Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A night's reading

I read Ruth Franklin's piece in the New Yorker about Somerset Maugham (nominally a review of a new biography by Selina Hastings), and it got me interested in Maugham, whose books have been sitting on my shelves for years. Obviously, we have an interest in some of Maugham's travel-related writing (i.e., stories like the one that became the inspiration for Michelle de Kretser's "The Hamilton Case"). But it is interesting that Of Human Bondage came out in 1915, the same year as Woolf's The Voyage Out and Ford Maddox Ford's The Good Soldier.

I spent a little while later at night reading Maugham's The Gentleman in the Parlour, a book of travel writing Maugham published in 1930. It has a fascinating ambivalent apologia for British colonialism, where Maugham effectively tries to make a statement about something while also stating that he's not going to talk about it.

I also read Isaac Chotiner's review of Robert McCrum's new book, "Globish," which makes some of the same points as David Crystal's book about Global English, which I used in my "Global English" class in Fall 2009. The idea of a stripped down, pidgin English taking over rather than plain English -- but Chotiner doesn't find it convincing. (Come to think of it, the examples in Crystal's book of formalizing pidgins were also were few and far between.)

I also read a little of Ismat Chughtai's "The Crooked Line." Off to a great start -- punchy imagery and a generally insouciant tone.

And Kipling. Looked at the "Gunga Din" poem again -- you can see why it became so huge. I wonder whether people have recorded musical versions of these "Barrack-Room Ballads." A couple of the songs in my Selected Kipling volume do have the "N-word" gratuitously employed, which reminds you starkly of where Kipline was coming from.

I also read an interesting letter by Kipling to his cousing Margaret (whom he addresses as "Wop"), where he starts out exactly right on the heterogeneity of India and Indians, but ends in an ideological rant about the filth of Indian society. It seems like Kipling, at his best, would let go of ideology, and tell stories that had the stamp of the real. At other times, however, he would pull back from that, and ruin a perfectly good story with a few lines of racial predestination.

Kipling is a very slippery beast to hold. The racial consciousness is there early on (as early as his first fall in Lahore -- 1882 -- when he had to face down the Club's outrage about the Ilbert Bill). But he wrote many good things both before and including Kim (1902), where he occasionally forgets about the need to reassert his whiteness.

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