Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Page references in parentheses are to The Complete Works of Saki (London: The Bodley Head, 1980). Endnotes are in brackets.
Though the literary space between the vulgar and the academic diminishes annually, short stories by Saki (H. H. Munro) retain a place in what remains of the generally educated person’s leisure reading. Their spirited wit, effervescent with one-liners, remarkable endings, and, quite often, a bracing edge of gruesome horror, has retained their place in anthologies and created Saki fans since their original publication. His plays (one full-length and two one acts) have received far less attention either on stage or in print,  and his three short novels have been similarly neglected.
In the case of his The Westminster Alice (really more a short story than a novel at a bare twenty-five pages), a decay of interest is to be expected. A satire on the parliament of the day based on Lewis Carroll, it is done with a light and expert hand, yet it requires far too many footnotes for a contemporary reader, particularly for one who is unsympathetic with Munro’s retrograde political views.
When William Came, however, though not killed by its political program, is severely wounded. The book, published the year the Great Britain entered World War I, imagines the country defeated by Germany and under Hohenzollern rule.  Though “invasion literature” had been popular for forty years, producing at least four hundred works, Munro did write on the very eve of hostilities. The story is a wake-up call, in particular urging conscription and expenditures for war readiness. 
The writing is sparking and delicious when describing the doings of what is left of London society. One can depend on lines such as “A noisy and very wearisome sort of woman . . .she reminds me of garlic that’s been planted out of place .” (752) Or “love is one of the few things in which the make-believe is superior to the original, it lasts longer, and you get more fun out of it, and it’s easier to replace when you’re done with it.” (695) The speaker of those lines, Ronnie Storre, is later dismissed by Joan Mardle, saying, “Ronnie, oh, I don’t count him, he’s just a boy who looks nice and eats asparagus.” (719) Gorla Mustelford’s exhibition of modern dance would have been worth enduring if only for the sake of the reviews. Mr. Maulevrer Morle: “Rostand . . .has been called le Prince de l’Adjectif Inopiné. Miss Mustelford deserves to be described as the Queen of Unexpected Movement.” (746) and the Standard reports, “It would have been a further kindness, at any rate to the audience, if some of the training which the wolves doubtless do not appreciate at its proper value, had been expended on Miss Mustelford’s efforts at stage dancing.” (753)
Apparently art is no consolation for the citizens of the defeated nation. Not only is Gora’s dancing ludicrous, but Ronnie’s piano playing meets with approval only from the Germans and the collaborators, while Yeovil responds with hostility, venting his love of country suddenly declaiming an out-of-the-way passage of Cowper. (781)
After the reliably amusing rewards of the dance spectacle and the ensuing critical reaction, such an ejaculation seems out of place, though this one is odd enough to seem merely curious. But the book has outrightly flat passages. Saki’s wit finds itself uncomfortably cheek-by-jowl with purely didactic statements the sincerity of which proves no compensation for the loss of flippancy and thoughtlessness. The ascription of the defeat to failure to “apprentice” for war (i.e. to have a draft) (706) is a fair specimen of the book’s call-to-arms. Much of Chapter 12 in which the Hungarian offers his opinions, criticizing the British for having grown soft and accepting a mild-mannered Christ no longer supernatural as well as the view that most foreigners were “amiable, good fellows” could have been written by anyone (766-7) and Yeovil’s own reflections at the end make even worse prose.
The author’s conservative patriotism leads him to the peculiar notion that imperial Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm is a socialist state. A phrase like the “Junkerdom and Socialism of Continental Germany” (751) is virtually inexplicable, though one hears that there are a suspicious number of socialists in Germany. (749) We find the forces of British labor acting disloyal by “hob-nobbing” with their German fellow-workers prior to the war, though in historical fact socialist parties throughout Europe were swift for the most part to abandon solidarity and embrace nationalism and the horrors of on an unjustifiable war. (708)
The version of the international socialist threat Saki envisions is mysteriously allied with an even more sinister element -- international Jewry. With the German victory Jews have become the “dominant race” or, what is nearly as bad, “ubiquitous.” (711) Yeovil describes his wife’s supper party as “racially-blended” in a scornful attack in which, to prevent anyone’s missing the point, he specifies (hissing, perhaps, as he does) “the name Mentieth-Mendlesohnn.” (752) As commonplace as anti-Semitism may have been, such an attitude seems out of place for an English patriot.
