When One Lives Among Greyhounds
By Saki, illustrations by Edward Gorey
NYRB Press, 2013
In 1916, lance sergeant Hector Henry Munro of the British 22nd Battalion, age 45, was killed by a German sniper. It was a death that bore little resemblance to the life Munro had led before the war, as one of England’s funniest and grimmest writers. Though the last words he spoke immediately before he was shot—“Put that bloody cigarette out!”—unintentionally captured some of that grimness and macabre humor.
Before he was overtaken by nationalist fervor in 1913, Munro split his time between being the mildest of mild-mannered Tories in quiet, upper crust Edwardian England and turning his talents as a writer to satirizing quiet, upper crust Edwardian England. Using the nom de plume Saki (which either references a tea-server or some kind of monkey), this unassuming, almost suspiciously private man became an expert dealer of barbed wit and verbal ghoulishness. This latest collection of his stories, from the New York Review of Books, is an appropriately succinct introduction to the sharp prose stylist and biting social observer.
Munro was born in 1870 in colonial Burma to an Inspector-General of the imperial police and the daughter of an admiral. When he was two, his mother died from injuries sustained from being charged by a cow. His father sent him and his sister back to England to be cared for by two very strict aunts (who would go on to serve as models for some of the most insufferable victims of his fiction). He traveled Europe before returning to Burma to serve in the police force as his father had, and as the writer yet to be known as George Orwell would later do. After returning to England, he reported for several newspapers, at one point serving as a foreign correspondent in Eastern Europe. His first book was the Gibbon-inspired The Rise of the Russian Empire. He crossed over into satire and fiction first with political sketches before turning to more domestic settings and perfecting a style of short fiction that offers abundant pleasure for all who desire to read it and myriad difficulties for all but a few who desire to write it. It is not the ponderous, sprawling narrative fiction to which we’ve become accustomed since the mid-20th century golden era of New Yorker fiction, but the very model of literary nastiness, brutality and, most crucial of all, brevity.
Saki’s stories appeared in six original collections, four of which were published before his death: Reginald, Reginald in Russia, The Chronicles of Clovis, Beasts and Super-Beasts, The Toys of Peace and The Square Egg. The 26 stories published by NYRB are taken from the first five books. Before this one I’ve encountered two notable Saki collections. One is the definitive collection from Penguin, a thick volume with all of his stories, as well as his three novels and three plays. Another is The Unrest-Cure and Other Beastly Tales, put out by UK publisher Prion in 2000, which features an introduction from Will Self. New in the NYRB edition, however, are aptly morbid illustrations by Edward Gorey, which were reproduced from a German language edition from 1964. The longest story here is just over seven pages, and on average there are two illustrations per story, so the reading is light but by no means airless.
Saki’s stories follow an ironclad formula that can resemble either drawn-out jokes with clear setups and punch lines or adult-themed bedtime stories in the Brothers Grimm tradition. They read as though they were composed as Munro sat quietly at a party, sipping brandy as he mentally catalogued every unattractive, unctuous and irritating trait of people he already didn’t like that much to begin with. They inhabit a world very similar to the world many of us (perhaps too many) wistfully appreciate in Howards End, The Go-Between, the Jeeves and Wooster series and most recently and most gratuitously in Downton Abbey.
The style of Saki’s prose is a first line of attack in the reading experience. “His style indeed was a more delicate weapon than modern soldiers carry,” wrote L.P. Hartley in 1927, “it is a sister-blade to Max Beerbohm’s, stouter than his perhaps, and more prone to frontal attacks, but not less piercing and leaving as clean a wound.” He was clearly influenced by Oscar Wilde, but was more drawn to the pithy insult than the sparkling bon mot. “[W]ith a name of that sort no one would blame you if you did nothing in particular heroic or remarkable, would they?” says infamous Saki surrogate Clovis to the title character in “The Talking-Out of Tarrington.” “When one lives among greyhounds,” says another character in “The Peace Offering”, “one should avoid giving life-like imitations of a rabbit, unless one wants one’s head snapped off.” Saki’s narrator, moreover, is not merely omniscient, but sour, seemingly detached more for effect than for actual temperament. This is one of several choice opening lines: “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.” A 94-year-old woman in “The Cobweb” is described as “looking like a dead autumn leaf which the winter winds still pushed hither and thither.”
Edward Gorey’s illustrations—bleak, sardonic, purposefully archaic in style—perfectly complement Saki’s prose. No one looks good illustrated by Gorey, and while his contributions in the book are subtle in ways of narrative, they ably accentuate the stories’ tone, rendering the prickliness, smugness, boorishness, mischievousness and borderline grotesqueness of Saki’s characters.
