There is such a thing as letting one’s æsthetic sense override one’s moral sense

Improper Stories, by Saki

Saki (real name HH Munro) was an Edwardian writer famed for his short stories – icy little satires that skewered hypocrisy and social convention. He’s an immediate precursor to Wodehouse, drawing on a similar cast of characters from the leisured classes, and I suspect a strong influence on Roald Dahl.

Improper Stories is a 2010 collection featuring 18 of Saki’s stories, taken from (I believe) three different collections published in his lifetime. Saki’s work is out of copyright now, and therefore largely free on kindle, which raises the question why anybody would pay for a new collection. Probably the second best answer to that is that this is a near-perfect introduction to his work and so perfect for readers like me who don’t know where to start. The best answer though is the cover, which is gorgeous:

Saki

Isn’t that just absolutely lovely? It also somehow captures some of the spirit of the book; a sense of decorous misrule.

Saki’s world is the world of Wodehouse, Waugh, more recently Downton Abbey. His protagonists tend to have better manners than morals. They sit at an ironic distance to the world, observing it with coldly comic detachment.

You can read the opening story here, it’s far from the best in the collection but it is a wonderful scene-setter. Characters in Saki meet fates that are fitting, but not ones that are necessarily entirely deserved. In one of my favourite tales a mother and daughter keenly wish to attend a garden party to which they were not invited. Considering it better to sneak in than to later explain their absence and risk it being generally known they were left off the guest list, they attempt to enter via the back garden.

Mrs Stossen and her daughter, suitably arrayed for a county garden party function with an infusion of Almanack de Gotha, sailed through the narrow grass paddock and the ensuing gooseberry garden with the air of state barges making an unofficial progress along a rural trout stream. There was a certain amount of furtive haste mingled with the stateliness of their advance as though hostile searchlights might be turned on them at any moment; and, as a matter of fact, they were not unobserved.

The observer is 13-year-old Matilda, exiled to the garden in punishment for her earlier misdeeds involving an excess of raspberry trifle. Unfortunately for the Stossens the gate between the paddock and the gooseberry garden is firmly locked, utterly foiling their plans. Even more unfortunately, Matilda doesn’t consider it quite right that they should try to sneak in, nor that her family’s great Yorkshire boar-pig is locked up in his sty and so not getting to enjoy any of the fun of the party.  Matilda, being of an economical turn of mind, resolves both problems with a single action: she lets out the pig.

The boar-pig had drawn nearer to the gate for a closer inspection of the human intruders, and stood champing his jaws and blinking his small red eyes in a manner that was doubtless intended to be disconcerting, and, as far as the Stossens were concerned, thoroughly achieved that result.

[Matilda reveals herself to the stranded ladies, whose only exit lies past the irate swine.]

‘Do you think you could go and get someone who would drive the pig away?’ asked Miss Stossen. ‘I promised my aunt I would stay here till five o’clock; it’s not four yet.’ ‘I am sure, under the circumstances, your aunt would permit—’ ‘My conscience would not permit,’ said Matilda with cold dignity.

What follows is a wonderful negotiation between the stranded Stossens and Matilda, who is always polite but rarely helpful. I’m not sure there is a moral, other perhaps than that it’s best not to find oneself in a story by Saki.

Here children wreak revenge on overly punitive aunts and guardians; boring guests are driven off in terror or made victim to elaborate practical jokes; the small-minded are made to pay dearly for their petty sins. In another of my many favourites, The Quest, a recurring character named Clovis is staying at a villa when a young woman realises her child is missing:

‘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.

‘He was toddling about quite happily on the lawn,’ said Mrs Momeby tearfully, ‘ and Arnold had just come in, and I was asking him what sort of sauce he would like with the asparagus-‘

‘I hope he said hollandaise,’ interrupted Clovis, with a show of quickened interest, ‘because if there’s anything I hate-‘

Soon Clovis, a young man possessed more of wit than moral character, is helpfully speculating that perhaps an eagle or hyena might have escaped from some private zoo and devoured the child. Mrs Momeby fails to take comfort from this, and what’s worse “With the selfish absorption of young motherhood she entirely disregarded Clovis’s obvious anxiety about the asparagus sauce.”

