Sunday, June 15, 2014

Rudyard Kipling and Craft of Fable: Part II: "Without Benefit of Clergy," "Mary Postgate," "The Gardener":

        When I posted Part I of my discussion of Kipling's short stories last week, I really wasn't sure anyone would be interested in him in this day and age.  But the post, which included a discussion of "The Man Who Would Be King," received a fairly large number of views. Thank you.  What follows is the conclusion of a draft of the chapter on Kipling in the book I am working on entitled A Critical History of the British Short Story.  I would appreciate comments and suggestions.

          The tenuous world of fable is also the subject of Kipling's other well-known India tale, "Without Benefit of Clergy." This story has already been analyzed thoroughly by Eliot L. Gilbert who offers an existential reading of the tale, suggesting that in its depiction of an absurd universe it is very much like the conclusion of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms. Gilbert says that the threat of disaster broods over the story and that the "sense of the irrationality of life is always lurking in the background."  The basic theme of the story, says Gilbert, is the futility of ritual and conventions as a hedge against disaster. However, he suggests a moral interpretation of  the characters' need for order; for the need implies a distaste for the world as it is and a great longing "to substitute for the disorganized reality of today, the perfectly structured artifice of tomorrow."  Eliot suggests that Kipling is saying here that the untidy reality of today is the only reality there is and that life has a law of compensation which decrees that provision for the future must be made at the expense of the present.

            Such a reading, although perhaps justifiable in terms of the content of the story, ignores the fabular structure of the tale and insists that the story exists in a cosmic reality of external "justice" or "retribution." However, what the story actually depicts is the typical "double life" of fiction itself in that John Holden lives in two worlds--the world of everyday reality of his government job and the self-created fantasy world of his life with Ameera. The first is a world governed by the rules and laws of society, whereas the second violates all rules and laws of the first by attempting to set up purely aesthetic laws of its own. In the social world, Holden must conceal all traces of both happiness and sorrow in his fantasy world where Ameera is all the world in his eyes and exists only for him: "When the big wooden gate was bolted behind him he was king in his own territory, with Ameera for queen." The child that is expected when the story begins is a symbol of the bond that exists between them, an embodiment of their complete devotion to one another.  

      Throughout the story, Ameera is aware of the external world that threatens to impinge upon them as she worries about the white mem-log who might take Holden from her. When the child is born, the baby becomes "a small gold-coloured little god" and is named Tota, for the parrot who is regarded as a sort of guardian-spirit of native households. And indeed he is a symbol of the little house that serves as Holden's fantasy world. It is only when the child begins to develop individuality, when he tells Holden that he is not a spark but a man, that abruptly he becomes ill and dies. Holden must then turn his mind to his work; and indeed the focus of the story shifts to the everyday world when Holden discovers that the "old programme" of "famine, fever, and cholera," which soon takes Ameera, has reestablished itself. Holden's cry, "Oh, you brute! You utter brute!" is a cry against brute reality itself. The story ends with Holden's return to the house three days later to find it looking as though it had been untenanted for thirty years. The owner of the house says he will have it pulled down "so that no man may say where this house stood."  The end of the story marks the end of the fantasy itself, for with the reassertion of reality the story itself inevitably must end.

        Just as in "The Man Who Would be King," although certainly here with a different tone, the fabular nature of "Without Benefit of Clergy" is characterized by Biblical language and poetic talk, talk which Ameera characterizes as "very good talk."  Indeed, it is talk that perpetuates the fantasy situation, for dialogue is the central means by which the story is told. The story opens with dialogue about the impending birth of the child and continues throughout with Holden and Ameera speaking in "thees" and "thous" and trying to live within a world of "good talk," even though Ameera finds that with the birth of the child, she must have "straight talk" and "very hard talk" in a way that she did not have to think of before.

            It is not that the child must die in order to prove that ritual is not a hedge against cosmic reality, but rather the child must die because he is a concrete symbol of the intangible fantasy world that holds Holden and Ameera together. However, the problem is that the child is not only symbol but also external reality; that is, he is heir to the rules that govern the external world, rather than a creature solely of the "good talk" that governs the fantasy world. In the terms of the fable, when Holden asserts his individuality he escapes the realm of symbol, and thus his death destroys the fantasy world itself. The death of Ameera is only the ultimate objectification of the death of the fantasy world which is finally objectified in the destruction of the house so that the fantasy world becomes as if it had never existed at all. Just as in "The Man Who Would be King," the fantasy world can exist only so long as external reality is not allowed to intrude, only so long as the participants of the fable can maintain their separation in a world of their own making.

