That was kind of strange, yes.
Every US Embassy has a lending library. Typically it's a couple of bookcases along a wall, filled with books that Embassy staff have dropped off. The rule is pretty loose: take a book, drop one off. It seems to work.
The books tend towards thrillers and mysteries, with sometimes a strain of military stuff from the Marines and the defense attache. You don't find a lot of high-end literary fiction, nor a lot of nonfiction. I'm not sure whether that's because Embassy people don't read that stuff, or because they don't give it away.
But anyway: I've given a lot of stuff to those libraries over the years, so I'm not shy about grabbing a book or two. In this case, a volume of short stories by Dorothy Sayers, and Life's Handicap by Kipling.
Kipling was always a bit of an asshole, and he got much worse as he aged. A fair chunk of this, of course, was simply that he was an upper middle class late Victorian Englishman. But that didn't compel him to (for instance) give large sums of money to the Ulster Unionists, a bunch of bigots and religious fanatics who were actively engaged in treason against the United Kingdom. And if you're going to be a bard of Empire, it really behooves you to try to think clearly about what Empire is, and does, and who really bears the brunt of it. If you're reading his stuff while sitting in a hotel room in Lubumbashi, looking out over the utter ruin of imperialism, then it's going to have a fairly hollow ring.
And yet. Kipling managed to take half a step out of himself. He couldn't ever quite see natives, negroes, Irish or Jews as real, fully rounded human beings. But he could see them as sympathetic, clever, honest and honorable, hard-working and worthy. That's a long step further than most of his generation ever got.
And the son of a bitch could write. Here's the beginning of the preface, the first few paragraphs of Life's Handicap:
In Northern India stood a monastery called The Chubara of Dhunni Bhagat. No one remembered who or what Dhunni Bhagat had been. He had lived his life, made a little money and spent it all, as every good Hindu should do, on a work of piety—the Chubara. That was full of brick cells, gaily painted with the figures of Gods and kings and elephants, where worn-out priests could sit and meditate on the latter end of things; the paths were brick paved, and the naked feet of thousands had worn them into gutters. Clumps of mangoes sprouted from between the bricks; great pipal trees overhung the well-windlass that whined all day; and hosts of parrots tore through the trees. Crows and squirrels were tame in that place, for they knew that never a priest would touch them.
The wandering mendicants, charm-sellers, and holy vagabonds for a hundred miles round used to make the Chubara their place of call and rest. Mahomedan, Sikh, and Hindu mixed equally under the trees. They were old men, and when man has come to the turnstiles of Night all the creeds in the world seem to him wonderfully alike and colourless.
Gobind the one-eyed told me this. He was a holy man who lived on an island in the middle of a river and fed the fishes with little bread pellets twice a day. In flood-time, when swollen corpses stranded themselves at the foot of the island, Gobind would cause them to be piously burned, for the sake of the honour of mankind, and having regard to his own account with God hereafter. But when two-thirds of the island was torn away in a spate, Gobind came across the river to Dhunni Bhagat's Chubara, he and his brass drinking vessel with the well-cord round the neck, his short arm-rest crutch studded with brass nails, his roll of bedding, his big pipe, his umbrella, and his tall sugar-loaf hat with the nodding peacock feathers in it. He wrapped himself up in his patched quilt made of every colour and material in the world, sat down in a sunny corner of the very quiet Chubara, and, resting his arm on his short-handled crutch, waited for death. The people brought him food and little clumps of marigold flowers, and he gave his blessing in return. He was nearly blind, and his face was seamed and lined and wrinkled beyond belief, for he had lived in his time which was before the English came within five hundred miles of Dhunni Bhagat's Chubara.
Now that is just damn good writing. Read that last paragraph again, and look at the way he varies the length and pattern of the sentences to set up a rhythm that is not quite speech but not quite prose either. Or the way that list of possessions tells us everything we need to know about Gobind, right down to that metaphorical patched quilt made of every color and material in the world. Or just consider that lovely bit about "the turnstiles of night".
At one point, while reading one of the stories where he lays it on particularly thick about the selfless servants of the Queen, I paused in my reading, looked out the window, and said, "You fucker". But on the other hand, I kept reading. So, point to Kipling there.
If I'd written this a week ago, it would have been all "you fucker". But well away from the Congo in a cool climate, some other things come to mind.
One, Kipling got partway out of his place and time, and then got stuck. Who got all the way, and managed to cast a cold eye on their own place and era? Joseph Conrad comes to mind. Mark Twain. Nabokov, perhaps, though it's perhaps too soon to say. -- Note that this is almost irrelevant to whether the writer is good (or "great") or not. Tolstoy was very much an upper-middle-class late Imperial Russian, with pretty much exactly the prejudices and blind spots you'd expect from a man of his place, time, and class. But Tolstoy is a great writer. In fact, the kind of cool detachment I'm thinking of may be difficult for a writer of fiction to maintain.
Two, Kipling joins a handful of other writers in what I call the "Hunter S. Thompson group". These are the writers who have a distinctive prose style, which looks effortless, and is very infectious. But it's actually very very hard to get right. So, hundreds of lesser writers try to copy it and fail, or are influenced by it in bad and obvious ways. Kipling was one of the first of these -- if we're talking short stories, maybe the very first -- so you can find Kipling influences across a century of English writing, from Winston Churchill to Neil Gaiman. The stronger talents can eventually metabolize Kipling and either use or reject him. Lesser writers often end up with a case of Kipling-pastiche that comes and goes for years, like a tropical fever that resists all medication.
Which brings one last point: damn, they died like flies, back in the day. Almost every story in that book has somebody dropping dead of some nameless tropical disease or other. Even when the deaths themselves are for literary effect, India's lethality is presented as a simple fact. The late 19th century was, by modern standards, a pretty dangerous and unhealthy time even among the propertied middle classes. So the impact may have been blunted somewhat. Still... with a few exceptions like smoke jumpers and space shuttle crew, I doubt there's a non-military job today that's as dangerous as being an Anglo-Indian bureaucrat in the 1880s.
(Random factoid: for nearly a century, the Dutch had a near-monopoly on production of quinine. Which they used to make fortunes, charging as high as the market would bear. Attempts to synthesize quinine date back to the 1850s, but the market wasn't broken open until WWII.)
Kipling had a huge admiration for the middle ranks of the Imperial bureaucracy. In fact, insofar as we know of these guys today, it's thanks to him. And in some ways that's been really toxic, because there are an awful lot of unexamined assumptions underlying his stuff, and the biggest one is that the Empire was of course a great good thing, bringing peace and proper drainage to the backward corners of the world. So, the unsung struggles and premature deaths of the Empire's servants were of course heroic.
Well... this goes back to what I said a couple of posts ago. Simenon had a rather different view from Kipling: he saw the Belgian bureaucrats in the Congo as pettifogging, stupid and narrow. And I'm quite sure there was a lot of truth in his descriptions. And yet... civilization needs good government, and good government needs someone to oversee accounts payable on road construction contracts and track annual production of fish meal.
Anyway. No particular conclusion is reached, except that it's once again time for bed.