Sunday, October 11, 2015

There is nothing, unless, perhaps, the English language, more terrible than the workings of an English railway-line - Kipling absorbs great peace through his skin

A last note on The Day’s Work, on a story that is not quite one of the best but interesting – fascinating – in its own odd way.  It gives an especially strong sense of Rudyard Kipling, my imagined version of Kipling, while employing someone else's rhetoric.  It is “My Sunday at Home,” a comedy in which Kipling witnesses and narrates a complicated comic incident – one that he finds comic, at least.

This collection has two comedies about Americans getting into trouble by misunderstanding the English railroad system. 

There is nothing, unless, perhaps, the English language, more terrible than the workings of an English railway-line.

They come one right after the other; “Kipling” narrates both.  He has returned to England for the first time in years from his residence in Vermont.  Strange to think that all of these stories about ships and Indian polo were written in Vermont.  But The Jungle Book was written in Vermont, which is even stranger.

So the title is ironic.  Kipling is “at home” in the sense that he is in England, even though he spends most of the story stuck in a rural train station.  He is still on a train here:

“Where are we now?” said [the American].

“In Wiltshire,” said I.

“Ah!  A man ought to be able to write novels with his left hand in a country like this.  Well, well!  And so this is Tess’s country, ain’t it?  I feel just as if I were in a book.”

And at this moment a comic catastrophe ensues that leaves the pair stranded at Framlynghame Admiral, “which is made up entirely of the nameboard, two platforms, and an overhead bridge, without even the usual siding,” along with a drunken agricultural laborer who someone more expert in Thomas Hardy will have to identify for me.  Whatever else this story is, it is a sideways parody of Hardy.

The central joke of the story, a Victorian innovation, involves the effects of a powerful emetic on the Hardy-drunk.  The story is the direct ancestor of Monty Python’s World’s Fattest Man:

It was colossal – immense; but of certain manifestations the English language stops short.  French only, the caryatid French of Victor Hugo, would have described it…

Now that is another sideways shot, at Zola and his nauseating L’Assommoir.  Ah, the language of Racine and Voltaire; I believe that is the more typical joke.

While the laborer empties his stomach, the narrator mounts the bridge to survey Tess’s country:

It was the point of perfection in the heart of an English May-day.  The unseen tides of the air had turned, and all nature was setting its face with the shadows of the horse-chestnuts towards the peace of the coming night [I am not sure what this means].  But there were hours yet, I knew – long, long hours of the eternal English twilight – to the ending of the day.  I was well content to be alive – to abandon myself to the drift of Time and Fate; to absorb great peace through my skin, and to love my country with the devotion that three thousand miles of intervening sea bring to fullest flower.

That paragraph has another half page of this stuff to go before the return to the poor laborer.  It was at this point that the story really began to impress and confuse me.  Who knows, maybe Hardy is not the – I do not want to say target – inspiration.  The story ends:

And the seven forty-five carried me on, a step nearer to Eternity, by the road that is worn and seamed and channelled with the passions, and weaknesses, and warring interests of man who is immortal and master of his fate.

No, come on, who else?

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