Probably, the first thing you should do these days when talking about Kipling is confront his politics. He wasn’t a racist, so far as I can make out. He was an imperialist and a jingo. He supported the Boer War which, when you get down to it, was the British Empire’s violent campaign to get its hands on the South African gold reefs. He hated Suffragettes, opposed Irish Home Rule and lost few opportunities to brand socialists as ‘soap-dodgers’. Etcetera. Yet here also was the boy who’d gone psychosomatically blind as a result of the abuse suffered at the hands of the Holloway family in Southsea; the boy who spoke Hindi as a first language; and the man who wrote some of the most ‘magical stories in the English language’. (Which must be right, since the blurb on the paperback in front of me says so. But I agree). You have to know, or learn, how to separate the man or the woman from the work. (Shakespeare, anyone, who hoarded grain during a food shortage? Caravaggio, who castrated and killed a man?)
But back to Kipling – and his influence. The young James Joyce said, “If I knew Ireland as well as R.K. seems to know India, I fancy I could write something good.’” Isaac Babel studied him. Jan Montefiore, in the Introduction to her edition of his selected stories, detects a descriptive similarity between sections of The Waste Land and this story ‘Wireless’. (TS Eliot anthologised Kipling’s verse). She also suggests Hemingway pinched a line or two of it for his own story ‘In Another Country’. Everybody read him, even if they disagreed with his politics. In ‘Wireless’ Kipling sets up his main plot – the young Mr Cashell experimenting with early wireless technology – and through it stitches the red thread of chemist Mr Shaynor’s romantic attachment. ‘Red’ is appropriate because the story’s drenched in the colour, not least the spots of blood that show in Mr Shaynor’s handkerchief after his coughing fits. To pointlessly cut short a beautiful thing, there are more than Hertzian waves in the air. The spirit of John Keats is somehow, but plausibly somehow, channelled through the dozing Mr Shaynor, who then commences to scribble: ‘Remember,’ (says the narrator) ‘that in all the millions permitted there are no more than five – five little lines of which one can say: ‘These are the pure Magic. These are the clear Vision. The rest is only poetry.’ And Mr Shaynor was playing hot and cold with two of them!’ – John Keats also being an apothecary and also, of course, dying from TB.
Incredible story. Incredible. Ever so slightly, my hands shook when I re-read it for A Personal Anthology.
First published in Scribner’s Magazine, August, 1902. Collected in Traffics and Discoveries, 1904 and most recently in The Man Who Would Be King, Penguin Classics, 2011