Staff Picks

Staff Pick: H.H. Munro’s The Best of Saki

By posted at 12:00 pm on May 10, 2012 8

I don’t reread books very often. Brian Ted Jones published a recent essay in The Millions wherein he posited that returning to books and rereading them is a sign of adulthood. I suppose that’s possible, but life’s so short, and the thing about books is that they never stop coming: each and every month brings a new tide of books, many of them brilliant, and it’s always seemed obvious to me that none of us are going to have time to read all of them. Not to be morbid — this isn’t something I spend a lot of time dwelling on — but I don’t think I’m going to have the time to get to all of the books I want to read even once during the course of this all-too-brief life, let alone time to go back and read the same book over and over again.

But then, perhaps that’s as good a reason as any to do it. If you’re not going to have time to read all the books you want to read anyway, then why not go back and read the same book twice, if it means something to you and moves you in some way?

coverI pulled a book down from the shelf this week that I hadn’t thought of in a long time. It’s a battered green paperback that’s older than I am, a 1961 Grey Arrow edition of The Best of Saki (Selected and Introduced by Graham Greene) that I no doubt swiped from my mother before I left home. Or earlier, actually: a dated notation on the inside cover from my teenaged writing-in-books period suggests that I first read Saki a couple of weeks after my 14th birthday. The pages are getting brittle. I remember, turning them carefully, that this jewel of a book is one of the very, very few exceptions to my habit of never reading the same book twice. I must have read this thing a dozen times before I left home at 18. I’ve carried it with me from city to city.

Saki — actually, let’s drop the nom de plume and call him by his real name, which was H.H. Munro — was a precursor to P.G. Wodehouse and one of Wodehouse’s influences. He specialized in short, sharp little stories, filled with biting dialogue of the wittier-than-thou variety; in fact, some of his stories were composed almost entirely of this stuff, as in the first story of the collection, “Reginald at the Theatre”, which opens mid-argument:

“After all,” said the Duchess vaguely, “there are certain things you can’t get away from. Right and wrong, good conduct and moral rectitude, have certain well-defined limits.”

“So, for a matter of that,” replied Reginald, “has the Russian Empire. The trouble is that the limits are not always in the same place.”

Reginald and the Duchess regarded each other with mutual distrust, tempered by a scientific interest.

Munro’s signature characters, Clovis and Reginald, read like Bertie Wooster’s equally ruined but vastly more intelligent older brothers. But Munro, on the whole, is far darker than Wodehouse. He wrote a great many light and often very funny send-ups of the stifling conventions and manners of the Edwardian age, involving misunderstandings, witty one-liners, and practical jokes. But on the other hand, three of the first eight stories in the book involve corpses, with two of these being small children eaten by wild animals — respectively, a hyena and a werewolf. A child is blown up by a bomb hidden in an easter egg; a woman sits dead in a dimly-lit drawing room while her unknowing husband tries to draw her into conversation; a man nearly dies of humiliation in a railway carriage. Clovis is funny, but frankly a bit of a sociopath. His isn’t exactly the reaction one might hope for in a house guest when a child goes missing, for example, as in “The Quest”:

“We’ve lost Baby,” she screamed.

“Do you mean that it’s dead, or stampeded, or that you staked it at cards and lost it that way?” asked Clovis lazily.

The practical jokes are often vicious. The stories often hold an edge of cruelty, and Graham Greene blames Munro’s miserable childhood for this; Munro was born to British parents in Burma, but raised largely by his grandmother and aunts in a strict puritanical household in England after his mother’s death. His mother was charged by a cow on a visit home to England, the shock caused her to miscarry, and she died a short time later. One could speculate on the source of the streak of dark absurdism that runs through his work.

Greene does draw the obvious lines between the personal history and the darkness of Munro’s depictions of childhood, particularly in the magnificent “Sredni Vashtar.” The hero of the story is Conradin, a sickly 10-year-old who lives under the guardianship of his cousin, a woman who takes a certain pleasure in beating him “for his own good.” But he has a secret joy and solace: in the back of a disused garden shed, he’s been keeping a ferret. It’s not his only friend — he also keeps a hen — but it’s his only god. It was originally just a ferret, but it became a god and idol at the moment he dreamed up its spectacular name. He makes offering of crimson berries and fruits before Sredni Vashtar, nutmeg on special occasions. He prays to Sredni Vashtar daily. When the cousin discovers his secret and goes to the shed to open the cage and investigate, he kneels by the dining room window to offer up a hymn that after countless readings still gives me a chill:

Sredni Vashtar went forth
His thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth were white
His enemies called for peace, but he brought them death
Sredni Vashtar the Beautiful.

I’ll return to this book, I realize, thumbing through the yellowed pages, again and again for the rest of my life.





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8 Responses to “Staff Pick: H.H. Munro’s The Best of Saki”

  1. Undine
    at 3:17 pm on May 10, 2012

    Glad to see the Saki, one of my favorites, getting notice. I do tend to disagree, though with the description of him as a “precursor” to Wodehouse. I think it is more accurate to say they were contemporaries (Wodehouse’s first book was published in 1902.) The Clovises and Bertie Woosters were standard “types” of Edwardian comedy. You couldn’t really say either writer was responsible for the genre–they just did it better than anyone else.

    Saki is often compared to Wodehouse, but in his darker stories, like “Sredni Vashtar,” (his masterpiece, IMO,) I see a certain amount of Poe, as well.

  2. ian
    at 3:45 pm on May 10, 2012

    Saki’s stories are little nuggets of brilliance, they demand to be re-read. Before ereaders or any of that I used to often carry a slim selection of his work in a coat pocket in case I ever found myself with a few minutes of unforeseen reading time.

    Of course, in addition to the various trials Emily describes, Munro had the enormous good fortune to serve on the Western Front during WW1, where he was shot and killed in 1916.

  3. Emily St. J. Mandel
    at 3:49 pm on May 10, 2012

    Ian – Not that life expectancies on the Western Front were especially high, but it seems like such a stupidly preventable death, doesn’t it?

    (For anyone who hasn’t read the story: H.H. Munro’s reported last words, to the soldier right next to him, were “Put out that damned cigarette.” This was just before Munro was shot by a sniper, who no doubt found the lit end of the cigarette to be a useful target point.)

  4. Nick Moran
    at 3:53 pm on May 10, 2012

    ^ The ultimate argument against secondhand smoke.

  5. Emily St. J. Mandel
    at 3:55 pm on May 10, 2012

    I know, right? I find secondhand smoke intolerable when I’m walking down the sidewalk, but the stakes are even higher in a foxhole.

  6. ian
    at 4:13 pm on May 10, 2012

    It does, Emily, although if it’s not trite to make the point, it does smack somewhat of the vicious ironies he loved to portray in his work.

    What gets me is that he had actually survived 2 full years as an ordinary soldier at that point. I suppose his death almost became inevitable the longer he survived.

  7. sordfite
    at 4:06 pm on May 13, 2012

    Saki’s work is in the public domain and available at Project Gutenberg. ‘Sredni Vashtar’ is required reading; such a darkly amusing little tale that, with Munro’s history, must have been pretty cathartic to write.

    http://www.gutenberg.org/files/3688/3688-h/3688-h.htm#sredni

  8. Chris Kubica
    at 10:04 am on May 25, 2012

    My favorite Saki is “The Interlopers.”

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