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The Complete Works of Saki (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

The Complete Works of Saki (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)


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Saki was called the Oscar Wilde of his day, and hailed as a master stylist. Using witty dialogue and macabre humor, he writes of mischievous young men, foolish aunts, and blood-thirsty beasts. His stories are surprisingly modern in their incongruous mixture of humor and horror. The first truly comprehensive edition of Saki's voluminous output, The Complete Works of Saki includes six previously uncollected stories.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780760773734
Publisher: Barnes & Noble
Publication date: 01/19/2006
Series: Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading
Pages: 960
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)


Saki was called the Oscar Wilde of his day, and hailed as a master stylist by eminent writers such as G. K. Chesterton, Noël Coward, Graham Greene, and A. A. Milne. Between 1901 and 1916, Saki published more than one hundred short stories, many of which continue to be anthologized in England and America. His lapidary prose, witty dialogue, and macabre humor have influenced generations of popular British writers including Evelyn Waugh, Roald Dahl, and Stephen Fry, as well as best-selling American author Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket). Several of Saki's most well-known tales of mischievous young men, fatuous aunts, and blood-thirsty beasts have been adapted for television, film, and the theater. Yet Hector Hugh Munro, the man behind the cryptic pseudonym "Saki," remains something of a mystery, and his large body of work has suffered from unjust critical neglect.

This edition of Saki's complete works includes six previously uncollected stories found in the British Library's archives by biographer A. J. Langguth, and published as an appendix to his extraordinarily well-written Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro. With the addition of these six stories, Barnes & Noble is proud to offer the first truly comprehensive edition of Saki's voluminous output. Readers who rediscover Saki in these pages will find much of his writing surprisingly modern in its incongruous mixture of humor and horror. Those who probe into Saki's biography are liable to be equally surprised by his life's many contradictions; he emerges as a cynical patriot, a xenophobic world-traveler, and a politically conservative homosexual.

Hector Hugh Munro was born in Akyab, Burma (now Myanmar), in 1870. For over a century, the Munro family served the British Empire on the Indian subcontinent, and Hector's lineage included an ancestor who was attacked and killed by a tiger. Given this blood-spattered limb of the family tree, Hector's father, a police official, understandably sought to protect his wife and three young children from the hazards of life in a remote Burmese outpost. Like other canonical writers born into the Anglo-Indian milieu, such as William Makepeace Thackery, Rudyard Kipling, and George Orwell, Hector was sent to England to receive a proper education. Hector, his two older siblings, and their pregnant mother arrived in the safety of Devonshire in 1872. But in a cruel twist of fate that might have appeared in one of Saki's own tales, his mother was charged by a cow while strolling along a pastoral lane. A combination of fright and injury caused her to miscarry and die shortly thereafter.

When their father returned to his post, the Munro children were left in the care of two repressive spinster aunts. In his essay "The Burden of Childhood," Graham Greene linked the pitiless tone of Saki's fiction to the isolation he experienced as a young boy. Many of Saki's witty observations do seem to trace their origin to his early, unhappy memories: "People talk vaguely about the innocence of a little child, but they take mighty good care not to let it out of their sight for twenty minutes." Indeed, Hector's imperious aunts confined him indoors under a watchful eye and kept him from playing with others. Hector turned to practical jokes and a love of books to stave off loneliness. Like Thackery and Kipling before him, the pleasures of fiction offered Hector an escape from a rigid Victorian upbringing among loveless relations.

Hector was a teenager by the time his father returned from Burma to rescue his children. They traveled as a family to Europe, and during an extended stay in Davos, Switzerland, Hector made the acquaintance of British man of letters John Addington Symonds. Symonds enjoyed fame at the time for his multi-volume history of the Italian Renaissance, but he later gained notoriety as one of the first openly homosexual writers. He and Hector spent many hours in conversation together, and it is likely that Hector was as impressed with Symonds' literary accomplishments as he was with the avuncular writer's candor on same-sex relationships. Hector, however, was to remain closeted all his life. His devoted sister, Ethel, recollected that the "[o]ne subject [Saki] never wrote on, was sex, and I am certain if he had, he would have made fun of it." Ethel was only partially correct. The almost total absence of sex in Saki's work suggests that his homosexuality was a painful secret-the one thing he could not make fun of.

