Flight from the imagination. Was Rudyard Kipling a modernist experimentalist or an imperialist windbag, a producer of populist rhetoric? And why does a faint sense of unease still cloud his name?

The Unforgiving Minute: a life of Rudyard Kipling

Harry Ricketts <em>Chatto & Windus, 434pp, £25</

The works of Rudyard Kipling were forced upon me at a very tender age. Somehow sensing that, unknown to their adult donor, these books contained much that was seductively gothic and ghoulish, I slotted them alongside Poe and other morbid favourites on my shelves for ever.

My depressing precocity highlights Kipling's near-supernatural ability to transcend human differences in his art. As a writer, he can bear a multiplicity of interpretations. Yet for decades he was dismissed as an embarrassing imperialist windbag, a producer of cheap populist rhetoric. Even now, despite greater academic respectability, a faint sense of unease still clouds his name.

Auden wrote that "time . . . has pardoned Kipling and his views", but there is still no critical consensus about his art. If we can overlook Pound's barmy fascism, the casual anti-Semitism of T S Eliot and others, the reflex racism of countless literary luminaries from Conrad to Larkin, why is Kipling still shadowed by doubt? There is a powerful mystery here.

Kipling has been much misread - his subtleties ignored, his ironies overlooked, his complexities reduced. He has not been well served by his biographers, many of whom were censored into gentility by his daughter, Elsie Bambridge. Now that the salacious Bandar-Log of modern biographers have been unleashed on Kipling they tend to fall into one of two categories: either they want to prove that he was homosexual, or claim him as a literary precursor to modernism, as Harry Ricketts does here.

This new biography is a curious hybrid. It contains solid, even stolid biographical research, and succeeds in disentangling some of the political muddle of Kipling's life. Ricketts' literary analysis is competent, if unsophisticated. Most valuably, he traces the debt to Browning and the many other resonant literary allusions in Kipling's work, thus undermining the charges of philistinism so often levelled against it.

But Ricketts can be curiously inconsequential, mingling gossip and sensationalism. I didn't know that Kipling's parents ate reindeer tongue at their wedding breakfast, or that the young Rudyard had a pet toad called Pluto. Laundry-list stuff, surely? Speculation about the teenage Kipling's recourse to Indian prostitutes, his worries about VD and use of opium are inevitable in a contemporary biography, although it always seemed evident that Kipling was more worldly than he could express within late Victorian conventions.

Ricketts trots capably through the famous public life, from the disrupted, traumatic Anglo-Indian childhood to Kipling's stint as a cub reporter in Lahore and to his early triumph as London literary wunderkind. His curious marriage and the appalling deaths of two of his children were succeeded by Kipling's increasingly hysterical jingoism. Finally, fame and honours coincided with the waning of academic respect for his work.

Ricketts' claim on Kipling as a modernist is based on overfamiliar arguments. These contend that certain of the later stories are indisputably experimental and (thus?) constitute high art. Ricketts calls "Mrs Bathurst", for instance, "the first modernist text in English. Deliberate obliqueness, formal fragmentation, absence of a privileged authorial point of view, intense literary self- consciousness, lack of closure - all the defining qualities of modernism were present and correct." Well, yes - with hindsight. And he considers "Mary Postgate" to be "arguably the finest short story inspired by the Great War".

Mary Postgate is a dulled spinster who is brought to orgasm by watching a wounded airman die in her garden. It is very cruel, very skilfully written. Such stories are indeed multi-layered, elliptical and densely ambiguous. Yet one feels that Kipling had merely become more sophisticated in his technical ability to distance himself from the reader. He utilised such machinations from the start of his career - endless framing devices, circumlocutions, oblique narrative angles, distractingly weird names, dialects and other manoeuvres, as if text were some great game. In a sense, it is.

Ricketts compares Traffics and Discoveries, in which Kipling's late and allegedly greatest stories appear, with Eliot's The Waste Land, citing their common juxtaposition of high and low culture, literary cross-referencing and mythic patterning. Yet it seems somehow all wrong, this linking of Kipling to the likes of Woolf, Joyce, Pound and Eliot. Is this merely because, as Ricketts suggests, Kipling's later work has not received the same close critical readings?

There are distinct reasons for doubting Kipling's common cause with modernism. One was obviously his politics - not their existence but simply that they were disproportionate and distorted, and seen to be so even at the time. In one of his few original observations, Ricketts detects something "willed and self-conscious about his adoption of a more strident, imperialist stance". Ever elusive, Kipling was adept at projecting ambiguity. He never resolved his internal conflict - he was both an artistic bohemian, drawn towards strange, abnormal subjects and experiences, and simultaneously an over-anxious puritan, willingly subject to rules, duty and work. Modernism was pre-eminently concerned with the individual psyche. Kipling showed sympathy for the plight of individuals, but their trials were always external, their problems exogenously explained. He even externalised his genius - his "daemon", as he put it. Kipling shunned the interior world with superstitious dread. After several breakdowns, he knew it too well. He stressed, instead, the social contract and group role - the tribe, the family, the nation, the empire. He focused on external and especially technical matters, too, to an unreadable degree. One reviewer gibbered helplessly after reading about "all parts of a ship, the rivets, stringers, garboard-strake . . ." and pronounced this recurring tendency "a bore". And it is. Also, it alienates Kipling from younger, newer readers and this, too, mitigates against enduring modernist status.

Henry James's final verdict on Kipling was: "The talent enormous, but the brutality even deeper seated." Angus Wilson, in his hugely atmospheric The Strange Ride of Rudyard Kipling, contends that Kipling failed as a great writer because he "shrank . . . from deep self-enquiry" into the despair, anxiety and guilt that haunted both himself and his creations.

Kipling certainly fretted about disorder, anarchy, intemperance. It may be that he saw introspection and self-absorption as potentially corrupting and was dismayed by the growing intellectual fascination with the unconscious prevalent at the time. He understood the power of his incredible imagination - and, I think, feared it. For what is more ungovernable, anarchic, perverse and uncontrollable than the imagination?

The works of genius - some early stories, many poems and the children's books - were written when he was least anxious and self-conscious. As he grew older, he seemed increasingly trammelled by the demoniac aspects of creativity, and their potential for undisciplined temptation and deviance. "Mrs Bathurst", in this context, can be read as a warning against further indulging our imaginations through the recent arrival of cinema (central to the story). Any development which stimulated mass fantasy could only result in chaos, confusion, a blurring of necessary boundaries. Numberless similar controversies provide the tremendous tensions in Kipling's art.

The Unforgiving Minute is serviceable and conscientious, but lacks fire. When the last academic has turned out the light, Kipling will remain in the darkness speaking to us through a medium of which he was wary because of its resistance to control: that of intense feeling and emotion.

This article first appeared in the 19 February 1999 issue of the New Statesman, We are richer than you think