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Hector Hugh Munro

Born December 18, 1870(1870-12-18)
Akyab, Myanmar
Died November 13, 1916 (aged 45)
Beaumont-Hamel, France
Pen name Saki
Occupation Author, Playwright
Nationality  United Kingdom

Hector Hugh Munro (December 18, 1870 – November 13, 1916), better known by the pen name Saki, was a British writer, whose witty and sometimes macabre stories satirised Edwardian society and culture. He is considered a master of the short story and is often compared to O. Henry and Dorothy Parker. His tales feature delicately drawn characters and finely judged narratives. "The Open Window" may be his most famous, with a closing line ("Romance at short notice was her speciality") that has entered the lexicon.

In addition to his short stories (which were first published in newspapers, as was the custom of the time, and then collected into several volumes) he also wrote a full-length play, The Watched Pot, in collaboration with Charles Maude; two one-act plays; a historical study, The Rise of the Russian Empire, the only book published under his own name; a short novel, The Unbearable Bassington; the episodic The Westminster Alice (a Parliamentary parody of Alice in Wonderland), and When William Came, subtitled A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns, a fantasy about a future German invasion of Britain. He was influenced by Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, and Kipling, and himself influenced A. A. Milne, Noël Coward, and P. G. Wodehouse.[1]

Contents

Name

The name Saki is often thought to be a reference to the cupbearer in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, a poem mentioned disparagingly by the eponymous character in "Reginald on Christmas Presents" and alluded to in a few other stories. (This is stated as fact by Emlyn Williams in his 1978 introduction to a Saki anthology) [2] It may, however, be a reference to the South American primate of the same name, "a small, long-tailed monkey from the Western Hemisphere" that is a central character in "The Remoulding of Groby Lington"[3]

Biography

Hector Hugh Munro was born in Akyab, Burma (now known as Sittwe, Myanmar), the son of Charles Augustus Munro and Mary Frances Mercer. His father was an inspector-general for the Burmese police when that country was still part of the British Empire. In 1872 his mother, who had gone home on a visit to England, was charged by a cow; the shock caused her to miscarry. She never recovered and soon died[4]. Charles Munro sent his children, including two-year-old Saki, to England, where they were brought up by their grandmother and aunts in a strict, straitlaced household.

Munro was educated at Pencarwick School in Exmouth and at Bedford Grammar School. When his father retired to England, he travelled on a few occasions with his sister and father, between fashionable European spas and tourist resorts. In 1893 he followed in his father's footsteps by joining the Indian Imperial Police, where he was posted to Burma (as was another acerbic and pseudonymous writer a generation later: George Orwell). Two years later, failing health forced his resignation and return to England, where he started his career as a journalist, writing for newspapers such as the Westminster Gazette, Daily Express, Bystander, Morning Post, and Outlook.

In 1900 Munro's first book appeared: The Rise of the Russian Empire, a historical study modelled upon Edward Gibbon's magnum opus The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

From 1902 to 1908 Munro worked as a foreign correspondent for The Morning Post in the Balkans, Warsaw, Russia (where he witnessed Bloody Sunday), and Paris; he then gave that up and settled in London. Many of the stories from this period feature the elegant and effete Reginald and Clovis, young men-about-town who take heartlessly cruel delight in the discomfort or downfall of their conventional, pretentious elders. In addition to his well-known short stories, Saki also turned his talents for fiction into novels. Shortly before the Great War, with the genre of invasion literature selling well, he published a "what-if" novel, When William Came, subtitled "A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns", imagining the eponymous German emperor conquering Britain.

At the start of World War I, although 43 and officially over age, Munro joined the Royal Fusiliers regiment of the British Army as an ordinary soldier, refusing a commission. More than once he returned to the battlefield when officially still too sick or injured to fight. He was sheltering in a shell crater near Beaumont-Hamel, France in November 1916 when he was killed by a German sniper. His last words, according to several sources, were "Put that bloody cigarette out!"[5] After his death, his sister Ethel destroyed most of his papers and wrote her own account of their childhood.

Munro never married. His biographer A. J. Langguth cites evidence for the hypothesis that Munro was homosexual. At that time in the UK sexual activity between men was a crime, and the Cleveland Street scandal in 1889, followed by the downfall and disgrace of Oscar Wilde (who was convicted in 1895 after cause celebre trials) meant that "that side of [Munro's] life had to be secret"[6].

