All the talk of the First World War brings to mind its writers, not least Hector Hugh Munro, better known as Saki, who was killed by a sniper on the 13th of November 1916 near Beaumont Hamel.
As well as being the incomparable master of the short story, the man is something of a conundrum. There’s a great deal about him that isn’t known as after his death his sister destroyed most of his remaining papers. He joined up, like so many, at the outbreak of war. What was also unusual was that he was by then already in his forties and old enough to have sat out the war instead of enlisting as a private soldier and refusing the offer of a commission.
He came from a well-off colonial family, his father having been an official in the Indian Imperial Police Force and his mother the daughter of an admiral. A cousin, Cecil William Mercer, better known as the crime and thriller writer Dornford Yates, also a confused and colourful character, reportedly looked up to Munro with great respect.
He followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the Indian Imperial Police, but left the service after a few years and a severe bout of malaria. Later he became a journalist and foreign correspondent in the Balkans, Poland, Paris and in Russia where he witnessed the Bloody Sunday massacre in St Petersburg in January 1905 that was a prelude to the 1905 revolution. Munro wrote under his own name as well as under his pseudonym, including both a historical work, The Rise of the Russian Empire, and numerous novels and plays. These chimed in with the pre-WW1 paranoia over the coming war, notably When William Came, a novel with the subtitle A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns, and The Unbearable Bassington, what-if novels predicting what life in England could be like under a German occupation. It seems he had little doubt that war was brewing, but also made the most of the public appetite for invasion scare literature.
His novels and plays have not withstood the changing tastes of the intervening century. What has survived is his short stories. Sharp, acid and full of intricate wit, many of his tales centre around Reginald or the louche Clovis Sangrail and his occasional sidekick Bertie van Tahn.
The vivid picture that Saki paints of Edwardian England’s well-off middle classes in a few incisive brushstrokes is magnificent. No more than a few lines are needed to set the scene for what normally turns out throughly badly for a deserving fool or villain, with turns of phrase that are masterpieces of terse description.
‘The aunt of Clovis responded gamely to the suggestion, and churned away like a Nile steamer, with a long brown ripple of Pekingese spaniel trailing in her wake.’
Many of his stories are hugely funny, even allowing for the changing tastes of the last hundred years. Others are chillingly and delightfully macabre. Even the funny stories can have a bitter twist to them as pomposity, snobbery and pretension are ruthlessly skewered.
The Unrest Cure, The Remoulding of Groby Lington, The Open Window, The Storyteller, The Talking Out of Tarrington, The Schartz-Metterklume Method and many others have been the subject of heated debates over the finest of the Saki pen, but for me it remains Sredni Vashtar, the tale of the sickly orphan Conradin, the vile Mrs de Ropp and the great and vengeful god Sredni Vashtar who lives in the potting shed at the end of the garden.
Go on, treat yourself. I can only envy people who are encountering Saki for the first time, just as I feel envious of those making their first acquaintance of PG Wodehouse or Simenon or Richard Stark.
Saki has been dead almost a hundred years. His work is long out of copyright. Google for Sredni Vashtar, or better still, buy yourself a paperback of Saki’s short stories and keep it to hand at all times, just in case you find yourself marooned on a desert island.