Will Self would have us believe that a volume of Saki’s stories, chosen from eight miles of second-hand books in a New York store, saved his life. That, he says in his introduction to this collection, should not be confused with changing his life. Faced with a 22-city promotional tour of America for one of his books (‘Not, you might venture, a deathly predicament in and of itself – but how wrong you are’), he was able to set against the ‘terrifying rootlessness’ of the tour the ‘triumphantly rooted character’ of Saki’s stories. I picture him, crammed in his aircraft seat, suddenly transformed, or perhaps stung, by a line like ‘to have reached thirty is to have failed in life,’ or wondering how to work off, on the next interviewer, a variation of ‘I love Americans but not when they try to talk French. What a blessing it is they never try to talk English.’
The Saki joke most venerated down the generations – ‘The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go she went’ – appears in the first tale of this selection, the latest in a series of Prion Humour Classics which includes Saki’s contemporaries Stephen Leacock, Jerome K. Jerome and the Grossmiths. Saki lends a caustic distinction to that company. His real name was Hector Hugh Munro and he was born in Burma in 1870, the son of an inspector-general of the Burma police. Two years later his mother died after a miscarriage caused by being charged by a cow in an English lane, an incident which did not prevent her son writing about women skewered by stags or otherwise rent by wild beasts. The young Hector was brought up in Devonshire by two supposedly harsh, repressive aunts. Like George Orwell, he served briefly in the Burma police. Invalided out, he was next seen as a near-dandy and struggling writer in London, somewhat given to practical joking. He was also given to what his sister Ethel, who burned his letters after he died, called ‘chumming’. This is defined as ‘sharing chambers’ in the OED, which has nothing ill to say about the practice. However, in the post-Wilde years even innocent chumming was hazardous. Saki, to whom no public scandal ever attached, moved from freelancing to become a European correspondent of the Morning Post. He had already attracted notice with his cynical short stories. V.S. Pritchett has placed him in ‘the early period of the sadistic revival in English comic and satirical writing’. It was a great day for authority-baiting and aunt-bashing, which came to the same thing, and also for finding amusing fates for children – thumbs cut off by Scissormen (Struwwelpeter), death agonies brought on by chewing bits of string (Belloc) or being hurled with one’s twin from a cliff to see who would reach the bottom first (Captain Harry Graham). Saki, though, was often on the child’s side; he recognised, too, that children loved tales of grown-ups meeting horrible ends.
Will Self writes of the ‘pagan unease’ introduced by Saki into the tedium of those weekend country-house parties in which his characters were so ‘triumphantly rooted’. He says: ‘It is as if Damien Hirst had arrived at Blandings Castle and pickled Lord Emsworth’s prize pig in formaldehyde.’ Or, I would suggest, it is as if Ben Travers, having brushed up on Grand Guignol, had given one of his Aldwych silly asses a profile of Adonisian beauty, triumphantly displayed until eventually the head is turned to reveal the other side to be heart-stoppingly hideous.
Saki’s silly asses, or smartasses, had something of what Osbert Sitwell described as ‘concave and fatigued elegance’. There was no need to be epicene in order to throw off epigrams, but it helped. These soigné posers were decidedly not the sort of young men who cannot wait to turn their sisters into aunts. Anyway, there were too many aunts already. The function of Saki’s young men was to bounce witticisms off their betters, to organise practical jokes, and when there was nothing better to do, to blow cigarette smoke at greenfly. The two outstanding performers, mouthpieces for his mots, were Reginald and Clovis (not a name, as Samuel Goldwyn would have said, to be given to every Tom, Dick and Harry). Reginald believed that the religious system which had given us green Chartreuse would never really die. Here he is, showing off to a duchess at the Carlton: ‘There may have been disillusionments in the lives of the medieval saints, but they would scarcely have been better pleased if they could have foreseen that their names would be associated nowadays chiefly with racehorses or the cheaper clarets.’ Clovis has been likened to Evelyn Waugh’s Basil Seal, thanks to his gift for disruption and blackmail, though he might not, like Seal, have filled the post of constitutional adviser to the tyrant of Azania, and it is hard to see him sitting down, even unwittingly, to a cannibal banquet. It is Clovis who borrows a beast from a menagerie for a display of Siberian magic (‘What!’ shouted Colonel Hampton, ‘you’ve taken the abominable liberty of turning my wife into a wolf, and now you stand there calmly and say you can’t turn her back again!’). It is Clovis who devises a wounding way of teaching a friend’s mother not to open his letters. And it is Clovis who sits in a Turkish bath composing, for a bet, a Coronation ode in Wildean vein, full of ‘opalescent mauves’, chalcedony and chrysoprase, guaranteed to put any struggling magazine out of business.
