Dated Wit

This is my review of Saki, The Complete Short Stories (Penguin Modern Classics) by Saki.

It is easy to understand why H.H.Munro, pen name Saki, is still regarded as one of the greatest writers of short stories. His elegant, ironic prose reminds me of P.G. Wodehouse with a sharp sting in the tale.

Although Saki mocked the snobbery and hypocrisy of upper class Edwardian England, he himself seems to have been limited by unexamined prejudice against the lower classes, women in general, and new social movements of his day like female suffrage and socialism.

Organised by date of collection, the tales show a clear progression. The early "Reginald" stories are remarkably short, often barely a page, very dated and a bit too precious in style for my taste. As the years pass, the stories gain in length and depth, culminating in works like "The Square Egg". This captures the muddiness of trench life in World War 1 – the streaming mud walls, the inches of soup-like mud at the entrance to the dug-out, the muddy biscuits eaten with mud-caked fingers. This story also shows Saki's talent for going off at an imaginative tangent, in this case based on a wily Frenchman's novel idea for using the idea of "square eggs" from specially bred hens to try to get some money out of the narrator.

I particularly enjoyed the stories which focus on real emotions and psychology which could be relevant to any age and society: "Peace Toys" in which an uncle tries to give his nephews toys which will discourage them from violent play; "Tobermory" which speculates on the practical disadvantages of having a cat which has learned to speak about all the compromising goings-on it has witnessed as it creeps around unnoticed; "The Lumber Room" in which a small boy takes advantage of a rare chance to have his revenge on a pious, bullying aunt – the many stories about children getting their own back on control-freak adults may stem from painful experiences in Saki's own motherless childhood. Then there is "The Story-teller" where a bachelor distracted by noisy children on a train ride subverts the normal rules about telling children only improving stories.

I have mixed feelings about Clovis, a favourite recurring character of Saki's, who acts as a mocking observer of the class to which he has been born, while sponging off it, and snobbishly maintaining many of its prejudices. Yet "Clovis on Parental Responsibilities" is amusing where, in a Pinterish talking at cross purposes with a Mrs Eggelby, bored by her endless prattle about her children's accomplishments, Clovis undermines all the accepted views on bringing up children.

I would have liked a brief introduction on Saki's life. It seems important to know that, enrolling as an ordinary private soldier when in his forties, he was killed by a sniper's bullet after vainly asking a colleague to put out the cigarette which was emitting a tell-tale trail of smoke.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.