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).