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Saki

From Academic Kids

For other uses, see Saki (disambiguation).
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Hector Hugh Munro

Saki (December 18, 1870 - November 14, 1916) was the pen name of British author Hector Hugh Munro, whose witty and outrageous stories satirised the Edwardian social scene in macabre and cruel ways.

Saki is considered a master of the short story, often compared to O. Henry and Dorothy Parker. Saki stories are always short but memorable, with finely-drawn characters, unique and macabre situations, and perfectly-timed narratives. His story "The Open Window" may be his most famous, with a closing line ("Romance at short notice was her speciality") that has entered the lexicon of many writers. He also wrote several novels and plays.

The name Saki is often thought to be a nod to the cupbearer in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, a poem to which he refers (disparagingly) in "Reginald on Christmas Presents" (see quote below). It may, however, be a reference to the South American monkey of the same name, "a small, long-tailed monkey from the Western Hemisphere", its nature a balance of gentle shyness with a vicious temper, featured as a central character in "The Remoulding of Groby Lington". This story is the only one of Saki's to begin with a quotation: "A man is known by the company he keeps", and turns upon the idea of humans becoming like the pets they keep.

Saki himself had a similar personality to the troublesome and mischievous monkey in this story. Moreover, he began his writing career with a full-length history of Russia in the style of Edward Gibbon, and may have viewed himself as an analogue of Gibbon, whose last name is also the name of a monkey.

Contents

Biography

Munro was born in Akyab, Burma, as the son of Charles Augustus Munro, an inspector-general for the Burma police when that country, now called Myanmar, was still part of the British Empire. His mother, the former Mary Frances Mercer, died in 1872, killed by a runaway cow. (This event may presage the frightening views of animals that mark many of his stories.) He was brought up in England with his brother and sister by his grandmother and aunts in a straitlaced household, the humour of which he only appreciated in later life. He used the severity of this household in many stories, notably "Sredni Vashtar", in which a young boy keeps a pet ferret without his guardian's knowledge and the weasel ends up killing her, apparently to the delight of the boy.

Munro was educated at Pencarwick School in Exmouth and the Bedford Grammar School. In 1893 Munro joined the Burma police. Three years later, failing health forced his resignation and return to England, where he started his career as a journalist, writing for newspapers such as the Westminster Gazette, Daily Express, Bystander, Morning Post, and Outlook.

In 1900 Munro's first book appeared, The Rise of the Russian Empire, a historical study modelled upon Edward Gibbon's famous The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It was followed in 1902 by Not-So-Stories, a collection of short stories and a clear reference to Kipling's Just-So Stories.

From 1902 to 1908 Munro worked as a foreign correspondent for The Morning Post in the Balkans, Russia, and Paris, then settled in London. Many of the stories from this period feature the elegant and effete Reginald and Clovis, who take heartless and cruel delight in the discomfort or downfall of their conventional and pretentious elders. In 1914 his novel When William Came was published, in which he portrayed what might happen if the German emperor conquered England.

At the start of World War I, although officially over age, Munro joined the Army as an ordinary soldier, refusing a commission. He returned to the battlefield more than once when officially still too sick or injured to fight. He was killed by a sniper in France, near Beaumont-Hamel, in 1916. Munro was sheltering in a shell crater and his last words, according to several sources, were "Put that damned cigarette out!". After his death his sister Ethel destroyed most of his papers and wrote her own account of their childhood.

Much of Saki's work was published posthumously.

Controversy

Some believe that Munro made misogynist and anti-Semitic comments, although compared with his contemporaries in Edwardian England, he appears progressive for his time.

Rather than the blanket term 'misogyny', it might be more correct to say that Munro disapproved of childless women, probably from his own negative experience with them. A sickly motherless child, Munro was raised by straitlaced female relatives who, he believed, went beyond strictness into cruel and spiteful behaviour. (Mrs. De Roop, the guardian cousin in "Sredni Vashtar", is said to be a representation of his view of his own aunt. See also the quotation "Eleanor hated boys" from "Arlington Stringham" below.) He was also confronted by the more fatuous end of female interaction, as described in "The Sex that Does Not Shop". As a reputed homosexual, he attracted many female friends but never married.

Despite his lampooning of suffragettes and aunts, his stories feature sympathetic portrayals of admirably cool and self-possessed schoolgirls. One of his closest childhood friends was his sister, and they remained close until his death.

Short stories

Saki's world contrasts the effete conventions and hypocrisies of Edwardian England with the ruthless but straightforward life-and-death struggles of nature. Nature generally wins in the end.

Saki's work is now in the public domain, and all or most of these stories are on the Internet.

