Don't be a literary snob!- Read some Saki
Saki wrote over 300 short stories before he was killed at age 46 by the bullet of a German sniper during WWI. I have almost by accident posted on 19 short stories on Saki since I began my blog in July 2009. This came about to some extent because East of the Web: Short Stores, a great source of reading ideas for short stories, often posts one of his works as the story of the day.
Most of Saki's stories are gentle satires of the pretensions of the upper crust in Edwardian society. Almost all of them are written in a mannered style of prose that seems a little antiquated to many now. I would describe Saki by and large as an entertaining writer with a highly educated prose style who at his best is quite good and at his worse (some of the stories do really seem like just set ups for the ending) will at least make you smile. Sometimes it seems Saki, who I dearly love, may have been a bit of a lazy writer just pumping out the story of the week for a magazine as a few of his stories are really brilliant. Today in Honor of the 140th anniversary of his birthday, I want to spotlight two of his stories that show him at the top of his typical form, one that kind of shocked me to see him writing so deeply in just a few pages about the Burmese colonial experience, and one story that could have been written by Thomas Hardy or Joseph Conrad, on a good day.
"Open Window" (1911) might be the most anthologized most taught in Freshman English Saki Short Story. Saki has been called sort of a perpetually adolescent writer aiming to have some fun with the grown ups in his life. "Open Window", if you read only one Saki story, this one will give you the flavor of his work for sure. As the story begins a candidate for political office in England is so worn out he is told to go stay for the weekend and just relax at the home of one of his relatives. When he gets there he finds only one of the teenage girls in the family is there to greet him. I did not see the ending coming in this story at all but once it happened it was quite inevitable and logical. That is sort of the test of a good surprise ending for me. This is just a flat out totally fun story. It is light hearted and handed and won't leave you amazed but you will say too your self, OK next time I want to read something just for fun, I will look for one of his stories.
"Tobermory" (1913) is a really fun story about a talking cat and I know the book blog world is full of cat lovers, like myself, who will like the concept of the story as soon as they hear it. I will let people discover the story for themselves but here is a sample of the cat's speech (and a very characteristic sample of the prose of Saki).
" "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."
"The Comments of Moung" (1906) is very interesting in that it is set not in Edwardian England but in the Burma of the British Raj. Before India was partitioned in 1947, the large province of Bengal was partitioned along religious lines from 1905 to 1912 when the partition was abolished. "The Comments of Moung" is not set in India, but in Burma (I prefer to use the old name) in a village on the shores of the Irrawaddy River. (Saki was a military policemen in Burma from 1893 to 1895, just like his father was.) Moung is a prosperous rice merchant who travels quite a bit in his business so when he comes home people ask him what is going on in Indian and England. He tells everyone how the province of Bengal is going to be partitioned. He says even though the people do not want it the English do and they must know best. Now he explains that he heard that England is also to be partitioned into two countries.
"The Hounds of Fate" (1911) is as good as a one of the best of Thomas Hardy's short stories, which it kind of reminds me of. It is the only tinged with real pain story of Saki I have read (I have read 43 since my blog began, and as I said earlier, posted on 19 of them). "The Hound" sounds almost like something Thomas Hardy might have written. It opens with a man very down on his luck, homeless and with only a few pennies to his name. Saki does a wonderful job setting things up for us in the opening paragraph so I will let him speak (and I also want readers to see his prose style in this story):
In the fading light of a close dull autumn afternoon Martin Stoner plodded his way along muddy lanes and rut-seamed cart tracks that led he knew not exactly whither. Somewhere in front of him, he fancied, lay the sea, and towards the sea his footsteps seemed persistently turning; why he was struggling wearily forward to that goal he could scarcely have explained, unless he was possessed by the same instinct that turns a hard-pressed stag cliffward in its last extremity. In his case the hounds of Fate were certainly pressing him with unrelenting insistence; hunger, fatigue, and despairing hopelessness had numbed his brain, and he could scarcely summon sufficient energy to wonder what underlying impulse was driving him onward. Stoner was one of those unfortunate individuals who seem to have tried everything; a natural slothfulness and improvidence had always intervened to blight any chance of even moderate success, and now he was at the end of his tether, and there was nothing more to try.
Martin decides to stop off at a farm house he passes and ask for a meal. When he comes to the door and old man, seemingly a family employee, greets him as "Master Tom" and says he always knew he would return from Australia one day. He offers to get him dinner and serves him the best meal he has had in years. He then tells Martin that his employer, a very old woman and seemingly the mother or grandmother of Tom, had told him that if Tom ever returns he is to stay and be told he will inherit the property one day just as planned before he left. Martin has now figured out they are mistaking him for someone else but he sees no reason to explain the error. One day he looks at a number of old family photos and the resemblance of himself and Tom is striking. Soon Tom is told by the old family servant and farm manager that people in the community have not forgotten the terrible thing he did that made him flea to Australia. We never learn what that was but everywhere he goes people give him hate- filled looks. Martin is worried over what Tom did but he cannot ask as it would expose his false identity. I will leave the rest of the plot untold. There is a surprise ending to the story but it is organic to the plot. "The Hounds of Fate" makes me wish Saki would have taken himself a bit more seriously.
Saki is often dismissed as a surprise ending writer. OK no denying this that is by and large what he is but he is funny, very perceptive, wise when he tries to be and his mannered prose is a joy to read. Maybe as some say his intelligence is of the too smart malicious child but we need that also.
All of Saki's stories can easily be found online.