October 3, 2016
The Art of the Novella challenge 52: The Man Who Would Be King
by Jonathan Gibbs
Title: The Man Who Would be King
Author: Rudyard Kipling
First published: 1888
Page count: 64
First line: The law, as quoted, lays down a fair conduct of life, and one not easy to follow.
If reading these novellas has partly been about filling in the gaps in my reading history, then obviously I can’t get far without answering the question of why those gaps exist. Why hadn’t I read these particular writers before? With some it was simple (and perhaps forgivable) ignorance — think of Sarah Orne Jewett or Christopher Morley, neither of whom is well known in the UK. With others it was a more willed ignorance, and all the more foolish for it: Kate Chopin, Tolstoy. With some, though, I might be tempted to cough and mutter and look the other way. One such is Rudyard Kipling.
Of course I’ve read Kipling. It was impossible to grow up British and middle-class when I did and not read The Jungle Book and The Just So Stories, not to mention that execrable piece of chauvinistic barbarity, “If—” — although I did go further than this, also reading, in my time, Stalky & Co, his collection of public school tales that, for all I know, as good as set up the officer class for the disaster of the First World War (it was published in 1899).
For all I know…
The point about Kipling is that I’ve barely read him since leaving school, bar the odd story (eg “The Village that Voted the Earth was Flat,” in Philip Hensher’s Penguin Book of the British Short Story) and bits and pieces of The Jungle Book to my kids – “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” is a definite favourite. Why haven’t I read him? Is it because I think he’s for kids? Or is it the Empire?
I grew up thinking basically nothing good about the British Empire, but I also grew up hoping that if I pretended it didn’t exist, and criticised it when pressed to, albeit hardly from a position of knowledge, the whole issue would go away. If “the White Man’s Burden,” for Kipling, was the duty to go forth and colonise, then you might say that my burden, as a white male Gen X-er, was having to live with the guilt of colonialism — and you can here take “burden” to mean either that I felt unfairly blamed for my ancestors’ mistakes and outrages, or that I had a duty to look at my position in life, and decide to what extent that privilege was inescapably bound up with the injustices of the past.
So I came to The Man Who Would Be King with some trepidation. The first thing to say is about it is that it is a fine novella; in structure and pacing you might say it comes close to being exemplary. Take, for instance, the use of a frame narrative, which is entirely characteristic of the form, and expertly handled.
The central story has two British loafers on the make, Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, who travel to Kafiristan, an eastern corner of what is now Afghanistan, where they’ve heard white men can easily become kings and lord it over the natives. They succeed, partly thanks to some masonic chicanery that I didn’t quite understand, before coming croppers, when Dravot oversteps himself by trying to marry a local girl — which bursts the bubble so far as the locals are concerned. All of this comes to us secondhand, however, in the words of Carnehan as retold by our narrator, an unnamed British journalist out in India, to whom Carnehan tells his tale of derring-do and tragedy. Thus we get the main story — of “the Great Game” — in verbal form, with all the immediacy, compression, propulsion, and elegant exaggeration that implies.
Nevertheless, as with certain historical paintings, the frame is almost as elaborate as what it surrounds; indeed, the set-up takes up the first half of the book. The narrator-journalist meets first of all Carnehan (a sort of Doctor Watson to Dravot’s Captain Ahab, if that makes sense), then, briefly, Dravot, then both of them, when they come to his office to explain to him their mad plan. And then he goes to see them off in the town marketplace the following morning, where they are disguised as a mad priest and his servant. This additional prior knowledge of the main two characters means that Carnehan, as narrated narrator, exists as a kind of two-state hologram: sometimes he is transparent, a prism through which we see the mad genius of Dravot, and sometimes he is opaque, the very visible evidence of the results of that madness.
As Marlow tells his listeners on that boat on the Thames:
Of course in this you fellows see more than I could see. You see me.
By which: ah yes, Heart of Darkness.
