A Genius for Revenge

Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro

by A.J. Langguth
Simon and Schuster, 366 pp., $14.95

Hector Hugh Munro, who wrote under the name of Saki, did not think much of James Barrie (“He had a wonderful and tender insight into the child mind and knew nothing whatever about boys”); but the subtitle of Barrie’s masterpiece—“The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up”—could serve as the subtitle of A.J. Langguth’s biography. It would also describe the indolent, decorative characters of Saki’s fiction who take a child’s delight in shocking their boring acquaintances, those Victorian ninnies and stuffed shirts who have worn out their welcome at the Edwardian house party. “My mother never bothered about bringing me up,” says Clovis Sangrail. “She just saw to it that I got whacked at decent intervals and was taught the difference between right and wrong; there is some difference, you know, but I’ve forgotten what it is.” His companion is horrified, and he explains, “Well, you see, I took up natural history and a whole lot of other subjects at the same time, and one can’t remember everything, can one?”

When Saki’s characters are not casually anarchic, they are intentionally rude (“My mother was considered a brilliant conversationalist.” “These things have a way of skipping one generation”); or they exploit the scandalous implications of a banal remark. Clovis’s aunt complains to her hostess that another guest has been making love to her maid. “I assure you Mr. Brope would not dream of doing such a thing,” the hostess says, and receives the frosty reply: “His dreams are a matter of indifference to me; for all I care his slumbers may be one long indiscretion of unsuitable erotic advances, in which the entire servants’ hall may be involved.”

Except for such literal-minded naughtiness, however, or an occasional pompous guest accidentally exposed in her underwear, there is no mention in Saki’s stories of, as E.F. Benson’s Lucia puts it, “that horrid thing which Freud calls sex.” For all the pleasure his characters take in defying convention, their behavior is, even for the earliest years of the century, absurdly refined; we see them marry, but never kiss. Shut up in a country house, they can think of no more exciting pastime than playing practical jokes.

Few of his characters have any useful occupation; when they are in town, they shop, go to the theater, and—most enjoyable of all—lunch at the Ritz. All the while, they rabbit away at each other in dialogue wittier and cleverer than that heard across any real-life restaurant tables. Often they do nothing else—many of Saki’s short stories (and they are very short, five or six pages on the average) are merely dialogues, or even monologues. His best pieces are the ones in which they are given a plot to enact, some breathing space between epigrams. Reading several of the talky stories together is a bit like making a meal of his characters’ favorite food—caviar, champagne, lobster Newburg, and marrons glacés …

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