, he meant it literally.  Perhaps all of the fictions are actually about fiction.  Kipling gives his readers interesting problems to work on.


  1. I've not read this collection...I'll have to correct that soon. I think my favorite of Kipling, but also the most difficult to read I've run into, is Debits and Credits. "A Conference of the Powers" reminds me of the atmosphere in that collection.

  2. Ack, Debits and Credits, that one is a long way off, eleven books or so, if I keep reading chronologically. "Most difficult," you say? That is very tempting.

    1. ‘Good heavens! And how did you feel afterwards?’

      ‘Thirsty. I wanted a smoke, too’

      This wouldn't have been out of place in Full Metal Jacket. Kipling's dark humour was ahead of his time.

  3. His humor, and also his sympathy with and understanding of ordinary soldiers and how they did their work.