In recognition of his contribution to literature, a blue plaque has been affixed to a building in which Munro once lived on Mortimer Street in central London.

Short stories

Saki's world contrasts the effete conventions and hypocrisies of Edwardian England with the ruthless but straightforward life-and-death struggles of nature. Nature generally wins in the end.

Saki's work is now in the public domain, and all or most of these stories are on the Internet.

Some of his best-known short stories are listed below.

"The Interlopers"

"The Interlopers" is a story based on two men, Georg Znaeym and Ulrich von Gradwitz, whose families have fought over a forest in the eastern Carpathian Mountains for generations. Ulrich's family legally owns the land, but Georg – feeling it rightfully belongs to him – hunts there anyway. One winter night, Ulrich catches Georg hunting in his forest. The two would never shoot without warning and soil their family’s honour, so they hesitate to acknowledge one another. As an “act of God,” a tree branch suddenly falls on each of them, trapping them both under a log. Gradually, they realize the futility of their quarrel and become friends to end the family feud. They call out for their men’s assistance, and after a brief period, Ulrich makes out ten figures approaching over a hill. The story ends with Ulrich’s realization that the "interlopers" on the hill are actually wolves.

"The Schartz-Metterklume Method"

At a railway station, an arrogant and overbearing woman mistakes the mischievous Lady Carlotta for the governess she expected. Lady Carlotta, deciding not to correct the mistake, presents herself as a proponent of "the Schartz-Metterklume method" of making children understand history by acting it out themselves, and chooses a rather unsuitable historical episode for her first lesson.

"The Toys of Peace"

Rather than giving her young boys gifts of toy soldiers and guns, their mother instructs her brother to give the children "peace toys" as an Easter present. When the packages are opened, young Bertie shouts "It's a fort!" and is disappointed when his uncle replies "It's a municipal dust-bin". The boys are initially baffled as to how to obtain any enjoyment from models of a school of art and a public library, or from little toy figures of John Stuart Mill, poetess Felicia Hemans, and astronomer Sir John Herschel. Youthful inventiveness finds a way, however.

"The Storyteller"

"The Storyteller" is a cynical antidote to crude didacticism. An aunt is traveling by train with her two nieces and a nephew. The children are naughty and mischievous. A bachelor is sitting opposite. The aunt starts telling a moralistic story, but is unable to satisfy the curiosity of the children. The bachelor intervenes and tells a story where the "good" person ends up being unwittingly devoured by a wolf, much to the children's delight.

"The Unrest-Cure"

Saki's recurring hero Clovis Sangrail, a sly young man, overhears the complacent middle-aged Huddle complaining of his own addiction to routine and aversion to change. Huddle's friend makes the wry suggestion of the need for an "unrest-cure" (the opposite of a rest cure) to be performed, if possible, in the home. Clovis takes it upon himself to "help" the man and his sister by involving them in an invented outrage that will be a "blot on the twentieth century".

"Esmé"

In a hunting story with a difference, the Baroness tells Clovis of a hyena she and her friend Constance encountered alone in the countryside, who cannot resist the urge to stop for a snack. The story is a perfect example of Saki's delight in setting societal convention against uncompromising nature.

The wailing accompaniment was explained. The gypsy child was firmly, and I expect painfully, held in his jaws.

The child is shortly devoured.

Constance shuddered. "Do you think the poor little thing suffered much?" came another of her futile questions.
"The indications were all that way,' I said; 'on the other hand, of course, it may have been crying from sheer temper. Children sometimes do."

"The Open Window"

A man with the unlikely name of Framton Nuttel comes to a country village for some peace and rest. He calls upon a lady named Mrs. Sappleton his sister used to know; for a few minutes he is left alone with her niece named Vera, who has quite an active imagination. She tells Framton a story about the tragedy of the lady's husband and two younger brothers, who had gone hunting one day three years earlier and never returned. The bodies were never found, and because of this the window from which they left is always kept open. When indeed they do return that very night, Framton, who has suffered from nerves in the past, runs out of the house, and the niece explains his sudden departure to her relatives with an equally imaginative fiction.

"Sredni Vashtar"

The story of a young, sickly child, Conradin. His cousin and guardian, Mrs. De Ropp, "would never... have confessed to herself that she disliked Conradin, though she might have been dimly aware that thwarting him 'for his good' was a duty which she did not find particularly irksome."

