The writings of 'Saki,' Hector Hugh Munro, command an unusual place in the canon of English literature. Many of his stories delight with their perfect construction, easy wit, and caustic, at times cynical view of the mores of human endeavour. They are often regarded as epitomising the lost world of an Edwardian England basking in the sunshine before August 1914, when a gunshot in Sarajevo shattered a European generation. But, in fact, many of his finest stories defy that image. They are timeless and without specific location, peopled with characters who are actors on a stage of Munro's construction. Like many of our finest writers, Munro creates his own world, plausible enough for us to believe in, but operating within rules and laws that are quite foreign to us.
Hector Munro was born in Burma in 1870, where his father was Inspector-General of Police. In 1872 he and his elder brother and sister returned to England with their pregnant mother, where, it was felt, it would be safer for Mrs Munro to bear her fourth child. In a tragic accident which Munro would later use in one of his stories, his mother was charged by a runaway cow in a country lane and suffered a miscarriage which also took her life. The three children were sent to live in Pilton, a small Devon village near Barnstable, with their paternal grandmother and her two unmarried daughters. These women who so dominated Hector's childhood would reappear in various guises throughout his work, mostly as authoritarian guardians who have little empathy for the children in their care, and suffer indignities (and, in one story, death) as a direct result of this failure.
The children were mostly educated at home by a succession of governesses. Hector did not attend school until the age of twelve, when he was sent to nearby Exmouth School, and later went to Bedford Grammar. His father retired in 1886 and the children spent the next three years or so travelling around Europe with him. It was this which opened Hector's eyes to the world around him, and was to have a profound influence on both his journalistic career and his literary writing.
In 1893 Hector arrived in Burma to begin work in the military police, a post that his father had procured for him. During his time there he developed a keen interest in Burmese wild life, particularly animals of a carnivorous disposition: his stories are full of wolves, man-eating tigers and bears. He was often ill, contracting malaria, and returned to England after only thirteen months. By 1896 he was living in London and had begun to earn a living as a satirist, writing sketches about political figures set in the world of Alice in Wonderland. These, illustrated by Carruthers Gould and published in the Westminster Gazette, were instantly popular. From this point on he travelled widely in Eastern Europe and Russia as foreign correspondent for The Morning Post, even witnessing the early uprising in St. Petersburg in 1905.
His first attempts at short stories were published in the Westminster Gazette and concern his alter-ego, Reginald. Later Reginald would be developed into a more rounded and complete character named Clovis. These characters are classically Edwardian, not unlike P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster. They are men about town of independent means, though with an un-Woosterish fierce intelligence that they use to manipulate situations to their advantage, or, more frequently, to the disadvantage of others. Sadly, many of these stories now seem forced and artificial, like an artist's drawings before he begins to paint his masterpiece. As with the plays of Oscar Wilde, it is easy to admire the wit and spark of the language but the content is too unlikely, too manufactured to be completely convincing. This example, from The Quest, demonstrates the point. A weekend guest at a country house, Clovis is quietly dozing in a hammock when a frantic mother confronts him with the news that she has lost her young child.
"'We've lost Baby'," she screamed.
'Do you mean that it's dead, or stampeded, or that you staked it at cards and lost it that way?' asked Clovis lazily."
The humour here is deliberate and well-constructed, but it is ultimately unsatisfying, for it is too distant from a recognisable reality. English humour is a specialist subject: embedded in real life, it thrives when that life is turned on its head. Alice attracts us because she is a sane voice in an insane world, providing a child's-eye-view of bizarre adult activity and conversation.
After his experiments with political satire and the artificial world of Clovis, Munro eventually trusted his talent to follow his own instincts and began to explore a world of mystery and inversion, a landscape which offered him opportunities to recount incidents from his own childhood under the mask of an impartial observer.
Sredni Vashtar is one of his finest and most popular stories, showcasing all the characteristics that make Munro's writing so enjoyable. The scene is an ordinary one: a small boy is at home with a guardian whom he detests, a feeling which is almost certainly reciprocated. The main characters are easily identifiable from Munro's own life. Like the author as a child, the ten-year-old Conradin is sickly and not expected to reach adulthood, while his Aunt Augusta is transposed into Mrs De Ropp, the boy's guardian. In A.J. Langguth's excellent biography of Munro, the author claims that the basis of the story (according to Ethel, Munro's sister) was an incident in which Aunt Augusta ordered Hector's pet hen to be killed after it had developed a bad leg. Both Ethel and Hector believed that a vet could have cured the ailing bird, but in the dark atmosphere of their Devon home this was not a considered option: the bird had to die. One can only guess at Hector's despair.