They quickly locate a crying baby, a seeming miraculous recovery made with the help of a Christian Scientist neighbour armed with great powers of faith if not of perception. Regrettably the child found isn’t the child lost, so that when their own baby reappears they find themselves with an excess infant. Clovis cheerfully notes that they need only keep the bonus baby until it hits the age of 13, at which time they may put it into the navy.

The stories featuring Clovis are a particular delight simply because Clovis himself is so much fun. He is mischief made flesh, then sent to a good school and tailored in Saville Row. In a sense he is an animal in human form, a fox perhaps or a particularly sly cat, with those around him mere dull dogs in comparison or worse yet geese or sheep.

One story which at first seems to stick out in the collection is The Music on the Hill, which unlike the others is much more a horror tale in the vein of Machen or MR James. A young woman marries and moves from town to country, where she finds that worship of the old gods remains very real as may the old gods themselves. I found it an effective little chiller, with the woman isolated on a gloomy farm with a distant husband and unfriendly animals. When she sees “a boy’s face … scowling at her, brown and beautiful, with unutterably evil eyes” after interfering with an offering she finds on a small altar in the woods, you know the tale won’t end happily for her.

On reflection though, the tale did fit, because it explores an encounter between urbane modernity and older, more primeval, forces. Where Pan amused himself in ancient Greece (and perhaps the more remote parts of Edwardian England) by terrifying travelers in his woods, Clovis instead spreads dismay and confusion in drawing rooms and country houses. Clovis is a child of Pan, a manifestation of him and of all the Puckish spirits who have afflicted the overly self-assured through the ages. We need order if we are to flourish, to build lives and homes and carve out a place for ourselves in the world; but we need chaos too or nothing would ever change, and we would drown in our own comfort.

Saki though makes no point so serious as that, or not so obviously anyway. Instead he laughs at the vanities of the world around him, the people in it. The world has changed since Saki’s day, but the people haven’t, and that’s why these tales remain as fresh and funny as when he wrote them.

Here‘s a wonderful piece by Chris Power in the Guardian about Saki, and here‘s a review by Guy Savage of another Saki collection which comes with the added bonus of Edward Gorey artwork.

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13 Comments

Filed under Saki, Short stories

13 responses to “There is such a thing as letting one’s æsthetic sense override one’s moral sense

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Another good reason for buying the collection would be that physical books are just so much nicer than electronic ones! (well, in my view anyway). Saki is wicked but so, so funny – I’ve read many of the Reginald ones, but have yet to discover Clovis. I definitely *wouldn’t* want to find myself in a Saki story!

  2. Clovis is one of my favourite Saki characters – if I recall correctly, there is an entire book that goes by the name “The Chronicles of Clovis”.

    It’s interesting that in this collection, “The Music on the Hill” stands out – my recollection of Saki (it’s been a long time since I read him, admittedly) is that the weird-horror component occurred fairly frequently. My most memorable Saki story is Sredni Vashtar (http://haytom.us/sredni-vashtar/), which is deliciously macabre, in an Edgar Allan Poe/Lovercraftian sense.

    The connection you make with Pan is very interesting – there’s definitely a strong element of that in Saki, although my perception has always been that Saki uses children more as catalysts, or conductors, to bring Pan’s world into ours, than as playing the role of Pan.

  3. I’m ashamed to say I’d never heard of Saki, but this collection sounds absolutely wonderful. I love the quotes you’ve shared here, especially the passages from the garden-party story. What a hoot!

    I’m sure I’ll enjoy these stories, Max. A little like ‘Where There ‘s Love, There Hate,’ they seem perfect as a refresher between heavier stuff. Straight on the list, no question, and that cover is gorgeous!

  4. *Lovecraft, of course. Not Lovercraft!

  5. Kaggsys, I read this on kindle, but I believe the physical copy is very nicely done. Clovis is well worth discovering (there is a The Chronicles of Clovis as Guatambhatia correctly recalls).