Clovis’s main concern is to avoid being sent to the colonies, a fate which puts paid to Comus, the ‘untamable young lord of misrule’ in Saki’s novel The Unbearable Bassington. ‘Whenever I feel in the least tempted to be methodical or business-like or even decently industrious,’ Clovis says, ‘I go to Kensal Green and look at the graves of those who died in business.’ Sometimes his smart talk is too much for the ladies. ‘I must be going,’ says a Mrs Eggleby, ‘in a tone which had been thoroughly sterilised of even perfunctory regret’. And a Lady Caroline, bound for a play, threatens that if it contains any more brilliant conversation she will burst into tears.
Those tedious country-house weekends, with the ever-present threat of the pianola and progressive halma played for milk chocolate, certainly need a Clovis to disturb them. Sooner or later the guests play that game in which someone goes out of the room to return representing some figure or incident in history. During one game it is noticed that the very wealthy Klammersteins, whom everyone has been courting, have vanished. It turns out that they have been abducted by two game-players and abandoned on a moor thirty miles away. This, to everyone’s delight and admiration, represents ‘Ferdinand and Isabella deporting the Jews’. If Jews could be disposed of like this, what mercy could aunts expect? A notably unpopular one is removed by kidnappers who threaten to return her unless they are paid £2000 a year, a proposal gladly accepted. Another is left to flounder in a water butt by a child who explains that she has been strictly ordered not to enter that part of the garden. Unfortunately, this selection does not contain Saki’s notorious ‘Sredni Vashtar’. In this a boy who deems himself unduly oppressed by ‘the Woman’ who is his guardian watches as she goes to the garden shed to do away with his much-loved polecat-ferret which she has discovered there, and to which he has been secretly praying: ‘Do something for me, Sredni Vashtar.’ The animal does his wicked best. As the servants debate who shall break the terrible news to the poor child, he makes himself another slice of toast, a delicacy previously denied him because it ‘made trouble’. This tale has been subjected to as much nervous dissection as Kipling’s ‘Mary Postgate’, in which a lady’s companion, instead of helping a crashed German airman, watches him die, then goes home and relaxes in a hot bath before tea. ‘Sredni Vashtar’ has been hailed as the ultimate revenge on the empire-builders who left the raising of their children to women relatives back home. It has also been seen as a masterly psychological insight into the mind of a lonely and sensitive, if precociously learned, ten-year-old. How much better if the little wretch had been reared on the Boys’ Own Paper.
If that tale was thought too rancid for inclusion, why did the compiler exclude ‘The Background’, a gem of purest ray serene, as free of malice as it is of ambiguous wolf-boys? Here we have Henri Deplis using a windfall to commission a famous Italian tattooist to portray the Fall of Icarus across his back. The result is a slight disappointment as the client had ‘supposed Icarus to be a fortress taken by Wallenstein in the Thirty Years War, but he was more than satisfied with the execution of the work’. The Fall of Icarus becomes a national treasure which cannot be displayed anywhere, even in a Turkish bath, without permission. Nor may it be taken across frontiers, for fear of causing friction among the European powers.
Saki’s stories may not appeal to those who find twists in the tail meretricious and prefer the sort which not only peter out but peter in. Yet it is impossible not to admire the craftsmanship, the precision, the unerring selection of the right asp from the basket to do the lethal job. As Self says, ‘Arresting metaphor follows terse description; banjaxed aphorism succeeds extravagant idea.’ One such extravagant idea, that of the talking cat which spills uncomfortable truths in the drawing-room, shows with what insouciance Saki could introduce the supernatural. A lesser pen would have made the cat the tool of a ventriloquist, for it was an age which believed voices could be ‘thrown’ into anything from a pillar-box to a galloping horse. Inevitably some of the Saki witticisms betray a Wilde influence: ‘There is certainly this much to be said for viciousness; it keeps boys out of mischief.’ He cannot match Wodehouse’s more dazzling flights of metaphor, but who could? On occasion he could unbend to do the good-enough-for-Punch joke: ‘ “She’s leaving her present home to go to Lower Seymour Street.” “I dare say she will, if she stays there long enough.” ’
As an unrest-cure for entrenched feminism or smug liberalism Saki will do very well. Try the tale (not in this volume) about Emperor Placidus Superbus, who is warned that the tribe of Suffragettae means to wreck his chariot race. When five hundred wild women try to do just that he rearranges the programme and brings forward the grand combat of wild beasts. The menagerie gates open, the ravening jaws do what is required of them and the chariot race is restaged. Suffragettes and striking servants vie for Saki’s scorn with the teachings of Bernard Shaw. Here is a sketch of a rich grande dame of a type not, perhaps, wholly extinct:
Sophie Chattel-Monkheim was a Socialist by conviction and a Chattel-Monkheim by marriage ... When she inveighed eloquently against the evils of capitalism at drawing-room meetings and Fabian conferences she was conscious of a comfortable feeling that the system, with all its inequalities and iniquities, would probably last her time. It is one of the consolations of middle-aged reformers that the good they inculcate must live after them if it is to live at all.