        "Mary Postgate" has been singled out by Boris Ford in his discussion of Kipling as representative of many of Kipling's shortcomings as an artist. The story is "internally quite bogus," says Ford, "manipulated from the outside and for preconceived purposes." Ford accuses Kipling of creating the story purely for the purpose of indulging his own feelings of revenge and hysteria, thus making the central character a vehicle for his own vicarious enjoyment. ( "A Case for Kipling," p. 7l). This is a harsh criticism typical of critics who refuse to look at Kipling's short fictions as stories which exist in their own right, preferring instead to make moral judgments on Kipling himself. The conclusion of the story, when Mary Postgate allows the fallen enemy pilot to die, is indeed a shocking one, but should be understood in terms of the character that Kipling creates. The most interesting aspect of the story is that it focuses on a character who is only known from the outside and who only exists in relation to other characters. As her mistress says to her at one point, "Mary, aren't you anything except a companion?  Would you ever have been anything except a companion?"  Mary's response is, "I don't imagine I ever should. But I've no imagination, I'm afraid."

         However, it is precisely Mary's imagination, an imagination that is never revealed to us until the shocking conclusion, that is the subject of the story. To Miss Fowler, Mary is but a companion; to young Wyndham Fowler, she is an "unlovely" orphaned nephew--"Gatepost," "Postey," or "Packthread," his "butt and his slave." When she cannot master the charts he brings home from the war, he says, "You look more or less like a human being.... You must have had a brain at some time in your past.... You haven't the mental capacity of a white mouse." Whatever Mary thinks of Wyndham is not directly revealed, for we never know what she thinks. "What do you ever think of, Mary?" Miss Fowler demands at one point. The reader can only guess.

         And the only guess the reader can make is based on her reaction to news of Wyndham's death. "The room was whirling round Mary Postgate, but she found herself quite steady in the midst of it." Passivity is indeed Mary's primary characteristic, passivity and what Miss Fowler recognizes as her "deadly methodical" nature. Mary's true imaginative relationship to Wyndham is indicated by her preparations to burn all of his things. The extremely long list of items that fill almost a page of text indicates, without sentimentalizing, Mary's devotion to Wyndham. But it is the death of the child in town by a bomb that more fully objectifies Mary's relationship to the dead young man. After she sees the ripped and shredded body of the child, she uses Wyndham's words about the enemy: "'Bloody pagans!'  They are bloody pagans.  But,' she continued, falling back on the teaching that had made her what she was, 'one mustn't let one's mind dwell on these things.'" By the time she reaches home, the affair seems remote by its very monstrousness.

         However, as she prepares the sacrificial oil to burn the remaining possessions of Wyndham, the images of Wyndham and the child return in the person of the downed enemy pilot. As the pilot asks for help, she cries, "Ich haben der todt Kinder gesehn." And the dead child she has seen is of course not only the child in the village, but also the image of Wyndham, the only child, in her passivity, she has ever had. As the pilot cries for help, she screams, "Stop that, you bloody pagan" in Wyndham's own words. Consequently, the pilot becomes not a human being, but a thing responsible for the death of Wyndham and the child in the village. As she hums and tends the fire, she thinks, "if it did not die before [tea-time] she would be soaked and have to change."

            Mary's primary characteristics of passivity and method serve her well here as she thinks with a secret thrill that she can be useful in the war effort. As she waits for the man to die, "an increasing rapture laid hold on her. She ceased to think. She gave herself up to feel.  Her long pleasure was broken by a sound that she had waited for in agony several times in her life."  When the sound of death does come, she says, "That's all right," just as she has said when she found out that Wyndham had fallen from four thousand feet. After she goes to the house and takes a luxurious hot bath before tea, Miss Fowler finds her relaxed on the sofa, looking "quite handsome!"

        Mary Postgate, solid and unknowable as her name implies, is the kind of character that Katherine Mansfield often singles out later on in British short fiction. "Mary Postgate" is a tacit story of Mary's hidden life in which she lives only in her imaginative relationship with others.  What the story provides is the ironic single opportunity for Mary to act, by refusing to act, thus creating a bitter epiphany for the reader. Her secret thrill and final transfiguration result from her sense of being allowed to act in the world that she previously has only read about in the newspapers. The dropping of the pilot from the sky is like the magical breaking in of the external world into her previously hermetically-sealed world of passivity. It allows her to perform what she understands to be useful work in the world. The fantasy world becomes momentarily real and thus Mary finds a release for her previously unexpressed desires.

