Munro’s pen name, Saki, belongs to a character out of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1859), who is cupbearer to the gods. After the failed attempt at writing popular history, Munro began writing short sketches that satirized the hierarchical, stable, and largely aristocratic Edwardian society that he knew. Most of his early work, like The Westminster Alice sketches and the animal fables patterned after the Just So Stories (1902) of Kipling, drew heavily on the writings of other popular British authors of the period. The high style which became a hallmark of his writing recalled such literary figures as Oscar Wilde and Max Beerbohm. Munro soon ended his stylistic apprenticeship and developed a distinctive literary voice for which he is still remembered.
His first literary efforts were almost exclusively in the short, topical sketch with a political theme. His editor at the Westminster Gazette, J. A. Spender, employed Munro’s talents to criticize the government for its inept handling of the Boer War and other follies of the late empire. In addition to the original Alice figure, Munro created other characters to satirize the period. The first of the gilded youth portraits, as they came to be known, were the Dolly Dialogues, in which, through the eyes of a privileged, rather silly young woman, Munro ridiculed London’s best people through a series of shrewd observations of their social conventions. His next series was filtered through the consciousness of the well-heeled, amusing, if somewhat mentally dim Reginald, a character who provided the model for P. G. Wodehouse’s later, more benign, Bertie Wooster. Munro enjoyed a huge reputation as a social satirist, and his sketches were collected into best-selling books. As a teenager, Noël Coward discovered Reginald during a stay in the country and was forever indebted to Munro for helping to launch his career.
Munro quickly perfected an arch style and a trenchant social perspective, but he was unwilling to settle for a literary career based solely on light, ephemeral material, so he signed on as a foreign correspondent, taking assignments which would send him to many of the trouble spots of Europe. His travels exposed him to hardships and dangers that did much to alter the tone of his work. In addition, he was also introduced to the rich tradition of European folk literature, which supplied him with both the subject matter and the darker vision that characterizes the best of his later fiction.
From the time Munro returned to England in 1907 until his untimely death in World War I, he wrote an extraordinary number of excellent short stories that bear the stamp of his travels and for which he is best remembered. They are more direct and more heavily plotted than his earlier fiction. Much of the epigrammatic wit and the high style of Munro’s earlier work is replaced by a deeper sense of irony and of a darker vision of human nature. Munro’s later stories deal with an absurdity in life that is more modern than the topical flippancy of his earlier work. The tales in Reginald in Russia (1910), for example, though they resurrect his earlier character, are more somber in tone and subject than are the earlier pieces. As his career progressed, Munro also wrote more about the supernatural. Although humor is often still present in his later stories it is more subdued and ironic.
The two novels he wrote during this period reflect a changed mood. The Unbearable Bassington is more scathing than lighthearted. Although the unbearable Bassington at times reminds readers of Reginald, Bassington seems more in tune with Evelyn Waugh’s doomed, 1920’s bright young things than he does with anyone experiencing the peaceful, endless Edwardian summer. Munro describes the story as having no moral. It is a tale of evil with no remedy. Maurice Baring, in his introduction to the collected novels, calls it a tragedy, a story of a wasted life of ingrained egotism and lack of consideration, a life which must find its retribution in an isolated death. The bleakness of the ending transforms Munro’s stock comic punch line into tragic emptiness. The Unbearable Bassington is Reginald and Dolly and Clovis Sangrail, Saki’s later version of Reginald, with consequences.
When William Came is propaganda, pure and simple. As with The Unbearable Bassington, all the author’s keen social observation is still there but without the wit and humor. The social criticism is more savage, the personal observations more heartless, and the characters come off badly and not amusingly. This novel is like one of Munro’s more pungent short stories, expanded. It reads more like George Orwell than Oscar Wilde.
Munro is an underrated writer. Too often he has simply been categorized as among the lightweight British authors whose work is beyond serious consideration. On closer inspection, however, much of what he wrote has the unmistakable mark of the modernist literary tradition. His prose is much less dated, especially in the later stories, than is usually supposed. Munro’s fiction deals with many of the modern subjects, such as irrationality, alienation, and irony. He also stylistically experimented with the well-made story, pushing that form to its limits and extending its potential. How he would have developed as a writer after the war remains, unfortunately, speculation. Whatever potential for literary growth his talent possessed expired with him on a field in France.
First published: 1904
Type of work: Short stories
Reginald, a wealthy, dim-witted man-about-town, makes satirical comments on contemporary social and cultural institutions.
Reginald was Saki’s third book and, like The Westminster Alice, was a collection of the author’s satiric newspaper pieces. With Reginald, Saki greatly broadened the scope of his commentary on the social world of Edwardian Britain.
In many of the short sketches, Reginald and the anonymous narrator attend various social and cultural events, such as the theater, the Royal Academy of Art, or a garden party, and Reginald makes satirical comments to the narrator. In the style of Oscar Wilde and Max Beerbohm, most of his remarks are epigrammatic and often are quite biting.
In addition to social institutions, Munro also targeted for send-ups such topics as the empire, the fiscal question, the Boer War, religion, and peace poems. A good number of these topics are rather obscure to the modern reader, but Reginald’s commentary is still fresh because it pokes fun at such human traits as vanity, snobbishness, and hypocrisy.
