Monday, August 13, 2012

The wrench and shloop of torn heads, the frizzing of tiny silver fish - Kipling's Captains Courageous

Captains Courageous (1896-7), Rudyard Kipling’s short second novel, is a pure boys’ book.  It does not transcend its genre or undermine the conventions.  It is, or would have been if I had read it as a boy, Improving.  Too late now, I fear.

Harvey is a poshie, son of a self-made American millionaire (railroads, steamships), falls off a passenger ship into the Atlantic, where he is rescued by a fishing boat.  The fishing captain refuses to interrupt the catch, in part because he thinks Harvey is delusional about the whole “millionaire father” business, in part because that is not how things are done.  Harvey overcomes his petulance and joins the crew, where he does honest work, acquires practical skills (knots, for example), overcomes his class prejudices, and learns to appreciate useful work.

If I mock, I mock myself more than the book.  My respect for what Kipling was doing began to rise about a third of the way into the book as I began to suspect that there would be no big plot twist, no big surprises, and no implausible adventures.  Nothing Treasure Island-ish.  The only truly unlikely event is the first one, Harvey’s rescue.  Then Kipling writes seven detailed chapters about the ordinary life of cod fisherman off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland (there are two chapters of epilogue I will ignore for a bit).

Songs, jokes, work, fish, fog, sailing, rowing.  Readers who hate any talk of staysails and foc’sles will find Captains Courageous unreadable.  Some of the ordinary events are actually extraordinary – Harvey witnesses the sinking of two fishing vessels, for example, one sunk by a passenger liner, the other by incompetence – but they are all within the bounds of plausibility.  Kipling does not cheat much.  Harvey does not – what would be a good adventure novel climax? – save the ship during the hurricane by means of his pluck and new skill with knots.  He just becomes and remains one of the crew.

Here the crew is cleaning and salting the day’s catch:

Down below, the rasping sound of rough salt rubbed on rough flesh sounded like the whirring of a grindstone – a steady undertune to the "click-nick" of knives in the pen; the wrench and shloop of torn heads, dropped liver, and flying offal; the "caraaah" of Uncle Salters's knife scooping away backbones; and the flap of wet, opened bodies falling into the tub. (Ch. II)

So the other thing that caught my eye  – or ear, in this case – early on was the writing, Kipling’s vigorous style.

Let me find another one.  Near the end of the novel, Harvey’s ship joins a hundred others at a spot where the cod are so thick they leap out of the water:

The sea round them clouded and darkened, and then frizzed up in showers of tiny silver fish, and over a space of five or six acres the cod began to leap like trout in May; while behind the cod three or four broad grey-black backs broke the water into boils.  (Ch. VIII)

Then the fishermen in their boats try to grab the cod out of the air with nets, all while avoiding the whales (those grey-black backs) and each other.  What an adventure!

From every boat dories [the rowboats] were dropping away like bees from a crowded hive…  The schooners rocked and dipped at a safe distance, like mother ducks watching their brood, while the dories behaved like mannerless ducklings.  (Ch. VIII)

Now I am just wallowing in the metaphors, avoiding what the book is really about:  Death and Thomas Carlyle.  That’ll be fun for tomorrow, hmm?  Maybe I will say something about zhiv’s fine piece on Captains Courageous, too.  “[I]t would bore kids on its own” he says, correctly.  Plenty of adults, too.


  1. I admit I never got through Captains Courageous. Aside from Kim, I'm not sure Kipling was suited to the novel form.

    1. Have you tried The Light That Failed? I'm always thinking about reading it, but other books get in the way.

      As for this one, hm, it seems a lot like Moby Dick, and I'm afraid that's not a compliment. There's only so much of "songs, jokes, work, fish, fog, sailing, rowing" I can get take before getting desperate.

    2. I have tried - and failed - reading The Light That Failed, for much the same reasons as Captains Courageous: that is, I enjoyed the first fifty pages or so (this time set in the Sudan, and then England), but then a major shift in plot (towards the art scene and his childhood love) leads the novel into realms of tedium.

  2. I barely know Kipling at all. obooki has read quite a bit of him. Kim is a Must Read Someday.

    Captains Courageous is much less interesting than Moby-Dick! And also a fifth, or maybe a sixth of the length.