In 1893, Hector followed in his father's footsteps and sailed to Burma to serve as a policeman. Once there, he adopted a pet tiger despite his family's history of being eaten by them. Hector seemed to take little interest in his role as a servant of the Empire, and unlike his contemporary, Kipling, and another policeman who served in Burma, George Orwell, his tour of duty left few obvious traces in his work. Malaria, however, ravaged his body and left a lasting mark. Hector was forced to resign his post and return to England in 1894.

The Westminster Alice (1902)

After a long convalescence with his family, Hector made his way to London intent on becoming a writer. He had the good fortune there to befriend political cartoonist Francis Carruthers Gould. Gould skewered the pretensions of his day in the Westminster Gazette, a newspaper popular among London's intelligentsia. Despite Hector's confirmed support of the Tories, and Gould's advocacy of the Liberal Party, they collaborated on a serial parody of Alice in Wonderland that adopted the illogic of Lewis Carroll's masterpiece to indict major political figures for their inept prosecution of the Boer War. The mismatched pair's work became an instant hit and was soon collected in book form as The Westminster Alice. The events satirized are mostly forgotten today, however, readers will certainly enjoy some of the more incendiary rounds fired at political incompetence, as when the White Knight (Lord Lansdowne, Secretary of State for War) brags to Alice that he sent troops into battle with outmoded weapons "[b]ecause if they happened to fall into the hands of the enemy they'd be very little use to him." Most significantly, the parodies introduced London's tastemakers to a new talent who signed his work, "Saki."

In the twilight of the Victorian era, a vogue for the Rubáiyát of the eleventh century poet-astronomer Omar Khayyám gripped England. The quatrains of the Rubáiyát alternate between extolling the pleasures of wine and song, and conjuring images of decay and death. This oscillation between light and dark must have appealed to Hector, who adopted the name of the wine-pourer wistfully addressed in the poem: "And when…Sákí, you shall pass [. . .] and in your joyous errand reach the spot [. . .]-turn down an empty Glass!" These lines compress the spirit of Saki's oeuvre, a unique body of work that evinces an intoxication with life's joys and a morbid fascination with its cruelties. Perhaps no other pseudonym has so accurately reflected a writer's work and foreshadowed his ultimate fate.

Saki's gift for dreaming up felicitous names extended to the fictional characters he invented as well. His knack for a nomenclature that combines sonorous effect with a suggestion of character equals or surpasses that of Charles Dickens and P. G. Wodehouse. We meet in his stories and novels such figures as: Loona Bimberton, Septimus Brope, Merla Blathlington, Framton Nuttel, and Ada Spelvexit. But his most enduring characters are the "brilliant young men" who thumbed their noses at convention: Reginald, Clovis Sangrail, and Comus Bassington.

Reginald (1904) & Reginald in Russia (1910)

A taste of success encouraged Saki to publish a series of stories featuring one of those blithe, irresponsible, frivolous bachelors who seem to define Edwardian British humor. Saki's creation, Reginald, appeared in occasional stories in the Westminster Gazette. These very short pieces were intended as ephemera, though they betray Saki's aspiration to achieve Wilde's popularity as an epigrammatist. Reginald remarks that "beauty is only sin deep," and warns us, "Never be a pioneer. It's the Early Christian that gets the fattest lion." Reginald upsets his friends and relatives, misbehaves at house parties, borrows money liberally, and chafes at propriety whenever and wherever it is to be found. Yet Saki's confections could also be bitter. The early Reginald stories evince a melancholy that characterizes Saki's later output. Perhaps self-loathing lurked in his portrayal of Reginald as a well-tailored dandy and lover of delicacies who could not pay his own way. Certainly some of Saki's own dismay at the fading of his youth appears in Reginald's quip that "[t]o have reached thirty is to have failed in life."