The savior from this poisonous internationalism compounded of Germans, Jews, and working people is Yeovil’s mother the Dowager Lady Greymarten, grown old in the service of the good, representing the landed gentry as England’s backbone and moral compass. Though too elderly now to do much, she remains stalwart and unbowed, a defender of all that’s good. Specifically what that good may be remains rather vague, but it is surely unsympathetic to Labour or Liberal views. It is this fine stock from which he has sprung that guarantees, perhaps, Yeovil’s principled resistance to the occupation which everyone is euphemistically calling the fait accompli. This absurd faith in the vestiges of the feudal system doubtless arises from the same reaction against modern capitalism felt by Trollope some decades earlier, but it is no whit more credible. Yet Saki’s rhetoric rises and swells as he recalls “successive squires and lords of Torywood had walked to and fro with their friends, watching the thunder-clouds on the political horizon or the shifting shadows on the sundial of political favour, tapping the political barometer for indications of change, working out a party campaign or arranging for the support of some national movement.” (771) Presumably all these past machinations in the service of Britain occurred within parameters considered safe by the ruling class. It is Lady Greymarten who charges her son to fight against the new regime. (775)
Murrey Yeovil had never doubted where he stood, and others begin to sort themselves out. We get a sentimental set-picture of emigrés raising the Union Jack in France (795), and Tony Luton, who had come up in society, shows the soundness of his character by departing for Canada while the altogether selfish like Cicely and Ronnie stay put and make accommodations. (785) But the hopeful ending is provided by, of all things, the Boy Scouts who fail to appear at a parade before the reviewing stand of the country’s new masters. I could think only of Red Dawn, the jingoistic American film with juvenile heroics a few minutes of which I once viewed in a late night motel room. Saki would have done better to write a few more Clovis stories. There he never went wrong. He might have known that his real-life patriotism and sincerity would mix poorly with his proven brand of literary cynicism.
The Unbearable Bassington proves that a small tincture of genuine emotion, albeit apolitical, could produce an effective novel when mixed with Saki’s wickedly witty satire of the idle rich. That comic sensibility, of which one recognizes elements in Wilde, Shaw, Firbank, Waugh, Wodehouse, Noel Coward, Cole Porter and others is inherently amoral, but it’s all in fun, and part of the game is to pretend that nothing really serious is ever at stake. Etiquette is all the more necessary because it always masks people’s universal self-interest. Caring for nothing, believing in nothing, they are left with only their manners and their taste. At the novel’s opening one learns that Francesca “if pressed in an unguarded moment to describe her soul, would probably have described her drawing-room." (570) “The impression she made on people was solely one of externals.” (675) And her son Comus is a marvelous figure of feral homoeroticism. “In appearance he exactly fitted his fanciful Pagan name.” He resembles a “goblin” or a “faun”; “one almost expected to see embryo horns fretting the smoothness of his sleek dark hair.” (576) The reader meets him as he sadistically enjoys caning a younger boy in his role as prefect.
The highly artificial structures of society seem all that separates human society from the brutes, so one practices them as a sort of ritual magic to protect one’s own interests without wastefully knocking horns with others. The humor generated by this elaborate pretense of civility wells up on every page. I need hardly document Saki’s most pronounced characteristic, but a single example, chosen nearly at random, can represent the rest. Comus bums a cigarette from Youghal.
“Friendship could go no further,” he observed, as he gave one-half [of his last smoke] to the doubtfully appeased Comus and lit the other himself.
“There are heaps more in the hall.” said Elaine.
