Jerome Shea       November 16, 2008      Weekend Wonk

I have rediscovered Saki. That overstates the case a bit, because the only stories of his that I knew were the often anthologized ones, like “The Open Window.” (And by the way, he didn’t write “The Monkey’s Paw; that was W. W. Jacobs.). So I have been wallowing in Saki the last few days and thought I would share him with you. And since I find Saki, his pen name, to be an irritating affectation, from here on out he will he H(ector) H(ugh) Munro, the name he was born with.

That was in 1870, in Burma. Like Kipling, he was born on the subcontinent, lost his mother at an early age, and was shipped “home” to England, to the care of aunts and grandmothers. With his older brother and sister, he survived the experience better than did Kipling. And, another coincidence, he served with the Indian Imperial Police in Burma—just as George Orwell would years later—until ill health forced him to resign, return to England, and make himself a writer. But he turned out to be more like Oscar Wilde and O. Henry, with a dash of P. G. Wodehouse. He was an amateur historian (his first book was a history of Russia), a foreign correspondent, a novelist, and a playwright. But he is remembered for his short stories, where his forte was the macabre, the witty, and the satirical.

His family had entrée into the British upper class, and young Munro believed in the class system (along with God, King, and Country). He was no stranger to weekend house parties and fox hunts and all the rest. At the same time, he could see how fatuous and silly the upper crust could be, how ripe they were for satire. Begin with the names: Ada Spelvexit! Mrs. Thropplestance! Frampton Nuttel and Octavian Ruttle! Names to give Dickens a run for his money.

“The Reticence of Lady Anne” deliciously skewers the cluelessness of an old couple entrapped in ritual and good manners. Egbert and his wife, the Lady Anne, are having tea, or attempting to, in the dimness of a late winter afternoon. I say “attempting to” because Lady Anne is not touching her tea and in fact is not responding to any of Egbert’s entreaties to heal the breach that he thinks a luncheon disagreement has brought about. He is conciliatory. He is apologetic. Finally, a thoroughly abashed Egbert fires a parting shot—“Aren’t we being very silly?”—and marches off to dress for dinner and hope for a thaw. The cat seizes the opportunity to leap up on the bookshelf and harass the caged bullfinch but “…Lady Anne made no sign of interfering. She had been dead for two hours.”

He has a caricaturist’s way with images. Here is Mrs. Philidore Stossen and her daughter trying to crash a garden party to which they have been unaccountably uninvited: “[They] sailed through the narrow grass paddock and the ensuing gooseberry garden with the air of stately barges making an unofficial progress along a rural trout stream. There was a certain amount of furtive haste mingled with the stateliness of their advance as though hostile searchlights might be turned on them at any moment.” Overbearing women as barges is an image that he returns to again and again. His misogyny was just part of his misanthropy. He was nothing if not even-handed.

Some stories are grim and unrelieved with humor. “The Easter Egg” ends with the explosion of an assassin’s bomb. Lady Barbara’s son does distinguish himself with uncharacteristic bravery; unlike Lester, Lady Barbara survives and “carries her scarred face with its sightless eyes as bravely as ever.” The title creature in “Gabriel-Ernest” turns out to be a werewolf with a taste for small children. Yet, typically, the werewolf comes off more sympathetically than most of the human characters!

Another part of his talent is his way with an epigram. If in names he was a match for Dickens, in compacted wit he was a match for Wilde: “The cook was a good cook as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went”; “The fashion just now is a Roman Catholic frame of mind with an Agnostic conscience; you get the mediaeval picturesqueness of one with the modern conveniences of the other”; and, perhaps my favorite, “The people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.”

Well, life does sometimes imitate art. When World War I broached the horizon, a middle-aged Munro was eager to sign up, and did manage to get on with the 22nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers. Like most Brits, he was avid to teach the Hun a lesson he wouldn’t forget. Like most Brits, his image of combat was something out of “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Like most Brits, he assumed that the war would be over by Christmas.

Like most Brits, he was tragically mistaken. But he did his duty in the cold, muddy trenches, uncomplaining and a father-figure to the young recruits.

On the morning of 13 November 1916 (or thereabouts: accounts vary), he was heard to shout his last words, “Put out that bloody cigarette!” The glow of the cigarette was all a German sniper needed to shoot him through the head. He was 45 and died like one of his own characters.

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