Monday, 23 December 2013

Kipling Sahib - Charles Allen

Anglo-Indian like his subject, Allen's subtitle says it all.  Kipling was born in India, returned there as a cub reporter and became a sensational prodigy there.  Having survived a life-threatening illness and the death of his firstborn, Kipling worked with his father on his sole significant novel Kim, and then to all intents and purposes ceased to develop at the age of 34, slightly less than halfway through his life.  He never wrote nothing important or new thereafter because, Allen maintains, Kim said all he had to say about India and his own dual sensibilities.

Kipling Sahib is, in short, a brilliant book.  Allen wears his knowledge lightly, which he can do because it's real personal knowledge, not academic learning focused through a westernized, post-modern filter.  Kipling is hopelessly old-fashioned - his attitudes to imperialism can sometimes offend contemporary ears - but they are the attitudes of his time, attitudes he in many ways created and it is important to differentiate between his early, pre-1900 writing and that of the long decline that followed.  He began as a critic and ended as a bombastic bore.

Allen tackles the man, his mind and his work in a seamless narrative.  The works are discussed with an assuredness that comes of long familiarity.  His examination of Kim itself, as an envoi to the closed narrative, is masterly and insightful.

If anyone had suggested, a year ago, that I would even open a work by or about Rudyard Kipling (known as 'Ruddy' in the family) I would have laughed in their face.  Yet Kim was one of the first books I read in 2013, and Kipling Sahib almost the last.  Kim is my book of the year, with Kipling Sahib a close second.  There is no bronze medallist.  Nothing else I have read comes close.

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