A longing to dance naked in Torquay

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Rudyard Kipling by Andrew Lycett (Weidenfeld £25)

Rudyard Kipling by Andrew Lycett (Weidenfeld £25)

There are two schools of thought about Rudyard Kipling. One sees him as a supreme master of English prose, an author who produced the most popular poem in the English language ("If") and one novel (Kim) which verges on greatness. The other school sees him as a squalid, anti-Semitic imperialist who treated Indians as squabbling children and thought that being German was a kind of malignant disease.

Both views of Kipling are true. Artistic genius and political soundness are not necessarily allied. Indeed, in this respect Kipling takes his place among the most distinguished figures of modern English literature. Almost all of them - Conrad, Pound, Yeats, Lawrence, Eliot, Wyndham Lewis - were political authoritarians, whose vision of the world was an unpleasant compound of racism, male chauvinism and a contempt for the masses. Yet it was they, not the liberal middle classes, who produced the most forceful writing of the century. All these men were exiles and outsiders, caught on the hop between different cultures, and Kipling resembled them in this way too. Andrew Lycett's magnificently thorough biography tracks him from his days as a young journalist in India, wandering stoned around the Khyber Pass in tribal dress, to the eminence grise of his later years in England, a crony of George V and a pillar of the Athenaeum. Even then, however, he gave off the whiff of the outsider - "an awful little bounder", as one irate colonel described him.

Lycett wisely refuses to excuse Kipling's redneck views as simply a product of his age. His age, after all, was also that of Mill, Marx and William Morris. This feverishly self-promoting propagandist, who was born in the era of Matthew Arnold and died as a contemporary of Auden, betrayed a pathological fear of democracy. The nearest he came to the common people was in the embarrassingly pseudo-Cockneyisms of his verse, full of a patronising delight in plucky little proles. His writing is crammed with Blimpish doggerel and brutal Monday Club-like pronouncements, offensive alike to Jews, Celts, educated Indians (whom he detested) and pacifists, whom he regarded as masochistic perverts. He was a writer of extraordinary imaginative talent with the mind- set of a Boy Scout. Indeed he played a key role in the creation of the Scouts, a champion of clean living despite smoking 40 cigarettes a day.

Even in political terms, however, Kipling was a mass of contradictions. If his experience in India led him to view the natives as vicious if loveable liars, it also undermined any gung-ho confidence in governing them. The cultural gap, he thought, was really too great, and going native wouldn't help. If he scoffed at Hindu mythology as so much gobbledegook, he also satirised the stiff-necked values of Anglo-India. Unlike most of his fellow colonialists, he struck up a remarkable empathy with the Indian people, even if he also believed with Edmund Burke that understanding them was an essential condition of ruling them. He was in favour of arranged marriages, and in Kim he sails close to a very modern-day cultural pluralism.

Kipling was both elitist and populist, championing the stern Victorian values of work, duty, law and obedience, while nosing his way as a young man around the Lahore brothels and getting high on hashish. If one side of his mind was the hard-headed imperialist obsessed by the importance of drainage, the other was the visionary, sensitive idealism of the late Victorian artist.

Symbolically, he was both the nephew of the pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones and a cousin of the Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin.This tension between the imagination and imperialism was to dog his every step. The colonialist is always a paradoxical figure, speaking up for the values of his own culture while immersed in someone else's, and thus subversively aware of the relativity of all forms of life. If he is a torchbearer for his own civilisation, he is also an outsider to it, labouring away in exotic regions far from the Home Counties. He is thus quite as likely to despise the smug provincialism of his compatriots as the "savage" ways of those he is supposed to govern. Late in life, Kipling was to become the in-house right-wing intellectual of the Tory Establishment, playing an active role in politics unusual for an artist of his day. Through his close liaison with the press baron Lord Beaverbrook, he could feed his political gut prejudices directly to the people. Yet he never quite lost the smack of the bohemian outsider, and longed to dance naked in the streets of middle-class Torquay.

In the end, however, Kipling's political views got the better of his artistic greatness. In Lycett's apt phrase, there is a "coarse faddishness" about some of his work which disqualifies it for truly pre-eminent art. Henry James perceptively saw him as lacking a feminine nuance and complexity: it was all too loud, bluff and brazen. He was perhaps the last "high" literary figure to be genuinely popular, as his barrack room ballads were chanted throughout the world; but though he raised the lowly ballad genre to a form of high art, he could never quite make up for its lack of emotional inwardness. Kim is where he transcends these defects most decisively; but only three years after the novel appeared, he can be found writing to a friend congratulating him on a bubonic plague which is devastating the Indian community of Johannesburg.

Andrew Lycett, who as a council member of the Kipling Society can hardly be disinterested about his subject, charts Kipling's picaresque progress through India, Vermont, Capetown and Sussex with admirable even-handedness. The book is neither an apologia nor a polemic; there is no feebly disingenuous attempt to excuse Kipling's racist ravings, or to maintain, as others have done, that his more odious political doctrines have simply been misunderstood. There is no doubt, after this detailed, definitive record, that Kipling held some appalling, savage views of his fellow creatures, which the shattering loss of his son in the First World War did nothing to moderate. But he was blessed with an outstanding verbal inventiveness as well as cursed with visceral prejudice, and this magisterial study does justice to both aspects of the man.