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Saki

[sak-ee, sah-kee]

Hector Hugh Munro (December 18, 1870November 14, 1916), better known by the pen name Saki, was a British writer, whose witty and sometimes macabre stories satirized Edwardian society and culture. He is considered a master of the short story and is often compared to O. Henry and Dorothy Parker. His tales feature delicately drawn characters and finely judged narratives. "The Open Window" may be his most famous, with a closing line ("Romance at short notice was her speciality") that has entered the lexicon.

In addition to his short stories (which were first published in newspapers, as was the custom of the time, and then collected into several volumes) he also wrote a full-length play, The Watched Pot, in collaboration with Charles Maude; two one-act plays; a historical study, The Rise of the Russian Empire, the only book published under his own name; a short novel, The Unbearable Bassington; the episodic The Westminster Alice (a Parliamentary parody of Alice in Wonderland), and When William Came, subtitled A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns, an early alternate history. He was influenced by Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, and Kipling, and himself influenced A. A. Milne, Noël Coward, and P. G. Wodehouse.

Name

The name Saki is often thought to be a reference to the cupbearer in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, a poem mentioned disparagingly by the eponymous character in "Reginald on Christmas Presents" and alluded to in a few other stories. It may, however, be a reference to the South American primate of the same name, "a small, long-tailed monkey from the Western Hemisphere" that is a central character in "The Remoulding of Groby Lington".

Biography

Hector Hugh Munro was born in Akyab, Burma (now known as Sittwe, Myanmar), the son of Charles Augustus Munro and Mary Frances Mercer. His father was an inspector-general for the Burmese police when that country was still part of the British Empire. His mother (the aunt of fellow-author Dornford Yates), died in 1872. A runaway cow charged her, and the shock caused her to miscarry. She never recovered and soon died. He was brought up in England with his brother and sister by his grandmother and aunts in a straitlaced household.

Munro was educated at Pencarwick School in Exmouth and at Bedford Grammar School. When his father retired to England, he travelled on a few occasions with his sister and father, between fashionable European spas and tourist resorts. In 1893 he followed in his father's footsteps by joining the Indian Imperial Police, where he was posted to Burma (as was another acerbic and pseudonymous writer a generation later: George Orwell). Two years later, failing health forced his resignation and return to England, where he started his career as a journalist, writing for newspapers such as the Westminster Gazette, Daily Express, Bystander, Morning Post, and Outlook.

In 1900 Munro's first book appeared: The Rise of the Russian Empire, a historical study modelled upon Edward Gibbon's magnum opus The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

From 1902 to 1908 Munro worked as a foreign correspondent for The Morning Post in the Balkans, Warsaw, Russia (where he witnessed Bloody Sunday), and Paris; he then gave that up and settled in London. Many of the stories from this period feature the elegant and effete Reginald and Clovis, young men-about-town who take heartlessly cruel delight in the discomfort or downfall of their conventional, pretentious elders. In addition to his well-known short stories, Saki also turned his talents for fiction into novels. Shortly before the Great War, with the genre of invasion literature selling well, he published a "what-if" novel, When William Came, subtitled "A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns", imagining the eponymous German emperor conquering Britain.

At the start of World War I, although 43 and officially over age, Munro joined the Royal Fusiliers regiment of the British Army as an ordinary soldier, refusing a commission. More than once he returned to the battlefield when officially still too sick or injured to fight. He was sheltering in a shell crater near Beaumont-Hamel, France in November 1916 when he was killed by a German sniper. His last words, according to several sources, were "Put that damned cigarette out!" After his death, his sister Ethel destroyed most of his papers and wrote her own account of their childhood.

Munro never married. His biographer A. J. Langguth cites evidence for the hypothesis that Munro was homosexual. Sexual activity between men was a crime (see LGBT rights in the United Kingdom for a timeline of legal changes), and the Cleveland Street scandal in 1889, followed by the downfall and disgrace of Oscar Wilde, convicted in 1895 after cause celebre trials, meant that "that side of [Munro's] life had to be secret.

In recognition of his contribution to literature, a blue plaque has been affixed to a building in which Munro once lived on Mortimer Street in central London. One of his young characters lived in a similar "roomlet which came under the auspicious constellation of W" (i.e. within the postal district of the West End of London, where the fashionable set lived in Edwardian times).