“It was only done for the Saint Martin of Tours effect,” said Youghal; “I hate smoking when I’m rushing through the air.” (608)
The lack of an invading Teuton seems to have done little to enhance the consolations of art. At the theater the crowd “seemed for the most part to recognize the probability that they were quite as interesting as any play they were likely to see.” (654) This is perhaps true in the case of “Sherard Blaw” “the dramatist who had discovered himself, and who had given so ungrudgingly of his discovery to the world.” (655) Religion fares little better. The Archdeacon, a man “exquisitely worldly,”(655) declares his sympathy for the playwright's(presumably Shavian socialist) message, contrasting himself with “unbelievers,” only to be reproved by Lady Caroline who “blinked her eyes. ‘My dear Archdeacon,’ she said, ‘no one can be a unbeliever nowadays. The Christian Apologists have left one nothing to disbelieve.’” (655)
Nor has peacetime settled the author’s political discontents. One finds the same nasty anti-Semitism. In Vienna Elaine and Courtenay Youghal are obliged to mix with “stray units of the Semitic tribe that nineteen centuries of European neglect had been unable to mislay.” (670) Even as wit that characterization of Europe’s treatment of the Jews is pointless as well as monstrous and irresponsible. What comes off considerably better is Saki’s satire of the “progressive-minded” rich.  The interest of society people in “emancipating the serfs of poverty” is indeed ridiculous. In the catalogue of the bore Thorle’s causes “the furtherance of vague talkative religious movements” is of a piece with “the fostering of racial ententes,” since he is in the end “a skilled window-dresser in the emporium of his own personality.” (664) And even the radical reader can agree with Lady Caroline when commenting on Ada Spelvexit’s fondness for delivering improving lectures to working class women, “how painfully true it is that the poor have us always with them.” (617)
The book’s last two chapters mark a real departure, more sustained in its descent (or is it an ascent?) into genuine human emotion than anything else in the author’s oeuvre but which flashes forth occasionally in the short stories. Comus’ exile to one of the roughest of colonial assignments – West Africa – which had seemed most comically unfitted for one of his luxury-loving and idle temperament, and hence a dig at Imperialism in which titled peers took little active part and second sons tended to aim for the church or academia. Even among those who sought a living in the colonies, the Caribbean and a miscellany of other posts were generally preferred to British West Africa which had to make do with staffing its outposts with what might be left over. Perhaps I am influenced by my own time in sunny Nigeria, but to me the penultimate chapter was lyrical and affecting. The reader feels the first actual sympathy for the ne’er-do-well, an emotion sealed by his historically plausible early death in a place once called “the white man’s grave.”
Chapter XVI begins with a magnificent sentence in which the river of time like the author’s rhetoric, rushes impetuously, unstoppably onward through the heat and humidity. The paragraph has covered an entire page before the reader is even quite aware and it ends in a ghastly crescendo of the “horrible, tireless spiteful-sounding squawking of the iron-throated crows.” (677) And just as the reader feels, for the first time, poignant emotion toward Comus, Comus himself, the last man one would have thought liable to sentiment, has an epiphany. “He had loved himself very well and never troubled greatly whether any one else truly loved him, and now he realized what he had made of his life. And at the same time he knew that if his chance were to come again he would throw it away just as surely, just as perversely. Fate played with him with loaded dice, he would lose always.” He is thinking, of course, of his mother. (681)
Though Comus expires in the bush, at the same time his mother Francesca comes to realize, to her sadness, that “she knew he was the one thing the Fates had willed that she should love.” (683) Her suffering even touches the reprobates about her. “’Heaven help that poor woman,’ said Lady Caroline which was, for her, startlingly like a prayer.” (685) Just as the reader is enveloped in pathos Henry Greech appears, mistaking her distress to be a lament for her prized painting which had once meant a very great deal to her, but which now seems valueless. It has, it seems, been found a forgery. And apart from the pathos and comedy of this final scene, it washes the entire story in the same issue of authenticity. Even in her mourning, Francesca realizes “his naughtiness, his exasperating selfishness, his insurmountable folly and perverseness, his cruelty that spared not even himself.” (683) One wonders whether all the high-spirited fun of this book and of Saki’s wonderful short stories is a sort of whistling in the dark. All the dedicated self-amusements, the witty ridicule, the posturing and refined aesthetic pleasures may take place not in spite of, but because of the old truth restated by Lady Veula whose voice had held such kindness when bidding Comus farewell and who had then sighed, “What a tragedy life is!” (668)
1. Oddly, while his plays went unread, his short stories have been dramatized with some success in Emlyn Williams’ The Playboy of the Week-End World (1977), Saki Shorts(2003) a musical by John Gould and Dominic McChesney, Toby Davies’ Wolves at the Window (2008), and another musical Miracles At Short Notice (2011) by James Lark.
2. The fact, ironic but irrelevant here to pursue, is that the House of Hanover and that of Hohenzollern are closely interrelated.
3. For a popular account of invasion literature, see Tom Reiss, “Imagining the Worst,” The New Yorker, November 28, 2005, p. 106. Munro himself enlisted at the age of forty-three, when he might have been excused, insisted on the rank of a common soldier, returned when wounded against medical advice, and recklessly volunteered for hazardous missions. The story has been often repeated, how he was killed by a German sniper moments after warning a comrade-in-arms, "Put that bloody cigarette out!”
4. It matters little that the British Jews are given a phrase of praise for their loyalty. (710) In the novel it’s those Continental Jews that are so much more disagreeable. One may imagine what the author’s reaction would have been to genuine Ostjuden.
5. I can similarly appreciate the satire of Tom Wolfe in “Radical Chic” without conceding to a single reactionary view. In the last forty years the term “politically correct,” at first a self-mocking term used only among leftists, has come to be used almost exclusively by the right.