Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Here begins the story where every right-minded story should begin, that is to say at Simla - Kipling's world in 1888

None the less, here begins the story where every right-minded story should begin, that is to say at Simla, where all things begin and many come to an evil end.

Although this line is near the beginning of a story of minor interest (“The Education of Otis Yeere,” from Under the Deodars) it hits smack in the center of Rudyard Kipling’s amazing early achievement.  A journalist in the Punjab in far northern India and what is now Pakistan from the age of 17, and a genius of some sort, he turned his surroundings, especially the colonial station of Simla into a fictional world that rivals the London of Dickens or the Paris of Balzac in roundedness and lifelikeness.  Kipling works on a smaller scale, so he never matches the size of those two titanic writers, and he has nothing like their proliferation of characters.  He has maybe one character as good.

World-building, they call it in fantasy literature.  Kipling’s feat of world-building is what is impressing me so much as I read through the seven (7!) books he published in India in 1888, almost all short stories, mostly stuff he had written for newspapers.  His first collection of short pieces – really short, four or five pages, mostly – was Plain Tales from the Hills, and it was such a hit – a hit among the very people he was writing about, the civil servants and soldiers and officers and their wives about whom Kipling was writing – that in the same year his Indian publisher knocked out a set of six more little books assembled from Kipling’s accumulated archive of writing.  Kipling was 23 years old at this point.

So let’s see:

Plain Tales from the Hills – a wide variety of colonial life in the hills, occasionally featuring recurring characters, occasionally wandering into a city or the countryside.

Then the short books; note the clever conceptual arrangement:

Soldiers Three – Private Mulvaney is that one great character, a story-teller who rivals Kipling, a man of deep humor and surprisingly deep feeling.  He and his two pals Ortheris and Learoyd star in several of the best pieces in Plain Tales, and Kipling writes that he meant to add these stories to that volume, but “Mulvaney himself says that he prefers to have his fame ‘dishpersed most notoriously in several volumes’” (Preface).

In Black and White – stories told from the Indian point of view.

The Phantom ‘Rickshaw and Other Tales – the source of yesterday’s ghost stories and also the home of “The Man Who Would Be King” and “The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes,” in other words, the one to buy if you can only buy one.  Not you, specifically, but the bureaucrat browsing the bookshop in Lahore in 1888.

Wee Willie Winkie and Other Child Stories – not stories for children but stories about them.  Kipling is unusually insightful about children and at the same time writes about them using some cutesy-poo devices that most readers will now find cloying.

Under the Deodars and Other Tales – more tales from the hills, somewhat less plain this time, or at least longer.

The Story of the Gadsbys – this one is a short novel about the courtship, marriage, and early hardships of a young officer and a cute, insipid woman, all written in the form of a play.  It is close to a dud, conventional in all but its form, which is sometimes clever, especially in its phony stage directions and asides, and its setting.

The latter book is dead; Plain Tales from the Hills is alive and in print; the other five books have been dismembered and the parts dishpersed among dozens of collections, which is as it should be.  I am reading them in a three volume set published in 1900, which I do not recommend.  It is just that while grazing on Plain Tales I began to feel what obooki described:

[A]s soon as I picked up the Kipling, I was absorbed by the writing, enthralled, though what the story was actually about might be the most trivial matter in the world.

So I just kept going, and this is how far I have gotten.  I am still stuck in 1888.

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