Thursday, May 24, 2012

Saki: The Short Stories of Hector Hugh Munroe

I really love short stories, so much. The hardest of literary forms to write, I admire the neatness of a few pages of prose where each word counts and a plot can hang from a single turn of phrase. There are two short story authors I love best of all, one male and one female. I cannot count the times I've read each of their collected works, and each time I find one more sentence to appreciate, something I've missed.

It seems a shame to only fully appreciate two but I've given Chekov a fair chance, I've battled through O Henry, I've tried to appreciate Angela Carter and turgid Turgenev... but nothing comes close to the two greatest ever short story writers in my opinion, Saki (Hector Hugh Munroe) and Dorothy Parker.

Dorothy can wait for another post, but Saki, oh Saki. I'm going to write about you.

Saki was the pen name of Hector Hugh Munro, a gay Edwardian journalist who was killed by a German sniper in the first world war (his last words were, and this anecdote sounds like one of his stories, "Put that bloody cigarette out!"). Luckily, before that he produced some of the funniest and finest stories known to mankind.

I wish I could remember where I discovered the Collected Short Stories of Saki, it seems as if it's always been in my life.... I can open it and read from anywhere, it's like being wrapped in a comforting duvet while someone with a fantastical name tells you a wickedly funny story with a twist at the end you never expected.

In college, our English Literature A Level class were asked to bring in a favourite book and read a section of it aloud to the rest of our peers. In a rare fit of learning enthusiasm I excitedly brought in my battered copy of Saki planning to read 'Tobermory'.

I then experienced possibly the most embarrassing moment of my life when I noticed that everyone else had simply gone to the library in the break before the lesson to retrieve a 'cool' Stephen King book that they could pretend was their favourite.

So you can imagine how this went down to a class of bored, sneering 18 year olds:

"It was a chill, rain-washed afternoon of a late August day, that indefinite season when partridges are still in security or cold storage, and there is nothing to hunt—unless one is bounded on the north by the Bristol Channel, in which case one may lawfully gallop after fat red stags. 

Lady Blemley's house-party was not bounded on the north by the Bristol Channel, hence there was a full gathering of her guests round the tea-table on this particular afternoon. And, in spite of the blankness of the season and the triteness of the occasion, there was no trace in the company of that fatigued restlessness which means a dread of the pianola and a subdued hankering for auction bridge. The undisguised open-mouthed attention of the entire party was fixed on the homely negative personality of Mr. Cornelius Appin. Of all her guests, he was the one who had come to Lady Blemley with the vaguest reputation. Some one had said he was "clever," and he had got his invitation in the moderate expectation, on the part of his hostess, that some portion at least of his cleverness would be contributed to the general entertainment. Until tea-time that day she had been unable to discover in what direction, if any, his cleverness lay" 

Even my teacher looked at me oddly after that day and nobody asked me to recommend them any literature.

But you can't just sample a few paragraphs of one story to appreciate Saki (I should have mentioned that at my 'reading') you have to immerse yourself in the Edwardian world of manners, the talking animals, the viciously smart children, the unpleasant elderly aunts who deserve to die, the miserable artists and the vain, well dressed cads obsessed with asparagus sauce. The names, oh my god, the characters names should receive an award in their own right:

Clovis Sangrail
Sredni Vashtar
Conradin De Ropp
Odo Finsberry
Arlington Stringham
Luitpold Wolkenstein
Lulworth Quayne

You can read many Saki stories online, but I recommend buying a copy. I might just go and read some now, starting with The Un-Rest Cure...

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