Saki, now in his thirties and still supported by his father, sought a way to carve out some lasting success beyond the drawing room notoriety he had achieved. He became a foreign correspondent for the Morning Post, a politically conservative paper. Between 1903 and 1907, he traveled through the Balkans to gauge the growing unrest there, filed reports from Warsaw, reached St. Petersburg in time to witness the Bloody Sunday march on the tsar's Winter Palace, and concluded by reviewing theater in Paris. The tumultuous times and social ferment he experienced freed him from the constraints of British decorum. According to Langguth, Saki maintained several relationships with men during his years as a correspondent. Nevertheless, his dispatches, signed H. H. Munro, preserve the author's resolute political conservatism. He found confirmation for his belief in an innate British superiority in all his travels, and this chauvinism would continually be reasserted in his work.

Despite its title, Saki's wanderings contributed only marginally to his next volume of short stories, Reginald in Russia. His mastery of the art of narrative compression shines through in several of the tales, as does his unerring sense for well-timed surprise endings reminiscent of his American contemporary, O. Henry (William Sydney Porter). Often the plot twists feature some darkly comic element, as in two fine stories, "The Reticence of Lady Anne" and "The Mouse." In the case of the even more remarkable "Gabriel-Ernest," Saki is able to marshal his literary talents to treat some of his favorite characters-children, werewolves, and addled aunts-with a mixture of humor and horror that manages to be both pitiless and good natured.

The Chronicles of Clovis (1911)

When sales of his first slim volumes disappointed, Saki found a new publisher, John Lane. Lane had established himself in the 1890s as the publisher of Oscar Wilde and the Yellow Book, a flamboyant periodical that trumpeted the end of the Victorian era and defined the Decadent Movement of fin-de-siècle London. Oscar Wilde was incorrectly reported to have had a copy of the Yellow Book under his arm when he was arrested for "acts of gross indecency with other male persons." The scandal led to the end of the Yellow Book and the beginning of Lane's concern that another of his writers would be jailed for homosexuality. Perhaps fearing that Saki's homosexuality would be discovered, Lane did not aggressively promote him. Nonetheless, The Chronicles of Clovis received favorable reviews and a growing cadre of admirers. Later testaments from Noël Coward and A. A. Milne make it clear that Saki's irreverent characters had already become favorites of the aspiring literary set.

Like Reginald, Clovis is a louche socialite who assails fools with his sharp tongue and biting wit. Bertie van Tahn, "who was so depraved at seventeen that he had long ago given up trying to be any worse," appears in several of the stories as Clovis' even more mordant companion. Both are gifted with wealthy connections, hearty appetites, and none of the burdens of conscience that yoke the dim-witted bores and gossips they scorn. Saki excelled at creating such irrepressible young men who pursue an earthly happiness that, more often than not, takes the form of claret, plover's eggs, and card games.

In addition to showcasing Saki's mastery of comic repartee, the collection also focuses on his fascination with the macabre. His exploration of the uncanny seems to have released his creative powers, as if Saki had discovered, along with the bewitched narrator of "The Peace of Mowsle Barton," that "when once you have taken the Impossible into your calculations its possibilities become practically limitless." In "Tobermory," a classic account of feline mentality, a talking cat reveals the damning secrets he has overheard at a country house. Saki's ability to conjure the supernatural reaches its zenith in "Sredni Vashtar." This tale features a sickly boy, Conradin, who prays that a pet ferret will protect him from his hated guardian, who seems to be a thinly veiled version of Munro's aunts. The surprise ending functions as a punch line as well as a cold-blooded comment on the depths of Conradin's-and perhaps Saki's-antagonism toward adult restrictions. Noted critic V. S. Pritchett wrote that the laughter of Saki "is only a note or two short of a scream of fear." That is certainly true of "Esmé," in which a hyena devours a nameless child while a Baroness looks on. Asked if the child suffered, the Baroness responds, "The indications were all that way [. . .] on the other hand, of course, it may have been crying from sheer temper. Children sometimes do." What gives rise to laughter in this passage and in much of Saki's work is precisely this unexpected response to terror-not a shrill scream, but banal composure.

