Stories First Published: 1904 – 1923 (this anthology 1994)
My copy: Bought secondhand in paperback
Memorable quote: “When I was younger, boys of your age used to be nice and innocent.”
“Now we are only nice. One must specialise these days.”
Characters in Saki stories drink large quantities of fortified wine and I found the act of reading this collection of thirty-eight of Saki’s (Hector Hugh Munro) most acclaimed tales to be a rather analogous experience. That is to say, rather decadent (especially before noon), and exquisite in measured doses but poisonous in excess. Some short story anthologies are best enjoyed in one or two sittings, but this one, I found, was definitely a collection to eke out. As sharp as Wodehouse but with poison on the blade as well, Saki’s particular brand of satire is a dark delight consumed one or two tales at a time, but when I read five or six in one sitting I found the conceit and ennui of the upper class drawing room to be rather too excruciatingly infectious.
Still, there is no better chronicler of the pomp and vanity of the Edwardian high society than Saki. Without ever wasting a word he vividly evokes the style and folly of that brief historical period. Many of the stories in this collection feature vicious beasts – a hyaena, a werewolf, a ferret, and a boar among others – and a powerful recurring theme is the perceived battle between the refinements of gentrified society and the raw power of nature – although, at times, it is the duchesses, dowagers and débutantes who can seem the more beastly in their behaviour. But perhaps the ultimate embodiment of the violence simmering away beneath so-called polite society is Saki’s superb creation, Clovis Sangrail. The protagonist of at least half of the stories in this collection is dissolute and deadly but never, ever dull. In Clovis, all the hypocrites, snobs and bores meet their match. His sparkling, cutting wit will make you squirm, make you cheer and make you laugh (and then feel guilty for doing so). And although the collection as a whole is very much of its time, many of the social conflicts Saki chronicles are remarkably timeless: I particularly relished Clovis’ clever dismantling of the mother who is unable to converse on any topic other than the achievements of her frankly uninspiring brood of children (“Clovis on Parental Responsibilities”). If you haven’t sampled Saki yet then you’re definitely missing out. Read him, but – as they print on alcohol labels nowadays – know your limits.