The Light That Failed by Rudyard Kipling (1891)

The Light That Failed is Kipling’s first novel, completed in 1890 and published early the next year when he was just 26.

It’s a mess, easier to pick apart than to take seriously as a whole. It concerns a cocky young artist, Dick Heldar (self portrait), who suffers a brutal childhood (self portrait), falls in love with his childhood sweetheart, Maisie, who’s also grown up to be an artist (which is what happened to Kipling), and then starts to go blind (Kipling’s own sight was permanently damaged in his childhood).

But before you start to get interested, the artist in question is not a greenery-yallery aesthete, neither one of Oscar Wilde’s decadent set or one of the late Victorian ‘Olympians’, but the bluffest of jingoistic public school cheps, who despises foreign ‘impressionism’, paints hyper-realistic portraits of fine, upstanding British soldiers, and is only really happy when he’s on a steamer heading East or in the deserts of Sudan along with the soldiers he adores.

The long middle section of the book, a chap’s spiffing views on art and ‘gells’ and chaps together, along with pen portraits of frightful working class types, is just bad. The boisterous cameraderie of him and his foreign correspondent friend, Torpenhow and the other two ‘legendary’ journalists is every bit as self-regarding and self-mythologising as such sets so often are. (The drunken banter of the oh-so-jaded, smugly superior public school foreign correspondents reminded me of the exact same milieu in which John Le Carre sets The Honourable Schoolboy in the 1970s. Thus does the drunk arrogant English white upper-class perpetuate itself for ever.)

The so-called love affair with Maisie never acquires any depth, revealing only a desperately immature mind. Kipling shows no insight into the male mind in love, or the female mind at all. The steady stream of fifth-form boys’ school ‘wisdom’ about women this and women that makes your toes curl with embarrassment. About P&O steamers and Martini rifles Kipling may know a thing or two. About women – nothing.

Kipling is very given to falling into Biblical cadences or even direct Bible quotes to try and lift his style above the dull and mundane. To see his style naked and unadorned is to realise how flat it is. He doesn’t really work the English language. This is hidden in the Plain Tales From The Hills by the liberal use of Indian, Urdu, Pathan or technically specialist jargons which fool you into thinking he’s doing something clever with the language.

Revealingly, the ‘foreign-words-hide-dull-style’ technique is central to his only successful full-length narrative, Kim, written ten years later. When he’s not using Biblical phraseology or quoting from hymns, he resorts to extensive use of spiffing public school banter – that hermetically-sealed escape from grown-up reality, that retreat into the cant of a privileged adolescence. This interweaving of Bible phrases, public school japes, along with a would-be military briskness (‘Step lively, sergeant-major!’) is just dire.

Only the opening chapter when he and Maisie are naughty children together, stealing an old gun and going down to the dunes to practice firing – and the two chapters set in the heat and dust of the Sudan – come alive. These chapters read like his better short stories, concentrated vignettes which obviously so engaged his imagination that his style comes to life, and you can really see and smell what he’s describing.

All that said, the central narrative of the artist as a jolly decent chap, struck down by Fate and tormented by unrequited Love, clearly pushed lots of buttons, then and for some generations afterwards. It was made into not one but three films. I’d dearly like to see the 1940 one starring the dashing Hollywood leading man, Ronald Colman. I can’t find it on Amazon or ebay, though you can buy the posters.

And finally: The long ending where Dick decides to escape from London and pack off abroad, to be back with the ‘boys’ as another ‘row’ (i.e. war) kicks off in the Sudan, leads to the climax of the book where he is killed by a shot to the head from the Fuzzy Wuzzies attacking the British army outpost, just as he arrives.

This abrupt ending makes a kind of impact on the reader – if only as a stereotype, a cliche, exemplifying a particular type of debased Romantic gesture; the hero, spurned in love, running off to meet a romantic end in the faraway struggles of the Glorious Empire etc.

But how terrible for Kipling, and what an indictment of his shallow, immature, jingoistic ideology, when his own son, Jack, was shot and killed on his first day at the Western Front to which his father had proudly sent him, early in the Great War, 20 years later. Dashing romantic gestures turned out not to be so glorious as the young Rudyard had imagined them to be, and as he had painted them in numerous stories and poems. War turned out not to be glorious, but cruel and desolating and that knowledge sheds a grim light on this bright, confident and appallingly shallow book.

Other Kipling reviews

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