            Like "Mary Postgate," Kipling's most famous story, "The Gardener," also depends on  concealment of an inner life for its effect. And Like "Without Benefit of Clergy," it depends on the notion of a double life, a split between external reality and a tenuous inner reality. Both Edmund Wilson and Frank O'Connor call "The Gardner" Kipling's best story, even a masterpiece, but, as so often the case with Kipling criticism, they do so with reservations.  Edmund Wilson believes that the story is not of the highest quality because of the fairy tale properties of the ending. O'Connor also has serious reservations about the conclusion of the story when Helen goes to the cemetery to visit the grave of her illegitimate son and meets a man she supposes to be the gardener, thus echoing the mistake of Mary Magdalene when she goes to the tomb and meets the resurrected Jesus.

         The impact of the conclusion of the tale depends, of course, on the fact that Kipling has concealed the truth about the boy being Helen's son throughout the story. O'Connor accepts the argument that such a concealment might be justified by the fact that Helen herself has concealed this knowledge from the village, but still he does not believe that this rescues the story. O'Connor says that had he written the story he would have revealed the illegitimacy at the beginning. The result would be to remove the story from the world of celestial gardeners and place it in the real world, thus indicating throughout that "The Gardner" is a story of Helen's heroism in bringing the child home in the first place (l0l-l03).

          Eliot Gilbert has tackled these objections to the story directly and has suggested that Kipling is not guilty of trickery here, but instead has concealed the facts of Helen's case as an essential echo of the theme of concealment which prepares the reader to experience the same shock that Helen does at the end. He argues that the supernatural ending "represents the final intensification of the author's vision, too compressed and cryptic to find expression within the realistic framework of the rest of the tale." However, as excellent as Gilbert's discussion is in rescuing the story, it still would not dismiss O'Connor's misgivings, nor does it clearly explain why Kipling's vision requires the so-called supernatural conclusion.

         The basic technique of the story depends on a gap between details that are "public property," that is, details which the village is aware of and which in turn the reader knows, and unwritten details which are private property, known only to Helen herself. What is public is a lie and what is private is the truth. Furthermore, what is ugly in the public eye is revealed as beautiful in the eye of the reader at the conclusion.  The basic question is: what makes the truth beautiful at the end? Even at the conclusion, Helen does not accept the young man as her son, still referring to him as her nephew, thus continuing the protective lie she has perpetuated throughout the story. The irony, however, lies in the fact that Helen's heroism depends precisely on this concealment, for it is obviously done not for her own sake, but for her child's.

            Earlier in the story, when the boy wants to call Helen "Mummy," and she allows him to do so as their secret only at bedtime, she reveals the secret to her friends, telling the boy that it's always best to tell the truth. His reply--"when the troof's ugly I don't think it's nice"--constitutes a revealing irony in the story about the nature of truth and its relationship to beauty. What the boy calls "ugly" is the truth Helen tells that the boy calls her "Mummy," even though she is not his mother. The truth that she is his mother is however the beautiful truth that cannot be revealed within the profane realm of everyday society, for that truth would indeed be ugly from that profane point of view.

            The death of the boy and his mysterious spontaneous burial under the shelled foundation of a barn marks the psychic death of Helen also, for in her double life, she truly has lived, like Mary Postgate, only for her son. The resurrection of his body marks a parallel resurrection for her as she makes her trip to visit the grave. Mrs. Scarsworth is, as other critics have well noted, an embodiment of Helen's split self and thus echoes her previous position. Mrs. Scarsworth tells Helen that she is tired of lying. "When I don't tell lies I've got to act 'em and I've got to think 'em always. You don't know what that means." Helen of course knows precisely what that means, but even though she is the one most able to directly sympathize with Mrs. Scarsworth, still she cannot tell the truth, for that truth is ugly within the profane world.

            However, what is ugly to the profane world is finally revealed as beautiful within the realm of the sacred. Helen, who is both Mary Magdalene, the fallen, and Mary the mother of Christ, goes to find the grave of her son and savior and is directed to it by the ultimate embodiment of the sacred. It seems inevitable, in a story which deals with a double life-- the life of public property and the life of private emotion--that the ultimate incarnation of spirit within body in Western culture should be the means by which the secret of spirit is revealed to the reader. The secret revealed at the end of the story is the same as the one revealed when Mary comes to look for the body of Christ--that is, that he is not here, but has arisen--that is, that he is not body but spirit. The true reality of the story is the reality of the sacred and always hidden world, which is sacred precisely because of its hidden nature.
            As is usually the case in short fiction, it is the world of spirit, the world of the sacred that constitutes the truth, and that truth, regardless of what it appears to be within the profane framework, is always beautiful. It is not so much that Kipling plays a supernatural trick at the end of the story, but rather that he needs an ultimate embodiment of spirit within body to communicate the ironic reversal of the apparent lie being the most profound truth. The not-told of the short story is more important than what is told, for what cannot be told directly always constitutes the ideal nature of story itself.