And can we be sure that we will never have a minister for the Armed Forces prepared to say, like the one in Saki: ‘Discipline to be effective must be optional’?
The short biographical sketch by Self does not reveal what a hard-boiled figure evolved from the dandy who, for whatever reason, had saddled himself with the name of the ganymede in FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát. This was a man who, as A.J. Langguth’s 1981 biography tells, leaned in a doorway in St Petersburg in 1905 watching the massacre of reformers by tsarist troops, afterwards inspecting the huddled heads split open by Cossack sabres. Two years earlier in Sofia he had wandered through the smoking palace of a king blown up by dynamitards. From the Balkan wars he had sent dispatches to the Morning Post which have a disconcertingly modern ring: ‘I am within sight of Mitrovitza, which is now the centre of Albanian effervescence.’ In 1914, aged 43, he could have stayed put, or joined all those minor and major novelists who flocked into the intelligence services. Instead, he was one of the instant volunteers, enlisting in the ranks, and by 1916 was a reliable and well-respected three-striper, the next thing to an old sweat. It is probably tasteless to say that he was a good soldier, and as good soldiers go, he went. He fell to a sniper’s bullet in no-man’s-land, possibly just after shouting ‘Put that bloody cigarette out!’ This, if true, would have been a black pay-off as good as any in his stories (it has the bleak, casual cruelty of the last sentence in his tale of the fight to save the nest of two rare birds: ‘The buzzards successfully reared two young ones, which were shot by a local hairdresser.’) To meet his death Saki had risen from a sick bed, anxious to join his men in the attack. We may or may not believe his sister Ethel, who said he had always wanted to take part in a bayonet charge.
In Saki’s pages serendipity does not go unrewarded. It is a delight to find his travellers making for Fiume, Ragusa and Constantinople, cities now masquerading under inferior names. All three have tended, like Saki’s Crete, to make ‘more history than they can consume locally’. His England is a battleground for good cooks, in which no quarter is given. How poignant to find mention of ‘the evening postman’ or ‘the last post of the evening’. Even if the last post brings a subversive letter from Clovis, the mere fact that there is an evening post at all, in addition to one or two afternoon postmen, is a reminder of our fallen state. An article posted to Punch in the morning could be back the same evening with a rejection slip. Not everyone would wish to live in a world of such quickly blasted hopes, but the evening postman also brought love letters written that morning. The Prime Minister, Herbert Asquith, when assumed to be directing the First World War, posted letters to his daughter’s friend, Venetia Stanley, at 6 p.m. in Whitehall and they were delivered the same evening to the Whitechapel hospital where she nursed.
From time to time Saki mocks the popular taste in art which is all for something ‘honest and explicit’, with a title to assist. Thus, a riderless warhorse staggering into a courtyard full of pale, swooning women, and called Bad News, suggested to the public mind ‘a distinct interpretation of some military catastrophe’. We meet a busy cattle painter who feeds the Royal Academy with pictures of dun cows drowsing picturesquely under walnut trees, variously titled Noontide Peace, The Haven of the Herd or A Shady Nook where Drowsy Milkers Dream. The Army and Navy Store catalogue for the period lists pictures called Green Pastures and Still Waters, Shallow Stream at Eventide, The Sun Sets in His Western Bower and the like, and it was from such titles that the customers ordered these works.
In ‘The Unrest-Cure’ Clovis ponders sending his victim ‘to do a course of district visiting in one of the apache quarters in Paris’. The apaches were murderous riffraff who periodically had to be flushed by dogs out of the Parisian woods and derelict buildings. In the year I was born, four apaches were guillotined before breakfast outside Béthune jail and the crowd howled and cheered as the remains were gathered up and sent for dissection to Lille. I can almost picture the younger Saki leaning in a doorway to watch, then going back to his hotel to butter a slice of toast.