The Unbearable Bassington (1912)

The enigmatic author's note that prefaces earlier editions of Saki's novel reads: "This story has no moral. If it points out an evil at any rate it suggests no remedy." The Unbearable Bassington certainly lives up to Saki's disclaimer, and partly because the plot lacks a firm moral center, the novel has puzzled readers. More than thirty years after its publication, Evelyn Waugh praised Saki's novel as "wholly brilliant," though he still acknowledged its "faults in construction." What may have equally frustrated Waugh was the question of genre; the novel unfolds as a human comedy while it simultaneously hurtles toward its tragic conclusion.

Whether tragedy or comedy, Saki displays the same inimitable talents here as he does in his short stories. Precise, economic descriptions introduce the protagonists and key conflict. Francesca Bassington, who "if pressed in an unguarded moment to describe her soul, would probably have described her drawing-room," seeks an advantageous marriage for her "unbearable" son, Comus, who is likened to "a volcano that in its quietest moments asks incessant questions and uses strong scent." Timely satire surfaces in Saki's ridicule of George Bernard Shaw, who becomes Sherard Blaw. Clever epigrams sparkle throughout, including the observation that "[t]he art of public life consists to a great extent of knowing exactly where to stop and going a bit farther." Saki certainly went a bit farther in hinting at his private life in the novel than he had done in the past. A bride's relief at discovering "that one is not expected to be sentimentally amorous during a modern honeymoon" soon turns to dismay when she realizes her new husband, "one of Nature's bachelors," is not "markedly affectionate in private" either.

Unlike the short stories, the expanse of the novel allows Saki to indulge in pity for others' unhappiness. Saki avoids outright condemnation of his materialistic characters, even in those passages that expose their pettiness and vanity. Comus emerges as the most complex of Saki's vexing, acid-tongued, layabout characters. Unlike Reginald and Clovis, Comus demands sympathy even as he denies it to others. What will satisfy him is, paradoxically, nothing less than a sympathy borne of merciless truth telling. The handsome Comus infuriates his mother when he sabotages his last chance at making a successful engagement. Francesca lifts the veil of her son's self-deception and remarks, "[y]ou have all the charm and advantages that a boy could want [. . .] and behind it all there is the fatal damning gift of utter hopelessness." Only then, when Comus agrees with her, does the first flicker of tenderness between them appear. But before they can embrace, resentments rise up to block their reconciliation. Their selfishness is deplorable, and yet when they are most aware of their shortcomings, we feel the greatest affection for them.

Comus' one epiphany comes when he acknowledges his refusal to mature. As a kind of Peter Pan, Comus shares much in common with his creator. Perhaps the strain of Saki's secret passions and his frustrations over the lack of widespread literary success contributed to the jaundiced tone of the novel. Munro may have felt trapped by adulthood and nostalgic for his former, free-spirited travels. There can be little doubt that he reflected upon his lost youth with regret. The novel is pervaded by a sense of nostalgia and grief that serves as a counterpoint to the sharply observed social satire. Early on, the narrator remarks that "[o]ne's happiness always lies in the future rather than in the past." Comus ultimately finds that future happiness is an illusion as well. His banishment to a colonial backwater-part of the "black-sheep export trade" he says-hearkens back to the author's own exile in Burma. The material comfort and social pleasures of London could not save Comus, and they ceased to cheer their chronicler, Saki.