                                                                     Works Cited

Allen, Walter. The Short Story in English. Oxford: Clarendon,  l98l.

Dobree, Bonamy. Rudyard Kipling: Realist and Fabulist. Oxford UP,  l967.

Fussell, Paul. "Irony, Freemasonry, and Humane Ethics in Kipling's 'The Man Who Would Be
            King." English Literary History 25 (1958): 2l6-33.

Gilbert, Eliot L. The Good Kipling: Studies in the Short Story. Athens: Ohio UP, l970). 21-49.

James, Henry. "The Young Kipling." Kipling and the Critics. Ed. Elliot L. Gilbert. NY UP, l965.

Lewis, C. S. "Kipling's World." Kipling and the Critics. Ed. Elliot L. Gilbert. NY UP, l965.

O'Connor, Frank. The Lonely Voice. Cleveland, Ohio: World, l963.

Robson, W.W. "Kipling's Later Stories." Kipling's Mind and Art, Ed. Andrew Rutherford.  Stanford UP,             1964.

Wilson, Edmund. "The Kipling that Nobody Read." Kipling's Mind and Art. Ed. Andrew
            Rutherford. Stanford UP, l964.

Lionel Trilling's essay from The Liberal Imagination is reprinted in Kipling and the Critics, pp.

Edmund Wilson's essay from The Wound and the Bow is reprinted in Kipling's Mind and Art, pp.


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The New Yorker's 2014 Summer Fiction Issue of Love Stories

I love a good love story.  I don't mean those "date movie" bits of fluff and/or coarse carnality that parade as love stories nowadays.  If you have ever checked the background info on my blog, you probably know this, since my favorite book is The Great Gatsby and my favorite movie is The French Lieutenant's Woman—both love stories about the mad complexity of being seized by love.  I just finished rereading the ultimate love story Wuthering Heights because in doing the research for my recent presentation in Ottawa on Alice Munro, I was reminded that it was her favorite book as a young woman—that she read it numerous times—not a healthy thing to do, she once admitted to an interviewer.

So, when I got my recent issue of The New Yorker and saw that they were devoting their Summer Fiction issue to "Love Stories," I was excited.  Well, maybe not excited, but itchingly intrigued.  The double issue includes five short "memoir" pieces on the subject of "My Old Flame" by the likes of Rachel Kushner, Joshua Ferris, Colm Toibin, Miranda July, and Tobias Wolff.  These pieces seem to have been written at the request of The New Yorker editors, and like many such "why don't you write us a few hundred words about…." they don't seem particularly inspired—just ordinary jobs of work by competent writers.

The four short stories in this issue on the subject of "Love" are by David Gilbert, Ramona Ausubel, Haruki Murakami, and Karen Russell.  I read them all four straight through today in a morning of what in California we call "June Gloom"—early morning low clouds that conceal the sun until about 3:00 in the afternoon.  You wouldn't think that June would be such a depressing month in California, but there you are, or rather, here I am, feeling gloomy, not only by the weather, but by these silly, cynical, bland, and boring stories ostensibly about love.

Good stories, as you perhaps know, I read more than once.  However, after reading these four fictions in the Summer 2014 New Yorker, I just can't bring myself to read them again.  Here are my first-reading impressions:

Ramona Ausubel's "You Can Find Love Now" is an oh so clever bit of silliness about the Cyclops (you know, the one-eyed giant from Odysseus) looking for love in all the modern places by seeking advice for online dating from an online service.  Two page fillers of advice, such as "Know who your target is," followed by sophomoric responses such as "I like fat girls, old girls, tall girls, tired girls.  Girls who lack adequate clothing, girls whose best idea for getting my attention is to send a photo of themselves holding suggestive Popsicles, their fists covered in red melt."  (snicker, snicker).

Karen Russell's "The Bad Graft" is about a young couple who take a honeymoon type road trip to Joshua Tree National Park in Southern California, where she gets "pricked" (get it) by a thorn on a Joshua Tree and is invaded by the spirit of the tree.  It's a bit more ambitious than Ausubel's trope, but not by much.  In her "This Week in Fiction" interview, Russell tries to give the story mythic significance by talking about transformation, metamorphosis, etc., etc., but the fact of the matter seems to be that she just got a case of tourist fascination with the twisted trees while on a trip to Joshua Tree and wanted to demonstrate her Internet-based erudition, as she has done in her stories in the past.  I appreciate she is having a good time here—she says part of the "weird fun" of the story was trying to imagine what a plant might articulate to itself if it were suddenly folded into human consciousness—but the fact is that the story tells us more about plants than about human love.  It plants are your passion, you might have fun with it too.

