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Customer Review

on 6 January 2000
Even after being held spellbound by every page of this fascinating and enjoyable biography, the reader may still find large areas of Kipling's personality an enigma. Other than Hardy, it is difficult to think of another English writer who combined such facility in writing poetry as well as fiction, nor one who can so transfix the reader with such deadly accuracy of phrase and immediacy of description. And yet, and yet...... while Hardy largely dealt with one corner of Britain, at one specific period, and nevertheless achieved a timeless universality worthy of his own beloved Greek dramatists, Kipling, who drew on the whole world and the whole span of human history for his themes, ultimately became a prisoner of the prejudices and even hatreds of his own time. It is this failure, no less than the dreadful personal tragedies that marred Kipling's middle and later years, that is the core of this fine book. As perhaps no other great writer, Kipling recognised, as Orwell so correctly identified, that it is not enough to be a critic, and that the world is only moved forward by those who act. The author describes very well how it was this positive aspect of the Imperial Dream that so fascinated and inspired Kipling. The tragedy was however that this man of such broad vision and talents, and whose genius had so much of the timeless and universal, should, apparently willingly, have allowed himself to be taken over by, and identified with, some of the meaner-minded aspects of that same phenomenon. One gains an impression of a man of considerable personal charm, decency and kindness who nevertheless shrank back from the challenge of true greatness. In the process he managed to identify himself with some very ignoble sentiments and causes (he seems to have disliked just about every racial or religious group at some stage or other) and to write about his targets in terms that were offensive and hateful even in his own time. This factor may well be the crucial one in ensuring that, though the best of Kipling is superb, much of the rest is dross.
It is hard to praise this biography enough. Not only does it flow with all the pace of a well-written novel, but it conveys all the detail required to portray a rich and complex world without ever overwhelming the reader. One is amazed by the social linkages - for Kipling seemed to know everybody, both passively through his inherited family network, as well as actively through his courting of the great and (often not so) good. Kipling's writings are discussed in relation to his life in enough of detail to return one to the originals or to vow to read what one has hitherto missed. I forged through this biography with Kipling's Collected Verse by my side and found items that I had previously ignored illuminated splendidly by the author's placement of them in context.
In summary: a marvellous read, whether you already know Kipling or not. If you don't, it will send you scurrying to his writings.
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