I’m reading the complete works of Saki, aka Hector Hugh Munro. It is excellent.
Saki was a writer working in the early twentieth century. He’s best known for his short stories, and in a climate with so much whining about the neglect of the short form, it’s worth turning to him as a master of the craft. His stories are elegant, compact and with a beginning, middle and end. As Thom Sharpe said: start one Saki story and you will finish it, finish one and you will begin another. The introduction to my edition advises that:
Saki’s short stories of urban malice are like a fine dessert wine – they should be sipped, and savoured slowly; so intense are they that to read them in one sitting may induce a kind of literary dyspepsia.
Creative writing students and people who submit to literary magazines can do a lot worse than to read Saki.
Saki is like Oscar Wilde in many ways but does not enjoy Wilde’s posthumous fame. Like Wilde, he satirised the hypocrisy and stupidity of social convention and the upper classes. Like Wilde, he can deliver lines which are both superficially witty and contain drop-dead insights into the human condition. Like Wilde, he was an outsider; a gay man and a lover of life.
The introduction traces Saki’s view of life to his terrible childhood. After the death of his mother, the young Munro was raised in the countryside by two tyrannical aunts. It’s clear from the stories that Saki’s only source of happiness came from the countryside and from his pet animals.
The story ‘Sredni Vashtar,’ concerns a dying child stranded in the care of an authoritarian relative:
Mrs. DeRopp was Conradin’s cousin and guardian, and in his eyes she represented those three-fifths of the world that are necessary and disagreeable and real; the other two fifths, in perpetual antagonism to the foregoing, were summed up in himself and his imagination. One of these days Conradin supposed he would succumb to the mastering pressure of wearisome necessary things – such as illnesses and coddling restrictions and drawn-out dullness. Without his imagination, which was rampant under the spur of loneliness, he would have succumbed long ago.
The boy secretly adopts a polecat which he conceals in the shed and comes to worship as if it were a god. When Mrs. DeRopp finds out about the polecat and announces that she wants to have it destroyed, Conradin goes down to the shed and says, ‘Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar.’
Conradin’s guardian goes down to the shed that night… and never comes out.
Like all the best short story writers, Saki is a master of the killer last line.
‘Whoever will break it to the poor child? I couldn’t for the life of me!’ exclaimed a shrill voice. And while they debated the matter among themselves, Conradin made himself another piece of toast.
The introduction talks of Saki’s ‘sympathy with the oppressed, in particular children. He recognises the terrible hegemony that adults wield over the young.’
The author could have included animals. Animals are also oppressed creatures; we castrate them, restrict their movements, hunt them, eat them, perform experiments on them. But in the world of Saki, the animals are fighting back.
Saki’s work abounds with animals; cats, otters, pigs, birds, wolves, great charging bulls. His underlying theme is that humanity and its society has little protection against the beautiful roaring chaos of the natural world.
We try to impose our order upon this world, but it always defeats us. Like Carl Hiaasen’s Skink, Saki has a faith that nature and Darwinism balance all accounts, and put everything right. The only religion in Saki’s works is the religion of Pan, the god of the physical world. Pan rules over everything; we hear his laughter, ‘golden and equivocal.’
The stories I recommend are ‘Tobermory,’ in which an upper-class family’s pet cat gains the power of speech – whereupon the family realises that it knows all their affairs and secrets and decide to have the cat poisoned; and ‘The Way to the Dairy,’ in which an elderly aunt discovers a passion for wild living – to the distress of the three nieces waiting to inherit her fortune. The horror is as fine as Stephen King’s, the social commentary as acute as anything in The Importance of Being Earnest.
In many ways Saki was ahead of his time. The story, ‘Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger,’ concerns a society woman who organises a big-game shoot, solely to inspire envy in her friend and rival Loona Bimbleton. She arranges a safe hunt in a safari park, with a tiger that is senile and half-dead. Packletide shoots and misses the tiger by a mile – but the report of the gun causes it to drop dead of a heart attack.
Carl Hiaasen’s Sick Puppy introduces us to the lobbyist Palmer Stoat, who shoots tame animals shipped in from Africa on a private game reserve – similarly, to impress women and clients. As with Saki’s story, Hiaasen’s novel ends with one of these ‘hunts’ going disastrously wrong.
Mrs. Packletide gets her tiger, but her travelling companion later threatens to tell all her friends the real story of the killing. Another classic Saki last line:
Louisa Mebbin’s pretty week-end cottage, christened by her ‘Les Fauves’ and gay in summertime with its garden borders of tigerlilies, is the wonder and admiration of her friends.
‘It is a marvel how Louisa manages to do it,’ is the general verdict.
Mrs. Packletide indulges in no more big-game shooting.
‘The incidental expenses are so heavy,’ she confides to inquiring friends.
I wonder if Carl Hiaasen has ever read Saki. It wouldn’t surprise me; there is the same wit, harsh observation and dark laughter in the works of both men.
Many of Saki’s stories are narrated by Clovis Sangrail, a dissolute hedonist who acts as a kind of link piece between them. Clovis comes into his own, however, in ‘The Unrest-Cure,’ where he overhears a suburban man confiding to his friend that he is getting into a bit of a rut.
‘What you want,’ the friend says, ‘is an Unrest-Cure… you’ve heard of Rest-Cures for people who’ve broken down under stress of too much worry and strenuous living; well, you’re suffering from overmuch repose and placidity, and you need the opposite kind of treatment.’
Whereupon Clovis goes to the man’s house disguised as a bishop’s secretary and tells them that the Bishop is planning to massacre all the Jews in the neighbourhood:
‘By the way, I’ve sent some photographs of you and your sister, that I found in the library, to the Martin and Die Woche; I hope you don’t mind. Also a sketch of the staircase; most of the killing will probably be done on the staircase.’
Several days of chaos and deceit later, Clovis muses to himself: ‘I don’t suppose that they will be in the least grateful for the Unrest-Cure.’
After an eventful life as a writer, journalist and foreign correspondent, Saki joined the army in 1914. He was way above the age limit and turned down an officer’s post; he chose to enlist as a private soldier. He was killed by a sniper in 1916. His last words were, ‘Put that bloody cigarette out.’
The pseudonym is thought to come from a character in an Eastern fable; however, an alternative theory (which I prefer) is that Saki named himself after a type of monkey.
In my darker moments I wonder where the next Saki will come from. We are living in the early days of another century with its own pieties and hypocrisies. Marriage, home ownership, stability, careers, homeopathy, smoking bans, fruit and vegetable quotas – what our world is crying out for is another Saki, to laugh at our gods.