    Guatambhatia, I think it’s a factor of this collection. Sredni Vashtar is in here, but easily permits of a non-supernatural explanation (in fact I don’t think it hugely supports a supernatural one, though one could read it that way I suppose). It is a great story though, good call, and very Poe-esque (more Poe than Lovecraft for me).

    The Music on the Hill has a very Machenesque quality to me, it’s also well researched. When writing up this blog piece I found that much of the supernatural activity in the tale is accurate to Greek myth.

    I agree that children play a role more as catalysts, I had a line in an earlier draft describing the characters as agents of chaos which would have made that clearer, but it didn’t make it past the final edit.

    My favourite small gods-type tale remains Dunsany’s story Chu-Bu and Sheemish, which is here in full:
    https://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2009/04/13/a-dunsanian-diptych/

    Jaqui, no shame in it, or if there is it’s shared since before this nor had I read any. You could quote almost the entire book. It is a great refresher, though much more biting than Where There’s Love, There’s Hate.

    Lovercraft I believe may have written in a very different genre to Lovecraft, though to be fair there used to be a shop called Lovecraft in Soho that I’m fairly sure didn’t cater to those seeking to purchase works of cosmic horror.

  6. sendra

    Lovercraft brings up unfortunate images especially as I’ve seen the poor man’s photo portrait. His mirror was his inspiration. Been ages since I read Saki but I remember enjoying him greatly. I wonder if the BBC adapted any of his stories and if his playful coldness would survive without that smooth prose style? You’ve motivated me to find out.

  7. Many thanks for this, Max. I read a few Saki stories in my youth (and we both know that was a half century ago) but have never returned to him. Mrs. KfC and I do appreciate visiting this era in film and television series (we are currently re-viewing Upstairs, Downstairs which puts Downton Abbey to shame even forty years later) — there always seems to be a Clovis-like character on hand to put some tartness into the story.
    I’d like to say I would be rushing out to buy a Saki volume, but that would be a lie. I have so many “classic” short story writers already lined up (and overlooked) that it would just sit on the shelf — which means I appreciate this review even more.

  8. Sredni Vashtar is my favourite Saki story too but he also has a delicious sense of caprice such as in the stories you mention, the Stampeding of Lady Bastable or the Open Window. He’s very positive about youth which seems slightly at odds with the thinking of his time.

    “But he hasn’t improved,” said her hostess; “it’s no use growing older if you only learn new ways of misbehaving yourself.”

  9. leroyhunter

    I love Saki, and this is an immensely enjoyable account of your encounter with his work Max. I have 2 or 3 collections which, between them, have all his stories I think. There’s also a short novel, The Unbearable Bassington, which lurks in my tbr pile. The precision of his writing means it is always a treat to return to even familiar stories.

  10. sendra, I think there was a series, but I’ve no idea if it’s still about or if it was any good.

    Kevin, glad it was useful. There are a lot of classic short story writers, it’s a form which had more outlets back then perhaps, and greater status (though there’s certainly plenty still writing them today). I’ve rather rediscovered the art of reading them lately, which mostly just comes down to not treating a short story collection like a novel and reading it all at once. I’m working now through some Stan Barstow shorts – very different as it’s working class communities in Yorkshire he focuses on. Reading one every now and again though keeps them fresh, while downing them all at once would likely have killed them.

    Steve, I loved The Open Window but couldn’t see any easy way of discussing it without utterly spoiling it. It’s in this collection.

    The improvement quote very nearly made it into this piece. It was one of the quotes I cut last minute as not quite fitting, but I did love it.

    Leroy, if you read the novel I’d love to heard your thoughts on that. I saw it was out there, but everyone just focuses on the stories. Glad you liked the piece.

  11. I’d forgotten Guy’s review but remembered the writer.

    Your description of Clovis erases the image that naturally comes to me with the name. (a king’s name, for a French) He reminded me of Sganarelle, the character in Molière’s plays who is a valet and always prone to mischief.

    I’ll have to read him.

  12. Sganarelle sounds to me of the same lineage. I’ve heard of King Clovis, not that I know much about him.

    I think you’d like Saki.

  13. Pingback: Improper Stories by Saki | JacquiWine's Journal

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