"Tobermory"

At a country house party a visiting professor announces to the guests that he has perfected a procedure to teach animals human speech. He demonstrates this on his host's cat, Tobermory. Soon it is clear that animals are permitted to view many private things on the assumption that they will remain silent...

"The East Wing"

A 're-discovered' short story, previously cited as a play and therefore less well known. A house party with its typical social mix of bumbling Major Boventry, the precious Lucien Wattleskeat, the wordy Canon Clore and a breathless hostess, Mrs Gramplain, is beset by a fire in the middle of the night in the east wing of the house. Begged by their hostess to save "my poor darling Eva – Eva of the golden hair," Lucien demurs on the grounds that he has never even met her. It is only on discovering that Eva is not a flesh and blood daughter, but Mrs Gramplain's painting of the daughter that she wished that she had had and which she has faithfully updated with the passing years, that Lucien declares a willingness to forfeit his life to rescue her, since "death in this case is more beautiful," a sentiment endorsed by the Major. As the two men disappear into the blaze, Mrs Gramplain recollects that she "sent Eva to Exeter to be cleaned." Thus the two men have lost their lives for nothing. (Compare with Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray

Books

  • 1899: "Dogged" (short story, appeared as written by H. H. M. in St. Paul's, February 18)
  • 1900: The Rise of the Russian Empire (history)
  • 1902: "The Woman Who Never Should" (political sketch, in Westminster Gazette, July 22)
  • 1902: The Not So Stories (political sketches, in Westminster Annual)
  • 1902: The Westminster Alice (political sketches, with F. Carruthers Gould)
  • 1904: Reginald (short stories)
  • 1910: Reginald in Russia (short stories)
  • 1911: The Chronicles of Clovis (short stories)
  • 1912: The Unbearable Bassington (novel)
  • 1913: When William Came (novel)
  • 1914: Beasts and Super-Beasts (short stories)
  • 1914: "The East Wing" (short story, in Lucas's Annual]] / [[Methuen's Annual)
  •  ????: "The Lumber-Room"

Posthumous publications:

  • 1919: The Toys of Peace (short stories)
  • 1924: The Square Egg and Other Sketches (short stories)
  • 1924: "The Watched Pot" (play, with Charles Maude)
  • 1926-1927: The Works of Saki (8 vols.)
  • 1930: The Complete Short Stories of Saki
  • 1933: The Complete Novels and Plays of Saki (includes The Westminster Alice)
  • 1934: The Miracle-Merchant (in One-Act Plays for Stage and Study 8)
  • 1950: The Best of Saki (ed. by Graham Greene)
  • 1963: The Bodley Head Saki
  • 1981: Saki (by A.J. Langguth, includes six uncollected stories)
  • 1976: The Complete Saki
  • 1976: Short Stories (ed. by John Letts)
  • 1995: The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope, and Other Stories
  • 2006: A Shot in the Dark (a compilation of 15 uncollected stories)

Television

In 1962, a Granada Television black & white 8-part TV series, produced by Phillip Mackie, dramatised several stories of Saki. Actors included Mark Burns as Clovis, Fenella Fielding as Mary Drakmanton, Richard Vernon as the Major, Rosamund Greenwood as Veronique and Martita Hunt as Lady Bastable. The title of the series was Saki, the Improper Stories of H. H. Munro (a reference to the ending of "The Story Teller").

A dramatisation of "The Schartz-Metterklume Method" was an episode in the series Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1960.

Who Killed Mrs De Ropp?, a 2007 BBC dramatisation starring Ben Daniels and Gemma Jones, showcased three of Saki's short stories, "The Storyteller", "The Lumber Room" and "Sredni Vashtar".

Theatre

  • The Playboy of the Week-End World (1977) by Emlyn Williams, adapts 16 of Saki's stories.
  • Wolves at the Window (2008) by Toby Davies, adapts 12 of Saki's stories

References

Literary criticism and biography

External links


Quotes

Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Women and elephants never forget an injury.

Saki (1870-12-181916-11-14) was the pen name of British author Hector Hugh Munro, whose witty and sometimes macabre stories satirised Edwardian society and culture.

