Last week I thoroughly enjoyed reading Edith Wharton's "Roman Fever". I find I really like stories that have some sort of twist or surprise at the end, so when I read her story had been compared to the work of O. Henry and Saki I thought I should give one of these authors a try next. I've never read Saki and was attracted by the name, so Saki it was.
Saki was the pen name for Hector Hugh Munro, who was born in 1870 and was killed by a German sniper in 1916 during WWI. Although he was officially too old to fight he joined up nevertheless as a regular soldier (so many writers and artists gave their lives in this war--it's sad to think of their unfinished or unwritten work). He seems to have been primarily a short story writer, though he did write one novel and several plays. I read three of his stories and they were all clever with finely drawn characters, had a touch of the macabre to them and wonderful twists somewhere in the narrative. I've discovered another wonderful short story writer and have already found a collection of his stories to mooch.
My favorite story, and from what I understand is his most famous, is "An Open Window". I'm wondering if I read it before and simply forgot as there was a familiarity to it when I read it, though I wasn't exactly sure what would happen. Mr. Framton Nuttel has been ill and decides to retreat to the countryside for a bit of rest. His sister has given him letters of introduction to people she met during her stay in former times.
"'I know how it will be,' his sister had said when he was preparing to migrate to this rural retreat; 'you will bury yourself down there and not speak to a living soul, and your nerves will be worse than ever from moping. I shall just give you letters of introduction to all the people I know there. Some of them, as far as I can remember, were quite nice'."
Mrs Sappleton is temporarily unavailable when he arrives, so he is attended to and amused by her very precocious 15-year old niece. I'm not sure, however, how his nerves fared after his chat with her! This is a marvelous story--I won't tell you anymore and ruin it in case you've not read it. It's quite short (all three are) and you can read it online here.
"The Unrest Cure" is very entertaining as well. You've probably heard of a rest cure before? Clovis Sangrail (I believe he appears in several of Saki's stories) happens to be listening in on his fellow train passenger's conversation. One J.P. Huddle (Clovis spots his name on a piece of luggage stowed above the seat) laments the fact that he has hit middle-age too soon. Life is just a continuous repetition. Both he and his sister (with whom he lives) can't abide any change in their routine, and he finds himself in an awful rut. Huddle's friend tells him what he needs is an "unrest-cure".
"But where would one go for such a thing?"
"Well, you might stand as an Orange candidate for Kilkenny, or do a course of district visiting in one of the Apache quarters of Paris, or give lectures in Berlin to prove that most of Wagner's music was written by Gambetta; and there's always the interior of Morocco to travel in. But, to be really effective, the Unrest-cure ought to be tried in the home. How you would do it I haven't the faintest idea."
Clovis is galvanized into action. Let's just say his actions shake Mr. Huddle out of any sort of middle age torpor he's been experiencing. His cure includes several telegrams, the Bishop's secretary, a small massacre and a group of Boy Scouts. Had I not been so amused by his cheekiness I would have been offended.
Clovis reappears in "Esmé" where he is the recipient of a strange tale rather than a participant in anymore "cures". The Baroness tells Clovis of a hunting adventure that she and her friend Constance engaged in. It happened to involve a hyena they encountered when they were separated from the rest of the hunting party.
"The hyaena hailed our approach with unmistakable relief and demonstrations of friendliness. It had probably been accustomed to uniform kindness from humans, while its first experience of a pack of hounds had left a bad impression. The hounds looked more than ever embarrassed as their quarry paraded its sudden intimacy with us, and the faint toot of a horn in the distance was seized on as a welcome signal for unobtrusive departure. Constance and I and the hyaena were left alone in the gathering twilight."
I will only say that the hyena had terribly bad manners in the end and that the Baroness's description of the adventure is priceless.
These stories were wonderful. There's such a coolness about his writing. I wonder if it would be a horribly cliched thing to say that these seemed so very British--a tongue in cheek, dry sort of humor. My only criticism, or really it's more of an observation is that some of his writing might not be very PC by today's standards. I've come across this before, but I consider it a reflection of the times and attitudes and while I don't condone those attitudes now, I understand how things were historically (if that makes any sense) and can appreciate his work despite this particular shortcoming. You can read the last two stories here.