There are good things which we want to share with the world and good things which we want to keep to ourselves. The secret of our favourite restaurant, to take a case, is guarded jealously from all but a few intimates; the secret, to take a contrary case, of our infallible remedy for seasickness is thrust upon every traveller we meet, even if he be no more than a casual acquaintance about to cross the Serpentine. So with our books. There are dearly loved books of which we babble to a neighbour at dinner, insisting that she shall share our delight in them; and there are books, equally dear to us, of which we say nothing, fearing lest the praise of others should cheapen the glory of our discovery. The books of “Saki” were, for me at least, in the second class.
It was in the WESTMINSTER GAZETTE that I discovered him (I like to remember now) almost as soon as he was discoverable. Let us spare a moment, and a tear, for those golden days in the early nineteen hundreds, when there were five leisurely papers of an evening in which the free-lance might graduate, and he could speak of his Alma Mater, whether the GLOBE or the PALL MALL, with as much pride as, he never doubted, the GLOBE or the PALL MALL would speak one day of him. Myself but lately down from ST. JAMES’, I was not too proud to take some slight but pitying interest in men of other colleges. The unusual name of a freshman up at WESTMINSTER attracted my attention; I read what he had to say; and it was only by reciting rapidly with closed eyes the names of our own famous alumni, beginning confidently with Barrie and ending, now very doubtfully, with myself, that I was able to preserve my equanimity. Later one heard that this undergraduate from overseas had gone up at an age more advanced than customary; and just as Cambridge men have been known to complain of the maturity of Oxford Rhodes scholars, so one felt that this WESTMINSTER free-lance in the thirties was no fit competitor for the youth of other colleges. Indeed, it could not compete.
Well, I discovered him, but only to the few, the favoured, did I speak of him. It may have been my uncertainty (which still persists) whether he called himself Sayki, Sahki or Sakki which made me thus ungenerous of his name, or it may have been the feeling that the others were not worthy of him; but how refreshing it was when some intellectually blown-up stranger said “Do you ever read Saki?” to reply, with the same pronunciation and even greater condescension: “Saki! He has been my favourite author for years!”
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 werwolves 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 seventeen, 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.
What is Saki’s manner, what his magic talisman? Like every artist worth consideration, he had no recipe. If his exotic choice of subject was often his strength, it was often his weakness; if his insensitiveness carried him through, at times, to victory, it brought him, at times, to defeat. I do not think that he has that “mastery of the CONTE”— in this book at least — which some have claimed for him. Such mastery infers a passion for tidiness which was not in the boyish Saki’s equipment. He leaves loose ends everywhere. Nor in his dialogue, delightful as it often is, funny as it nearly always is, is he the supreme master; too much does it become monologue judiciously fed, one character giving and the other taking. But in comment, in reference, in description, in every development of his story, he has a choice of words, a “way of putting things” which is as inevitably his own vintage as, once tasted, it becomes the private vintage of the connoisseur.
Let us take a sample or two of “Saki, 1911.”
“The earlier stages of the dinner had worn off. The wine lists had been consulted, by some with the blank embarrassment of a schoolboy suddenly called upon to locate a Minor Prophet in the tangled hinterland of the Old Testament, by others with the severe scrutiny which suggests that they have visited most of the higher-priced wines in their own homes and probed their family weaknesses.”
“Locate” is the pleasant word here. Still more satisfying, in the story of the man who was tattooed “from collar-bone to waist-line with a glowing representation of the Fall of Icarus,” is the word “privilege”:
“The design when finally developed was a slight disappointment to Monsieur Deplis, who had suspected Icarus of being a fortress taken by Wallenstein in the Thirty Years’ War, but he was more than satisfied with the execution of the work, which was acclaimed by all who had the privilege of seeing it as Pincini’s masterpiece.”
This story, THE BACKGROUND, and MRS PACKLETIDE’S TIGER seem to me to be the masterpieces of this book. In both of them Clovis exercises, needlessly, his titular right of entry, but he can be removed without damage, leaving Saki at his best and most characteristic, save that he shows here, in addition to his own shining qualities, a compactness and a finish which he did not always achieve. With these I introduce you to him, confident that ten minutes of his conversation, more surely than any words of mine, will have given him the freedom of your house.
A. A. Milne.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:54