Saki World Literature Analysis
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...
(The entire section is 2,165 words.)