Saki’s first book of stories, Reginald (1904) turned out not to be a book of stories at all, despite leading off The Short Stories of Saki, but rather a collection of newspaper humor columns in which the title characters told jokes about this and that. Reginald in Russia (1910) promises, via the title, more of the same. A take it is a conceptual joke of Saki’s that Reginald appears only in the first “story” and is never seen or heard again, ever in the rest of Saki’s work, as if he went off a cliff with his arch-enemy Moriarty. No, that is not the right analogy.
The Princess always defended a friend’s complexion if it was really bad. With her, as with a great many of her sex, charity began at homeliness and did not generally progress much farther.
I am not complaining about the humor column side of Saki. How about this one:
Reginald gave a delicate shiver, such as an Italian greyhound might give in contemplating the approach of an ice age of which he personally disapproved…
But my point is that most of the rest of this little book (my edition packs it into 62 pages) consists of genuine Saki stories, narratives with characters, movement, conclusions, and so on, not just a string of jokes. Well, aside from a throwaway about ladies’ shopping habits that might as well include Reginald and a joke about Turks and women’s suffrage, both period pieces at best.
Otherwise, they are like “The Bag.” The Major, who is in charge of fox-hunting, is coming to tea, along with another guest, a Russian youth, who has just shot – “’Guess what I have shot,’ he demanded.”
“Does it swim and eat fish?” asked Norah, with a fervent prayer in her heart that it might turn out to be an otter.
“No,” said Vladimir, busy with the straps of his game-bag; “it lives in the woods, and eats rabbits and chickens.”
Norah sat down suddenly, and hid her face in her hands.
“Merciful Heaven!” she wailed; “he’s shot a fox!”
The Major enters just as they hide the fox. Farce ensues. I am so used to seeing farce ably enacted by humans, in plays and on screen, that I convince myself that actors are necessary for farce to work, but no, a nosey fox-terrier, a musky game bag, and prose are enough.
“The Bag” has a twist in the last line – just a single word – that does not upend what came before, but only deepens the social comedy. “The Mouse” follows the same formula. A man in a train compartment discovers he has a mouse in his clothes. Can he possibly shake out or even remove some of his clothes in front of the lady in the compartment with him – when she is asleep? For a while, his answer is No, which is funny, and after enough mousey torment he changes to Yes, which is funnier.
Farce is just comedy of manners with the manners at issues isolated or pushed to an extreme. Why not just violate that standard, just this once? Easy to say after the fact, or from the safety of my soft armchair at the club.
My understanding is that these stories were much read – and first read – by gentlemen at their clubs. Did they have to stifle their laughter to maintain decorum, or could they let it out right there in the reading room? Especially when they hit the twist words, nine words from the end of the story in “The Mouse,” seven from the end in “The Bag,” just four in the startling “The Reticence of Lady Anne.” I am imagining little pops of laughter around the room from the men reading Saki in the Westminster Gazette.