Tuesday 27 January 2009

Old Rope Heated Over

Skimming and dipping, I came across the following:
the impression one has of his personality is that of a reserved and unsociable man, self-absorbed and, for no apparent reason, unhappy.
The writer of this, um, material is Javier Marias, from his book Written Lives, and the writer he's talking about is Rudyard Kipling. That's Kipling who lost his daughter aged 6, and lost his son aged, oh, I don't know, 17 or 18, and who was almost certainly blighted his whole life by the legacy of his thoroughly miserable childhood exile in England (see the autobiographical story 'Baa Baa Black Sheep', one of his most powerful and affecting). I understand Marias is trying to be playful and irreverent and mischievous, but unless he's also being ironic beyond my capacity to perceive, this is not only untrue and unfunny, it's simply pointless. Moreover, what writer isn't self-absorbed?

Initially I wasn't sure I wasn't missing something, so I took a look at the chapter on RLS. Several pages on how much of a cow Fanny (his wife) was. Oh God, we're not back to this, surely? Contemporaries and biographers have wondered long and loudly what Louis was doing with this apparently charmless creature, and the only possible response can be drawn from one of the early Stevenson essays on falling in love: the state and circumstances which draw two people together are often incomprehensible to observers, even as they absorb the actors, and that's just the way of it. Stevenson crossed the Atlantic and the whole of America to get to Fanny, with little money, no certainty regarding his reception and in pretty poor health. That, surely, says enough.


I was interested to see that Virginia Woolf thought Kipling belonged quite comfortably in a list of "great writers" with the likes of Defoe, Austen, Hardy and Trollope. Today he seems almost on the margins, remembered primarily as a children's writer, and by those with an India fixation or a liking for tales of imperial derring-do. I agree with very little of Woolf's concluding paragraph, by the way.


Faber have reprinted Nicholas Rankin's book on Stevenson, Dead Man's Chest, which I heartily and thoroughly recommend. £14.99 is steep given the rotten print quality, but if it's that or oblivion, I choose memory and eye-strain.