Imagine a younger version of Oscar Wilde’s spokesman, Lord Henry Wotton from “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” standing in the crowd of wealthy upper-class people who do not see their pomposity and silliness. Your witty narrator notices the cruelty and dark desires hidden just underneath the fancy surface. Starting the narrative in medias res he describes what he sees without showing great attachment to characters. And each short story manages to engage you and amuse you. You will not laugh hysterically, but you will chuckle a lot if you read Saki’s short stories.
I got my edition from the library. It belongs to Penguin Popular Classics series (my favorite) and is entitled simply “The Best of Saki” (link). As this is my first encounter with this writer (real name Hector Hugh Munro. Maybe he should have kept it, it attracts the Nobel Prize in Literature), I cannot judge if the selection of 38 stories from his five collections is adequate. As for now, “The Chronicles of Clovis” (1911) collection appears to be the best, though “Beasts and Super-Beasts” (1914) falls close.
The Edwardian period in literature is not a familiar one to me. That’s what I thought when I read the term on the cover. Quick checking proved me wrong! The Edwardian era in England produced many excellent writers, among them Joseph Conrad, E. M. Forster, Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Edith Wharton, and P. G. Wodehouse. But while most of these writers are widely read to this day (one of the reasons may lie in many film adaptations of their works), Saki is not one of them.
He does not deserve to be forgotten. His short stories, or sketches as I prefer to call them, are funny, sophisticated, satirical and thought-provoking. To quote the cover of my edition, they are “wickedly amusing and as sharp and sparkling as cut glass.”
All stories are extremely short, 4-5 pages seems to be the norm. All people interested in writing short fiction should read Saki. The limits of length do not influence the style. Saki’s style is very elaborate in terms of vocabulary and grammar. The dialogues are especially cleverly crafted. The carefully composed sentences indeed sparkle with irony. Even if they may seem old-fashioned at times, they suggest a skillful writer who wrote with ease. Saki worked as a journalist and a foreign correspondent for many years before writing these stories.
Yet the subject of these sketches is rarely political. They focus on English aristocracy and its mixture of self-importance, ignorance and affluence. The events are often absurd and frequently switch from apparently normal to full-blown grotesque.
Consider the beginning of the short story “The Reticence of Lady Anne”:
Egbert came into the large, dimly lit drawing-room with the air of a man who is not certain whether he is entering a dovecote or a bomb factory, and is prepared for either eventuality. The little domestic quarrel over the luncheon-table had not been fought to a definite finish, and the question was how far Lady Anne was in a mood to renew or forgo hostilities. Her pose in the arm-chair by the tea-table was rather elaborately rigid; in the gloom of a December afternoon Egbert’s pince-nez did not materially help him to discern the expression of her face.
Egbert then engages in the often mocked scenario of trying to apologize for non-existent faults. The wife ignores him. Only the Persian cat, Don Tarquinio, watches him from the rug. Even Egbert’s statement: “I dare say (. . .) I may have been to blame. I am willing, if I can thereby restore things to a happier standpoint, to undertake to lead a better life” does not improve the situation. He finally leaves the room to change for dinner, asking “Aren’t we being very silly?” as he walks off. Lady Anne is not impressed. The cat answers him “mentally”, thinking “A fool” as he proceeds to attack the cage with a bullfinch inside it.
It was the first time he had seemed to notice the bird’s existence, but he was carrying out a long-formed theory of action with the precision of mature deliberation. The bullfinch, who had fancied himself something of a despot, depressed himself of a sudden into a third of his normal displacement; then he fell to a helpless wing-beating and shrill cheeping. He had cost twenty-seven shillings without the cage, but Lady Anne made no sign of interfering. She had been dead for two hours.
The end of the story. We do not know what Egbert and Lady Anne do (probably not much) and learn only some details about their artistic preferences. Their life together appears to be both safe and dull. Yet we get the whole absurdity of the picture when two married persons are so distant to one another that the husband does not touch his wife to check if she is all right. The pettiness of their concern over some minor details, like an unfortunate remark during lunch, is contrasted with the grave and inevitable mystery of death. And, of course, the result of the story could be predicted from the fact that a truly English Lady did not taste her tea at all. Only death could stop her from doing that!
The satirical and darkly comic anecdotes about high society are intermingled with stories containing fantastic elements. In “Gabriel-Ernest” the protagonist, Van Cheele, learns that there is a wild beast in his woods. He later meets a wild-looking naked sixteen-year-old boy. The boy, named by Van Cheele’s aunt Gabriel Ernest, is a werewolf whose favorite meal is children’s flesh.