Controversy

Sandie Byrne in "The Unbearable Saki accused Munro of "unbearable anti-semitism" for his story "The Unrest-Cure", in which Clovis perpetrates a hoax to the effect that the local bishop is going to massacre every Jew in the neighbourhood. But as Telegraph reviewer Peter Parker argues, "the joke is at the expense of the bore, not the Jews, who are represented as respected pillars of the community". Another story, "A Touch of Realism", shows a "good-natured" and "deservedly popular" Jewish couple stranded on an open moor in winter as part of a country house party game for which they provided the prizes. One character gives warnings of the potential problems of the game, but it is noteworthy that Saki should choose just that event as the story's climax.

On the other hand, in his dispatches from Eastern Europe when he was a foreign correspondent, Munro showed sympathy with the Jewish victims of pogroms. Perhaps the best summary of his attitude is to be found in the alternative history novel When William Came, where a sympathetically portrayed character says in a German-ruled Britain:

I am to a great extent a disliker of Jews myself, but I will be fair to them, and admit that those of them who were in any genuine sense British have remained British and have stuck by us loyally in our misfortune; all honour to them. But of the others, the men who by temperament and everything else were far more Teuton or Polish or Latin than they were British, it was not to be expected that they would be heartbroken because London had suddenly lost its place among the political capitals of the world, and became a cosmopolitan city. They had appreciated the free and easy liberty of the old days, under British rule, but there was a stiff insularity in the ruling race that they chafed against. Now, putting aside some petty Government restrictions that Teutonic bureaucracy has brought in, there is really, in their eyes, more licence and social adaptability in London than before. It has taken on some of the aspects of a No-Man's-Land, and the Jew, if he likes, may almost consider himself as of the dominant race; at any rate he is ubiquitous. Pleasure, of the cafe and cabaret and boulevard kind, the sort of thing that gave Berlin the aspect of the gayest capital in Europe within the last decade, that is the insidious leaven that will help to denationalise London. Berlin will probably climb back to some of its old austerity and simplicity, a world-ruling city with a great sense of its position and its responsibilities, while London will become more and more the centre of what these people understand by life.

However, Saki's anti-semitism is not obsessive and all-pervading in the way of such contemporaries as Belloc or Chesterton.

Saki certainly does seem to have it in for a certain kind of woman, though. Rather than the blanket term misogyny, it might be more correct to say that he disliked and disapproved of childless women, probably from his own negative experience of growing up in the care of his strict aunts. Some stories give voice to his irritation with aspects of female psychology, such as the middle-class conventionality epitomised by the ceremony of afternoon tea, or the inability to shop efficiently. He was persistently and derisively anti-suffragette.

Despite his lampooning of suffragettes and aunts, several of his stories feature sympathetic portrayals of admirably cool and self-possessed schoolgirls. Others feature strong-willed, independent women in a positive manner. One of his best childhood friends was his sister Ethel, who also never married, and they remained close until his death -- a sign of Munro's personal forbearance, as she had a powerful and difficult personality.

Short stories

Saki's world contrasts the effete conventions and hypocrisies of Edwardian England with the ruthless but straightforward life-and-death struggles of nature. Nature generally wins in the end.

Saki's work is now in the public domain, and all or most of these stories are on the Internet.

Some of his best-known short stories are listed below.

"The Interlopers"

"The Interlopers" is a story of two men, Georg Znaeym and Ulrich von Gradwitz, whose families have fought over a forest in the eastern Carpathian Mountains for generations. Ulrich's family legally owns the land, but Georg – feeling it rightfully belongs to him – hunts there anyway. One winter night, Ulrich catches Georg hunting in his forest. The two would never shoot without warning and soil their family’s honor, so they hesitate to acknowledge one another. As an “act of God,” a tree branch suddenly falls on them, trapping the men next to each other under the log. Gradually, they realize the futility of their quarrel and become friends to end the family feud. They call out for their men’s assistance, and after a brief period, Ulrich makes out ten figures approaching over a hill. The story ends with Ulrich’s realization that the "interlopers" on the hill are actually wolves.