When William Came (1913)

Ennui had clearly set in for Saki, and his grim second novel imagines England defeated and occupied by a victorious German army. Such literary dystopias share an affinity with satire and often use ridicule to mock prevailing ideologies, or to warn readers of the perils they will face in the future. Interestingly, four authors who would later write introductions to Saki's work published what-if scenarios themselves: Maurice Baring, G. K. Chesterton, Noël Coward, and J. C. Squire. The genre naturally appealed to Saki as a way to rebuke the indolence of a society he had once gently parodied. More a series of caustic vignettes than a novel, this curiosity piece forms a sort of artful propaganda for the cause of military mobilization against Kaiser Wilhelm, the "William" of the novel's title. After "William" overruns England, German street signs sprout up. Further humiliations are in store for the conquered, but complacency cripples rebellion. Saki depicts the forms collaboration might take and eviscerates the leisure class who accept their subjugation as a "fait accompli." Despite the serious turn of his fiction, Saki demonstrates that he is still able to indulge his talent for epigrams: "[W]hen a man observes the principles of his religion too exactly he is in immediate danger of founding a new sect."

Given the outbreak of World War I within a year of its publication, Saki's second novel seems remarkably prescient rather than paranoid. Yet the book has a sullenness to it that descends into malice. Whatever Saki's modest gifts of prophecy, he was incapable of rising above the myopic prejudices of his class. The misogyny that infected some of his stories appears here as well. In his stories, the target had been the cause of women's suffrage, while in the novel, women are simply dismissed as "tiresome and thorny and capricious." Much of his spleen is vented on fawning socialites, opportunistic hacks, and Liberals who "grew soft," but Saki reserves special distaste for Jews. Characters regard Jews as disloyal British subjects who do not know their place in the social order, like "garlic that's been planted by mistake in a conservatory." The sneering anti-Semitism of this novel brands Jews as rootless cosmopolitans who profit from German rule and contribute to the "insidious leaven that will help to denationalize London." That Munro's attitudes were unremarkable in their day, laudatory reviews in The Times Literary Supplement and the Spectator make clear. But like the anti-Semitism of fellow British humorists and satirists Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, Roald Dahl, and Evelyn Waugh, Saki's disdain for Jews blunts esteem for his rapier wit.

Beasts and Superbeasts (1914)

For poet Emily Dickinson, "hope was the thing with feathers"; to the increasingly jaded Saki, hopelessness was the thing with fangs. And in this collection, beasts of prey once again lurk beyond the borders of an effete, denatured Edwardian society. Many of the stories in this collection-the last to be published in Saki's lifetime-feature a wild menagerie that includes wolves, boars, and an image of "hyænas asleep in Euston Station." The title takes a swipe at Saki's favorite liberal target, George Bernard Shaw, and his play, Man and Superman. Like his previous collections, these tales originally appeared in periodicals and are marked by their brevity and humor. The insouciant Clovis returns, declaring that an acquaintance "is one of those people who would be enormously improved by death." He reaches still further heights of humbug when he proposes "The Feast of Nemesis" as an alternative to Christmas. Clovis' description of a holiday dedicated to "the paying off of old scores and grudges" foreshadows the fictional "Festivus" celebration and its "ritual airing of grievances" invented for the television situation comedy Seinfeld. In some ways, the self-absorbed, snarky, urban cast of characters from Seinfeld recalls the selfish and sardonic youths of Saki, thus rendering his work starkly contemporary.