The macabre accompanies the fanciness. Saki’s characters may joke a lot, but they are disillusioned and their feelings often drive them to the edge.
After the laugh comes the reflection that the world described in the stories ceased to exist after World War I. Many movies and books described this crucial change not only in life conditions and economy, but mainly in the people’s minds. There was no going back to the state before the war.
The Edwardian period writers dealt with the world that was coming to an end quickly. People tried to act honorably even if their deeds turned out silly or useless. This juxtaposition of high ideals and prosaic reality persists in Saki’s writing. It comes to me as no surprise that Saki, despite his apparent mocking tone and the age of 44, enlisted as a Private in 1914. He refused to take the commission he was offered. He was shot in the head while in the shallow trench by a German sniper in 1916.
My favorite recurring character in Saki’s stories is Clovis: extremely eloquent, cynical, wealthy young man who seems to be interested only in excellent food and tricking others.
You needn’t tell me that a man who doesn’t love oysters and asparagus and good wines has got a soul, or a stomach either. He’s simply got the instinct for being unhappy highly developed.
(Clovis in “The Match-Maker”)
Lizzy’s Literary Life blog describes Clovis in the following way: “Clovis spends his time visiting the higher classes, lounging around the lawns, sipping the cocktails and amusing himself at the expense of his hosts. Injecting wicked, if not downright malicious comments at (in)appropriate intervals.” He goes away with that thanks to his position, intelligence and the wit that none of his interlocutors can successfully match. He reduces each problem to absurdity. Clovis can also easily adapt to changing circumstances.
In “Tobermory” the title cat is taught how to speak English. It proves disastrous as the upper-class ladies and gentlemen realize he knows everything about them, as he has been spying on them when hunting pigeons behind their windows.
The panic had indeed become general. A narrow ornamental balustrade ran in front of most of the bedroom windows at the Towers, and it was recalled with dismay that this had formed a favourite promenade for Tobermory at all hours, whence he could watch the pigeons—and heaven knew what else besides. If he intended to become reminiscent in his present outspoken strain the effect would be something more than disconcerting. Mrs. Cornett, who spent much time at her toilet table, and whose complexion was reputed to be of a nomadic though punctual disposition, looked as ill at ease as the Major. Miss Scrawen, who wrote fiercely sensuous poetry and led a blameless life, merely displayed irritation; if you are methodical and virtuous in private you don’t necessarily want every one to know it. Bertie van Tahn, who was so depraved at seventeen that he had long ago given up trying to be any worse, turned a dull shade of gardenia white, but he did not commit the error of dashing out of the room like Odo Finsberry, a young gentleman who was understood to be reading for the Church and who was possibly disturbed at the thought of scandals he might hear concerning other people. Clovis had the presence of mind to maintain a composed exterior; privately he was calculating how long it would take to procure a box of fancy mice through the agency of the EXCHANGE AND MART as a species of hush-money.
This attitude of cynical indifference and successful activity in both realistic and fantastic circumstances make Clovis a perfect guide in the grotesque world of Saki’s fiction. Clovis also fits the Trickster archetype when he tricks people into wild schemes just for his (and the readers’) amusement (“The She-Wolf” or “The Unrest-Cure”).
High-brow English humor may seem dated at times, but the true cruelty and macabre that lie beneath it are still striking today, one hundred years later.
You can read all of Saki’s short stories online as they are in the public domain and see for yourself if you like them. I recommend Project Gutenberg site http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/author/152 which provides simple html text, epub and Kindle format. For PDF format try Feedbooks http://www.feedbooks.com/book/3399/beasts-and-super-beasts.
To encourage you even more, I will quote Roxploration: “Many of the stories in this collection feature vicious beasts – a hyaena, a werewolf, a ferret, and a boar among others – and a powerful recurring theme is the perceived battle between the refinements of gentrified society and the raw power of nature – although, at times, it is the duchesses, dowagers and débutantes who can seem the more beastly in their behaviour.” The whole great review of “The Best of Saki” by Roxploration can be found here.
And if you want to experience more Edwardian era feelings and learn more about the transition that WWI brought, I recommend “Downton Abbey” which is one of the best TV series that I ever watched. (I am finishing second season now, so no spoilers, please.) It concerns the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants who both live in the title country estate.
Please comment and do not hesitate to share your favorite Edwardian writers.