Ferrets can be gods

Katherine Rundell

  • Gabriel-Ernest and Other Tales by Saki, illustrated by Quentin Blake
    Alma Classics, 156 pp, £6.99, October 2015, ISBN 978 1 84749 592 1

One hundred years ago, a soldier named Hector Hugh Munro was shot in the head as he crossed no-man’s-land. The night had been dark. Some of the soldiers accompanying him had lit up when they stopped to rest, and the glowing cigarettes attracted a German sniper’s attention. His last words were reported to be: ‘Put that bloody cigarette out!’ The soldier was perhaps the wittiest writer Britain had; his other name was Saki.

Saki’s short stories take place in a world far from the Somme. It’s a world, like that of Oscar Wilde or P.G. Wodehouse, of silk curtains and silver tea sets, though Saki’s is populated not only with tyrannical aunts and obtuse majors, but also with tigers and woodland gods. In ‘Sredni Vashtar’, a boy worships a ferret as a god; the worship gives the ferret a power of its own, and it eats the boy’s despotic cousin Mrs de Ropp. In ‘Gabriel-Ernest’, the wildness of the outside world impinges on country-house society when a naked half-human boy lures a child away into the woods. The naked boy speaks like an Etonian. ‘“They are very nice woods,” said the boy, with a touch of patronage in his voice.’ And then: ‘It’s quite two months since I tasted child flesh.’ Saki wrote in the vernacular of the drawing room but with the ruthlessness of an avenging prophet. A.A. Milne wrote in an early introduction to Saki’s stories:

A strange exotic creature, this Saki, to us many others who were trying to do it too. For we were so domestic, he so terrifyingly cosmopolitan. While we were being funny, as planned, with collar-studs and hot-water bottles, he was being much funnier with werewolves and tigers. Our little dialogues were between John and Mary; his, and how much better, between Bertie van Tahn and the Baroness. Even the most casual intruder into one of his sketches, as it might be our Tomkins, had to be called Belturbet or de Ropp, and for his hero, weary man-of-the-world at 17, nothing less thrilling than Clovis Sangrail would do. In our envy we may have wondered sometimes if it were not much easier to be funny with tigers than with collar-studs; if Saki’s careless cruelty, that strange boyish insensitiveness of his, did not give him an unfair start in the pursuit of laughter. It may have been so; but, fortunately, our efforts to be funny in the Saki manner have not survived to prove it.

This new edition of Saki is published explicitly for children – Saki’s stories could certainly be read by young people, but only by the kind who relish the earlier versions of fairy tales, those in which Red Riding Hood is eaten, and Cinderella’s stepmother decapitated with the lid of a trunk – and proposes a candidate for Saki’s heir by way of its illustrator, Quentin Blake. The spikiness of Blake’s line suits the spikiness of Saki’s universe, but also suggests a kinship between Saki and the writer most associated with Blake: Roald Dahl.

Saki, photographed by E.O. Hoppé in 1913.
Saki, photographed by E.O. Hoppé in 1913.

Certainly, Dahl’s barbed energy owed a great deal to Saki. There is a brilliant but wicked little girl called Matilda in Saki’s ‘The Boar-Pig’, who extracts money from a pair of socially ambitious women attempting to gatecrash a party. She is not unlike the first versions of Dahl’s Matilda; in early drafts she is worldly and spiteful and uses her powers to fix a horse race. Blake shows Saki’s Matilda sitting up in a tree and staring down at the rotund would-be intruders (‘I could not do violence to my conscience for anything less than ten shillings’) with the same long dark hair and large eyes as Dahl’s heroine. Children in Saki are often victors in the battle against authority; his stories salute their boldness but have no truck with sentiment. The children are usually nasty, brutish and short, and loved for it. Dahl acknowledged his debt: ‘In all literature, he was the first to employ successfully a wildly outrageous premise in order to make a serious point. I love that. And today the best of his stories are still better than the best of just about every other writer around.’

In places, Dahl’s work provokes questions about the line between influence and theft. In Saki’s ‘The Background’, a man’s entire back, from collarbones to waist, is tattooed by a great artist, and he finds himself haunted by art-lovers claiming to own him. In Dahl’s ‘Skin’, a man’s entire back is tattooed by a great artist, and art collectors clamour to buy him. The difference between their two styles is clear from the endings they choose. ‘Skin’ ends with a characteristic sweep towards the most macabre conclusion possible: the man is killed and skinned. Dahl’s adult stories are a gleeful but blunt kind of instrument; protagonists are sliced up in slaughterhouses or buried in haystacks. In Saki’s ending, the human canvas becomes embroiled in politics, and the tattoo is destroyed by an acid-throwing anarchist. Once the world’s attention has passed on, the victim begins to pine for it. The story ends on a note of wry anticlimax: ‘In the quieter streets of Paris, especially in the neighbourhood of the Ministry of Fine Arts, you may sometimes meet a depressed, anxious-looking man, who … nurses the illusion that he is one of the lost arms of the Venus de Milo, and hopes that the French government may be persuaded to buy him. On all other subjects I believe he is tolerably sane.’

