The other day, I dug out my copy of Kipling Stories, a volume in the Platt & Munk Great Writers Collection, published in 1961. My grandmother, who was not given to reading much, took me to a book fair when I was near-thirteen, browsed through dozens, and settled on this one as a treat. It was years after her death that I finally realized her intent. Kipling: The Jungle Book, Just-So Stories, Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, etc., all kid-friendly classics, and not a single one of them was represented in the pages of this collection, a book I still own and cherish. The entire series was intended, as far as I can tell, to be a solid, affordable collection of good writing for a family library, for seventeen and up, I would imagine.
At thirteen-ish, I was in for a strange, disturbing and often perplexing reading experience. The volume included such classics as My Own True Ghost Story, which mentions in a short laundry list of wraiths, that there are ghosts of women who died in childbirth; these shades hide in the crops, whisper seductively to their victims, and draw them to a horrific end. Apparently, their feet are turned backward, as some sort of tip-off to the unwary. The collection includes In the House of Suddhoo, a dark little tale of spiritualist con-jobbery, which ends with a not-so-subtle reference to an impending though justifiable murder by arsenic. There is The Phantom ‘Rickshaw, in which a guilt-ridden man walks with the phantom of his jilted lover, as she rides in her equally phantasmal rickshaw on her daily rounds. On the first page of the story The Light that Failed is a description of two children who blithely combine their resources to buy a pistol and some cartridges, because they find that life is ‘intolerable without target practice’. Who would sell children a gun, for Pity’s sake? Where were their parents? Why weren’t they my parents?
It is a collection chock-full of imperialist jingoism, paternalistic racism, crucifixion, beheadings, dog fights, madness, spirit-possession, death by heat-stroke, raving unsoldierly drunkenness, mere men mistaken for Gods and blind men leaping heroically onto camels, with only a shot in the head for their troubles. I loved it.
It was an important book in my life, and to understand why, I need to sketch out certain personal aspects and tendencies. This book was well suited to my natural proclivities. Its exotic settings, its dense Indian-English patois, and its nearly impenetrable framework of British Colonial culture appealed to my insatiable childish curiosity. Specifically, it occupied my compulsive, driven need to untangle the complexities of the human condition, my own in particular. This impulse was firmly grounded in anxiety, which was, along with other unpleasant facets of my personality, engendered by unfortunate hereditary traits.
Most children share at least a useful touch of the all-consuming need to know things, and thereby understand and fit into their particular cultural heritage. Often, one sees a child learning, and the wheels turning in their heads seem almost visible, as they absorb it all like little sponges. For my part, the obsessive-compulsive engine drove this otherwise natural bent to a frenzy of anxiety verging on panic. I recall a moment that clearly illustrates my experience of it, which was not visibly shared by my siblings. We were riding along in a big, ugly blue tail-finned car, my stepfather at the wheel, my mother on the passenger side, and the three of us in the back, me in the middle. My parents were discussing finances, and it soon became clear to me that they were becoming irritated with one another, their voices rising with their ire.
I felt the atmosphere becoming oppressive, not helped at all by the hot, stifling, filthy Los Angeles atmosphere that left our nostrils coated with soot, the chain-smoking and the lack of air-conditioning. I was keenly aware of a rapid change in the demeanor of my older brother and sister, who ceased their bickering and yammering, and withdrew into themselves, each discovering a sudden interest in the views on either side. I felt my anxiety meter rising, and fighting my impending automotive nausea, I leaned forward, and asked boldly what all of this was about. My goal was not so much to satisfy my curiosity, but to assuage the rising panic I felt as I realized that the topic in question might have a negative impact on our lives. If things went badly, I wanted to understand, to comprehend, to get my bearings, to know the compass point on which I stood.
“Never mind. Don’t worry about it.” was the reply, which didn’t help at all, and left a whirling singularity in the center of my head, consuming all thought. So, this need to get my bearings was usually a very unpleasant experience for me.
I say usually, because there was one situation under which I enjoyed exercising this demon, and letting it run amok: the act of reading. I do not recall the process of learning how to read. I doubt that most people do, really. As a child, I read everything from signs to drug ingredient labels, to cereal boxes – ravenously. I still do. From a young age, I grew up reading the fairy tales and children’s tales of Collier’s Junior Classics Series, circa 1962, with such stories as The Tongue-Cut Sparrow and The Three Sillies, some of which were vaguely frightening, others merely amusing. I reveled in losing myself in unfamiliar territories, learning to find my way through context. I attempted to read the antique linguistic puzzles of Byron, Keats and Shelley, with some degree of success; Poe was more manageable.
Dropping into a literary jungle without a map was pleasurable for me, as well as perfectly safe. If I couldn’t find my way with a dictionary or encyclopedia, I could set it aside for later. Each story was a stand-in for a reality I could not control. Trapped in a world I did not ask for, did not like and did not do well in, I flailed about for anything that tasted of mastery. So, entering the alien landscape of Kipling’s India, with its colorful mixture of language and clash of cultures, I was able to build up some serious reading comprehension muscles that served me well in later years; at the same time, I fell in love with the kind of loopy bastard-slang that is generated when two very different cultures collide.
Crazy titles with crazier plots, such as The Incarnation of Krishna Mulvaney, rolled off my tongue and caught my fancy. Later, I even made up similarly colorful names, such as Chakrabarty O’Hoolihan and Mahmoud Tortoni. Names and mixtures of this sort conjured up a fluid, yet friendly world of miscegenation, mystery and adventure, and I can say with certainty that these forays into the unfamiliar prepared me for the work of some of my favorite authors: Kurt Vonnegut, J.G. Ballard and Anthony Burgess, to name a few. And so I feel that I have Kipling to thank for all that, and for filling my solitary hours with great pleasure as well.
On the topic of Anthony Burgess, Kubrick’s film adaptation of A Clockwork Orange had been out for several years before I saw it in my twenties, and fell in love with its jaded dystopian spirit. I read the novel after seeing the film, and was lucky enough to have a copy with a glossary in the back – I hear the initial British edition did not. I got about halfway through before I no longer needed it. I finished the book, and immediately plunged back into it, loving it all the more, now that I was of their world, and could speak their language.
The catalyst for this post was a quote that I recalled from the documentary The Story of English, I believe, of which I could only recall a snippet. I fed what I remembered into Google, and found to my delight that it was a quote from none other than Anthony Burgess. It was from an introduction he wrote to the novel All About H. Hatterr by G.V. Desani, a book I hadn’t read:
It is not pure English; it is like the English of Shakespeare, Joyce and Kipling, gloriously impure.
I need to get that book, but for now, I’m reading a sample; it is a spastically weird book, seemingly void of segues, idiomatic, absurd and obscure, and so far, a real kick in the ass. I’ll let you know what I think.