"The Schartz-Metterklume Method"

At a railway station, an arrogant and overbearing woman mistakes the mischievous Lady Carlotta for the governess she expected. Lady Carlotta, deciding not to correct the mistake, presents herself as a proponent of "the Schartz-Metterklume method" of making children understand history by acting it out themselves, and chooses a rather unsuitable historical episode for her first lesson.

"The Toys of Peace"

Rather than giving her young boys gifts of toy soldiers and guns, their mother instructs her brother to give the children "peace toys" as an Easter present. When the packages are opened, young Bertie shouts "It's a fort!" and is disappointed when his uncle replies "It's a municipal dust-bin". The boys are initially baffled as to how to obtain any enjoyment from models of a school of art and a public library, or from little toy figures of John Stuart Mill, poetess Felicia Hemans, and astronomer Sir John Herschel. Youthful inventiveness finds a way, however.

"The Storyteller"

"The Storyteller" is a cynical antidote to crude didacticism. An aunt is traveling by train with nieces and a nephew. The children are naughty and mischievous. A bachelor is sitting opposite. The aunt starts telling a story, but is unable to satisfy the curiosity of the children. The bachelor intervenes and tells a different kind of story which feeds their curiosity and imagination.

"The Unrest-Cure"

Saki's recurring hero Clovis Sangrail, a sly young man, overhears the complacent middle-aged Huddle complaining of his own addiction to routine and aversion to change. Huddle's friend makes the wry suggestion of the need for an "unrest-cure" (the opposite of a rest cure) to be performed, if possible, in the home. Clovis takes it upon himself to "help" the man and his sister by involving them in an invented outrage that will be a "blot on the twentieth century".

"Esmé"

In a hunting story with a difference, the Baroness tells Clovis of a hyena she and her friend Constance encountered alone in the countryside, who cannot resist the urge to stop for a snack. The story is a perfect example of Saki's delight in setting societal convention against uncompromising nature.
''The wailing accompaniment was explained. The gypsy child was firmly, and I expect painfully, held in his jaws.
The child is shortly devoured.
Constance shuddered. "Do you think the poor little thing suffered much?" came another of her futile questions.
"The indications were all that way,' I said; 'on the other hand, of course, it may have been crying from sheer temper. Children sometimes do."

"The Open Window"

A man with the unlikely name of Framton Nuttel comes to a country village for some peace and rest. He calls upon a lady named Mrs. Sappleton his sister used to know; for a few minutes he is left alone with her niece named Vera, who has quite an active imagination. She tells Framton a story about the tragedy of the lady's husband and two younger brothers, who had gone hunting one day three years earlier and never returned. The bodies were never found, and because of this the window from which they left is always kept open. When indeed they do return that very night, Framton, who has suffered from nerves in the past, runs out of the house, and the niece explains his sudden departure to her relatives with an equally imaginative fiction.

"Sredni Vashtar"

The story of a young, sickly child, Conradin. His cousin and guardian, Mrs. De Ropp, "would never... have confessed to herself that she disliked Conradin, though she might have been dimly aware that thwarting him 'for his good' was a duty which she did not find particularly irksome." When Mrs. De Ropp finds Conradin's beloved Houdan hen, it is sold and taken away, but she is unaware of the pet polecat-ferret, called "Sredni Vashtar," which Conradin worships as a god. Just before tea, Mrs. De Ropp enters the shed in which the ferret lies in his hutch. As the time slips by without a stirring from the shed, Conradin begins to pray to Sredni Vashtar — and receives his darkest wish.

"Tobermory"

At a country house party a visiting professor announces to the guests that he has perfected a procedure to teach animals human speech. He demonstrates this on his host's cat. Soon it is clear that he omitted to teach the animal to be silent about certain facts...

