Reading Saki made me feel like a palaeontologist uncovering some critical part of the fossil record. Here it is! The missing link between Kipling and Wodehouse, in that very dry, deadpan and distinctly English
tradition of narrative wit. It's a humour that comes not from comical misunderstandings or elaborate set-pieces, but rather that inheres purely in the absolute precision of the descriptions, the deadly irony of conversational rejoinders. A wife giving her husband the silent treatment, for instance, gets described like this:
As a rule Lady Anne's displeasure became articulate and markedly voluble after four minutes of introductory muteness.
At other times the bons mots
are given to characters from among Saki's cast of Edwardian caricatures.
‘Thank you for your sympathy all the same. I daresay it was well meant. Impertinence often is.’
Or again, to more obviously Wildean effect:
‘When one is sixteen,’ said Mrs. Bebberly Cumble severely, ‘one talks of things being impossible which are merely uncongenial.’
Sometimes too there are admirable flourishes of simile, as when someone consults a restaurant wine list ‘with the blank embarrassment of a schoolboy suddenly called on to locate a Minor Prophet in the tangled hinterland of the Old Testament’.
These stories were published in the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, and Saki's heroes are young, rich, bored, brilliant men, who lounge in Edwardian drawing-rooms, mixing with baronesses and Gräfinnen, and making it a point of honour never to get emotionally invested in anything. They would be distinctly unlikeable if they weren't so funny.
What I was not expecting, though, was that alongside the drawing-room wit runs a parallel theme of almost Gothic unease related to the wildness at large outside civilised society. ‘Gabriel-Ernest’, for instance, is a creepy early werewolf story; in ‘Sredni Vashtar’, a 10-year-old boy invents a new religion devoted to a wild polecat; while ‘The Music on the Hill’ imagines the Greek god Pan roaming through the forests around an English country estate, and in the process endows these comfortable places with fantastic menace. This is the necessary counterpart to the witty banter, the other side of the coin – the strand of English paganism that crops up in so many writers. Other tales again range beyond England – dark parables about hunted men and night in the Carpathians.
Saki can be very macabre, very unsettling – an effect that his humour only accentuates. He reminds me of Pinter's famous phrase about ‘the weasel under the cocktail cabinet’. These are brilliant sketches of people swapping witty remarks in sparkling dining rooms: but outside the windows, the night is very dark, and when the laughter dies down you can hear noises coming from the woods….