To read a Saki story is to hire an assassin. There have been many attempts in the last hundred years to re-create that specific Saki feeling; the pleasures of laying waste to convention combined with the quickening promise of something wilder in its stead. Nobody has yet managed it entirely, but in the pursuit of Saki a great deal of gleeful choler has been produced. If you were feeling ungenerous, you might compare the writing of an introduction to an animal marking out territory (the same could be said of writing essays for literary publications), and so it is with the list of writers who have introduced Saki’s work: Noël Coward, A.N. Wilson, Tom Sharpe, Will Self. Coward’s use of Sakian humour, though, is constrained by his urgent pursuit of the next punchline; Sharpe’s has a seaside postcard quality that has dated more in forty years than Saki’s has in a hundred. Saki is often said to ring through the novels of P.G. Wodehouse, but Wodehouse turns his raw material into something far gentler than Saki did; there is kindness in Saki but not sweetness, and in a truly Sakian Wodehouse story, Bertie would be trapped under a piece of vintage furniture and torn apart by the dog Bartholomew. Coward and Saki do both give off-kilter advice, and they are at their most archetypal when laying down the law. Coward renders schoolboy humour urbane: ‘Never trust a man with short legs; his brains are too near his bottom.’ Saki is calmly outlandish: ‘Never be flippantly rude to any inoffensive grey-bearded stranger that you may meet in pine forests or hotel smoking-rooms on the Continent. It always turns out to be the King of Sweden.’ The work in Coward’s quips is audible; in Saki’s it is undetectable. As with Donne, Nabokov and Spark, the mechanisms of wit are unseen and so inimitable.

Of living writers, George Saunders is the one whose stories most evoke Saki’s clear-eyed surrealism. Both thrive on the question of class; where Saki has landowners eaten by wolves, Saunders imagines third-world women displayed as human lawn ornaments in bourgeois homes. Both cut back their words to make works of ruthless brevity. ‘The land of the short story,’ Saunders wrote, ‘is a brutal land, a land very similar, in its strictness, to the land of the joke.’

The question of why Saki wrote as he did is made harder to answer by the fact that his sister Ethel destroyed the bulk of his papers. What we do know of Saki’s life reads like one of his own stories. His mother died after being trampled by a cow on a country lane, and an ancestor was killed by a tiger while on a hunting expedition. The account of the death by tiger given in Saki’s biography is full of the kind of detail he would later deploy in his many fictional deaths; a witness ‘heard a roar, like thunder, and saw an immense royal tiger spring on the unfortunate ancestor, who was sitting down. In a moment his head was in the beast’s mouth, and he rushed into the jungle with him, with as much ease as I could lift a kitten.’ It was thought that the commissioning by the Sultan Tipu, ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore, of a life-size mechanical tiger savaging a life-size British soldier was meant as a commemoration of the event. There was clockwork inside the tiger that made it grunt, and clockwork inside the man that made him scream. The delicate fashioning of the macabre is very Sakian: there was a flap on the side of the tiger that the Sultan could fold down, revealing a small pipe organ set into the animal. It played 18 notes.

Saki existed in a perfect storm; every element of his circumstances contributed to the lunatic clarity of his imagination. The necessity for secrecy in his romantic life perhaps made it natural for him to write obliquely, to use tigers and wolves and pigs to talk about sex and death and social climbing. Will Self, in his introduction to the Prion Humour Classics edition, suggests that Saki’s status as a gay man who came of age during the trial of Oscar Wilde explains the presence of ‘the cultivated disinterest of Saki’s sexually null – but emphatically male – protagonists’, and ‘the threads of dandyism, ornamentation, erudition and affection’. Self writes: ‘I wish to celebrate Saki the writer as an iconic gay.’ The A.J. Langguth biography of Saki, first published in 1981 and old-fashioned in tone even then, has a moment of sudden exuberance when Langguth argues that the many squiggles in the right margin of Saki’s diary might denote sexual liaisons. ‘If every squiggle did represent a conquest, Hector found six occasions in January to gratify himself and apparently, given his wide correspondence, others. If this supposition is correct, Hector’s average in his best months was an encounter every second day.’ Saki, living a half-hidden life, was a man who saw the hidden wildness of things; if cows can be murderers, ferrets can be gods. His short stories burst with the possibilities of a world in which strangeness is bone-deep and evident in every facet of civilised life.

Because Ethel Munro burned the bulk of her brother’s papers after his death, we cannot know for sure the source of his pen-name. The saki is a long-tailed monkey from South America; it is unusually shy and cautious; the head of the white-faced saki is shaped such that it always looks a little suspicious. Saki is also the name of the bearer of the cup of life in Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, first translated into English in 1859 by Edward FitzGerald. The poem contains these lines:

And fear not lest Existence closing your
Account, and mine, should know the like no more;
The Eternal Saki from that Bowl has pour’d
Millions of Bubbles like us, and will pour.

No amount of pouring will bring another Saki. In his sleek attacks on pretension and tough unruly optimism, Saki was irreplaceable and unreplaced.