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H.H. MUNRO, pen name Saki, wrote 100 years ago about Edwardian England. His stories and plays are akin to those of Oscar Wilde, P.G. Wodehouse and today’s Julian Fellowes–but with an amusing bite.
I have favorite one-liners from Saki tales and am encouraged to share them here in light of a recent piece in the London Review of Books, August 11, 2016: “Ferrets Can Be Gods” by Katherine Rundell in her review of an illustrated collection of Saki’s works.
Gabriel-Earnest is a werewolf, a naked half-human roaming the grounds of a English country house. However, as Katherine Rundell writes in her review, “The naked boy speaks like an Etonian. ‘They are very nice woods,’ said the boy, with a touch of patronage in his voice. And then, ‘It’s quite two months since I tasted child flesh.’ Saki wrote in the vernacular of the drawing room but with the ruthlessness of an avenging prophet.”
In another Saki tale, the ferret of the review’s title is a pet of a young boy intimidated by his tyrannical cousin Mrs. De Ropp. The boy elevates his pet to an omnipotent god, Sredni-Vashtar, and the De Ropp despotism is solved. Horribly. And deliciously.
In her LRB review, Rundell likens Saki to Roald Dahl. “Certainly,” she writes, “Dahl’s barbed energy owed a great deal to Saki.” In fact, in comparing their works, she observes, Saki-like, “In places, Dahl’s work provokes questions about the line between influence and theft.”
As an example, in Saki’s short story “The Background,” a man’s back tattoos, created by a famous artist, are hounded by art lovers claiming ownership. Dahl’s story “Skin” shares this same plot. Both tales end unhappily, though Saki’s is less macabre: “In the quieter streets of Paris, especially in the neighbourhood of the Ministry of Fine Arts, you may sometimes meet a depressed, anxious-looking man, who … nurses the illusion that he is one of the lost arms of the Venus de Milo, and hopes that the French government may be persuaded to buy him. On other subjects I believe he is tolerably sane.”
Not all Saki is so grim (or is that Grimm?). Here are some tidbits from my collection:
“A little inaccuracy sometimes saves a ton of explanation.”
“Children with Hyacinth’s temperament don’t know better as they grow older; they merely know more.”
“The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went.”
“I hate posterity–it’s fond of having the last word.” Wouldn’t this one be a favorite of Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess?
“The people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.”
“I’m living so far beyond my means that we may almost be said to be living apart.”
“Every reformation must have its victims. You can’t expect the fatted calf to share the enthusiasm of the angels over the prodigal’s return.”
“The Fashion just now is a Roman Catholic frame of mind with an Agnostic conscience: you get the mediaeval picturesqueness of the one with the modern convenience of the other.” This reminds me of a related comment from one place or another: “I liken myself to a flying buttress; I support the church, but from without.”
Saki on Americans: “I love Americans, but not when they try to talk French. What a blessing it is that they never try to talk English.”
Maybe you have some Saki favorites? ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016