What a shame that there is not a recent edition of Rudyard Kipling’s collections of short stories, annotated – in some cases, heavily annotated – on the shelf of a nearby library. I have been resorting to the scans on Google Books, most recently of Traffics and Discoveries (1904). The books make sense as books, and it has been valuable to read them as such.
It has been clear enough, though, why no such edition exists. The wise thing to do with Traffics and Discoveries is to pull out just three stories of eleven, “’Wireless,’” “’They,’” and “Mrs. Bathurst” for a Kipling Selected Stories of whatever size and ignore the one where British sailors play a prank on a French spy, or the one where British sailors play a prank on other British sailors, or the one about driving a car (and then driving a different car (and also playing a prank on a traffic policeman)), or the one about a semi-Utopian, semi-fascist scheme to militarize society, which is barely even a story.
Three greats, and then this other stuff, including several less peculiar stories about soldiers in the Boer War. The problem here is that the story about, for example, motoring, “Steam Tactics,” is amazing as a piece of craft. It is almost free of larger meaning but is an extraordinary construction. It’s ending strongly signals as much – this story is set, I’ll note, in southern England:
He pointed behind us, and I beheld a superb painted zebra (Burchell’s, I think), following our track with palpitating nostrils. The car stopped, and it fled away. (233)
An ibis and a cluster of kangaroos also make an appearance. The exotic animals are explained, but obliquely. Nothing is ever explained in any way other than obliquely. How has Kipling been drummed out of Modernism? These stories are written with a density of detail combined with an absence of explanation that exceeds James Joyce in Dubliners, and a decade earlier. Anyone who has read “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” thinking Joyce maybe takes a little too much for granted about the depth of his reader’s knowledge about Dublin politics will be perfectly at home in Traffics and Discoveries, except the puzzling we be over naval terminology and technology, which Kipling is sure to get exactly right, or to have a good reason to get wrong, to the delight of British naval veterans of all ages and times – but the rest of us? From “’Their Lawful Occasions,’” with Kipling on a torpedo boat in the English Channel:
Even now I can at will recall every tone and gesture, with each dissolving picture inboard or overside – Hinchcliffe’s white arm buried to the shoulder in a hornet’s nest of spinning machinery; Moorshed’s halt and jerk to windward as he looked across the water; Pyecroft’s back bent over the Berthon collapsible boat, while he drilled three men in expanding it swiftly; the outflung white water at the foot of a homeward-bound Chinaman not a hundred yards away, and her shallow-slashed, rope-purfled sails bulging sideways like insolent cheeks; the ribbed and pitted coal-dust on our decks, all iridescent under the sun; the first filmy haze that paled the shadows of our funnels around lunch-time; the gradual die-down and dulling over of the short, cheery seas; the sea that changed to a swell; the swell that crumbled up and ran allwither oilily; the triumphant, almost audible roll inward of wandering fog-walls that had been stalking us for two hours, and – welt upon welt, chill as the grave – the interminable main fog of the Atlantic. (146)
I never use such long quotations and blame no one for skipping this one, but there are some fine things in there if you want to puzzle them out.
Thus we floated in space as souls drift through raw time. Night added herself to the fog, and I laid hold pf my limbs jealously, lest they, too, should melt in the general dissolution. (150)
If Kipling survives, “I vowed I would tell my tale worthily,” however much or little there might be to the tale itself.