Sunday, September 6, 2015

Saki says disrespectful things about the universe - some lines from Reginald

Saki’s first book of short stories, Reginald (1904), turns out not to be a books of short stories, despite leading off the Modern Library Short Stories of Saki.  You knew this; I did not.  The Reginald “stories” are newspaper humor pieces, jokes, satire, goofing around.  The Modern Library edition compresses the “book” into 42 pages with no strain on the eye or margin.

The vehicle for Saki’s jokes is his young aesthete Reginald, who if taken seriously is a lunatic, but what fool would take him seriously.

None of the rest of his family had anything approaching Titian hair or a sense of humour, and they used primroses as table decorations.

It follows that they never understood Reginald, who came down late to breakfast, and nibbled toast, and said disrespectful things about the universe.  The family ate porridge, and believed in everything, even the weather forecast.  (“Reginald’s Choir Treat”)

Draining the fun from that passage, I note that “weather forecast” is pretty cheap, but a joke that still looks like a joke.  “Primroses” has lost any humor it might once have had.  Almost requires a footnote.  Oscar Wilde was so obsessed with lilies that they became a trademark of English aestheticism.  I assume that helps me place the “primroses” joke, but who knows.  “[S]aid disrespectful things about the universe” is larger than a joke.  A statement of purpose.

People may say what they like about the decay of Christianity; the religious system that produced green Chartreuse can never really die.  (“Reginald on Christmas Presents”)

I give this as an example of something disrespectful, although one could argue the point.

“To have reached thirty,” said Reginald, “is to have failed in life.” (“Reginald on the Academy”)

That’s Reginald as Wilde.  Saki was of course in his early thirties when he wrote that line.

I found every one talking nervously and feverishly of the weather and the war in South Africa, except Reginald, who was reclining in a comfortable chair with the dreamy, faraway look that a volcano might wear just after it had desolated entire villages.  (“Reginald”)

That volcano is in what I think of as P. G. Wodehouse mode, which I suppose I should begin calling the Saki mode.  Christopher Morley, in his introduction, says of Saki that “[a]unts and werewolves were two of his specialties” (p. vii), which werewolves aside sounds awfully like Bertie Wooster.

A character who is not Reginald, and hopes to reform him:

And like every woman who has ever preached repentance to unregenerate youth, she dwelt on the sin of an empty life, which always seems so much more scandalous in the country, where people rise early to see if a new strawberry has happened during the night.  (“Reginald’s Choir Treat”)

That might be my favorite line in Reginald.  Cuts two ways, don’t it?

Saki’s next book seems, despite its title (Reginald in Russia), to contain short stories, which is close to but not really a shame.


  1. 'Christopher Morley, in his introduction, says of Saki that “[a]unts and werewolves were two of his specialties” (p. vii), which werewolves aside sounds awfully like Bertie Wooster.'

    Wodehouse's stroke of genius was to combine aunts and werewolves into the same characters.
    One of the problems with Saki is that he wrote so little that the Collected Stories can include and begin with Reginald, which were [was?] warming-up exercises for when he really got going. If readers begin at the beginning they get the worst of him.

  2. Fabulous. Time to read more Saki.

  3. The Wodehouse connection! So interesting. (Yes, definitely, the aunts were Bertie's wolves! Aunt Agatha, particularly.) The volcano has the right air, as does the intrepid country-dweller, lofting up out of bed in scandalously early hours to welcome the new strawberry.

    The primroses-on-the-table business may be linked up to the old superstition that you had to bring exactly the right number of them into the house, or else you would have bad luck. I expect these humorless porridge-eaters were very careful about the correct number. After all, they believe in everything.

  4. Ah the aunts are also werewolves. That's good. Hadn't thought of that.

    Maybe Reginald should go at the end of the volume. On the other hand, the reader who gets the sensibility - I sure did - would be happy with more of the worst. I mean, "see if a new strawberry has happened," yes.

    I find Marly's primroses superstition a plausible explanation. Whoever is working on an annotated Saki, please track this down..

  5. There's something of a Saki-James connexion in his novel The Unbearable Bassington. Of the central characters, the ambitious young politician Courtenay Youghal ("one of nature's bachelors"), though James would never say it openly) who needs a rich wife and the innocent heiress Elaine de Frey could both come from a James novel, though he'd treat them very differently. Only Comus himself, a "Lord of misrule", is a kind of character James didn't deal with, though I think he'd have liked to. All of James's characters have a strong sense of self-preservation - he doesn't have openly self-destructive characters like Comus.
    However, there's an interesting scene in Paris where a group of Americans who could be James's reluctant travellers lament the absence of cherry pie - "real deep cherry pie" - and peach pie, where in an abrupt switch out of mockery and flippancy Youghal remarks:
    “they are a widely-travelled set, and the man has had a notably interesting career.", then it's back to Saki's norm: " It is a form of home-sickness with them to discuss and lament the cookery and foods that they’ve never had the leisure to stay at home and digest. The Wandering Jew probably babbled unremittingly about some breakfast dish that took so long to prepare that he had never time to eat it.”
    We don't know much of what Saki read - Wilde and Omar Khayyam, obviously, but his swipes at Shaw are generalised and although he knew eastern European languages there's little if anything about Russian literature. Perhaps Dostoyevsky, read and translated with malicious humour, would turn into Saki.

  6. I had been wondering about Bassington, and now you tell me that it has a scene about pie! I love the line about the Wandering Jew.

    I love the line about Dostoevsky, too. That is not far from how I read Dostoevsky. Very interesting comment, Roger, thanks.

  7. hmm... his studied incompetence sounds more like freddie widgeon, actually...

  8. I may be introducing an anachronistic concept - may do more harm than good - but Reginald is far more cool than Freddie Widgeon. And Reginald is a chaos seed.

  9. It took Saki a while to move beyond Reginald; I wonder why. Reginald became Clovis, and then Bassington, but was essentially the same character, the same idle young wit. Bassington didn't end well, as sometimes happens to idle young wits, which I suppose allowed Saki to move on, to more actively malicious characters.

    Wodehouse? Huh. I can see that, although I see Firbank as a closer match.

    1. Saki's production rate is strange. Reginald in 1904, then a six year gap, then five books in four years. Presumably some of the stories were published before 1910, though, It's also odd that Saki didn't recycle some of his work as a foreign correspondent into a book or books. It's odd with Reginald in Russia - a quick farewell to Reginald's C and then The Reticence of Lady Anne, which is a grimly comic character study - the fully-fledged Saki.

  10. Yesss, Firbank.

    Saki is beginning to seem like more of a hole in my reading than I had realized.

  11. This does sound fun. I still need to make a start with Saki, but I do have a lovely Daunt Books edition of some of his stories on my bookshelf. Time to bump it up the TBR pile.

  12. Yes, just a taste with that collection, likely a good way to read Saki.

  13. This has me reading my own 'best of' which used to be one of the most dipped into books on my shelves. And with phrases like "noted lights of the musical-comedy stage flickered wanly in the shades of the inferno, smiling still from force of habit, but with the fearsome smiling rage of baffled effort." it may be time to reignite my love of a daily drop of Saki.