Saki's growth as a writer can best be measured by the vivid characterizations of children he provides in two famed stories, "The Lumber Room" and "The Open Window." Saki penetrated the psychology of aloof, precocious children with a success unequaled until J. D. Salinger. The young protagonist in "The Lumber Room," Nicholas, refuses to eat his breakfast "on the seemingly frivolous ground that there was a frog in it." Adults dismiss his claims, but Nicholas protests because "he had put [the frog] there himself, so he felt entitled to know something about it." When a cruel aunt discovers the prank and punishes him, Nicholas remains satisfied since "older, wiser and better people had been proved to be profoundly in error." Only a man who is a boy at heart could possibly conceive of the consolations of such a self-defeating victory. In "The Open Window," the preternaturally self-possessed fifteen-year-old niece, Vera, reveals herself to be a kind of female Clovis who enjoys crafting eerie tales to frighten her aunt's guest. Her teenage disaffection and sheer perversity make her one of Saki's most beguiling characters. One further classic in this collection, "The Story Teller," features another compulsive fabulator who may serve as a stand-in for Saki himself. Much to the consternation of their priggish aunt, a bachelor entertains three children with the "improper story" of a girl who is "horribly good," but who finds her reward in the jaws of a wolf. In Saki's work the jocular is never far from the jugular.

The Toys of Peace (1919), The Square Egg & Other Sketches (1924), and Six "New" Stories

The stories, sketches, and plays from the final two collections form a hodgepodge drawn mostly from previously published work. However, Saki's two lurid playlets and one full-length play, The Watched Pot, first appeared in The Square Egg. None of his dramatic efforts were produced during his lifetime, though The Watched Pot did achieve some success in London and New York during the 1940s. Of the previously uncollected stories recovered by Langguth, the most important is "The Almanack," which pairs Clovis Sangrail with Vera Durmot, the flapper featured in two Beasts and Superbeasts stories, the uproarious "The Lull" and the frankly Judeophobic "A Touch of Realism." Though none of the six stories, which originally appeared in periodicals between 1912 and 1913, demonstrate Saki at his finest, they nonetheless offer a definitive portrait of the author's work and exist as testaments to Saki's relentless investigation of mannered society's foolishness.

The supernatural, loathsome aunts, wolves, and sharp-tongued youths, including Clovis, all reappear in The Toys of Peace and The Square Egg, as does Saki's misanthropy. The niece in "The Mappined Life" recalls Saki's exasperating creation, Vera. She compares the comfort of her aunt's domestic captivity to the Mappin Terraces meant to replicate the natural surroundings of animals exhibited at the Regent's Park Zoo. The niece's curse is her lucidity, for she knows she will suffer the same "dull and decorous and undistinguished" fate as her aunt. As in other stories, Saki allows his children to break the bonds of self-deception imposed by etiquette. Saki conjures other disturbing and disturbed children in "The Penance" and "The Toys of Peace." The latter, a burlesque of socially responsible parenting, features young boys who are downcast at receiving a toy model of the Young Women's Christian Association, prompting the older boy to hope "that where you found Christians you might reasonably expect to find a few lions." Ultimately, the children turn their unpromising playthings into a battlefield. Saki did the same.

Shortly after war was declared in August 1914, Munro enlisted at the age of forty-four, writing: "It is only fitting that the author of When William Came should go to meet William half way." Several of his stories and sketches from the final collections describe his experiences on the battlefield. The tragicomic evocation of life in the mud of the trenches in "The Square Egg," and the mature lyricism of "Birds on the Western Front" enrich our treasury of writing from World War I. Still, Munro's decision to lie about his age in order to enlist and then actively resist offers of a commission betray a romantic, childish conception of war. His tragedy was not that he grew up, but that he succeeded in remaining a boy determined to play soldier. On the dark, wintry morning of November 14, 1916, he and his fellow soldiers rested during a lull in fighting near Beaumont-Hamel, France. When one of the troops lit a cigarette and gave away their position, Munro shouted, "Put that bloody cigarette out!" Rifle fire cracked in the distance. A German sniper's bullet whizzed through the air, killing him instantly. But the savage wit of Saki lives on. "[P]osterity," he correctly noted, "is so fond of having the last word."

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The Complete Works of Saki (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 15 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Most of these works are available for free from sources such as Project Gutenberg; however, having his complete works all together in one place makes things much more convenient. The text is well digitized. I've come across very few - if any - typographical errors. The collections and individual sorry stories are linked from the table of contents. In short, it works as it should. And it has one of the best English short stories every written: The Open Window.
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