One hundred years after Saki's death in the Great War, his stories are still wickedly funnyby Fatema Ahmed / November 16, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
What Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), or “Saki,” thought of his life and work is a mystery. After his death, his sister Ethel destroyed most of his papers and instead wrote a short biographical sketch of her brother, which was published in 1924. The most vivid detail is her first memory of him, which has Saki running around the nursery with a blazing hearthbrush yelling, “I’m God! I’m going to destroy the world!” The second most vivid detail is their final encounter, when in the summer of 1916, Ethel declared “Kill a good few for me!” as Saki returned to the front in France. In November that year in the trenches near Beaumont-Hamel, Saki was reported to have shouted, “Put that bloody cigarette out!” only to be shot and killed by a German sniper.
Exactly a century after Saki’s death on 14th November 1916, it seems remarkable that his work has survived so well. In a line-up of the wits of 20th-century English literature, Saki is usually tucked somewhere between PG Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. Both were prolific writers (Wodehouse frighteningly so), and most of their work is worth remembering. Waugh was a brilliant and fair critic of fiction he had sympathy with, and once wrote that Saki produced no more than seven or eight short stories that are masterpieces. (The Collected Stories numbers over 120.) The rest “too often have the air of being fancies and jests unduly expanded, or of dramatic themes unduly cramped.” Seven or eight masterpieces, including his most famous story “Sredni Vashtar,” is more than most writers ever manage but—given such a low strike rate and the slightness of his chosen form—Saki’s enduring popularity, among fans including Roald Dahl, in children’s editions, and this year as the subject of a play, is one of the stranger literary feats I can think of.
“There is a hierarchy of beings in Saki’s stories. Wolves are at the top, followed by beautiful young men; women and aunts are at the bottom”
Saki’s life was an eventful one compared with that of the writers he is often compared to, and others with whom he should be (Max Beerbohm and EF Benson, for example); it was not untypical for someone belonging to what George Orwell, who came from a similar background, later called “the lower-upper-middle class.” He was born in Burma, where his father served in the Indian Imperial Police. His mother died when he was two, and he was consigned with his older brother and sister to live in Devon with his grandmother and with two aunts about whom Ethel is scathing. After school, Saki served for a brief spell in the Burma Military Police, which he left because of ill health. But from then on, his life became more irregular. After moving to London in 1896, he spent a large part of the next three years in the reading room of the British Museum writing a book, The Rise of the Russian Empire (1900), about a region he had never visited. He plucked a pen name from Edward FitzGerald’s translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam and began to write political satires for the liberal Westminster Gazette, which also published his short stories, before becoming a foreign correspondent for the conservative Morning Post. He filed from the Balkans, where he reported on the murder of the king and queen of Serbia; from Russia (finally), where he witnessed the 1905 massacre in St Petersburg; and Paris, where he saw Sarah Bernhardt act. In 1908, he settled in London to become a full-time writer. When the First World War broke out he was 43, and he joined up although no one could have expected him to do so.