“Reginald Goes to the Academy” provides an excellent example of how the stories work. In it, Reginald goes to the Royal Academy of Art, and he comments on various patrons and paintings. People at art museums look at the pictures, Reginald remarks, only when they have run out of conversation or if they want to avoid acquaintances. Noting that the Royal Academy is slow to admit painters, Reginald muses that one can see them arriving for years like “a Balkan trouble or a street improvement.” On the large size of so many academic paintings, he says, “by the time they have painted a thousand or so square yards of canvas, their work begins to be recognized.” Reginald also philosophizes about life: “To be clever in the afternoon argues that one is dining nowhere in the evening,” and “I hate posterity—it’s so fond of having the last word.”
These small sketches reveal Saki’s penchant for the amusing aside as well as the cutting remark. The pieces are delicate and rely heavily on literary style for their effect, which makes them difficult to paraphrase or summarize. Such clever ephemera, however, established Saki’s reputation for wit and insight and made him a model for later twentieth century satirical writers, such as Waugh and Wodehouse.
When William Came
First published: 1913
Type of work: Novel
Murrey Yeovil, after recuperating from an illness in Siberia, returns to Great Britain to find that the country has been conquered by the Germans, who now occupy and run it.
When William Came is one of a handful of literary works published before the outbreak of World War I that warned of the dangers of British isolationism. Like Guy du Maurier’s popular melodrama, The Englishman’s Home (1909), and Erskine Childer’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903), Saki’s novel is a cautionary tale about British military unpreparedness and the need to pay more serious attention to European affairs, especially to German militarism. Saki championed the cause of universal military training in Great Britain, and he wanted to shock those in power out of their smugness and their false sense of security. Like the other prewar jeremiads, When William Came took on an increased importance as prophecy in the aftermath of World War I.
The plot of the novel is fairly straightforward, if episodic. Murrey Yeovil is a typical Saki hero, wealthy, upper-class, conservative, British. While hunting in Siberia, he falls ill with malaria, and while recuperating learns of Great Britain’s defeat by the Germans. He returns to London, where he finds life pretty much carrying on as usual except that the Germans are in command. On the surface, very little has changed except that the street signs are bilingual, and there are more Germans about. Most of British society has been left alone. Murrey finds that most of his friends have adapted quite well to their conquerors and mingle with them amiably. He grows disgusted with the acquiescence of the British, especially the upper classes, in their acceptance of their occupation.
Murrey is finally prompted to action by a series of events that begin with the decree barring all Britons from military training. He sees this as a deliberate attempt to weaken the British and to reduce the possibility for future resistance to the Germans. On a trip he discovers groups of patriots nestled in the English countryside who have not yet succumbed to the will of the new government. Emboldened by his discovery, he returns to London to witness the passive resistance of a troop of boy scouts, which confirms his suspicion that the youth of Great Britain offer the only hope for future rebellion against the invaders. The novel ends on this somewhat optimistic note.
Beasts and Super-Beasts
First published: 1914
Type of work: Short stories
This collection of short fiction includes stories from the immediate prewar period of Saki’s career.
Beasts and Super-Beasts was the last collection of Saki’s short fiction published in his lifetime. According to some critics, it is his best. It contains the most representative of his later short stories. The book includes the stories for which Saki is now remembered. A number of the stories feature Clovis Sangrail, Saki’s later version of Reginald. There are also a number of ghost or fantasy tales that provide an eerie, unworldly atmosphere. There are some tales that explore the demoniac side of childhood. Most of these short stories have ironic, surprise endings.
The witty commentary that Saki uses to such effect in his earlier short fiction is still present, but the stories in Beasts and Super-Beasts rely more on plot than do his earlier efforts. They also establish Saki’s reputation for writing about the dark side of human nature. Twenty-first century readers will probably be less shocked by these tales than the prewar audience for which they were written because the stories’ bleakness has become a staple of modern writing. It is to Saki’s credit that he pioneered such a modernist vision. The stories seem less dated than some of his other ones.
In “The Story-Teller,” a confirmed bachelor quiets some unruly children in a railway compartment by telling them a story. The story is about a little girl who wins medals for her goodness and is eaten by a wolf. She tries to escape the wolf by hiding in some bushes, but her medals clank, giving away her hiding place. There are also stories that border on the absurd. For example, in “The Stalled Ox,” an artist who paints portraits of livestock is called to remove an ox from a neighbor’s drawing room. Instead, he paints the beast and creates a sensation at the Royal Academy of Art with his picture, “Ox in a Morning-Room, Late Autumn.” “The Dreamer” is about a distracted young man who looks so much like a retail clerk that he is able to sell things to customers in shops that he visits with his aunt. He pockets the money he receives for the goods. A gourmand in “The Blind Spot” covers up a killing committed by his cook because, although the cook may be a murderer, he is a great cook.
The absurdity and somberness of Saki’s last stories reveal the modernist tendencies of his writing. The horrors of World War I and the worldwide Depression that followed, not to mention the terrors that the Nazis inflicted on Saki’s country, perhaps have better provided his later audiences with a more appropriate worldview for appreciating Saki’s work.