The Man Who Would Be King predates Conrad’s work by eleven years, and prefigures it to an extent that you could only find surprising if, like me, you had read the Conrad half a dozen times and this not once, and if you’d never read any of the many pieces of criticism comparing the two, which I can’t bring myself to read, now, having made the connection all by myself, clever reader that I am.
Certainly Kipling seems naïve alongside the dark ambiguities of Conrad, in terms of his treatment of colonialism: the inhabitants of Kafiristan, who become temporary subjects of the two British kings, are cartoon figures only, further damned by the obvious implication that anyone who could be taken in by these two oafish imposters deserves no better. If Chinua Achebe called Conrad “a bloody racist” then what might he have said about Kipling?
In passing, I see what Achebe means, when he says, of Conrad’s book, “There is a preposterous and perverse kind of arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the breakup of one petty European mind.”
Conrad is not racist in his depiction of colonialism, which is critical indeed, but he is racist in his bundling up of millions of individuals into one great, undifferentiated Other. But then all art — or perhaps all great art — has at its heart something incommensurable to its own being, something it takes on, but which it cannot digest and express. If it could have been said easily, it would not have been said at all. The case against Conrad is that, if Africa is made to represent the madness of the European mind that would conquer (or “understand”) Africa, then it is not allowed to represent the people that do live there, conquered or not. And if Conrad was at least willing to implicate himself in that ambiguity, Kipling seems to be trying to keep himself aloof from how Carnehan and Dravot behave. It’s all “firing into the brown of the enemy” and
You go get a wife too, Peachey—a nice, strappin’, plump girl that’ll keep you warm in the winter. They’re prettier than English girls, and we can take the pick of ’em. Boil ’em once or twice in hot water and they’ll come out like chicken and ham.
Yet, as a story, it works. It was, according to Javier Marías (in his great little book of literary sketches, Written Lives) the favourite story of both Faulkner and Proust, and Wikipedia adds TS Eliot and JM Barrie to that list of admirers. Henry James, in his letters, talks of Kipling’s verse thus:
I am laid low by the absolutely uncanny talent — the prodigious special faculty of it. It’s all violent, without a dream of nuance or a hint of “distinction”; all prose trumpets and castanets and such — with never a touch of the fiddle-string or a note of the nightingale. But it’s magnificent and masterly in its way, and full of the most insidious art.
Which is James at his most prissy — mixing compliment and critique in such a welter of misdirecting tangents (think of comic character doing an over-the-top medley of kung-fu hand-jive moves in someone’s face) that it’s practically impossible to say exactly what it is, in the end, that he does think about it.
But if anywhere is the place for trumpets and castanets, then it’s the novella. And, harking back to that framing structure, you might say that the narrator, in his long lead-up to the story-within-the-story, does keep a fiddle somewhere in his office cupboard. That narrator character, an essentially humane English journalist subsisting in the colonies, reminds me instinctively of Orwell, and of course there’s an essay on Kipling in my Orwell collected essays. Let’s see what it says:
“It is no use pretending that Kipling’s view of life, as a whole, can be accepted or even forgiven by any civilised person.”
“Kipling is a jingo imperialist. He is morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.”
More pertinently, Orwell points out that Kipling “never had any grasp of the economic forces underlying imperial expansion… Imperialism as he sees it is a sort of forcible evangelizing.” Thus, for all their faults, Dravot and Carnehan are never specifically mercenary. They don’t want money, not really. They want gold crowns. They want to rule the roost, or, more properly, the playground. They want to crow. They are ultimately benign, in a way that the British Empire simply was not.
In his essay, unfortunately, Orwell limits himself to Kipling’s poetry (he’s a “good bad poet”, if you’re interested), so we don’t get his thoughts on The Man Who Would Be King. But I can’t help feeling he’d be sympathetic towards the narrator, staying up late in terrible heat to put out a newspaper he assumes no one will read, trying to stop the two would-be kings from getting themselves made kings and, most likely, killed, and accepting their eventual fates with the stoicism that only an Englishman in the tropics can muster, the stoicism of the bushwhacked minor civil servant.
So it’s a great story, it’s a great novella, but I can’t read it as Kipling meant it to be read.