IF by CHRISTOPHER BENFEY

What a riveting read this well-researched, well-written book is – and, by the way, let me give you its full title, before we go any further: “If – The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years.”

Mr. Benfey shines a light on the years that Rudyard Kipling and his young family spent in the USA, years that saw him write some of his best known masterpieces, and yet most of us know precious little about his time there nor his relationships there.

In these “woke” days of ours, Rudyard Kipling is hardly a fashionable writer, his support for the British Empire eclipsing so much of his prodigious and prolific literary output.

So it is doubly fascinating, and also quite exciting, to see Rudyard Kipling amongst his literary peers in America, at work and at play.

In his early 20s, an unknown reporter, he tracks down the elusive Mark Twain on behalf of the Allahabad Pioneer, for whom he worked, and bags an unexpected 2-hour, 2-cigar interview. His message back home to India was one of delighted triumph:

“You are a contemptible lot, over yonder. some of you are Commissioners, and some Lieutenant-Governors, and some have the V.C., and a few are privileged to walk about theMall arm in arm with the Viceroy; but I have seen Mark Twain this golden morning, have shaken his hand, and smoked a cigar – no, two cigars – with him, and talked with him for more than two hours!”

The aspect of this book that intrigued me the most was the influence that American writers and politicians had on Rudyard Kipling, and how he in turn was revered and admired by them.

Rudyard Kipling lives through good times and tragic times in the US, the worst moments being the death of his beloved 8 year old daughter Josephine in New York.

America is a country that enthrals him, enthuses him, and yet also disturbs him:

“Kipling diagnosed the American predicament of the 1890s. “Half your trouble is the curse of America – sheer, hopeless well-ordered boredom; and that is going some day to (be the) curse of the world. The other races are still scuffling for their three meals a day. America’s got ’em and now she doesn’t know what she wants but is dimly realising that extension lectures, hardwood floors, natural gas and trolley-cars don’t fit the bill.”

Now this might not be a very politically correct thing to admit, but I absolutely love “Kim” and consider it to be one of the most captivating books ever written about India. Not that it really matters here, but I live in India, and every April or May, as the temperatures in Delhi rise inexorably higher, and the monsoons are still weeks away, I re-read “Kim”. As well as “Heat and Dust.” My 2 waiting-for the-monsoons books.

So Mr. Benfey’s insights into the enduring influence of “Kim” was absolutely fascinating and a complete eye-opener, I must admit.

“As Kipling details the stages of Kim’s apprenticeship, stringing episodes together to put Kim’s lessons to the net, he is also inventing a new literary genre; the novel of international espionage. The narrative structure of the novel and its characters – the gifted secret agent, his training in spycraft and weaponry, his masters in the game, his disguises, his sinister rivals – will flower in the works of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene, Ian Fleming and John Le CarrĂ©. At the same time, Kim may righty be considered, as Hannah Arendt puts it, the ‘foundation legend’ of the British secret intelligence service, a narrative argument meant to justify the British presence in India.”

What follows is the detailing of the extraordinary impact “Kim” had on American political and military leaders, especially during the Vietnam War. Quite amazing.

A thought-provoking book about a writer who is one of Britain’s literary giants, whilst being currently deeply unfashionable.

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