Monday, June 13, 2016

Kipling tells his tale worthily - some lesser Traffics and Discoveries

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.


  1. Yeah, there's so much hidden treasure inside that little book. A Sahibs' War is like a kindhearted story from Red Cavalry as told by a Muslim fighter from Pakistan. And the comments made by The Cat in Below the Mill Dam are like the second coming of Tobermory:

    ‘There has been much misdirected activity of late among the humans. They jabber inordinately. I haven’t yet been able to arrive at their reason for existence.’ The Cat yawned. ‘It means nothing except that humans occasionally bring their dogs with them. I object to dogs in all forms.’ ‘It’s all very interesting,’ purred the Cat to the sliding waters, ‘and I have no doubt that Trott’s Woods and Butt’s Woods are tremendously important places; but if you could manage to do your work—whose value I don’t in the least dispute—a little more soberly, I, for one, should be grateful.’ ‘By the way, the humans set my milk-bowl in the loft these days ; I hope you youngsters respect it.’

    And some of the poems have their moments:
    He made swift with his story;
    And the words of his mouth were as slaves spreading carpets of glory
    Embroidered with names of the Djinns—a miraculous weaving—
    But the cool and perspicuous eye overbore unbelieving.
    So I submitted myself to the limits of rapture—
    Bound by this man we had bound, amid captives his capture.

    They made them laws in the Witan, the laws of flaying and fine,
    Folkland, common and pannage, the theft and the track of kine;
    Statutes of tun and of market for the fish and the malt and the meal,
    The tax on the Bramber packhorse and the tax on the Hastings keel.
    Over the graves of the Druids and over the wreck of Rome
    Rudely but deeply they bedded the plinth of the days to come.
    Behind the feet of the Legions and before the Northman’s ire,
    Rudely but greatly begat they the body of state and of shire.
    Rudely but greatly they laboured, and their labour stands till now

    Yet, it must be, on wayside jape,
    The selfsame Power bestows
    The selfsame power as went to shape
    His Planet or His Rose.

  2. "A Sahib's War" is where I saw what Kipling, where I saw how much he was omitting from the story. Or where I tried to see etc. How well I did I don't know. That is a quite difficult story.

    I love the cat and the rat. Even the water. What an imagination to give the water a character like that.

  3. a wonderful excerpt, and it's all one sentence! the first one brings back grease- covered days of overhauling field compressors... somewhere K has a marvelous description of large recip diesel driving a ship; forget where i read it, though...

  4. The Day's Work, the previous Kipling collection, had quite a lot of engine repair, and there is more in this book, both at sea and on the road. That steam-powered auto Kipling owned was a strange machine.

  5. All I know by RK is Kim, which is brilliant, & the army poems. What is 'purfled'? He's underrated, maybe.

  6. As a writer of short fiction, my only question now is whether Kipling is greatly underrated or grossly underrated. As a craftsman, at least.

    There was going to be a backlash against the position Kipling held. I get that.

    There are two fat Kipling story collections in print - treasure houses, at the level of you name the writer. Again, in craft, maybe not, compared to Chekhov or Kafka, human insight or metaphorical power.

    1. AR(T), as usual, you're absolutely right. Up until this book, Kipling's craft is his most impressive quality as a short story writer.

      However, The Wish House, The Gardener, Dayspring Mishandled and The Church that was at Antioch are still awaiting for Kipling to discover them in the future. Those stories (and even minor trifles like The Dog Hervey or Friendly Brook), ah, those stories... words fail me. Those are the ones in which Kipling let the milk of human kindness mix with the brilliant bitterness of his craft.

  7. Oh, "purfled" is "decorated around the edges. Type it into Google Images and you'll get nothing but violins and guitars! But here it is a sail with rope embroidered around the edges.

  8. That passage from 'Their Lawful Occasions' is superb. Such brilliant, supple sound patterning. And insolent cheeks! Short, cheery seas! Allwither oilily! Magical stuff. I love Kipling.

  9. I had meant to just pull a bit of that passage, but no, forget it, too good to cut.

  10. You asked about annotated Kipling.
    As a work-in-progress there are some very interesting commentaries and explanations on the Kipling Society's site here:

  11. I perhaps lean all too heavily on the Kipling Society notes. That's what I want, but in books - books! Thanks for the link. I should include it in every Kipling post I write.

    The naval and engineering expertise on display there is impressive. The literary expertise, too.

    The idea, from Cleanthess, that Kipling only gets better is believable. He called a book Many Inventions - it is a self-description.

  12. Behind in all but saw on twitter that you were indulging in Kipling, so dashed over... I must read more short Kipling. "I laid hold of my limbs jealously, lest they, too, should melt in the general dissolution" gave me a little Melvillean frisson--Ishmael in the sea mist. And "Kim" is one of those books that I've read--how many times?--repeatedly.

  13. Yes, Kipling is a great sea writer, among everything else he could do.

    Kim has become a badly-abused book.

  14. A pox on all post-colonial critics who cannot be a friend to the Little Friend of all the World, and who do not care for a world that teems and brims over with life.

  15. A generation of academics seem to have just taken Said's word about what is in Kim. Very strange.