Saki – Man or monkey?

Just in case any of you are still dithering about which book to take with you for those long, indolent days on the beach, may I be so bold as to make a recommendation? I can think of no better travel companion than the complete works of Saki. The confusion about the pseudonym of English writer Hector Hugh Munro is perhaps understandable. The most popular theory, indeed corroborated by his sister Ethel, is that the name Saki came from a character in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. The fact that a Saki is also a small, mischevious monkey with a reputedly wicked temper is not without interest, given that animals play a dominant role in his works, and the sharp-tongued invariably win the day : the triumph of naked wit over brawn.
Saki is considered to be the consummate master of short stories and his first collection – Reginald – was published in 1904. He died in 1916, having enlisted in 1914 at the outbreak of the First World War. He was well over the age limit at the time and died of a sniper’s bullet in the head, having uttered his last words: “Put that bloody cigarette out”.
His stories are witty, satirical, often very dark and violent. But always recounted with a gleam in the eye and a profound sense of the ridiculousness of it all. They are often only two pages – short, short stories. And yet every word is weighed and its position in the sentence so finely calculated that he often succeeds in giving you the very essence of a character and their entire outlook on life in one line. His prose is that meticulous.
Saki’s mother was killed in a bizarre accident: she was trampled by a cow in a country lane and as a result he was brought up by his aunts. His childhood was, by reports, not a happy one and his stories are often peopled by extremely unpleasant aunts and wily children trying to out-fox them. The vagaries of fate and chance are also major themes – not surprisingly. Animals and the superiority of animal cunning over human intelligence also figure frequently. Saki was a member of the wealthy upper middle class and his world is overrun by dowager duchesses who spend their summer holidays in Baden Baden or Le Touquet, often trying to shake off undesirable hangers-on. He was a true European who worked as Balkan correspondant for the Tory Morning Post from 1902 and could write knowledgeably about Vienna, Prague or Paris. He also spent part of his life in India, and so his stories are extremely diverse in their finely-observed geographical detail.
If I had to choose a favourite, it would be Sredni Vashtar, which best typifies his writing and thematic concerns. Read it and maybe the animal cunning and violence beneath the rigid formality of social nicety will fascinate you as much as it did me.
As for the music, I suggested a song which Ejay correctly named and Lady S. donded: Sympathique by Pink Martini. Now Saki’s characters would undoubtedly enjoy sipping a Pink Martini in whatever European watering-hole they were visiting. And you’ll agree, I think, that the song has such a twenties feel to it that it seems to fit Saki’s universe perfectly…

Découvrez Pink Martini!
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10 thoughts on “Saki – Man or monkey?

  1. I’m waving a pink martini in the general direction of Hawaii where our TracyK is getting wed. All my best wishes go to the pair of you. FP.

  2. FP – I love Saki, I think my favourite is ‘Esme’ which is ostensibly about a hyaena that eats a gypsy child. Short stories are perfect for dipping into on holiday, or on trains (where I spend a lot of time) and if you’re laid up with some sort of lurgy. If you like the genre, try Emily Prager, Angela Carter, Edna O’Brien … Meanwhile I join you with a virtual pink martini(is the sun over the yard-arm yet?) and best wishes to TraceyK.

  3. Esmé is brilliant – two English ladies in hunting attire waving their whips at a… hyena. I also love Mrs Packletide’s tiger and Gabriel-Ernest. Hang it, I love them all. I do wonder why the BBC never did a series of them. It could have been wonderful. He’s too old now, but I would have cast Rupert Everett as Clovis Sangrail.

  4. I’ve been whizzing around Youtube to see what film versions of Saki’s works exist. There are lots of amateur, modern-day versions which don’t quite work BUT the BBC, it seems, have done an utterly beautiful version of Sredni Vashtar. It’s big budget stuff with animation and the marvellous Gemma Jones as Mrs De Ropp. If you Youtube Sredni Vashtar, you’ll fins it posted in 3 parts.

  5. Followed the link & enjoyed the story. Will recommend Saki to the youngest daughter (the one who is not the Coldplay fan). Her current fave is Roald Dahl, who also specialises in dark humour, magic & evil relatives. Thanks.

  6. Henry James is also very good, especially the ghost stories. Years ago the BBC used to dramatise a ghost story each Christmas, and one of the ones they did was ‘Whistle and I’ll come to you, my lad!’ Scared me silly at the time, very atmospheric (in the days of black and white TV). they did ‘The turn of the screw’ as well, but that was later.FP, I’m digging out my ‘Best of Saki’ to re-read on the train this week!

  7. Nice one Shoey – Roald ‘My Mom couldn’t spell Ronald’ Dahl is, like, totally influenced by Saki. Could be his spiritual son in many ways. Sredni Vshtar was read to me in junior school when I was about ten. The fascination remains. Let us know if your wee ‘un gets hooked…—Alimunday – I’ll check out Henry James. Have already bought a Larkin book and a biography of Saki so one more won’t break the bank! Bonne lecture à tous! FP

  8. If you’ll pardon the plug, you might enjoy my podcast of readings of the Chronicles of Clovis, which has been running for just over a year and gained a small but select following. You can listen via the website link above or subscribe to the podcast feed for new stories each month.Like frogprincess I love Sredni Vashtar, but my own favourites are probably Wratislav, because it’s so gloriously bitchy, and The Unrest Cure for its sheer malevolent mischievousness. Saki’s stories are a sheer joy to read – the phrasing is utterly perfect, and in an epigram-throwing context he’d leave Oscar Wilde in the dust. Glorious stuff.

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