Saki: A writer of “effortless invention and elegance”

by dollydelightly

Enjoying an unexpectedly warm summer’s evening down the pub with a friend, our discussion inevitably turned to books and more specifically to the art of literary review, which we both agreed has lost a bit of its lustre. Not only that, both of us as devout readers of classic and modern classic works felt that this particular branch of literature was often overlooked, or else regarded as somewhat supervacaneous. This is one of the many reason I started writing about books. During the course of the evening, we traded snapshots of our current reads and I was very excited to announce that mine, The Unbearable Bassington by Saki, had been sent to me by my new favourite press. Capuchin Classics publishes “unjustly forgotten or neglected” works with sagacious introductions and handsome covers illustrated to perfection. Every Capuchin edition looks and feels like a collector’s copy, and I for one endeavour to collect them all.

The Unbearable Bassington is one of Saki’s two novels, the other being When William Came, a fantastical and visionary epic about Germany invading Britain. The remainder of his canon is divided between journalistic work, a historical treatise about the rise of the Russian Empire and several remarkable collections of short stories objurgating Edwardian society and its precedents. Known primarily for the latter as well as his corrosive acid-tongue whiplashings, Saki now occupies a sort of literary penumbra, much to my personal regret. Born as Hector Hugh Munro in Burma on 18th December 1870, Saki is thought to have adopted his sobriquet from a reference in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam. His foray into writing began in 1899 with a short story called Dogged published in St Paul’s magazine. A year later he published The Rise of the Russian Empire, conceived out of  personal interest in Russian history, culture and customs. That same year, Saki met a political cartoonist by the name of Francis Carruthers Gould, who persuaded the Westminster Gazette’s editor to commission a series of political sketches by the two collaborators.  The undertaking was a success but Saki’s strengths always lay in his pithy, episodic, vignettes lampooning the realities of priggish Edwardians snarling behind their grins in their “quaint-shaped” drawing rooms filled with Bokhara rugs and Dresden figurines.

Relayed in a masterfully stalwart fashion, every page loaded with a meteor of witticisms, The Unbearable Bassington chronicles the fate of one Comus Bassington, a flagitious wise-cracking, young, rapscallion endowed with every power to bring about his own downfall. Much to his mother Francesca’s despair, Comus is one of those “untameable young lords of misrule” who “laugh through a series of catastrophes that has reduced everyone else concerned to tears or Cassandra-like forebodings”. Describing Comus in greater detail, Saki says: “His large green-grey eyes seemed forever asparkle with goblin mischief and the joy of revelry, and the curved lips might have been those of some wickedly-laughing faun; one almost expected to see embryo horns fretting the smoothness of his sleek dark hair.  The chin was firm, but one looked in vain for a redeeming touch of ill-temper in the handsome, half-mocking, half-petulant face.  With a strain of sourness in him Comus might have been leavened into something creative and masterful; fate had fashioned him with a certain whimsical charm, and left him all unequipped for the greater purposes of life.  Perhaps no one would have called him a lovable character, but in many respects he was adorable; in all respects he was certainly damned.”

And, “damned” is the general consensus about Comus. Speaking about her son, who is being educated “somewhere in the southern counties”, to her brother Henry, Francesca states: “I’m very fond of him, but I bear the separation well.  When he’s here it’s rather like having a live volcano in the house, a volcano that in its quietest moments asks incessant questions and uses strong scent.” Even his teachers are of the opinion that there is little hope for Comus because he “will certainly never grow out of his present stage” and shall therefore remain maladjusted indefinitely. While Francesca cares a great deal for her son, she wishes he could be moulded into an industrious and responsible young man, especially since such a transformation would lead to her own continued welfare. As a “clever and lazily-inclined” woman , who also happens to have no soul and “if pressed in an unguarded moment to describe her soul, would probably have described her drawing-room”, she hatches several plans to keep Comus on the straight and narrow in order to circumvent  immiseration and remain in her Blue Street residence. All of them involve superlative excogitations for an “advantageous marriage” which are unfortunately thwarted by her unwitting son, his “wanton paltry folly” conniptions, and a varied coterie of bombastic personages bedaubing this sprightly and spirited satire. The numerous “death-blow[s] to her hopes” leave Francesca no other choice but to send Comus away from his “life of idleness and extravagance and temptation” to West Africa, or as Comus sees it to “a convenient depository for tiresome people.”

In the Foreword to the book, Evelyn Waugh says that there are “faults in construction” with the The Unbearable Bassington with which I have to agree. Technical snags – as auxiliary characters – abound but they are nugatory in comparison to Saki’s unequivocal linguistic agility and the gift to enthral. Saki himself prefaced The Unbearable Bassington with a note, saying: “This story has no moral,” which  I long-thought about and have to contest because, in fact, the book stands to show that “for your own good” is an argument that will often lead a man to his labefaction, which was the case with Comus and the “ tragedy in which he was the chief character”. Typically, Saki’s characters engage and amuse, but do not encourage empathy and their fates serve merely as vehicles for mocking social solecisms. This is not so with The Unbearable Bassington, for one cannot help but like “the beautiful, wayward, laughing boy, with his naughtiness, his exasperating selfishness, his insurmountable folly and perverseness, his cruelty that spared not even himself.” Interestingly enough, the perception of his mother, Francesca, is reversed towards the end of the book from a slightly overbearing and long-suffering figure to a rather loathsome, wholly egotistical and rapacious woman. The Unbearable Bassington combines many of Saki’s traits; wit, tension, incident and pathos and in Waugh’s words “apparently effortless invention and elegance”.  And those are all the qualities that consistently spring to mind when reading Saki, which in many regards distinguishes him as a truly great writer.

Besides his literary career, Hector Hugh Munro followed in his father’s footspteps and became an official with the Burma military police until several severe bouts of fever saw him incapacitated and sent home back to England. He also served time as a foreign corresponded for the Morning Post and between 1902 –1907 reported from Vučitrn, Belgrade, Sofia, Üsküb, Salonica, Warsaw and St Petersburg. Upon his return home Munro continued to write until the declaration of war in 1914. He lied about his age [43] in order to enlist with the 22nd Regiment of the Royal Fusiliers as an ordinary soldier, refusing a commission. His company was despatched to France in 1915. A year later, while sheltering in a shell crater near Beaumont-Hamel, Munro was killed by a single shot to the head fired by a German sniper….there’s definitely no moral to that.