Tuesday, May 7, 2013
The Light That Failed
Author: Rudyard Kipling
Oh, the works that get passed over. Some of the greatest work of the greatest authors is ignored because it's missing some of the charm of their more popular works. Rudyard Kipling may be known best for The Jungle Book, Kim, and Captain Courageous, but he possessed a deeper observation of the world than just the adventures palatable to children. The Earth he lived on was full of failures, darkness, and pain, and any man given to the arts has the tools to express what he's seen.
The Light That Failed is just such a book. I originally picked it up off a corner bookshelf in an obscure bookstore in my hometown (the 1910 Art Type edition; I absolutely adore it) and only bought it for the author's name. However, after a year of trying to find time to read it and constant interruptions, I was able to immerse myself in the story and see the real beauty and skill that Kipling is famous for.
The book tells the story of two orphans, Dick and Maisie, who form a naive childhood relationship while under foster care before going out into the world. Dick goes abroad and to war, and Maisie goes to France for her education. The book skips forward about ten years, and we find Dick a talented artist who is injured in combat and sent home to London. There, in a chance meeting, he finds Maisie again, who has grown into a beautiful young woman with the same airy charm he remembers, and he renews his love for her. They are both artists, and he instructs her in a competitive way, but his unrequited love for her tortures the relationship. Then, to his horror and disbelief, Dick finds himself going blind from an old wound and must deal with the repercussions.
The primary attraction is the beautiful prose. Kipling is best known for his command of the English language, simultaneously making us snort with laughter and ponder what it means, turning us to and fro with quick but thoughtful words. Few other authors show his sense of humor in tandem with heavier thoughts. The Light That Failed is definitely of a different breed than his other works, but it is not out of character nor his style.
That being said, the symbolism is thick here. The concept of Dick being essentially castrated and removed from life by the old wounds of war is something that translated to today's soldiers (PTSD, anyone?) and Kipling's distaste for Britain's foreign involvements is clear. Of course, he takes a good-natured English stab at the French by his descriptions of the ridiculous art instructor Kami, but the serious current of concern runs beneath. Distance separates Dick from everything he loves, and even when he tries to go back, nothing is the same ever again after being exposed to the world.
The title is twofold: both literal, for his blindness, and for disappointed hopes.
Beware: this book is a tearjerker in some places. Kipling holds no details back when going down the disappointed hopes vein. He clearly believes that our efforts, no matter how much talent or time backs them, can still result in nothing when faced by the whims of the world. This fits perfectly in line with the sentiment of the time— the fin de siecle era was full of decadent and disenchanted modernist writers— but it is nonetheless upsetting to those who are looking for hope. In particular, the scene where Maisie finally visits Dick after his blindness completely takes over is moving. Kipling uses the full power of detached observance and vivid adjectives to convey how pathetically we can decline when struck by powers that we cannot understand.
In line with one of my other absolute favorite books, Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, The Light That Failed has been passed over with time. That's terrible unfortunate, because I would contend that this is a landmark in the modernist movement and one of the better novels I have read from that era. Brief, poignant, and deeply felt, Kipling has given us a moment in time that we've all felt: something is irretrievably lost.
Because it's not popular, this novel is available for as little as $3.99 on the Kindle or $9.41 in paperback from Amazon. Or, believe it or not, it's cheaper on the Barnes & Noble Nook for $1.99. Your library is likely to have a copy because it's been 113 years since this book first appeared, but I would highly recommend buying yourself a copy. This book will not take you a long time to read, but I suspect it will hang around in your thoughts for quite some time after.
On a side note, I am not dead. I took a job back in January that requires an inordinate amount of time and have not had time to patronize the Chicago Public Library for anything other than 19th century French fiction (I'm taking a class on it— Rimbaud and Flaubert forever!). Over the summer, expect to hear a lot more from me! That's all. Thanks for reading! <3