Contents

Sourced

  • We all know that Prime Ministers are wedded to the truth, but like other married couples they sometimes live apart.
    • The Unbearable Bassington, ch. 13 (1912)
  • A little inaccuracy sometimes saves tons of explanation.
    • "The Comments of Moung Ka", The Square Egg (1924)
  • Put that bloody cigarette out!
    • Reported in The Square Egg, p. 102.
    • His last words, before being shot by a German sniper who'd heard the remark.
  • Confront a child, a puppy, and a kitten with a sudden danger; the child will turn instinctively for assistance, the puppy will grovel in abject submission to the impending visitation, the kitten will brace its tiny body for a frantic resistance.
    • The Achievement of the Cat

Reginald (1904)

  • Reginald in his wildest lapses into veracity never admits to being more than twenty-two.
    • "Reginald"
  • I found everyone talking nervously and feverishly of the weather and the war in South Africa, except Reginald, who was reclining in a comfortable chair with the dreamy, far-away look that a volcano might wear just after it had desolated entire villages.
    • "Reginald"
  • It is an admitted fact that the ordinary tomtit of commerce has a sounder aesthetic taste than the average female relative in the country.
    • "Reginald on Christmas Presents"
  • I am not collecting copies of the cheaper editions of Omar Khayyám. I gave the last four that I received to the lift-boy, and I like to think of him reading them, with FitzGerald's notes, to his aged mother. Lift-boys always have aged mothers; shows such nice feeling on their part, I think.
    • "Reginald on Christmas Presents"
  • To die before being painted by Sargent is to go to Heaven prematurely.
    • "Reginald on the Academy"
  • You can't expect the fatted calf to share the enthusiasm of the angels over the prodigal's return.
    • "Reginald on the Academy"
  • "To have reached thirty," said Reginald, "is to have failed in life."
    • "Reginald on the Academy"
  • The fashion just now is a Roman Catholic frame of mind with an Agnostic conscience: you get the mediaeval picturesqueness of the one with the modern conveniences of the other.
    • "Reginald at he Theatre"
  • "Which reminds me of the man I read of in some sacred book who was given a choice of what he most desired. And because he didn't ask for titles and honours and dignities, but only for immense wealth, these other things came to him also."
    "I am sure you didn't read about him in any sacred book."
    "Yes; I fancy you will find him in Debrett."
    • "Reginald at the Theatre"
  • Mother, may I go and maffick,
    Tear around and hinder traffic?
    • "Reginald's Peace Poem"
  • And the sleeper, eye unlidding,
    Heard a voice for ever bidding
    Much farewell to Dolly Gray;
    Turning weary on his truckle-
    Bed he heard the honey-suckle
    Lauded in apiarian lay.
    • "Reginald's Peace Poem"
  • Reginald, in his way, was a pioneer.
    None of the rest of his family had anything approaching Titian hair or a sense of humour, and they used primroses as a table decoration.
    It follows that they never understood Reginald, who came down late to breakfast, and nibbled toast, and said disrespectful things about the universe. The family ate porridge, and believed in everything, even the weather forecast.
    • "Reginald's Choir Treat"
  • And like every woman who has ever preached repentance to unregenerate youth, she dwelt on the sin of an empty life, which always seems so much more scandalous in the country, where people rise early to see if a new strawberry has happened during the night.
    • "Reginald's Choir Treat"
  • I always say beauty is only sin deep.
    • "Reginald's Choir Treat"
  • I think she must have been very strictly brought up, she's so desperately anxious to do the wrong thing correctly.
    • "Reginald on Worries"
  • And they tried to rag me in the smoking room about not being able to hit a bird at five yards, a sort of bovine ragging that suggested cows buzzing round a gadfly and thinking they were teasing it. So I got up the next morning at early dawn – I know it was dawn, because there were lark-noises in the sky, and the grass looked as if it had been left out all night.
    • "Reginald on House-Parties"
  • Think how many blameless lives are brightened by the blazing indiscretions of other people.
    • "Reginald at the Carlton"
  • The revenge of an elder sister may be long in coming, but, like a South-Eastern express, it arrives in its own good time.
    • "Reginald on Besetting Sins"
  • Children are given us to discourage our better emotions.
    • "Reginald on Besetting Sins"
  • Madame was not best pleased at being contradicted on a professional matter, and when Madame lost her temper you usually found it afterwards in the bill.
    • "Reginald on Besetting Sins"
  • The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go she went.
    • "Reginald on Besetting Sins"
  • Women and elephants never forget an injury.
    • "Reginald on Besetting Sins"
  • Reginald closed his eyes with the elaborate weariness of one who has rather nice eyelashes and thinks it useless to conceal the fact.
    • "Reginald's Drama"
  • It occurred to me that I would like to be a poet. The chief qualification, I understand is that you must be born. Well, I hunted up my birth certificate, and found that I was all right on that score.
    • "Reginald's Rubaiyat"
  • People talk vaguely about the innocence of a little child, but they take mighty good care not to let it out of their sight for twenty minutes.
    • "The Innocence of Reginald"
  • I might have been a goldfish in a glass bowl for all the privacy I got.
    • "The Innocence of Reginald"

