Kismet’s Kettle

“After marriage arrives a reaction, sometimes a big, sometimes a little one; but it comes sooner or later, and must be tided over by both parties if they desire the rest of their lives to go with the current.”   – Rudyard Kipling, Three and – an Extra

What an unexpected delight these short stories by Rudyard Kipling are. Plain Tales From the Hill begins with the story Lisbeth in which a broken heart is a broken life is a broken culture is a broken world, all told in a plain and sincere voice. In ‘Yoked With an Unbeliever’ after letting a love affair pass with exaggerated regret:

From an artistic point of view, it was a very neat work, but an ordinary Philistine, who knew the state of Phil’s real feelings, -not the ones he rose to as he went on writing,-would have called it thoroughly mean and selfish work of a thoroughly mean and selfish weak man. But this verdict would have been incorrect. Phil paid his postage, and felt every word he had written for at least two days and a half. (37)

Oh Mr. Kipling- you are a droll one.

I took the recommendation of the wonderful blog Wuthering Expectations to read this book: his blog is a rich source of literary inspiration and celebration of the reader.

Kipling’s stories are very good, Cupid’s Arrow was a highly satisfying tale of a woman’s triumph of sensibility. The Other Man a sad but typical Kiplin’ian example of the crappy hand dealt to most and, interestingly for a man of his era, the crappy hand dealt to women in particular. Many of these stories center around a woman, admired equally whether it be for her cleverness – both good and ill, or for her ability to carry the burden of a cruel and twisted fate.

India is very much at the center of each story, but where Camus places Algeria at the heart of his writing, Kipling’s India comes from his brain. Perhaps it is his Englishness, class, or basic outsiderness that keeps him slightly removed and wryly observant.

In most ways we live in an age far beyond Kipling’s, but some things stay the same. Beyond the Pale is initially one of the more dated pieces, but in the end, as with most of Kipling’s sarcastic and ironic leanings, what is beyond the pale really? It is the reaction rather than the reactants that Kipling highlights and we should really abhor.

I recently watched the film The Blue Angel with Marlene Dietrich. At the climax of the film the professor is deliriously in love with Lola Lola, and the man is happy. It’s quite lovely. His colleagues chastise his choice of love and tell him that they will “have to report him.”

The choices the professor faced were his continued “esteemed” existence as “Professor Ratshit,” an alone and loveless pedagog, or a man whose heart has been touched by a straightforward warm love. I thought to myself, is this a trick question?

But how does this “morality tale” end? The broken and brokenhearted professor returns to his former school room and dies clinging to his desk. Forgive me, but there is something seriously wrong with that picture. There was nothing flawed in the professor’s morality, rather it is the reaction  of a society that does not allow simple love and feeling. The man was striped of his livelihood and therefore his freedom, collapsing the charming love story under the pressure of convention- not by his choice of love, but by a warped society that punished him for choosing a woman outside polite social conventions. On top of which his weakness of true character allowed his false notion of “pride” to destroy the man that he could have been- the man that Lola Lola adored. And we are suppose to call that morality? Not me.

I think Kipling would agree. Life that is “manifestly unfair,” is the flavor Kipling casually leaves in ones mouth at the end of each tale. His commentary is subtle,  and full of cheek, but the tone only emphasizes the hypocrisy that so many swallow whole.

You may have noticed that many religious people are deeply suspicious. They seem – for purely religious purposes, of course – to know more about the iniquity than the Unregenerate. – Watches of the Night (87)

Plain Tales From the Hills  are like little dispatches from another age and another country: our endearing narrator of all the tales makes for a wonderful correspondent.

But these things are kismet, and we only find out all about them just when any knowledge is too late.  – Bitters Neat (125)


2 responses to “Kismet’s Kettle

  1. First, thanks!

    Second, I was also surprised at how, strange as it may sound, openly feminist many of these early Kipling stories were. Kipling had his eyes open – he saw the limits women worked under, whether Indian or transplanted English.

    You are right about the distance in Kipling’s writing. I suspect this is caused by his comic temperament. Comedians always look at things a little bit sideways.

  2. Yes. Cupid’s Arrow was really funny and a very strong comment on a woman’s right to determine her own life.

    Kipling certainly had a sideways view, always laughing.

    And you are very welcome. I look forward to your thoughts on The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis- that was the first Saramago I read…

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