Thursday Book: The literary star who burned out

The Unforgiving Minute: A Life Of Rudyard Kipling By Harry Ricketts, Chatto & Windus, pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
TO THE long list of those whose early and late careers are strikingly dissimilar - Henry James, Wittgenstein, Jung, Cobbett - we should add the name of Rudyard Kipling. The young Kipling was a genius of staggering technical talent and genuine originality, hailed by Robert Louis Stevenson as his natural successor. Having achieved literary success at 22, by the time he was 30 Kipling had to his credit Plain Tales from the Hills, Soldiers Three, The Light that Failed, Barrack Room Ballads, The Seven Seas, Many Inventions and the two Jungle Books. Apart from Kim and Puck of Pook's Hill, all the best Kipling was written in his twenties.

To extrapolate imperial propaganda from early Kipling is inadmissible. What there is in abundance is a love of the esoteric and the paranormal, a conviction that all life is governed by a mysterious "law", a love of India and an ambivalence towards the Raj. This emerges most clearly in the superb story The Man Who Would Be King, which is both a pessimistic version of Haggard's King Solomon's Mines and an allegory of British rule in India, showing how precarious it was. Harry Ricketts is a good guide to all this and reminds us what a superb craftsman Kipling was, as storyteller, versifier - and parodist. His pastiches of Browning, complete with the typical asides, are inch-perfect.

In middle age, something happened to Kipling's genius. Ricketts speculates, plausibly, that the something was the death of his young daughter from pneumonia and the loss of his 18-year-old son in the Great War. Certainly the Kipling of the 20-odd years from 1914 to his death in 1936 was a bizarre creature indeed. Benighted reactionary would be a charitable description; barking mad seems nearer the mark.

It is true that the First World War affected his contemporaries. It led Ernest Junger into proto-Fascism, Conan Doyle into spiritualism, TE Lawrence into Tolstoyan self-abasement and Robert Graves into prickly reclusiveness. But Kipling genuinely seemed to take leave of his senses. First there were violent anti-American jeremiads, because God's own country did not join in on Britain's side in 1914 on Kipling's say-so. Then came anti- Papal dithyrambs and unbalanced attacks on Irish republicanism; finally there was his gloss on General Sheridan to the effect that the only good German was a dead one.

Obsessed with the idea that in the Great War the British had offered themselves, Christ-like, as victims to redeem the entire world, Kipling switched to virulent anti-Semitism as his preferred discourse and concocted a crazed world view in the Twenties. Defeated Germany, independent Ireland and Bolshevik Russia were all somehow fuelled by the "international Zionist conspiracy". Bedazzled by St Paul, Kipling soon found it necessary to insinuate the idea that the Apostle to the Gentiles was not a Jew. His private letters breathe the spirit of an Old Testament fury: rage that all Germans domiciled in England in 1914-18 had not been lynched; mindless hatred of Shaw, Wells and all on the left; and a word-salad disorder whereby he coined neologisms to describe the objects of his hate - Ramsay MacDonald, allegedly a "Hun-loving socialist", became "Roschialist," for example. The great Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, thought that Kipling's Bandar- Log, the monkey people in The Jungle Book, perfectly summed up the Italian Fascists, but Kipling himself preferred the man who made Gramsci a prisoner for life: Benito Mussolini.

Ricketts's straightforward biography provides a clear line through this morass of mental suffering. The author is too timid at times, refusing to commit himself to the persuasive view, held by Angus Wilson, Martin Seymour-Smith (Kipling's last two biographers) and Enid Bagnold, that Kipling was a repressed homosexual. And in his concentration on Henry James's reactions to Kipling (initially favourable, later disappointed), Ricketts does not always show a clear understanding of "the master". Of Kipling's proposal to compose a set of "imaginary interviews" in which famous personalities would confront each other, Ricketts writes: (he) "proposed among other pairings the promising mismatch of Emile Zola and Henry James." This would not have been a mismatch, as James was an ardent admirer of Zola.

Yet Ricketts is right to draw attention to Edmund Wilson as the most penetrating early critic of Kipling. Where Robert Graves, Virginia Woolf and Max Beerbohm were content to sneer (in the Twenties) at a mangy literary lion, Wilson pointed out that Kipling was the only "crossover" writer of stature who straddled high and popular culture, and that he had modernist affiliations: as an influence on Joyce's Ulysses, for example. Kipling, like Dickens and like his great friend Theodore Roosevelt, achieved fame too soon (Roosevelt was president at 42; Kipling a Nobel Prize winner at the same age). He became a burnt-out case. However, he is one of the great underrated figures in English literature, and Ricketts's work will play its part in keeping him in the foreground.

The reviewer's latest book is `1066: the Year of the Three Battles'

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