David Gilbert's "Here's the Story" starts off with two people on an airplane holding hands.  Anyone who has ever read an airplane love story in their lives will know by the end of the first paragraph that the damned story is going to end with the plane crashing.  And sure enough—spoiler, spoiler, with no alert)—it does.
In his "This Week in Fiction" Interview, Gilbert said that this is his first attempt at doing "historical fiction," noting he was always too lazy to do the research.  However, now because the Internet makes it so easy for someone who knows nothing about a certain historical milieu to appear as if he knows everything, we must wade through a lot of historical detail about an Easter Love-in at Elysian Park and the final game of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1967 before we can get to the fatal plane crash.  It does not make the story any more interesting to have our suspicions confirmed by Gilbert, who admits that the  "idea" for the story came from a response to the question of "What really happened to the original lost parents of the Brady Bunch children—you know the first wife of a "man named Brady and "the lovely lady's" first husband.  Well, if you read through this tedious context-ridden story, you will know.

The least gimmicky story in the bunch is Haruki Murakami's "Yesterday," although it too depends more on the trick title allusion (Beatles) than any real understanding of love. (I sought the song out on my i-pod and played it this morning; it did not make the June gloom go away.) The story is a triangle piece about two guys and a girl—one who wants the girl but not really, and another who realizes he wants the girl too late. No reaching for cleverness here, as in the other three stories—but it is just bland and flat—lots of dialogue that does nothing but fill up pages (The New Yorker pays by the word, you know), nothing much about the mysterious complexity of love, just a quickly forgettable story about the one that got away, or what might have been, or something like that.

O.K. call me a romantic and be damned.  But a love story should be about love—like those crazy adolescents of Shakespeare, those explosive forces of nature of Emily Bronte, like that clumsy coming together of Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons in front of the fireplace, like Fitzgerald's crazy Gatsby who does it all for that silly irresistible Daisy.  Good Lord, New Yorker, don't give me uninspired blandness and sophomoric cleverness.  Give me love!

Monday, June 9, 2014

Rudyard Kipling and the Craft of Fable: Part I--"The Man Who Would Be King"

            As I mentioned some time ago, I am working on a critical history of the British short story, focusing on the generic characteristics of the form as reflected in major short stories since the eighteenth century. In this post and one next week, I discuss what I consider to be the crucial generic issues in four stories by Rudyard Kipling. Works Cited will appear at the end of Part II.

            Hardly anyone talks about Rudyard Kipling's fiction any more, especially his short fiction. However there was a time when Kipling received quite a bit of attention, much of it negative.  I suggest it might be worth noting that the caustic criticism Kipling's short stories once received is precisely the same kind of criticism that has often been lodged against the short story form in general--for example, that the genre focuses only on episodes, that it is too concerned with technique, that it is too dependent on tricks, and that it often lacks a moral force.

         Henry James noted that the young Kipling realized very early the uniqueness of the short story, seeing what chances the form offered for "touching life in a thousand different places, taking it up in innumerable pieces, each a specimen and an illustration." In a word, James argued, Kipling appreciates the episode" (l8). However, it is just this appreciation for the episode, according to influential critic Edmund Wilson, that prevented Kipling from becoming a great novelist: "You can make an effective short story, as Kipling so often does, about somebody's scoring off somebody else; but this is not enough for a great novelist, who must show us large social forces, or uncontrollable lines of destiny, or antagonistic impulses of the human spirit, struggling with one another" (32).

         Moreover, it is not simply because Kipling could not "graduate," as it were, to the novel that critics have found fault with him. Irish short story great Frank O'Connor confesses his embarrassment in discussing Kipling's stories in comparison with master storytellers like Chekhov and Maupassant, for he feels that Kipling has too much consciousness of the individual reader as an audience who must be affected. C. S. Lewis also recoiled from Kipling for similar reasons. Complaining about what he calls the excess of Kipling's art, he cites how he constantly shortened and honed his stories by blotting out passages with Indian ink. Ultimately, says Lewis, the story is often shortened too much and as a result "the style tends to be too continuously and obtrusively brilliant" with no "leisureliness." 

        Lewis's criticism is similar to Edmund Wilson's, for it suggests displeasure with Kipling's stories because they are not based on the same assumptions as the novel. Lionel Trilling notes that the words "craft" and "craftily" are Kipling's favorites, and Wilson says that it is the paradox of his career that he "should have extended the conquests of his craftsmanship in proportion to the shrinking of the range of his dramatic imagination. As his responses to human beings became duller, his sensitivity to his medium increased."