Some of his best-known short stories include:

  • "The Interlopers"
Two feuding men trapped together in a forest settle their feud. They see a rescue party coming and call out, only to realize that it's actually a pack of wolves.
  • "The Schartz-Metterklume Method"
At a train station, an arrogant and overbearing woman mistakes the mischievous Lady Carlotta for the governess she expected. Lady Carlotta, deciding not to correct the mistake, presents herself as a proponent of "the Schartz-Metterklume method" of making children understand history by acting it out themselves, and chooses a rather unsuitable historical episode for her first lesson.
  • "The Open Window" (see above)
Vera, a self-possessed young lady, takes it upon herself to entertain Mr. Nuttel, a nervous newcomer to the countryside, by letting her imagination run wild. She relates a local tragic ghost story, with the forlorn hope of her long-dead uncle and his hunting companions returning through the open window. "Poor aunt always thinks that they will come back someday, they and the little brown spaniel that was lost with them, and walk in at that window just as they used to do. That is why the window is kept open every evening till it is quite dusk." Aunt's innocent remarks on the subject are then interpreted as sickly delusion. The punchline comes when Vera's uncle and his companions, complete with the little brown spaniel, do indeed return through the window after a long day's hunt, as she had fully expected them to. The poor Mr. Nuttel dashes away in horror.
  • "The Toys of Peace"
Rather than giving their young boys toy soldiers and guns, a couple decides to give their sons "peace toys". When the packages are opened, young Bertie shouts "It's a fort!" and is disappointed when his father replies "It's a municipal dust-bin". The boys are initially baffled as to how to obtain any enjoyment from models of a school of art and a public library, or from little toy figures of John Stuart Mill, poetess Felicia Hemans, and astronomer Sir John Herschel. Youthful inventiveness finds a way, however.
  • "The Storyteller"
A bachelor is irritated by badly-behaved children in a railway ("the smaller girl created a diversion by beginning to recite 'On the Road to Mandalay'. She only knew the first line, but she put her limited knowledge to the fullest possible use"). He decides to tell them a story about a little girl named Bertha who is extraordinarily good — "horribly good." In the story's dénouement, Bertha is hiding in some shrubbery from a pursuing wolf. She almost escapes, but she is wearing three medals — for obedience, punctuality, and good behavior. As she trembles with fear, her medals clink against each other and attract the attention of the wolf, who devours her. "The story began badly," says the smaller of the small girls, "but it had a beautiful ending."
  • "The Unrest-Cure"
Saki's recurring hero Clovis Sangrail, a sly young man, overhears the complacent middle-aged Huddle complaining of his own addiction to routine and aversion to change. Huddle's friend makes the wry suggestion of the need for an "unrest-cure" (the opposite of a rest-cure) to be performed, if possible, in the home. Clovis takes it upon himself to "help" the man and his hapless sister, by inventing a bloody-minded bishop who invisibly takes over the Huddle's home and plots a massacre of all the Jews in the neighborhood. Clovis poses as the bishop's confidential secretary and uses frequent telegrams, unwitting visitors, and dark, cryptic utterances to build an increasing atmosphere of tension, seige, and eventually bloodshed, without in fact doing anyone any harm at all. "I don't suppose," mused Clovis, as an early train bore him townwards, "that they will be in the least grateful for the Unrest-cure."
  • "Esmé"
In a hunting story that promises to be different, the Baroness tells Clovis of a hyena she and her friend Constance encountered alone in the countryside, who takes a liking to them but cannot resist the urge to stop for a snack. The story is a perfect example of Saki's delight in setting societal convention against uncompromising nature.
The wailing accompaniment was explained. The gypsy child was firmly, and I expect painfully, held in his jaws.
"Merciful Heaven!' screamed Constance, 'what on earth shall we do? What are we to do?"
The child is shortly devoured, and Constance continues:
Constance shuddered. "Do you think the poor little thing suffered much?" came another of her futile questions.
"The indications were all that way,' I said; 'on the other hand, of course, it may have been crying from sheer temper. Children sometimes do."

Quotations

From "Reginald on Besetting Sins":

The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go she went.

From "Reginald's Christmas Revel":

As a crowning dissipation, they all sat down to play progressive halma, with milk-chocolate for prizes. I've been carefully brought up, and I don't like to play games of skill for milk-chocolate, so I invented a headache and retired from the scene. I had been preceded a few minutes earlier by Miss Langshan-Smith, a rather formidable lady, who always got up at some uncomfortable hour in the morning, and gave you the impression that she had been in communication with most of the European Governments before breakfast. There was a paper pinned on her door with a signed request that she might be called particularly early in the morning. Such an opportunity does not come twice in a lifetime. I covered up everything except the signature with another notice, to the effect that before these words should meet the eye she should have ended a misspent life, was sorry for the trouble she was giving, and would like a military funeral. A few minutes later I violently exploded an air-filled paper bag on the landing, and gave a stage moan that could have been heard in the cellars. Then I pursued my original intention and went to bed. The noise those people made in forcing open the good lady's door was positively indecorous; she resisted gallantly, but I believe they searched her for bullets for about a quarter of an hour, as if she had been a historic battlefield.
I hate travelling on Boxing Day, but one must occasionally do things that one dislikes.

From "Reginald on the Academy":

"To have reached thirty," said Reginald, "is to have failed in life."
To die before being painted by Sargent is to go to Heaven prematurely.

From "The Jesting of Arlington Stringham":

Eleanor hated boys, and she would have liked to have whipped this one long and often. It was perhaps the yearning of a woman who had no children of her own.

From "For The Duration Of The War":

'You are not on the Road to Hell,' You tell me with fanatic glee: Vain boaster, what shall that avail If Hell is on the road to thee?

From "Reginald on Christmas Presents":

Even friends of one's own set, who might be expected to know better, have curious delusions on the subject [of gift-giving]. I am NOT collecting copies of the cheaper editions of Omar Khayyam. I gave the last four that I received to the lift-boy, and I like to think of him reading them, with FitzGerald's notes, to his aged mother.

Books

External link

nl:Saki ja:サキ

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