The Butterfly That Stamped
ANCIENTS DESCRIBED the tiny, sweet-singing nightingale as Vox et praeterea nihil (voice and nothing else). For more than half a century that is how it has been, too, with Hector Hugh Munro, the marvelous miniaturist who wrote under the name of Saki. His voices, silly and silky and sometimes tinged with savagery, were familiar and extravagantly praised. One belonged to a popinjay character called Reginald, who discoursed in a series of semiprecious mots: "I hate posterity. It's so fond of having the last word." Another was Clovis Sangrail, a young man much given to the kind of "gorgeous hoax" that might scandalize a dull house party. Last came Comus Bassington, the hero-villain-victim of Saki's splendid novel The Unbearable Bassington, a tribute to lost youth that discovers deep sadness in the social shallows of Edwardian England.
Of the man Munro, except for some biographical notes by his sister Ethel, almost nothing was known. A.J. Langguth, 48, a novelist and an ex-New York Times correspondent in Saigon, now offers the first full biography. As biographer-critic, he proves knowing, balanced and blessedly brief.
Saki was born into a Scottish family with a strong martial tradition and brought up in darkest Devon by a pair of truly Dickensian aunts before escaping to boarding school ("You can't expect a boy to be vicious until he's been to a good school"). He was homosexual, but neither Saki nor Langguth goes in for soul searching about the love that once dared not speak its name. Saki, in fact, never mentioned it. His sister merely refers to his habit of sharing digs with young men as "chumming." In the biographer's view, however, being a prey to lusts that could have landed him in jail helped make Munro an outsider. Early on the aunts taught him to hate people like themselves, who were unkind to animals and children, and to see lying and imagination as the only power the weak and clever have over the strong and dull. Many of his best stories, The Penance, for instance, and The Lumber-Room, turn on the triumph of children over adults. In Sredni Vashtar, the most notably bloodthirsty, a surrogate aunt is actually done in by a persecuted small boy's pet ferret.
After a brief tour in the Burma police (like Orwell), Saki turns up in London at 29, doing political lampoons for the Westminster Gazette with parodies of Lewis Carroll and Kipling. In The Political Jungle Book, Lord Balfour, the hapless Prime Minister, is called "Sheer Khan't." Throughout Saki's life, Celtic mysticism and foreboding, plus a raw strain of patriotism, kept trying to break through the veneer of satiric wit and comic, cultured urbanity that made him celebrated as man and writer. Langguth notes that he knew "the frustration of an adventurer's soul locked in the body of a clerk." Soon Munro left London again to become the Morning Post's correspondent in the Balkans, covering the bloody rivalry between Turks and Bulgars. He moved on to St. Petersburg, witnessing the march on the Winter Palace in 1905 and savage reprisal by Tsar Nicholas' Cossacks. Munro was a fearless reporter, but in letters to Ethel he seemed proudest not of risks taken or beats scored, but of having once snatched a kitten to safety just as it was about to be crushed under the muddy feet of advancing revolutionaries.
In 1909 he settled down in England, with a small income, a conservative club (the Cocoa Tree), a cottage in Surrey (for Ethel) and growing celebrity as a writer of comic short stories. But nobody ever takes a comic writer seriously, and, Saki complained, "a humorist is almost invariably expected to be funny for life." As World War I approached, he grew discontented with the coffee-spoon London world that had provided him with targets for satiric comedy, as well as with himself for belonging to it.
There were three results. The first was brilliant: The Unbearable Bassington, published in 1912, so Saki could demonstrate that he could write a novel and at the same time pour ashes upon the society he had long been part of. Says Langguth: "It could be the cry of an outsider whose thin lips ache from 40 years of smiling." The second result was his second (and last) novel, When William Came, an unsuccessful but percipient fantasy written in early 1913, about what England would be like under German occupation, and how a flabby society full of jokesters, hucksters and aesthetes would adapt to it. The third result was Munro's dramatic enlistment as a private soldier when the fighting broke out in 1914.
At 43 he was way overage. He had to work like a dog to get in shape, and then keep refusing commissions that were offered to him, because a commission would "separate him" from other men. He became a good soldier and made corporal. Writes Langguth: "This time he would live his life the right way or he would end it." On the foggy dawn of Nov. 14, 1916, near Beaumont-Hamel, he was shot by a German sniper. During a brief pause in an advance one of his men had lit up, and Corporal Munro had just yelled, "Put that bloody cigarette out!"
Langguth wastes little time trying to decide whether Saki was a literary butterfly who finally tried to stamp or some kind of shrike with a sense of humor. The book notes the Waugh-like gift for comic names (Loona Bimberton, Septimus Brope), the Wildean wit, the Wodehousean way with the feather-headed fauna of the West End and the country house party, the surprise endings self-consciously borrowed from O'Henry.
At his best Saki is matchless, a storyteller, as Langguth justly puts it, with "flawless sentences on almost every page that could have been the work of no other English writer." That is why even the stories with surprise endings, like The Open Window, can be read again and again. "The humor came less from his jokes than from the . . . absolute rightness to his language." It is like watching a champion diver do a perfect half gainer. You know how it comes out, but seeing it done is still astonishing.
"Saki, aloof and condescending to his own times, turns out to be one of us. But embracing him is easier than establishing his place in English letters. An unbeliever, he did not concern himself with the relationship of man to God, and critics have often used that theme to test an author's seriousness. Then, by shunning love in all of its disguises, he banished another of the four characters of Western literature's primal cast. God was gone, Eve was gone, and Hector had left himself with only Adam and the snake. Yet, rejoicing in that narrow range, he fashioned a comedy of manners that looks to be enduring."