Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Kipling’s Cat is an excellent biography of a so-called Boston Brahmin. One of those original character who is extremely intelligent, outgoing and eccentric who enjoy life to the full. But he is not one of those who are born into great wealth but rather who are gifted and embody the old values of hard work, thrift and humility. The memoir was written by the daughter, herself a unique individual who also travels the world as a writer. Wyman the father reminds me of those eccentric Englishmen traversing the world in the Empire’s wide spread colonies. But it is not through the benefits of the American empire that the Boston Brahmin has exploited but on his own gifts as a scientist. One of those well educated people who practice science at the highest level; well-versed in mathematics as well as high culture. This marks his elitism.
It is a story of a life well lived with sojourns in Alaska, Japan, Cairo, Paris and Rome as well as his young life in New England and Boston. It describes scenes with wealthy Parisians, displaced white Russians, European scientists based in Rome, vacations in Paris and Belgium and Norway. He was also a good watercolor painter; conversant in painting and other arts. There is a picture of him stark naked beside a stream, calmly painting the scene before him, as he sat on the rocks beside a river, possibly somewhere in Europe or Alaska. It was that picture that made me borrow the book – an image of a well-educated Bostonian painting in the nude like it was the most normal thing to do. It speaks of an individuality that expresses itself in whatever form it can find its freedom. He had 3 marriages with the last one to an expatriate Russian who lived in a château in the French countryside. (It brings to mind a classic film I saw recently – the French film ‘Rules of the Game’ by Jean Renoir, son of the famous painter).
There are brief scenes of drama and intrigue with his association to Robert Oppenheimer who the government suspected of being a communist spy. Wyman’s posting in Japan was denied due to this link with Oppenheimer as well as his marriage to a Russian. Such was the atmosphere during the cold war. But his intelligence and scientific skills allowed him to be a treasured member of the European scientific community – living and working in Rome. His early youth seem privileged in a classic way but without the trappings of great wealth. Sailing in the summer, tennis games, hiking in mountain ranges, travels to South America and Europe, studies in Ivy League universities. It is a privilege life with a blue – blooded pedigree having ancestors who crossed the Atlantic during the early years of the Republic. There are no stories of ostentatious ness but frugality and near monastic existence and an abhorrence of materialism. Sometimes it even reeks of near poverty such is the New England distaste of frivolity.
The writer says that his father was not the examined life as best lived according to the Greeks. I disagree because it seemed to be a full life of education and travel without any excessive indulgence in vices or waste. Perhaps it is the training and awareness provided by their parents and perhaps the tradition of New England ways seeping down from the Old World that has established a life of purpose. Of course there are obvious shortcomings such as his role as a father when he left his children to relatives after the death of his first wife. But there are no harsh judgments here. Contrasted to the lives of the Vanderbilt or Astor offspring, for example, who seem to dissipate their existence with meaningless or trivial pursuits. I think Kipling’s Cat is a story of American nobility – the story of an aristocracy of hard work, discreteness, humility, elegant manners, good culture and travel - devoid of Hollywood excess and luridness.
Overall it is poignant and a well-written account, a daughter’s last elegy to a father and the wonderful life he lived. One can only wish to have lived that kind of life. He had never written great books or expressed any great insight but his life was his statement. The wonderful account of his daughter shows he had also succeeded as a father. To have produced a wonderful and nuanced writer possessing the old values of life, so much different from the scandal plagued lives in recent memory. It gives pause for people to think about their own lives and measure it to one who has lived in full with his own discreet, elegant anonymity and grace. The last years in Paris seemed like a fitting end to a person who loved to travel the world. (Kipling’s Cat refers to line in a story by Rudyard Kipling about a cat that does not sit still but keeps moving).