    But still interesting in its own way. By not finishing this book, obooki - a reasonable, and even wise decision - you did miss a curiosity, a passage that stands among the great classics of, would you believe it, railroading literature.

    1. I've resumed my reading of Moby Dick, after two months of hiatus. I figured if I could read War and Peace, I shouldn't have trouble reading Moby Dick.

      But it's a taxing book!

  3. die geneigte LeserinAugust 13, 2012 at 8:32 PM

    Captains Courageous also has a wonderful circularity. Harv falls into the water almost instantly after having attempted to smoke a cigar. At the end, reunited with his father, the self-made man he can now model himself after, Harv admires this experienced cigar-smoker. Someday, with the wisdom of experience, and some book-larnin', he will final be able to take possession of this burning beacon of manhood. Nice.

  4. I want to be clear. The above description of the "cigar theme" in Captains Courageous is 100% accurate.

  5. On the subject of "smoking" in the novel, I seem to have a recollection that the Captain states at some point that smoking is bad for you - bad for the health. (At the time, this struck me as a curious belief for the turn of the century, but apparently it was commonplace). If so, how does this fit it?

    1. It would be at least five years before the cigar industry could brand Kipling a Bolshevik for disrespecting Harv's coming of age.

  6. What a good memory. When Harvey is fished out of the drink, he has a pack of soggy cigarettes in his pocket. Harvey's new surrogate father, the ship captain says:

    ""Not lawful currency, an' bad for the lungs. Heave 'em overboard, young feller, and try ag'in."

    We are still at the beginning of the Bildungsroman, so Harvey has not yet earned his smokes, which will take the form of masculine cigars, not feminine cigarettes.

  7. I remember enjoying Captains Courageous a lot when I read it years ago. Of course I read the book in translation. Kipling and Poe improve a lot when you read them in translation. This is partly because the translators are lazy, so the painfully elaborate wording and the rich and life-like, too rich and too life-like vocabulary gets dumbed down and does not get on the way of the yarn being told.
    I wonder if this is also the case with Faulkner (virtually a god to many French, Spanish and Latin American writers and readers, not appreciated to the same level here in the good ole USA).

    1. As a pre pre science major I was interested in ions, photosynthesis, and exponential population growth in junior high school when Faulkner was imposed upon me by an aunt. He was the most difficult thing that I had ever attempted. I faked it and read "Lady With a Spear" by Eugenie Clark instead. Perhaps if I had read French ...

    2. I don't know. I have read a number of French novelist deeply influenced by Faulkner, and they tend to be on the difficult side themselves.

      I do not think I had ever heard of Eugenie Clark. How interesting! An ichthyology adventure memoir.

  8. I enjoyed the Kipling novel quite a lot, too. But you have to be a reader with a solid taste for sails, fish, fog, etc. The minutiae of everyday life.

    Poe certainly has his rough edges smoothest off in translation - i have seen that for myself. I had not thought of Kipling or Faulkner as examples.

    You're right about Faulkner's godhood in France and the Hispanophone world but I am not sure he is less appreciated here.

    Wait, did you just say Baudelaire was lazy? Ha!

  9. First, let me say that I'm a big fan of your blog.
    Now, to answer your point, bien sure, mon ami. Please note in the few samples below from the first page of The Masque of the Red Death how wherever Poe uses a fancy word or phrase Baudelaire just replaces it by a common one instead of trying to match Poe's effect and, in doing so, improves upon the original.

    retired to the deep seclusion of one of his CASTELLATED abbeys
    fit avec eux une retraite profonde dans une de
    ses abbayes FORTIFIéES

    brought furnaces and MASSY hammers and welded the bolts.
    se servirent de fourneaux et de SOLIDES
    marteaux pour souder les verrous

    The prince had provided all the APPLIANCES of pleasure.
    Le prince avait pourvu à tous
    les MOYENS de plaisir

    amid the profusion of golden ornaments that lay scattered to and fro or DEPENDED from the roof
    à travers les ornements d'or éparpillés à profusion çà et là ou SUSPENDUS aux lambris.

    (Funny how the roof became the panelling :) ).

  10. Miguel, please keep an eye on those Parsees. I have suspicions about them.

    Cleanthess - first, thanks for the compliment - second, thanks for the Poe examples. I am always interested in this sort of thing. What is fussy in Poe becomes natural in Baudelaire's Poe.