Reviewed by Simon
Saki is one of those writers a lot of people have heard of but haven’t read – and, as A.A. Milne’s introduction in this reprint (itself a reprint from a much earlier edition) notes, his fans are cautious of sharing so wonderful a gem with those who might not be appreciative. Well, I shall take that risk – I whole-heartedly recommend that the uninitiated try out some Saki.
This collection was published in 1911, only a few years before he was killed in the First World War. He first turned his hand to the dark, funny style of short story that characterises this volume just a few years before that – who knows what else he might have written had he survived. But what he has left is a handful of books that couldn’t have come from any other pen.
Clovis supposedly links these stories, but the callous teenager in question often only turns up for a moment or two at the beginning of the story, saying something along the lines of my-friend-told-me-that, before the narrative sidelines him and we hear about the strange event in question.
And the events are as strange as the stories are brief. Whether it is a talking cat disrupting a houseparty with his candour, a doppleganger being murdered for some unknown crime, or a man with a full-body tattoo being forbidden to leave the country, the quirky and dark are always at the centre. Clovis’s callousness is, indeed, the hallmark of these stories – we do not care anything for the upper-class victims of the bizarre circumstances that befall them. That is partly because they are almost always unpleasant people in the first place; it is also because the events are so heightened that we can’t be expected to apply our normal empathy to them.
One of the hallmarks of Saki’s writing is, indeed, the upper-class background. In their less surreal moments, the stories have much in common with the society sniping of E.F. Benson’s novels. For instance…
“Is your maid called Florence?”
“Her name is Florinda.”
“What an extraordinary name to give a maid!”
“I did not give it to her; she arrived in my service already christened.”
“What I mean is,” said Mrs. Riversedge, “that when I get maids with unsuitable names I call them Jane; they soon get used to it.”
“An excellent plan,” said the aunt of Clovis coldly; “unfortunately I have got used to being called Jane myself. It happens to be my name.”
She cut short Mrs. Riversedge’s flood of apologies by abruptly remarking:
“The question is not whether I’m to call my maid Florinda, but whether Mr. Brope is to be permitted to call her Florrie. I am strongly of opinion that he shall not.”
But take these premises and make them darker and odder, and remove any sense that there could be consequences that last beyond the narrative, and you’re left with the strange world of Saki.
His longer works have more emotional pull – I defy anybody to read The Unbearable Bassington without crying – but it is good that there is no dilution in these stories. Each is only a handful of pages, and some share certain similarities, but they are individual masterpieces of the macabre (without ever being the least scary). Nobody writes like Saki, and it’s excellent that this reprint has provided an opportunity to spread word of his unique talents. And an introduction from A.A. Milne? The icing on the cake.
Simon is an Editor at Large of Shiny New Books. He blogs at Stuck in a Book.
Saki, The Chronicles of Clovis, (Michael Walmer, 2018) 978-0648023371, 260pp., paperback..
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