         Such remarks indicate a failure to make generic distinctions between the nature of the novel and the nature of the short story; they either ignore or fail to take seriously Stevenson's realization that the tale form does not focus on character, but rather on fable and on the meaning of an episode in an ideal form. Bonamy Dobree has noted this fabular aspect of Kipling's stories, suggesting that as Kipling's mastery of the short story form increased, he became more and more inclined to introduce an element of fable. "Great realist as he was, it is impossible to see what he was really saying unless the fabular element is at least glimpsed" (l67).

         However, the fabular element, so common to the short story form, is often criticized as being limiting in Kipling, as indeed over the years it has been a central cause of criticism of short fiction generally. For example, W. W. Robson has suggested that Kipling's desire to have complete possible control of his form and medium, while it can lead to impressive achievements in fantasy and fable, "can also lead to a simplification and distortion of human character" (260).

        Such a judgment assumes that human character in fiction is constituted solely of conduct, that character is created and revealed by the actions of man in time and space, in the real world.  And indeed, such an assumption is typical of the expectations we have about character in the novel form. However, such need not be an assumption of character in the short story. As Isak Dinesen has suggested in her story "The First Cardinal's Tale," the tale or short story form is one that focuses on an idealization-- not man and woman seen as they are in the everyday world, but rather transformed by the role they play in the story itself. In the short story, it is the fable that is the focus; the characters exist for the sake of the story rather than the story existing for the sake of the characters.

            In this post and one more, I will briefly discuss four of Kipling's best-known stories--"The Man Who Would be King," "Without Benefit of Clergy," "Mary Postgate," and "The Gardener" in an attempt to identify the essential short-story characteristics of Kipling's work. I do not claim that these stories are not highly crafted, that they do not involve unrealistic character, that they do not depend on artifice. For in many ways, they must stand guilty of such charges. 

     What I do wish to suggest is that such charges are not necessarily damaging, for they indicate that Kipling was perhaps the first English writer to embrace the characteristics of the short story form whole-heartedly, and that thus his stories are perfect representations of the transition point between the old-fashioned tale of the nineteenth century and the modern twentieth-century short story--a transition, however, which Joseph Conrad, because of the profundity of his vision, perhaps was better able to make than Kipling.

         One of Kipling's most Conrad-like stories is one of his earliest pieces, "The Man Who Would Be King," which Henry James called an "extraordinary tale" and which many critics have suggested is a typical Kipling social parable about British imperialism in India. Walter Allen calls it a "great and heroic story," but says that Kipling evades the metaphysical issues implicit in the story and refuses to venture on the great generalizations forced upon Conrad in "Heart of Darkness" (67-68). In perhaps the best discussion of the story, Paul Fussell, Jr. calls "The Man Who Would Be King" "a zany exemplum" in which fantastic burlesque events cloak a sober theme. However, Fussell does not carry this notion of burlesque very far, contenting himself with a discussion of the Biblical and Masonic allusions in the piece. 

            Fussell suggests that much of the plot of "The Man Who Would Be King" constitutes a "virtual parody of Biblical history," but he does not understand that such a burlesque and parody tone and structure might be the basic motivation of the story. Instead he concludes by suggesting that although the story embodies a Christian-Masonic commonplace moral that a man who would be a king must learn to rule himself, Kipling ennobles the theme and rescues it from being obvious by giving it an ironic treatment. The story, says Fussell, has a tone of serious playfulness stemming from Freemasonry which must have struck Kipling as both profound and silly at once.  "It is precisely this knowing Masonic tone which provides 'The Man Who Would be King' with the paradoxical comic-pathetic quality which is the major secret of both the brilliance of its narrative technique and the rich humanity of its ethical import."

         While I agree with Fussell that the secret to the story is its tone, I feel that Fussell's concern for theme prevents him from seeing that indeed tone and style are everything in the tale.  The story primarily focuses on the crucial difference between a tale told by a narrator who merely reports a story and a narrator who lives a story. The frame narrator is a journalist whose job it is to report the doings of "real kings," whereas Peachey, the inner narrator has as his task the reporting of the events of a "pretend king."  This situation reflects a basic fictional problem:  The primary narrator tells us the story of Peachey and Davrot, which although it is fiction, is presented as if it were reality. The secondary narrator tells us a story of Peachey and Davrot in which the two characters project themselves out of the "as-if" real world of the story into the purely projected and fictional world of their adventure. 

