Why Kipling is better than Borges?

Not that I’ve any real answer to the question – I just wanted to pose it, particularly to a world which, likely enough, believes I’ve got the writers’ names the wrong way round.

In some ways, though, it’s not my question, but Borges’. This is what he says in his introduction to (at least the English language translation of) Doctor Brodie’s Report:

Kipling’s last stories were no less tormented and mazelike than the stories of Kafka and Henry James, which they doubtless surpass; but in 1885, in Lahore, the young Kipling began a series of brief tales, written in a straight-forward manner, that he was to collect in 1890. Several of them – “In the House of Suddhoo”, “Beyond the Pale”, “The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows” – are laconic masterpieces. It occurred to me that what was conceived and carried out by a young man of genius might modestly be attempted by a man on the borders of old age who knows his craft. Out of that idea came the present volume, which I leave the reader to judge.

Well then, let’s judge: – and since I happened to have it to hand and was in-between Kipling collections, for every one story from Doctor Brodie’s Report, I also read a story from Plain Tales From the Hills (the collection Borges mentions) – always reading the Borges first, and the Kipling after.

The stories in each collection are roughly the same length (although, of course, having finished the Borges, I’m still only about 2/5ths of the way through the Kipling), so I have read about the same amount of material in each. It is just then a matter of how well each author can tell in story in about 5 pages.

First, on the matter of their respective ages. Kipling wrote his stories between the ages of 18 and 21; Borges between the ages of 70 and 71.

I’m prepared to admit at the outset that Doctor Brodie’s Report is far from the best of Borges; but then neither is Plain Tales From the Hills the best of Kipling (I haven’t yet got as far as any of the “laconic masterpieces” Borges mentions – though it’s true, I may have read them in the past). The stories in both collections are essentially fairly trivial; they are not, for the most part, the sort of short story that is likely to stick in the mind.

Borges’ stories are set in the Argentina of gauchos and knife-fights. There are a long way from say, The Aleph or Tlön, Uqbar, Orbus Tertius. Perhaps only the last few (Guayaquil, Dr Brodie’s Report) are your more typical Borges story. Kipling’s stories are set in the English community in India, though cross at will to, and have a typically un-orientalist fascination for, Indian culture. They are both set then in a very particular world; they have clear boundaries. And the stories are of a certain type: they are always oral tales of that world, tales – more often than not – told to the narrator, who is the author, by someone involved, or something the narrator has witnessed. They have, that is to say, a claim to veracity – though we have no reason to believe any of them are actually true, or are supposed to be so.

There are similarities then. What about differences? – Borges’ stories are studied, meticulously written. That Borges belongs to an underworld of knife-fights, you would not for a moment believe. He even seems to admit this (to understand himself, his limitations) in the epilogue when he says “[i]nitially I wanted a California setting, but as I knew … that my knowledge of California was merely bookish, the credibility of the tale would have been impaired”. Is this a joke Borges is having at his own expense? – All of Borges’ knowledge is “merely bookish” – it applies equally to every single thing he ever wrote. It’s not just that he makes reference to the world of books, to the intellect; it’s not just that they are stories which are very much conscious they are stories, conscious they belong to a tradition and have influences (Kipling is one of them). It seems to me that it’s really because Borges belongs to a culture that is fundamentally scholarly, that can only see the world through the eye of an academic – though, in Borges’ case, perhaps some sort of autodidact, whose knowledge of the world has arisen through the consumption of much of what passes in these days for philosophy. Whereas Kipling’s stories, on the other hand, are unaware of anything beyond the wish to tell the story: they understand the world in which they’re set and the people in it; they are part of it; they are involved.

Now you may say this is all a fashionable twentieth-century detachment we are seeing; that our relationship with the world has changed; that we see it through different spectacles. Borges’ stories belong to a modernist / post-modernist world, and Kipling’s do not. Borges’ stories do not convince because Borges himself is not convinced; he is betrayed by that great uncertainty which entered mankind with the onset of the c20th, that inability any longer to be authentic. But, to be honest, I’m not convinced it’s anything as magnificent as that: I think all it is (Borges, and everything else of its kind) is the product of a dry academicism; of a university culture which kills and analyses everything – most especially, stories.

What I mean to say by all this, is there’s something fundamental about Borges’ stories which I find boring, but which I can’t perhaps quite put my finger on. But each time I read one of Borges’ stories, I found I struggled more and more to discover any interest in it – for it seemed to me to be dead on the page – and I was relieved when I got to the end; – whereas, as soon as I picked up the Kipling, I was absorbed by the writing, enthralled, though what the story was actually about might be the most trivial matter in the world. Until soon the only reason I was reading the Borges was so I could read the Kipling after.