In the story Conradin, like the young Hector, has a pet to whom he is devoted; not a hen with a bad leg, but a semi-wild polecat ferret which he keeps hidden in a cage in the shed. One afternoon the Woman, as Conradin calls her, takes the key to the shed to remove whatever it is that Conradin is keeping there: the dominant adult about to destroy the only thing which gives the child any pleasure, solely because he takes pleasure in it. Alone in the house, Conradin offers up a prayer to the animal-god he calls Sredni Vashtar. Intriguingly, Munro does not state what the prayer is, but he doesn't need to. However, he does develop the tension by turning the boy's thoughts not to success but to failure—of course it would be impossible for a wild polecat to be a god, and even more impossible for the supplication to be answered. As the Woman, enters the shed,
"Conradin fervently breathed his prayer for the last time. But he knew as he prayed that he did not believe. He knew that the Woman would come out presently with that pursed smile he loathed so well on her face…"
Unlike in Munro's own life, in his fictional world a child's prayer can be answered in the affirmative, and authoritative adults left helpless by forces that they cannot comprehend. Nature contains elements that are powerful and deadly, and of which children, and not adults, are the masters. Conradin begins to chant a final invocation, one which leaves no doubt of his intention.
"Sredni Vashtar went forth, His thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth were white. His enemies called for peace, but he brought them death. redni Vashtar the beautiful."
Conradin finishes his incantation and moves to the window, where he watches and waits to see who will emerge. The reader is held, like Conradin, in suspended disbelief. Our real-world sensibilities know that the Woman will walk out, unharmed, possibly carrying a dead polecat. Our other-world side, the one which senses that there are forces within nature that are wild and unharnessed and about which we know very little, is chanting with Conradin as we wait for the resolution. And Munro does not disappoint.
"And presently his eyes were rewarded; out through that doorway came a long, low, yellow-and-brown beast, with eyes a-blink at the waning daylight, and dark wet stains around the fur of jaws and throat."
Sredni Vashtar disappears into a brook at the end of the garden, while Conradin, asked by a maid where Mrs De Ropp is, replies that he last saw her heading towards the shed, and then calmly takes a toasting fork and begins to make his tea. The story ends in quiet anti-climax and everyday banalities, a perfect finishing touch to a tale which deals with monumental themes:
"Whoever will break it to the poor child? I couldn't for the life of me!" exclaimed a shrill voice. And while they debated the matter among themselves, Conradin made himself another piece of toast."
In 1914 Munro's publisher, John Lane, brought out what is arguably his most popular collection of stories, Beasts and Super-Beasts; the title is a delightful parody of GB Shaw's 1905 work Man and Super-Man. This slim volume of thirty-six stories contains many of his best-loved tales, including The Lumber-Room, The Schartz-Metterklume Method, and The Cobweb. The latter is particularly powerful as it deals with one of Munro's favourite themes, the passage of time and the impact, or lack of it, that we make upon the landscape in which we live. The portrait of Martha Crale, a ninety-four year-old who inhabits a Devonian farmhouse, is a masterpiece of understated writing. In this extract Munro shows how difficult it is to persuade Martha to discuss her memories:
"It was difficult for anyone, let alone a stranger like Emma, to get her to talk of the days that had been; her shrill quavering speech was of doors that had been left unfastened, pails that had been mislaid, calves whose feeding time was overdue, and the various little faults and lapses that chequer a farmhouse routine."
Munro succeeds in conveying the longevity of Martha's existence while acknowledging the banal and everyday minutiae of her life. To succeed in capturing such complex and difficult ideas in so few words is typical of him, and demonstrates both his lightness of touch and his awareness of the realities of life in late nineteenth century rural England. While the theme of the story is fairly predictable -the newcomers to the farm fail to change anything, and tragedy strikes- the haunting description of the old woman as she continues her slow work around the farm is masterful.
