Friday, July 18, 2014

Saki: A peerless writer mown down by the scythe of war

One of my favorite book critics, Michael Dirda, recently marked an anniversary re British writer Hector Hugh Munro (1870–1916), known more widely by his pen name Saki. "As it happens," Dirda wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "this is the centennial of Saki's finest single collection, Beasts and Super-Beasts."
It was the last book that this wittiest of Edwardian writers saw into print, since he soon after enlisted as an infantry soldier in World War I, even though he was already in his early 40s. Saki was eventually killed in action at Beaumont-Hamel, France, in 1916, shot in the head. His last words were reportedly "Put out that bloody cigarette!" ….
Along with Ronald Firbank, Saki set the tone—outrageous and epigrammatic—for the English school of comic fiction (and drama) that runs from Evelyn Waugh and Noël Coward to Ivy Compton-Burnett and Roald Dahl. Saki's own light-hearted contes cruels elegantly depict practical jokes gone wrong, childhood savagery, the inanities of country-house life or kindly, beneficent nature unexpectedly turning deadly, and yet they remain as fizzily delicious as a Pimm's cup on a summer's day. Now, of course, these tales of languid aesthetes named Reginald, Clovis or Egbert also seem more or less camp, suitable for illustration by Edward Gorey and suffused with ever-fresh cynicism: "The Government of the day, which from its tendency to be a few hours behind the course of events had been nicknamed the Government of the afternoon.…"
It is just this airy suavity, tinged with maliciousness and melancholy, that makes "Beasts and Super-Beasts" so endlessly rereadable. In "The Schartz-Metterklume Method" the wickedly mischievous Lady Carlotta is mistaken for the new governess expected by Mr. and Mrs. Quabarl. For a lark, she quickly pretends to be Miss Hope and, when queried how she will interest her young charges in the past, replies loftily, "I teach history on the Schartz-Metterklume method." She begins her instruction, deplorably, hilariously, with a most inappropriate episode from the annals of early Rome.
In "The Lumber Room" Saki takes up a favorite theme—poetic justice—by relating how young Nicholas revenges himself on an aunt of quite exceptional heartlessness. "It was her habit, whenever one of the children fell from grace, to improvise something of a festival nature from which the offender would be rigorously debarred; if all the children sinned collectively they were suddenly informed of a circus in a neighboring town, a circus of unrivaled merit and uncounted elephants, to which, but for their depravity, they would have been taken that very day." Isn't that a marvelous sentence? Still, Nicholas's vengeance isn't quite so bloodthirsty as that of Conradin in Saki's famously horrific "Sredni Vashtar," found in "The Chronicles of Clovis" (1911).
Sadly, we're sold out of the Edward Gorey–illustrated Saki stories from the New York Review of Books. BUT there's a Saki story in Mystery & Suspense: Short Stories by Great Writers, one of the "Worth Pocket Companion" series that also includes crime, romance, and travel volumes. And I ran "Reginald at the Claremont" in a previous blog.
The drawing of Munro in uniform by David Levine originally appeared in the October 8, 1981 issue of the New York Review of Books with the article "A Genius for Revenge." The Gorey illustration for "Sredni Vashtar" appears in the NYRB classics edition of Saki's stories.
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  1. in case the poignancy of Saki's last line isn't evident, that lighted cigarette revealed to a German sniper where to direct his deadly fire. The stupidity of a foxhole companion cost Saki his life. In one of his stories, a detail like that would have a tragic-comic edge. But because it is reality, it is merely tragic, and our great loss.

    1. I am told Dot Parker said:"Wit has truth in it; wisecracking is merely calisthenics with words."
      Saki's wit derived its force from the truth behind it.
      I guess that's why he had to enlist in this awful fight, because he could not abide the truth of his ducking his share. Nobility of soul, and all that.
      One cannot deny inexorable Fate. But one wishes it could go be inexorable somewhere else.