In part, I wonder though if it isn’t to do with Kipling’s irony – as much, that is, as his storytelling ability. Kipling – early Kipling, at least – (pace Edward Said) is perhaps the most ironic writer I’ve ever come across, which is why he can also be so hard to pin down. He just can’t let a sentence go by without adding some ironic gesture. His characterisation of the Indian as backward is just as ironic as his characterisation of the Englishman as civilised. In the last of the stories I read for this experiment – The Conversion of Aurelian McGoggin – his characterisation of Auguste Comte’s philosophy is ironic, just as his characterisation of the man who sees the world through Auguste Comte’s philosophy is also ironic. Whereas Borges, I can’t help but feel, would have written this whole story very serious and po-faced – no doubt he would have found it too in manuscript form in some crabbed cyrillic script inside a 1891 Trübner edition of The Catechism of Positive Religion) and seemingly without any idea that everything he was saying was absurd. Unless you’re of the opinion that I am sometimes, when I’m feeling generous to Borges, that his entire literary career was some kind of practical joke.


No Books Read or Films Seen this month – I mean, I read and saw things, but I’m not updating my lists – it’s too late now. I’m also getting rid of Books Bought because – well, the number had just become absurd (it was that man flogging off pristine Peter Owen books for nothing on Amazon – he’s the one you should blame).

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11 thoughts on “Why Kipling is better than Borges?

  1. Interesting post. I’ve only read about three or four Borges stories, and I found them rather dull – more interesting to think about after reading them than they are to read (same goes for The Invention of Morel by Borges’s collaborator Bioy Casares). Even, ‘The South’, which I think is commonly judged to be one of his masterpieces, I found pointless and drab (and not even interesting to think about later). I know that there’s lots of critical dissatisfaction with the generally available English translations (which supposedly drain all the life out of Borges’s prose), so I’ve resolved not to read any more until I’m sufficiently competent in Spanish to read them in the original language. I quite like his essays, though, and his poetry (which has been collected in a handy bilingual volume).

  2. Great post. Kipling has always been a blind spot in my reading, probably because I’ve never bothered to examine my axiomatic childhood linkage of his name to the Disney Jungle Book. I’m off to rectify that. Thanks.

  3. CN: That’s good: I’ve got a Borges/Bioy Casares collaborative effort for reading later in the year – maybe they’ll cancel each other out somehow. – On the translation issue, I’m not so sure. What I read was the officially sanctioned one, on which I seem to remember Borges worked with the translator – and I’m guessing Borges was quite good at English (he knew Old English at least, which I feel vaguely implies a knowledge of New English). – I can see Borges is probably the kind of writer who might suffer in translation, but there are also things about his style – like the manner in which he seeks to tell a story – which I think are always going to translate, and which for me are more where my issues lie.

    S: Yes, people often hold prejudices about Kipling: Disney; jingoist imperialist; representative through If and the boy scout movement of a pure Englishness we’ve perhaps come to reject – but in truth he’s none of these things. Just a very great short story writer. – Like with Borges though, there’s a lot of filler among Kipling’s short stories (early in his career he did after all write them, not so much for money, but because it was his job to fill space in newspapers): best to start, in my opinion, with say Debits and Credits, or just a selected collection. – His novels and poems I am happy to disown.

  4. I certainly agree on Boreges, but some of Kipling’s poetry, barring If, is excellent. The energy and invention displayed in the Barrack-Room Ballads, for instance, is outstanding.

  5. I don’t know, maybe. It always seems like doggerel to me. I could give it another try I suppose.

  6. What’s your take on ‘Search for Al Mutassim’ & ‘under the City walls’?
    I recall being totally blown away by Borges’s story- I actually believed there really was a ‘Mir Hasan Ali’, Advocate of Bombay, who had published a book of that title.
    Borges had some queer ideas about Kipling- apparently he thought he was half Indian when he published his first essay about him back in the Twenties- which made me wonder about how good his colloquial English was.
    Interestingly, Salman Rushdie’s first two books take up the Simurgh theme which Borges uses in his story though I couldn’t really see the point to Rushdie’s rigmarole.
    Kipling had genius and that’s part of what’s spooky about him. Perhaps if his Dad had been rich and sent him off to Oxford and then Switzerland or something like that, for a prolonged adolescence, he’d have come out like Borges himself.
    Still, Borges’s philosophical Indian stories are better than anything by actual Indians- including philosophers- so far as I know and what makes this puzzling is that he just hadn’t read very much. Indeed, for a librarian, he’s pretty audacious in terms of assuming an erudite air on the basis of very little systematic reading. For my part, my respect for Borges has grown precisely because of this audacity. He too had genius but it was of a genial sort whereas Kipling never hesitates to make you cringe to the deepest core of your being. The man is pitiless.
    Better educated, or more upper class Englishmen, have accused Kipling of ‘knowingness’- a cynical declasse trait- but the odd thing is I find Kipling really did know a lot about what he was writing about. The man was a demon for processing information and he was getting it from multiple sources so there’s layers upon layers and each layer is built up independently- like in Photoshop.
    Comparing Kipling to Tagore, both of whom wrote novels about a White kid in India who thinks he is a native, and both of whom won Nobel prizes within a few years of each other, it is the high caste Indian who seems shallow and ignorant of Hindu philosophy while Kipling’s Kim reveals more on every reading. Similarly, whereas Iqbal, the philosopher from Lahore, revives interest in the Sufi concept of ‘barzakh’- also important for Borges, though his reading didn’t take him quite that far- it is in Kipling that the ghostly light of that Limbo shows itself, transforming the action of the story, transforming its politics or ‘message’, with the result that even well-loved pieces of his become gradually stranger and stranger, less and less fathomable.
    Interesting post, best wishes

  7. Interesting stuff. I’ve always been interested on what the Indian view on Kipling might be; he certainly doesn’t come across as your usual white colonising orientalist novelist. For instance, as I may have said elsewhere, his heroes are always white men obsessed by Indian culture (even if he sees that obsession as fundamentally futile and tragic); the coloniser who has contempt for India inspires in turn Kipling’s contempt.