Beasts and Super-Beasts contains many of his finest works, and besides those already mentioned, there are two in particular which stand out as supreme examples of Munro's craft: The Open Window and The Story-Teller. In The Open Window, fifteen-year-old Vera entertains a guest, Framton Nuttel, who is supposed to be undertaking a cure for his nerves. The house is empty, and Vera explains that her aunt will be down shortly to receive him. After checking that he knows nothing about the family and their circumstances, Vera begins a detailed account of the tragedy which befell her aunt exactly three years ago to the day, and which explains why the French window is kept open, though it is October. Her aunt's husband and two brothers disappeared after going out hunting and their bodies were never recovered, Vera tells her guest—even their little brown spaniel was never found. The French window is left open because her aunt believes that one day they will return…
The aunt then enters and explains to Framton that the French window is open because she is waiting for her husband to come back from hunting. As spectators to the drama we begin to realise what is happening, and can start to guess the effect that the denouement will have upon the nervous visitor. The hunters are duly sighted coming up the garden, accompanied, of course, by a muddy spaniel. Framton, believing that they are ghosts, runs away, his nerves in complete disarray. So far the story is entertaining, but Munro has not finished yet. Once the family have gathered, Vera is asked why the stranger disappeared so quickly, and again, Vera is ready with her explanation:
"I expect it was the spaniel,' said the niece calmly; 'he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and foaming just above him. Enough to make anyone lose their nerve."
Munro's final collections of stories, The Toys of Peace and The Square Egg, were published posthumously after the war ended. The quality of these stories does not quite match those of the earlier volumes, since many of them were drawn from material that had previously been rejected by John Lane for the volumes published between 1911 and 1914.
Henry Nevinson, in his witty introduction to Beasts and Super-Beasts, issues a warning to the reader which is still relevant today. He writes:
"….a reader should be warned against swallowing the whole succession rapidly one after another. That dulls the appetite for the wit and malice. It is worse than reading an old Punch on end, and there is little more depressing than that. 'Saki' must be taken as an occasional spice, an exquisite aperitif."
Munro's stories work best when they are taken in small doses. Read too many at a time, they lose much of their vitality and interest. It is not unlike the experience of walking into the Clore Gallery at the Tate Britain, which now houses innumerable Turner experiments with light and colour. Individually each of these can dazzle and excite, but the overwhelming experience as a whole can be strangely muted. It is as if the formula which works so well for stories like Sredni Vashtar or The Lumber-Room could not sustain excessive repetition: it must be admitted that the techniques deployed in many of Munro's late published works are very derivative of previously successful stories.
On Monday August 3rd, 1914, Munro was present in Parliament when Sir Edward Grey, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, gave the Government's response to the weekend developments: war had officially been declared between Germany and Russia at noon on the Saturday, and German troops had crossed into France. Munro later wrote of the excitement he felt at watching the drama unfold.
"For one memorable and uncomfortable hour the House of Commons had the attention of the nation and most of the world concentrated on it. Grey's speech, when one looked back on it, was a statesman-like utterance, delivered in an excellent manner, dignified and convincing…..When the actual tenor of the speech became clear, and one knew beyond a doubt where we stood, there was only room for one feeling; the miserable tension of the past two days had been removed, and one discovered that one was slowly recapturing the lost sensation of being in a good temper."
It is difficult to think of another writer who, when witnessing an event of such magnitude, could end it with a comment that could equally apply to having a bad tooth removed, or an unwelcome visitor's eventual departure. Munro enlisted as a private shortly afterwards, despite his age (forty-three), and resisted several requests to take a commission. He saw action in the trenches during 1915 and 1916, and in November of that year his company were near Beaumont-Hamel, where there was heavy fighting. At about four a.m. he led his group of men (he was by now a lance sergeant) to a forward position, but found that the mud slowed their progress. Germans guns began firing, and as they stopped, Munro and his men sank into protective craters. Someone lit a cigarette, presumably to calm his nerves, but in the darkness a burning cigarette could make an easy target. Munro was heard to shout "Put that bloody cigarette out." Then a sniper's shot rang out, and he died from a single bullet to the head. One can only wonder what Munro, with his piercing wit and worldly cynicism, would have made of post-1918 Europe. He left us a body of work which contains some of the finest writing of the period, but which can also seem dated and formulaic when we consider some of his weaker pieces. However, we should judge an artist by his finest work, and Munro's best stories are classics of English humour.--Paul Flux