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It's escorted by regiments of cucumber sandwiches and liberally sampled decanters. Witticisms and perfectly flippant remarks fly back and forth, spiced with the occasional reference to English poetry or The Classics.
The tradition carried on deep into the 20th Century, borne on the carefully brushed shoulders of Bertie Wooster. But in between Oscar Wilde and P.G. Wodehouse lurks another example, just as much fun but less appreciated.
Saki's genius was to take these comfortable upper-class settings and introduce talking cats and child-hungry werewolves into the drawing room, on the theory that nothing invigorates a tea party like a ravening hyena.
Wilde's plays are commonly performed, and Wodehouse is familiar to us, at the very least, from the TV antics of Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie on BBC America. Saki— the pen name of Hector Hugh Munro— keeps a lower profile.
So the New York Review of Books Classics imprint has performed a great service by re-publishing a collection of Saki's works, The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories. It's a fine introduction to his work and comes with the added bonus of matching Edward Gorey illustrations, a superlative pairing of sardonically bleak worldviews.
Sickly boy, cruel aunt
These 26 stories feature some of Saki's best, including "The Open Window" and "Sredni Vashtar," the tale of a sickly boy named Conradin who's subjected to the care of his cruel, unimaginative aunt. Saki manages to skillfully depict the inner workings of a child's mind, half-understood ideas crafted into elaborately wrought fantasies.
Witness Conradin's insistence that his pet hen is an Anabaptist: "He did not pretend to have the remotest knowledge as to what an Anabaptist was, but he privately hoped that it was dashing and not very respectable."
Like so many of Saki's stories, here the stodgy and self-satisfied world of upper-class respectability gets its comeuppance delivered by an animal, in this case a grisly fate at the teeth of the ward's polecat.
The opening pages of The Unrest-Cure mostly star Saki's first hero, Reginald. These stories are derivative of Wilde, full of witty but superficial lines like, "The Duchess ate an anchovy in a shocked manner; she was sufficiently old-fashioned to dislike irreverence towards dividends." They mostly revolve around Reginald's secondhand stories and fail to plumb the full depths of Saki's imagination.
Things pick up with the stories drawn from Saki's best collection, The Chronicles of Clovis. "The Unrest-Cure" features the dull denizens of an English country house, duped into believing that their home is about to be turned into a killing ground by an anti-Semitic bishop and his cadre of bloodthirsty Boy Scouts. ("When they understood there was real killing to be done they were even keener than the men.")
To my knowledge, it's the only humorous rendering of a pogrom (albeit an entirely imaginary one) in all of literature. The humor lies, of course, not in the idea of the supposed slaughter to come but in Clovis's ability to entirely upset the staid world of the drawing room. All he needs are a few artfully closed doors and an imaginatively rendered scenario related, with a straight face, to his shocked and gullible hosts.
The unifying theme of Saki's works is the defeat of the boring, the conformist and the pompous at the hands of the selfish, wild, and rebellious (but never radical)— usually in the form of animals, small children or snarky, beautiful young men. "The Unrest-Cure" pits Clovis, the embodiment of the latter, against the Huddles, a steadfastly insipid brother and sister who are happy to totter around their country house and complain about songbirds that move nests and upset their placidity.
But the story also hints at some of the darker tendencies in Saki's work. His political views seem to tend towards the reactionary. He didn't care for the suffrage movement or Socialism, and in a few stories he evidences a discomfort with Jews, fairly common among the pre-World War English. (Saki died in the trenches in 1916, snuffed out by a German sniper.)
Lower class people are rarely featured in Saki's fiction, beyond the odd gypsy. It's been speculated that his misogyny— evidenced by the female antagonists who thoroughly populate his stories— was partially a product of the tyranny of the aunts who raised him.
(Like Wilde and Wodehouse, Saki conjures aunts who are mercurial, stupidly calculating creatures: "Susan Mebberley was a charming woman, but she was also an aunt.")
Musty old prejudices
Other possible culprits include the seemingly crazed sister whom Saki cared for, or his own sexual desire for other men, a feeling that many believe he repressed after Wilde's brutal suppression.
But Saki's political and personal flaws rarely pollute his stories. In any case his writing is worth wading through his musty old prejudices. Take this minor passage from a minor story, not even included in this volume:
"The wine lists had been consulted, by some with the blank embarrassment of a schoolboy suddenly called upon to locate a Minor Prophet in the tangled hinterland of the Old Testament, by others with the severe scrutiny which suggests that they have visited most of the higher-priced wines in their own homes and probed their family weaknesses."
Or consider Miss Huddle's shocked reaction to Clovis's kiss of her hand in thanks for a lovely luncheon: "The action savoured of the reprehensible Roman attitude towards the Sabine women."
Saki's sheer ability to come up with amusing names is nearly unmatched in English literature, a field that is littered with contenders from Charles Dickens to Stella Gibbons to Martin Amis. (My favorite is Tarquin Superbus, which graces the titular beast in the "The Boar-Pig.")
There are weaknesses in the NYRB's choices. Too much Reginald, not enough "The Music on the Hill" or "The Lumber Room," two excellent stories that, respectively, demonstrate Saki's skill with creeping horror and, again, depicting the inner-life of a child. But The Unrest-Cure volume serves as a fun introduction to his work, and the Gorey drawings add an extra kick.
If cruel drawing room humor strikes your fancy, you'll find a straight line between Saki and Evelyn Waugh's first novel, Decline and Fall, which opens with a bunch of drunk aristocrats stoning a caged fox to death with champagne bottles. Saki may have preferred his victims two-legged, but his fingerprints are all over those magnums of bubbly.
What, When, Where
The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories. By Saki. NYRB Classics, 2013. 176 pages; $11.65 (paperback). www.amazon.com.
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