    I’ve read Kipling “On the City Wall” (which I’m taking to be the story you mention) but forget it now. I shall read it again, plus the Borges story (which I found translated on the internet – google it, if anyone’s interested in finding it; I know the translator has his issues with the Borges estate, and has taken down his other translations).

    The idea that Borges gave the impression of being better read than he was shouldn’t really be surprising, I suppose. What better way of giving that impression than by constructing literary games out of fiction and fact? Someone on another blog was making precisely the same point about WG Sebald – even to the point of questioning, too, his understanding of English (he is, after all, a very similar figure).

  8. I was reading Christopher Hitchens article on his meeting with Borges. Interestingly, Borges seemed to make a practice of getting visitors-like Paul Theroux- to read out Kipling’s poem, its name has gone out of my head- ‘war and widow making’ figures in it. If an ordinary bloke like me does it, it just means I’m showing off. But with Borges, like you say, it’s probably a pointer that the poem means something different each time in a really cool and ironic way.
    Theroux makes Borges sound like V.S. Naipaul. Hitchens makes Borges a Universal Humanist with solid anti-Fascist credentials.
    Interestingly, Norman Thormas di Giovanni, Borges’s amanuensis, also introduced Naipaul to his Argentine mistress- I’ve written a short story about this called ‘Naipaul misbehaving again’ on my blog (socioproctology. blogger.com)
    I don’t know whether there is any good Indian literary criticism on Kipling- one reason is few Indians with PhD’s from Yale or wherever would get the religious and caste based references- I recall first hearing about the Hindu God ‘Bhairon’ from his ‘the Bridge Builders’. I had to ask the servant who this ‘Bhairon’ was. Apparently we were living just a few hundred yards from a famous shrine of Bhairon! My grandmother was really pleased when I told her about this because she had lived in Benares and knew the importance of this North Indian peasant Deity.
    But, in another sense, to mention Bhairon, for me- a Hindu- might militate against the impression I want to give of being a sophisticated urbanite! People might think I was some scholarship winning hero from zero pining for his native buffaloes out in the boondocks.
    I think Kipling is respected as being a bloody good reporter- and India respects facts rather than pi-jaw and high falutin theories- and so what if he was White? He had to be something. Back then everybody stuck up for their own caste or creed.
    On the other hand, apparently he turned into a really nasty anti-Semite at a later point- so that would have put our people off.
    If one compares Kipling with a real Govt. sponsored ‘Orientalist’ writer like Edmund Candler- who was responding to a challenge to the British in a nasty petty minded way- then it may be that Kipling’s great books arise out of British self-confidence and the nastiness reflects the awareness that the whole thing was quite fragile.
    Still, at least the animal stories- like the Maltese cat- we will always have with us.

  9. More interesting stuff. – I’m not sure of Kipling’s “anti-semitism”, or indeed Kipling’s opinion on anything much – not even whether he was particularly pro-imperialist, as is often said of him. In his work he hedges around his own opinion so much – in particular with irony; the narrator character in general is simply a person who listens to others, without any discrimation, just letting them speak. – I read his autobiography too recently, but couldn’t find many opinions in that either, except that he felt people (by which I mean, newspapers, the public) had a tendency to jump to conclusions about his opinions on things.

  10. Hello, very nice your article. I think the reason for you Borges is boring it is because Borges is interesting firstly at all for Argentinians, after for poets and metaphisics and lastly for academics. Only who is Argentinian and understand their idiosyncracies, their slang Lunfardo, they way of thinking, of loving, of living, their shortages, their secondary role, their peripheral position in this materialistic and industrialized, allow them to have funny with Borges. There is inevitably a barrier, an abstract but a barrier actually, from cultural outsiders. I mean, the main reason I like Borges it is because the music of his writing, the value of his words for me that I know that region of the universe Borges used to see and comprehend it. Useless mention it, that from a peripheral position and from some distance we used to embrace the whole picture.

  11. Fair enough. On the other hand, it’s not true that only late c19th Anglo-Indians can appreciate Kipling, even though his work is so imbued by that culture; and secondly, Borges maintains a comparison of himself here with Kipling in terms of story-telling – a concept which, I feel, as someone who’s spent years reading all kinds of novels and stories translated out of all kinds of languages, transcends specific languages. Borges strikes me as a writer who never could quite write stories in the way he so admired in others.

    None of this is to say I find all of Borges boring. Just that the collection here is far from his best work, and I feel shows up his limitations. (Kipling too had many limitations, and over the course of his life probably wrote many more bad stories than Borges, in absolute and in percentage terms).

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