- Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro by A.J. Langguth
Hamish Hamilton, 366 pp, £12.50, October 1981, ISBN 0 241 10678 8
Until recently, the only Saki story I had ever read was ‘Filboid Studge, the Story of a Mouse that Helped’. This is the one about the artist Mark Spayley who is wooing the daughter of Duncan Dullamy, ‘the great company inflator’, whose new breakfast food Pipenta ‘could scarcely be called a drug on the market; people bought drugs, but no one bought Pipenta.’ Spayley, the mouse of the title, offers the great man his help, renames the product Filboid Studge and devises an advertising poster in which the Damned in Hell are tormented by young dandies who hold bowls of Filboid Studge just beyond the lost souls’ reach. ‘A single grim statement ran in bold letters along its base: “They cannot buy it now.” ’ The product becomes a success, and the industrialist refuses Spayley his daughter’s hand: after all, Spayley is poor and Leonore is an heiress …
I was, for my sins, working in advertising myself at the time, and what struck me most forcefully about the tale was its gritty realism and attention to detail. This, after all, was the period when commercial artists drew portraits of the Pope, seated on his throne in full regalia, holding up a bottle of beef extract, and placed above him the caption: ‘The Pope and Bovril – The World’s Two Infallible Powers’. Heady days, although the notorious case of Carlill v. The Carbolic Smoke Ball Company (1892) had already obliged advertising men to ponder, occasionally, the possible perils of such hyperbole ... but I digress.
Having now read rather more of Munro’s fictions, I am in a position to reveal to a breathlessly anticipatory world that the down-to-earth social realism of the Studge saga is present throughout the oeuvre. This is not, by and large, the quality for which Saki has been most praised, but it seems to me (as a latecomer) that only a master of sociological observation could have obliged one of his creations, Van Cheele, to reflect as follows at a moment of crisis: ‘He dismissed the idea of a telegram. “Gabriel-Ernest is a werewolf” was a hopelessly inadequate effort at conveying the situation, and his aunt would think it was a code message to which he had omitted to give her the key.’ Only a man steeped in the nuances of aristocratic life could have invented a name like Loona Bimberton. It takes an infallible ear for dialogue to ‘hear’ Lady Carlotta, pretending to be a governess in ‘The Schartz-Metterklume Method’, announcing:
‘I shall talk French four days of the week and Russian in the remaining three.’
‘Russian? My dear Miss Hope, no one in the house speaks or understands Russian.’
‘That will not embarrass me in the least,’ said Lady Carlotta coldly.
Realism, in Saki, takes strange forms, but the strangeness is close to that of the weird world he made his target. Cats talk, but when they do they tell the truth about the worms seething beneath the whited sepulchres (well, evening gowns, anyway) of country-house society. Witches cast spells, but only to demonstrate the idiocy lurking behind the romantic love of posh city folk for the peace of the countryside. Behind the gloomy respectability of the Brimley Bomefields lies a history of frustrated avarice; and the apparently innocent donation of 2s 6d given by the Stossens to Miss Matilda Cuvering’s collection for the Fresh Air Fund conceals a dark parable on the great social evil of gate-crashing. In short, Saki was a fifth-columnist, an underminer – or should I say mole? – of that very stratum of society in which he moved, and to whose ethic he claimed, with fiendish subtlety, to subscribe.
Unfortunately, the world that he made the butt of his wit disappeared, as Tom Sharpe reminds us in his short introduction to the Picador Saki,[*] at more or less the same time as Munro: fortunately, the stories are funny enough to survive in spite of that. But it would be wrong to forget that that world existed, that Saki’s targets were real targets. He was not – despite the frequent appearances of aunts, animals, butlers and Drones – just a nasty Wodehouse. Nor, despite his alarming physical resemblance to Bob Hope, and the way in which he stuffed his stories full of gags, was he simply a purveyor of one-liners: the best of his stories do manage to duck beneath the glittering, icy surface of the small pond whose big literary fish he became. In ‘The Jesting of Arlington Stringham’, for instance, Saki seems to be commenting obliquely on his own style. When the newly-humorous hero’s wife commits suicide, because she realises he is getting his jokes from Another Woman, Munro achieves a moment of genuine, dark, ironic truth. Quips can kill.