Reginald in Russia (1910)

  • Reginald sat in a corner of the Princess's salon and tried to forgive the furniture, which started out with an obvious intention of being Louis Quinze, but relapsed at frequent intervals into Wilhelm II.
    • "Reginald in Russia"
  • Temptations came to him, in middle age, tentatively and without insistence, like a neglected butcher-boy who asks for a Christmas box in February for no more hopeful reason than that he didn't get one in December.
    • "The Reticence of Lady Anne"
  • The Western custom of one wife and hardly any mistress.
    • "A Young Turkish Catastrophe"
  • Addresses are given to us to conceal our whereabouts.
    • "Cross Currents"

The Chronicles of Clovis (1911)

  • Poverty keeps together more homes than it breaks up.
  • You needn't tell me that a man who doesn't love oysters and asparagus and good wines has got a soul, or a stomach either. He's simply got the instinct for being unhappy highly developed.
  • "I think oysters are more beautiful than any religion," [Clovis] resumed presently. "They not only forgive our unkindness to them; they justify it, they incite us to go on being perfectly horrid to them. Once they arrive at the supper-table they seem to enter thoroughly into the spirit of the thing. There's nothing in Christianity or Buddhism that quite matches the sympathetic unselfishness of an oyster.
    • "The Match-Maker"
  • All decent people live beyond their incomes nowadays, and those who aren't respectable live beyond other people's. A few gifted individuals manage to do both.
    • "The Match Maker"
  • Eleanor hated boys, and she would have liked to have whipped this one long and often. It was perhaps the yearning of a woman who had no children of her own.
  • The people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.
    • "The Jesting of Arlington Stringham"
  • Sredni Vashtar went forth,
    His thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth were white.
    His enemies called for peace, but he brought them death.
    Sredni Vashtar the Beautiful.
  • I love Americans, but not when they try to talk French. What a blessing it is that they never try to talk English.
  • By insisting on having your bottle pointing to the north when the cork is being drawn, and calling the waiter Max, you may induce an impression on your guests which hours of laboured boasting might be powerless to achieve. For this purpose, however, the guests must be chosen as carefully as the wine.
  • Whenever a massacre of Armenians is reported from Asia Minor, every one assumes that it has been carried out "under orders" from somewhere or another; no one seems to think that there are people who might like to kill their neighbours now and then.
  • His socks compelled one's attention without losing one's respect.
    • "Ministers of Grace"
  • I came here to get freedom from the inane interruptions of the mentally deficient, but it seems I asked too much of fate.

Beasts and Super-Beasts (1914)

  • A beautifully constructed borsch, such as you are going to experience presently, ought not only to banish conversation but almost to annihilate thought.
    • "The Blind Spot"
  • Sophie Chattel-Monkheim was a Socialist by conviction and a Chattel-Monkheim by marriage.
    • "The Byzantine Omelette"
  • Waldo is one of those people who would be enormously improved by death.
    • "The Feast of Nemesis"
  • Cyprian was a boy who carried with him through early life the wondering look of a dreamer, the eyes of one who sees things that are not visible to ordinary mortals, and invests the commonplace things of this world with qualities unsuspected by plainer folk – the eyes of a poet or a house agent.
    • "The Dreamer"
  • The sacrifices of friendship were beautiful in her eyes as long as she was not asked to make them.
    • "Fur"
  • To be among people who are smothered in furs when one hasn't any oneself makes one want to break most of the Commandments.
    • "Fur"

Unsourced

  • A little inaccuracy sometimes saves a ton of explanation
  • The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and, as cooks go, she went.

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