Surely there is no better pairing than Saki and Edward Gorey. In September and October I read The Haunted Looking Glass, short stories (ghost stories!) selected and illustrated by Edward Gorey. The stories were his favorites and the illustrations are marvelous. Now I've decided to end the year with one more short story collection, another NYRB Classic by the way (as was The Haunted Looking Glass), The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories by Saki and illustrated once again by Edward Gorey.
If you are at all familiar with the work of either author/artist you will know how well the two complement each other. I've read Saki before (and wrote about the stories here and here) and thought his work was wonderful--very British with such a wry and dry sense of humor. They often verge on the macabre which makes Gorey's illustrations so perfect.
I'm not sure how he came by the name, but Saki was born Hector Hugh Munro in British-controlled Burma. His father, and later he followed in his footsteps, was a military police officer. Actually after spending his youth in Devon, Saki returned to Burma where he joined the Indian Imperial police. After he came down with malaria he returned to England and began writing full time. He wrote political satires as well as short stories and sketches, a short novel, one-act plays, and a historical study. He led an interesting life, even working as a foreign correspondent, but it ended far too soon when he was killed in France during WWI. If his stories are anything to go by, I imagine he had quite a good sense of humor and no doubt it would have been a pleasure to be seated next to him at a dinner party.
Before I knew anything about him, I always assumed that Edward Gorey was British (maybe thanks PBS's Mystery Theatre on Sunday nights where his illustrations are used for the opening credits and they showcase British crime dramas?). He was born in Chicago, however, and several years after the death of Saki. He studied art briefly but after a stint in the army (where he tested poison gas!), he majored in French literature at Harvard. He illustrated his own books as well as books by other writers for both adults and children. I have a few of Gorey's books, but none of these: The Curious Sofa, The Haunted Tea-Cozy, and The Epiplectic Bicycle. Aren't those great titles?
So now that I've set the scene something about the stories? This NYRB collection is made up of a selection of stories from other volumes: Reginald (1904), Reginald in Russia (1910), The Chronicles of Clovis (1911), Beasts and Super-Beasts (1914) and The Toys of Peace (published posthumously in 1919). Although there are five Sundays in December I couldn't wait and read the first two sections with the Reginald stories today. The stories are very short, in some cases just a very few pages and it's hard to classify/categorize them. They aren't quite short--much closer to sketches than stories. The blurb describes Saki's work as
" . . . whimsical, macabre tales . . . skewer the banality and hypocrisy of polite English society between the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of World War I. Saki's heroes are enfants terribles who marshal their considerable wit and imagination against the cruelty and fatuousness of a decorous and doomed world."
Of course they refer to Edwardian society and we all know what happened to them. Reading his writing elicited more than a few guffaws from me (if only mentally). As these first two groups aren't proper stories with plots I can describe to you, it's best just to share some of the "skewers".
"'A most variable climate,' said the Duchess; 'and how unfortunate that we should have that very cold weather at a time when coal was so dear! So distressing for the poor'."
"'Life is full of disappointments,' observed the Duchess, 'and I suppose the art of being happy is to disguise them as illusions. But that, my dear Reginald, becomes more difficult as one grows older."
"There was once (said Reginald) a woman who told the truth. Not all at once, of course, but the ghabit grew upon her gradually, like lichen on an apparently healthy tree."
"'One of these days, [Reginald] said, 'I shall write a really great drama. No one will understand the drift of it, but everyone will go back to their homes with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction with their lives and surroundings. Then they will put up new wall-papers and forget'."
I'm getting a serious kick out of my reading and think it's just what I need right now. I've really been struggling lately with the books I have been picking up, but this, so far, has been really very satisfying. And it's about time. Next week stories from The chronicles of Clovis including "The Un-Rest Cure". Oh, and I'll share some of Gorey's illustrations next weekend, too! Something to look forward to.