George Orwell is my (rather unoriginal) personal hero but I am also a fan of another writer who isn’t as widely acclaimed: Rudyard Kipling.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that both men were not just “authors” but journalists. Orwell wrote columns for the Evening Standard (after he was already a famous writer of novels and non-fiction) while Kipling worked for a newspaper in British India before becoming a popular author and poet. One reason I admire both men is that they maintained a desire to communicate with ordinary readers throughout their careers, with very little literary show boating. A characteristic of good journalists, I think.
It would be wrong to say that Kipling is a “neglected” writer; he was massively famous in his lifetime and won the Noble Prize for literature (1907). But today there is something of a taint on his reputation in that he was a writer of the British Empire. He was a brilliant observer of life in India and chronicled its “types” and characters honestly. But even when he is mocking pompous or incompetent colonials or lovingly describing the country of India and its people, he doesn’t seriously question the morality of imperialism itself. So today his work is seen as a bit of an embarrassing reminder of England’s inglorious, and too-recent, past.
Kipling wrote prolifically without sacrificing quality and was a master of several forms. He wrote short stories, non-fiction, children’s stories and poems. Possibly, his work best known to Japanese is Jungle Book because it was adapted into a Disney film. But his excellent short story “The Man Who Would Be King” was also made into a film (a personal favourite of mine) which has the rare distinction of starring two of the most iconic British actors, Sean Connery and Michael Caine. (Caine’s wife Shakira also appears, by the way.)
I read the story after I had seen the film and couldn’t believe that Kipling didn’t milk such a great idea by writing a longer novel, full of detail and twists and turns. It seems he just had ideas to burn.
Kipling’s writing has clarity and directness. He could coin a memorable phrase: “The White Man’s Burden”, for example, is one that has been widely used since. (It was the title of a controversial poem, which I don’t think is the straightforward justification for imperialism that it’s sometimes taken for.) Kipling was also an entertaining mimic of the way people speak. His poem “Tommy” is in the voice of (and from the point of view of) a common soldier – who is looked down on by the populace, until, that is, it comes to wartime when he is lauded as a hero.
Some of his poems (such as “Mandalay” and “Gunga Din”) have been performed as songs, the words being ready-made lyrics.
Recently, I was trying to recall a favourite line from Kipling’s poem “If”, in which he outlines the attributes that a boy should strive for to become a complete man.
The line was:
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same...
I was struck by a couple of things rereading the poem. Firstly, how there are almost no “difficult” words in the whole poem, nothing flowery or ornate, and this makes it more accessible and memorable.
Secondly, I thought that the “father’s advice to his son” contained in the poem is entirely applicable to the present-day and has nothing particularly or exclusively suited to a military and imperial age.
Thirdly, I couldn’t help but read it aloud because I wanted to hear the cadence of and experience the power of the words.