Sunday, October 4, 2015

"Guess what I have shot?" - some Saki stories that are stories

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.


  1. I love Saki - I've read two of his collections so far - and tbh he makes me laugh so much I couldn't tell you if there were actually any plots in them.....!


  2. With some distance I can see the originality of the stories, their voice and some structural novelty, but I am with you, really - the laughs are enough.

    Four collections to go - I don't want to swallow them one right after the other. Risk of Saki poisoning.

  3. I love, love, LOVE Saki. I think my favorite story of all time is The Storyteller. I haven't read any of the Reginalds but I think I must, and soon.

  4. I don't know who Saki's original audience was. I think it was larger than the men in the club. The stories were once ubiquitous in collections, and forever reprinted in magazines. In fact, Saki (along with O. Henry) so popularized twist endings that later writers had to give them up.

    Is this the first time you've read Saki? Not all of his stories are funny. But I'll let you be surprised.

  5. This is the first time I have read Saki in a book where one Saki story is followed by another. Before this, just occasional appearances in anthologies. And I have found that Saki can get lost in that setting. His frothy three pages against thirty rather heavier pages of Somerset Maugham.

    So I am highly suggestible on the topic. I just read "The Storyteller," for example, right now. "'It is the only beautiful story I have ever heard,' said Cyril." So true, so true.

    The Reginald books, and it seems the next one, The Chronicles of Clovis, mostly or entirely consist of pieces first published in the Westminster Gazette, a club paper. That is the source of my club fantasia. The audience was men in clubs on the day of publication, at least. But Saki obviously escaped from the club setting with ease. And then he shifted to The Morning Post and larger circulation magazines - well, I am not sure when, but sometime in the early 1910s.

    That not all of the stories are funny - I am already surprised.

    1. Saki had worked as a correspondent in Eastern Europe for The Morning Post. He witnessed Bloody Sunday in Moscow in 1905. It seems a little odd that he was published in The Westminster Gazette - a Liberal paper - when his own political views were high Tory. Perhaps there were conventions over publishing fiction and reportage in the same paper which meant he had to wait some time after reporting for them before publishing stories in The Morning Post which would have been more sympathetic. I don't think anyone has tried to check on Saki/Munro's journalism: perhaps the convention of journalistic anonymity and The Morning Post's closure makes it impossible.
      The Westminster Gazette's small circulation may have been deliberate - "We few, we happy few..." It was certainly very influential despite or because of it.

    2. Yes, the journalism and humor pieces are separate in some way I do not understand.

      Some of my Victorian potted ideas about the press and publishing stop working as well in the 1890s and Edwardian period. I should read a book, as they say.

  6. "Saki can get lost in that setting"

    So true. I know I've read some of his stories through the years, but always in collections, and I can't remember a word of it. I looked through a list of Saki titles last night and nothing looked familiar, or all of it looked familiar. Now all I have left is the impression that Saki was a sort of English Thurber.

  7. English Thurber is not completely wrong, by which I mean it is partly right. Some of these earlier stories are close enough to that idea. "Toys of Peace," a later story, is close enough.

  8. Hm, I don't see much affinity with Thurber, beyond the fact that both wrote short funny pieces. Thurber's viewpoint is usually that of the henpecked husband, Saki's that of the malicious (and implicitly gay) young dandy. Thurber is rooted in Benchley and Leacock, Saki in Wilde and Beerbohm. If Clovis Sangrail ever met Walter Mitty, he'd make fun of his suit. There's some crossover; I can imagine Thurber coming up with "Tobermory," for example, although "The New Yorker" would probably have made him tone it down.

    Saki is also darker: I can't imagine Thurber writing something like "Sredni Vashtar." The only equivalent American I can think of is Bierce.

  9. No, not an affinity. But you list some similarities! "The Toys of Peace" basically has a henpecked husband. "The Reticence of Lady Anne" has an actual henpecked husband. Or else an entirely un-pecked husband.

    You're describing Saki from a position of knowledge. He looks quite different from a position of ignorance.

    I am trying to imagine Saki's "The Night the Bed Fell." In the end, the house is full of corpses.

  10. Good point! Of course, in "The Toys of Peace," the sympathy is with the children. The adult is there to be mocked. But I wonder if Saki would have mellowed if he had lived longer.

  11. Doug, your comments are the best spur to read the next little volume of Saki, and the next, and the next,

  12. I love that line about the Italian greyhound - it's such a great image. I've yet to make a start with Saki, but it's good to know there's so much to look forward to.

  13. I included the greyhound line not just because it is so good but because it is from one of the seemingly throwaway pieces.