            The tone of the tale reflects the journalist narrator's bemused attitude toward the pair of unlikely heroes and his incredulity about their "idiotic adventure." "The beginning of everything," he describes, was his meeting with Peachey in a railway train when he learns that the two are posing as correspondents for the newspaper for which the narrator is indeed a real correspondent. Role-playing is an important motif in the story, for indeed Peachey and Davrot are always playing roles, for they are essentially vagabonds and loafers with no real identity of their own.  

     After the narrator returns to his office and becomes "respectable," Peachey and Davrot interrupt this respectability (characterized by the narrator's concern for the everyday reality that constitutes the subject of his work) to tell him of their fantastic plan and to try to obtain from him a factual framework for the country where they hope to become kings. "We have come to you to know about this country, to read a book about it, and to be shown maps," says Carnehan. "We want you to tell us that we are fools and to show us your books." The mythic proportions of the two men, or rather their story-book proportions, for mythic sounds like too serious a word here for the grotesque adventurers, are indicated by the narrator's amused awareness that Davrot's red beard seems to fill half the room and Carnehan's huge shoulders fill the other half.

         The actual adventure begins with more role-playing as Davrot pretends to be a mad priest (an ironic image that he indeed is to fulfill later) marching forward with whirligigs (playful crosses?) to sell as charms to the savages. The narrator again becomes "respectable" and turns his attention to the obituaries of real kings in Europe until three years later, Peachey returns, a "whining cripple" to confront the narrator with his story that he and Davrot have been crowned kings in Kafiristan, and "you've been sitting here ever since--oh, Lord!"  Peachey's inserted story is thus posed over against the pedestrian story of the narrator's situation and is contrasted to it by its fantastic, story-like nature in which indeed Peachey and Davrot have set themselves up as fictional kings in a real country.

            The story-like nature of the adventure is indicated first of all by Peachey's frequent confusing of himself with Davrot and by his frequent reference to himself in the third person.  "There was a party called Peachey Taliaferro Carnehan that was with Davrot. Shall I tell you about him? He died out there in the cold. Slap from the bridge fell old Peachey, turning and twisting in the air like a penny whirligig, or I am much mistaken and woeful sore...."  As Peachey tells his tale, he insists that the narrator continue to look him in the eye, thus becoming an image of the Ancient Mariner who holds the wedding guest by his glittering eye and thus links the listener and teller in a story-made bond.

            As Paul Fussell has suggested, the events that Peachey tells suggests a parody of Biblical history, and indeed Peachey and Davrot often speak to the people Davrot calls the "lost tribe" in Biblical language. The purpose of these Biblical allusions is to give Peachey's tale an externally-imposed story framework, indeed the most basic and dignified story framework in Western culture. The progress of Davrot's becoming king moves from fighting to craft via masonic ritual, a ritual that reaffirms Davrot's superior position and controls his followers.  

     However, since Davrot has projected himself into the role of god as king, and thus assumes a position in the kingdom as the fulfillment of prophecy and legend, he is bound to this particular role. It is only when he wishes to escape the pre-established role and marry a native girl that his world falls apart. When he is bitten by his frightened intended bride, the cry, "Neither God nor Devil, but a man," breaks the spell and propels Davrot and Peachey out of the fictional world and back into reality again.

            The fact that Peachy and Davrot are really only over-determined doubles of each other is indicated not only by Peachey's reference to himself as suffering Davrot's fate, but also by the fact that if Davrot is the ambiguous god-man, Peachey is the one who must be crucified. Kipling finds it necessary of course to make this split, for he must not only have his god-man die, but he must have him resurrected as well. Peachey is the resurrected figure who brings the head of Davrot, still with its crown, back to tell the tale to the narrator. Peachey's final madness and death and the mysterious disappearance of the crowned head are the ironic fulfillment of a final escape from external reality.

         It seems clear from the serio-comic tone and the parody use of Biblical story and language that what Kipling is attempting in "The Man Who Would be King" is a burlesque version of a basic dichotomy in the nature of story itself. The narrator, who deals with real events in the world, tells a story of one who in turn tells a story of fantastic events in which the real world is transformed into the fabular nature of story itself. Davrot/Peachey project themselves into a purely story world, but once accepted there, they cannot break the code of the roles they have assumed.

            When they do make such an effort, the story they have created, and thus the roles they have played, become foregrounded as roles only and crumble like a house of cards. The man who would be a king can only be a king in the pretend world of story itself, and then only as long as story-world or story-reality is maintained. A story character cannot be human, for when he attempts to become real, i.e., when he begins to take his story status as true reality, the story ends. 