Though Saki wrote for an adult audience, he was most adept in depicting animals and children, especially when they upended the delicate constitutions of their masters and elders. In “The Boar-Pig,” for instance, a mother and daughter try to crash “the garden party of the season” by sneaking through the back way of the house in which it is being held, past all of its gates and gooseberry bushes, only to be at the mercy of Tarquin Superbus, a “huge white Yorkshire boar-pig,” and Matilda, the 13-year-old bilingual brat who let him out, watching them from a tree:
I’m staying with my aunt, and I was told I must behave particularly well today, as lots of people were coming for a garden party, and I was told to imitate Claude, that’s my young cousin, who never does anything wrong except by accident, and then is always apologetic about it. It seems they thought I ate too much raspberry trifle at lunch, and they said Claude never eats too much raspberry trifle. Well, Claude always goes to sleep for half an hour after lunch, because he’s told to, and I waited till he was asleep, and tied his hands and started forcible feeding with a whole bucketful of raspberry trifle that they were keeping for the garden-party. Lots of it went on to his sailor-suit and some of it on to the bed, but a good deal went down Claude’s throat, and they can’t say again that he has never been known to eat too much raspberry trifle. That is why I am not allowed to go to the party, and as an additional punishment I must speak French all the afternoon. I’ve had to tell you all this in English, as there were words like `forcible feeding’ that I didn’t know the French for; of course I could have invented them, but if I had said nourriture oligatoire you wouldn’t have had the least idea what I was talking about. Maus maintentant, nous parlons Francais.
She’s more than obliged to help them, of course, provided they help her surpass her golden-haired cousin in collecting donations for the Children’s Fresh Air Fund. “I could not do violence to my conscience for anything less than ten shillings,” she insists.
This, of course, sounds nothing like any 13-year-old readers will have known, but what is less mistakable (and perhaps less comforting) is Saki’s imaginative depiction of the enduring naiveté of children, especially the streak of totalitarianism that lurks within it. He takes it to a greater extreme in “The Penance.” A farmer’s chickens keep turning up dead, so he kills a local cat he believes is the culprit. This solves the problem, but creates another when the children who loved the cat seek retribution by kidnapping his daughter and putting her on the roof of a sty:
“What are you going to do with her?” he panted. There was no mistaking the grim trend of mischief in those flushed by sternly composed young faces.
“Hang her in chains over a slow fire,” said one of the boys. Evidently they had been reading English history.
“Frow her down the pigs will d’vour her, every bit ‘cept the palms of her hands,” said the other boy. It was also evident that they had studied Biblical history.
That Munro did not have children—he was a confirmed bachelor for the whole of his adult life—makes this scene all the more fascinating. In depicting children in the way that he did, Saki helped usher in the pop culture trope of the smart-aleck child surrounded by elders who seem more like faint avatars of maturity than exemplars of it. It has its similarities to, say, Dennis the Menace, but much more so with South Park which, though American and lower class, depicts outwardly average but inwardly precocious youth living in a world whose adults are comically stupid and corrupt, almost by second nature.
Saki’s depictions of animals could veer off into the fanciful but were comparatively less acerbic in tone, such as in “Tobermory,” in which a housecat has been taught to speak as a human, while remaining very much a cat:
“What do you think of human intelligence?” asked Mavis Pellington lamely.
“Of whose intelligence in particular?” asked Tobermory coldly.
“Oh, well, mine for instance,” said Mavis with a feeble laugh.
“You put me in an embarrassing position,” said Tobermory, whose tone and attitude certainly did not suggest a shred of embarrassment. “When your inclusion in this house-party was suggested Sir Wilfrid protested that you were the most brainless woman of his acquaintance, and that there was a wide distinction between hospitality and the care of the feeble-minded. Lady Blemley replied that your lack of brain-power was the precise quality which had earned you your invitation, as you were the only person she could think of who might be idiotic enough to buy their old car. You know, the one they call ‘The Envy of Sisyphus,’ because it goes quite nicely up-hill if you push it.”
Saki is just as well-known for creating Clovis and Reginald, two dandyish upper-class lay-abouts who’d be models for Bertie Wooster if only they hadn’t been so competent at intentionally spreading misery. Clovis is, for instance, an abominable houseguest who manages to keep receiving and accepting invites. His caretakers in “The Quest” lose their infant son and Clovis is unable, or rather unwilling, to help in looking for him:
“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.