If the quality of his writing is deceptive, slippery, at least the texts exist and can be scrutinised. The trouble with his personality is that, thanks to the letter-burnings of his sister and his own reluctance to set down very much of his innermost thoughts, it is in all likelihood unknowable. Poor A.J. Langguth must have endured an uphill struggle.
His book has been fairly extensively rubbished in this country, which may not be wholly unconnected with the fact that Langguth is an American. For a Yank to invade this most English of territories was clearly an act of colossal cheek, and the bounder obviously deserved the wigging he got. But, actually, hang it all, you fellows, the book really isn’t too bad, in fact the jumped-up Minneapolitan blighter has done a pretty decent sort of job. I mean, it is infuriating when he will convert £sd into dollars, and it’s even worse when he attempts epigrams, but one ought to accept that dollars do exist, and one or two of the epigrams do demonstrate a most unMinneapolitan finesse: Bertie van Tahn, for instance, is described as a man who ‘raises hell as if it were a cash crop’.
Langguth provides a readable, lucid and not at all badly written introduction to Munro; he tries hard to provide a social and intellectual context for the life. Sometimes he tries too hard, and is reduced to offering us mere coincidences (Saki’s family was at Westward Ho! at about the same time as Kipling) and suggesting they might Mean Something: but it’s a decent stab at a life that would probably defeat most biographers, not just because of the lack of material, but because it’s a somehow unfocused life, unresolved, a life snuffed out before its inner tensions could acquire any satisfying depth or even shape. The homosexuality, the disillusion, the horrid childhood aunts ... it should gell into something much more gripping than it does, but I don’t think it’s Langguth’s fault that it doesn’t. The relationship between the manufacture of bricks and the availability of straw has been animadverted upon before now.
There’s plenty to enjoy in this biography: the large chunks of Saki’s ‘Alice in Westminster’ which Langguth quotes are first-rate satire, and I was glad to be given them; and the much abused Yankee seems to me very good on Saki’s fondness for writing about (well, actually, not just writing about) little naked brown boys, and for setting wild animals loose, in his pages, so that they can savage avatars of the unspeakable aunts. He also has a strong passage in which he compares Saki to Wilde: the comparison does not flatter Saki, because Langguth quite rightly points out the more profound emotions beneath Oscar’s sentences. The biographer is clearly not blind to his subject’s failings.
But there is no doubt that poor A.J. is basically a plodder. And because of this the 277 pages of his book that deal with Saki’s life (the rest of the volume is padded out with six rather inferior and previously unpublished Saki stories) manage to carry less of a charge than Tom Sharpe’s eight-page Picador introduction. Take the matter of Saki’s curious pen-name. Langguth, painstakingly and with much accretion of circumstantial detail, gives us the orthodox version: Munro took his Saki from Omar Khayyam. But Tom Sharpe, in a brilliant piece of zanily believable argument, dissents. Munro was an admirer, and in his early career an imitator, of the historian Gibbon; and a saki is, like a gibbon, a species of monkey, from South America, as a matter of fact. Both Langguth and Sharpe use Saki’s stories to provide support for their theories: but it’s Sharpe who gets my vote, if only on the Call my bluff principle that the most far-fetched definitions are usually the correct ones.
There is just one passage in Langguth’s book in which he displays an almost Sharpean facility for inspired guesswork. This is the passage in which he expounds his Theory of the Squiggles. When Munro began to keep a diary, he formed the habit of placing squiggles beside certain dates and dashes beside all the others. These squiggles are clearly codes to which Saki has omitted to give us the key. Langguth suggests that they represent homosexual encounters, the kind of thing which in the aftermath of the Wilde scandal Munro would obviously want to keep to himself. According to the Squiggle Theory, the diary reveals that ‘Hector’s average in his best months was an encounter every second day; when he was busy or traveling’ (yarooh, you fellows! American spelling!) ‘every third day.’ Disarmingly, A.J. makes clear that there is absolutely no basis for his speculation: ‘There are, of course,’ he admits, ‘several acts of daily life that a reticent man might prefer to code in a diary ...’ But this baselessness is what makes the Squiggle Theory absolutely convincing. The beastly colonial has called the reticent man’s bluff. Hector seems to have been a sexual athlete of considerable stamina. It’s nice to know he had some fun. After all, he’s given us simply loads of it.
[*] The Best of Saki (Picador, 1976).