     It is little wonder that "The Man Who Would be King" has such a comic tone, for truly what Kipling is playing with here is not the nature of empires, but the nature of story. If one wishes to read the story as a parable of the tenuous and fictionally-imposed nature of British imperialism, then such a reading is possible, but only because the story primarily is about the essentially tenuous nature of the fable world itself.

Monday, June 2, 2014

The 2014 Canadian Literature Symposium on Alice Munro

You may be wondering why after rapid-fire postings at the beginning of May (Short-Story Month, according to some bloggers), I once again disappeared for a few weeks.

The reason being:

After returning from the Canadian Literature Symposium on Alice Munro at the University of Ottawa campus, my wife and I rushed down to Tucson, Arizona for my younger daughter's being hooded for a Ph.D. degree in English, and two-weeks of helping her pack up her house for a move back to Southern California, where her husband has landed a full-time job at Saddleback College teaching math.  No job yet for my daughter, for literature is not in such demand as math.  Go figure!

A few words about the Ottawa conference, where I had the honor of delivering one of the keynote addresses on Alice Munro: 

The conference was held over two and a half days at the University of Ottawa campus, where the two organizers of the  Symposium, Gerald Lynch and Janice Fiamengo, make their academic home.  It was attended by sixty or so academic scholars, critics, writers, and editors familiar with Munro's work over the years,

Among the highlights was the other keynote speaker, Robert Thacker of St. Lawrence University in New York state, author of the authoritative biography Alice Munro:  Writing Her Lives.  Bob Thacker knows more about Munro and her work than anyone.  His presentation, focusing on the arc of her work from the story "Walker Brothers Cowboy" to her final collection Dear Life, regaled the audience with information and insights that only Bob Thacker would know.  He was consulted many times during the weekend as a dynamic resource for all things Munro.

Bob was invited because he is the expert on Alice Munro.  I was invited because I know a bit about the short story, and, as I suggested to the audience, when you talk about Alice Munro, inevitably you talk about the short story—which I did.

Among the many interesting and provocative papers presented during the weekend, another high point for me was a panel on the career of Munro, featuring Virginia Barber, Munro's long time agent and friend; Ann Close, a senior editor at Alfred Knopf Publishing; Douglas Gibson, another long-time Munro friend and her Canadian editor; and Daniel Menaker, one of the editors at The New Yorker for many years when Munro was publishing there. 

Although these four provided some interesting factual information about Munro's career, including contracts and sales, the most engaging part of the panel was hearing from the four people who were the most important in helping Munro establish her career.  Barber said she and Close were working on preparing a second Selected Stories of Munro's work.  Barber said that Munro's final collection  Dear Life got a big boost after the Nobel Prize award, selling 400,000 copies and being licensed in forty different countries.  Ann Close added that the new uniform  paperback series put out by Vintage after the Nobel win has sold over 400,000 copies, and Dear Life has sold an additional 200,000 copies in paperback. I was grateful that four such important people, people who affectionately call Munro "Alice," were willing to attend and share personal anecdotes about their relationship with her.

Some other observations and reactions to the presentations: The  opening panel of "Writers' Appreciations" featured Steven Heighton of Kingston, Ontario; Robert McGill of U. of Toronto, Lisa Moore of St. John's NL, and Aritha Van Herk of U. of Calgary.  I particularly liked Heighton's description of Munro's stories as being "holographic," that is, not linear and not flatly two-dimensional, but rather viewable from multiple in-depth angles simultaneously—metonymic in the sense that the whole was embedded in each part.

Other presenters discussed the stories Munro wrote when she was a student at U. of Western Ontario; her use of multiple points of view; The View from Castle Rock as a story cycle; the theme of invasion; teaching Munro's stories in Slovenia; the use of letters in her stories,; and the use of memorized poems.  The latter was particularly interesting to the audience, for it evoked issues of recitation as a means of linking generations, as well as the significance of embedding rhythms in the mind.  One of the final presentations was a provocative piece by well-known Munro expert Magdalene Redekop of U. of Toronto, about Munro's stories "Lichen," in which Munro is seen as the prototypical storyteller—Scherazade.

I would be remiss if I did not mention the presentations of two professors from the U. of Toronto who are well-known for their light-hearted approach to the serious business of studying and teaching great literature—Dennis Duffy and Tim Struthers.  Dennis did a lively presentation on Munro's story "Too Much Happiness," and Tim did what he called a tribute to "the only voice" of Alice Munro, ending with a memorable quote from the Kentucky writer Wendell Berry.

It was a pleasurable conference, with no rancor, no posturing, no academic egos—just genuine love for the work of a Canadian—indeed an international—treasure, who if there is any justice in the world, should singlehandedly rescue the short story from its second-class status.