“He was toddling about quite happily on the lawn,” said Mrs. Momeby tearfully, “and Arnold had just come in, and I was asking him what sort of sauce he would like with the asparagus–”
“I hope he said hollandaise,” interrupted Clovis, with a show of quickened interest, “because if there’s anything I hate–“
And when they manage to find not one but two nearly identical babies, Clovis remains adamantly unhelpful:
“Obviously,” said Clovis, “it’s a duplicate Erik that your powers of faith called into being. The question is: What are you going to do with him?”
The ashen pallor deepened in Rose-Marie’s cheeks. Mrs. Momeby clutched the genuine Erik closer to her side, as though she feared that her uncanny neighbour might out of sheer pique turn him into a bowl of gold-fish.
“I found him sitting in the middle of the road,” said Rose-Marie weakly.
“You can’t take him back and leave him there,” said Clovis; “the highway is meant for traffic, not to be used as a lumber-room for disused miracles.”
In the controversial title story, Clovis, in perfectly demented Manic Pixie Dream Dandy fashion, tries to shake up the drudgery of one man’s life by roping him into “the blot of the twentieth century”:
“Tonight is going to be a great night in the history of Christendom,” said Clovis. “We are going to massacre every Jew in the neighbourhood.”
“To massacre the Jews!” said Huddle indignantly. “Do you mean to tell me there’s a general rising against them?”
“No, it’s the Bishop’s own idea. He’s in there arranging all the details now.”
“But – the Bishop is such a tolerant, humane man.”
“That is precisely what will heighten the effect of his action. The sensation will be enormous.”
The proposed genocide is a hoax, but it a testament to the story’s satirical power that it is at once the centerpiece of this and another collection and one that readers have puzzled over most frequently. Critics from time to time have flagged this and similar, if more casual, instances in Saki’s writing in an ongoing debate of just how anti-Semitic Munro (or any of his characters) actually was. But “The Unrest-Cure” would seem to indicate the opposite, as the mere thought of genocide shocks Clovis’s unwitting mark, and Clovis plays on that sense of disgust more than on any kind of genuine hatred.
Was Munro a misogynist? He certainly found the prospect of women’s suffrage, a highly contested issue in his time, worthy of ridicule. But this didn’t stop him from giving coveted tormentor status to young girls. Viewers of Game of Thrones, for instance, could easily imagine Maisie Williams as Matilda when they read “The Boar-Pig.”
Was Saki odious all around or merely exceptional when it came to writing about odious people? Whether or not he was a reactionary at full throttle, he was clearly a misanthropist. “The Storyteller” and “Toys of Peace” are regrettably not included in this collection, but they illustrate what I suppose counts as “Tory humour,” which has a highly bitter potency. In both, aunts try to steer the moral characters of the children in their care, only to have it backfire terribly. “Toys of Peace” is especially notable for presaging 1990s political correctness with a succession of progressive, peace-themed toys:
In an awful silence he disinterred a little lead figure of a man in black clothes.
“That,” he said, “is a distinguished civilian, John Stuart Mill. He was an authority on political economy.”
“Why?” asked Bertie.
“Well, he wanted to be; he thought it was a useful thing to be.”
Bertie gave an expressive grunt, which conveyed his opinion that there was no accounting for tastes.
To call Saki a moralist would be a detriment to his art; he could not bring himself to be as horrified by his surroundings as the modern day Jeremiahs so often tethered to the term. But sometimes the most unforgiving moralists happen to be the most attentive voyeurs, and Saki was certainly an able observer, with his attention planted firmly in the England of his time. And yet there is something very contemporary in his work all the same. “Saki’s stories are highly relevant to any society in which convention is confused with morality,” Will Self said of the writer, “and all societies confuse convention with morality, so he’ll always be relevant.”
Saki’s stylistic lineage is tied between ancestors O. Henry, Oscar Wilde and Ambrose Bierce and descendants John Collier, Roald Dahl and Patricia Highsmith, but substantially and thematically he’s part of a peerage with the likes of Bret Easton Ellis and John Waters. Like Ellis, Saki took the greatest inspiration from upper-class boredom and detachment, and like Waters (particularly from Polyester to Serial Mom), Saki took that alienation to darkly comic heights. His stories may seem at first glance odd and anachronistic, and would bear ample fruit for the past-obsessed, but the particular darkness of his characters can as easily be found a neighborhood, perhaps even a house, away. If Saki could know he’d still be sowing laughter mixed with unease so many years after his death, I imagine he’d be highly amused.
Chris R. Morgan is the editor of Biopsy magazine. His writing has appeared in VICE, Bookforum, The Awl and This Recording.