"The East Wing"

A 're-discovered' short story, previously cited as a play and therefore less well known. A house party with its typical social mix of bumbling Major Boventry, the precious Lucien Wattleskeat, the wordy Canon Clore and a breathless hostess, Mrs Gramplain, is beset by a fire in the middle of the night in the east wing of the house. Begged by their hostess to save "my poor darling Eva – Eva of the golden hair," Lucien demurs on the grounds that he has never even met her. It is only on discovering that Eva is not a flesh and blood daughter, but Mrs Gramplain's painting of the daughter that she wished that she had had and which she has faithfully updated with the passing years, that Lucien declares a willingness to forfeit his life to rescue her, since "death in this case is more beautiful," a sentiment endorsed by the Major. As the two men disappear into the blaze, Mrs Gramplain recollects that she "sent Eva to Exeter to be cleaned." Thus the two men have lost their lives for nothing. (Compare with Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray.)

Books

Posthumous publications:

  • 1919: The Toys of Peace (short stories)
  • 1924: The Square Egg and Other Sketches (short stories)
  • 1924: "The Watched Pot" (play, with Charles Maude)
  • 1926-1927: The Works of Saki (8 vols.)
  • 1930: The Complete Short Stories of Saki
  • 1933: The Complete Novels and Plays of Saki (includes The Westminster Alice)
  • 1934: The Miracle-Merchant (in One-Act Plays for Stage and Study 8)
  • 1950: The Best of Saki (ed. by Graham Greene)
  • 1963: The Bodley Head Saki
  • 1981: Saki (by A.J. Langguth, includes six uncollected stories)
  • 1976: The Complete Saki
  • 1976: Short Stories (ed. by John Letts)
  • 1995: The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope, and Other Stories
  • 2006: A Shot in the Dark (a compilation of 15 uncollected stories)

Television

In 1962, a Granada Television black & white 8-part TV series, produced by Phillip Mackie, dramatised very successfully several stories of Saki. Actors included Mark Burns as Clovis, Fenella Fielding as Mary Drakmanton, Richard Vernon as the Major, Rosamund Greenwood as Veronique and Martita Hunt as Lady Bastable. The title of the series was "Saki, the Improper Stories of H. H. Munro" (a reference to the ending of "The Story Teller").

A dramatization of "The Schartz-Metterklume Method" was an episode in the series Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1960.

Who Killed Mrs De Ropp?, a 2007 BBC dramatisation starring Ben Daniels and Gemma Jones, showcased three of Saki's short stories, The Storyteller, The Lumber Room and Sredni Vashtar.

References

External links

Literary criticism and biography

  • "Mappining London: Urban Participation in Sakian Satire" — by Lorene Mae Birden. Literary criticism focusing on the role of London.
  • "People Dined Against Each Other: Social Practices in Sakian Satire" — by Lorene Mae Birden. Literary criticism focusing on social mannerisms.
  • The Satire of Saki by George James Spears — A 127 page book encompassing a dissection of satire in Saki's works. Bibliography and overview of all of Saki's works in relation to satire.
  • Biography by Ethel M. Munro — A brief biography written by Saki's sister.
  • Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro by A. J. Langguth — Includes six uncollected stories and various photographs.
  • "An Asp Lurking in An Apple-Charlotte: Animal Violence in Saki's The Chronicles of Clovis" by Joseph S. Salemi — Literary criticism about the recurrence of animals in The Chronicles of Clovis, suggesting that the animals represent the characters' primal instincts and true vicious mannerisms. Available in Student Research Center of EbscoHost Database.
  • Beastly humans: Ambivalence, dependent dissidence, and metamorphosis in the fiction of Saki by Brian Gibson — Ph.D. thesis, University of Alberta, 2006
  • "The Unrest Cure According to Lawrence, Saki, and Lewis" by Christopher Lane, Modernism/modernity 11.4 (2004): 769-96
  • "Saki/Munro: Savage Propensities; or, The Jungle-Boy in the Drawing-room" by Christopher Lane, in The Ruling Passion (Duke University Press, 1995), pp. 212-28
  • "Saki's Attitude", by Simon Stern, in GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 1, no. 3 (1994): 275-98.
  • "Gay Writers of Straight Fiction", by David van Leer, in The Queening of America: Gay Culture in Straight Society (Routledge, 1995), pp. 31-37
  • The Unbearable Saki by Sandie Byrne. Oxford University Press. — http://www.sandiebyrne.co.uk/saki.html
  • Where the Wild Things Are — by Christopher Hitchens. Review of The Unbearable Saki in Atlantic Monthly, June 2008,

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