Literature as a cure: Why is it worth to take a closer look at British authors?
It was on my own shelf where I happened to find two collections of short stories by Saki. My private investigation revealed that, in the course of some household chores, they had been placed there by a family member who’d bought them years before in a Dutch bookstore.
Not inquiring any further, I got down to reading and remained glued to the volumes for several hours on end. Only after reaching the back covers of both did I start pondering over the very figure of the author, whose exotic pen name brought to my mind nothing but Japanese associations. Brilliance, wit, and a substantial dose of contrariness in almost each of the stories let me think of a biography full of refined adventures. And yet, Hector Hugh Munro led a life which might seem somewhat typical of the men of his times and class.
Born in Burma in 1870, the son of British parents, as a 2-year old, after his mother’s tragic death, he was sent to be raised by his autocratic aunts. After 1-year experience of service in the colonial Burmese Military Police (in his twenties), he went back to England embarking on a journalist’s career. He also worked as a foreign correspondent in the Balkans, Russia, Warsaw, and Paris; and when the first World War broke out, he enlisted in the 22nd Battalion Royal Fusiliers, being already 44 (formally too old for the service). He was unlucky to be shot in trenches two years after.
As to his literary career, Saki published a historical treatise on the beginning of the Russian Empire, a novel on what Britain would be like under the Hohenzollerns’ rule, and a series of political sketches. But, it is his short stories that brought him most recognition. They are commonly described as witty, mischievous, and elegant. Putting aside all these much approving terms, to me, Saki’s stories are just something of a discovery. I’ve found there echoes of Wildian eloquence and Poe’s gloomy weirdness; but what’s more important, on reading them, I experienced (and I still do) quiet satisfaction turning into a sort of relief.
It didn’t take me long to realize that the cause of my well being lay in … therapeutic properties of Saki’s stories.
And, I think the reasons why other readers of Saki’s stories should also feel at least a bit better are three. First and foremost, Saki’s stories are simply amusing. Their comicality manifests itself both in the sphere of formal linguistic solutions and in the very vicissitudes of the plot. Many of the stories, being set in aristocratic circles, have as main protagonists Reginald and Clovis – young men who, despite their affiliation to the very flower of society, rarely can keep from ridiculing social conventions or poking fun at their fellow mates. It is in the mouth of these two dandies where Saki often puts clever and seemingly innocent remarks unmasking bourgeois hypocrisy
– like the one voiced by Clovis in response to his aunt’s bitter complaint:
– To think that a scandal of this sort should be going on under my roof!
– I wonder why it is that scandal seems so much worse under a roof.
(The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope)
Saki, however, does not focus exclusively on upper class’s shortcomings. He never loses sight of faults which are typical of a number of humans and, as such, might require a pinch of comprehension. Funny euphemism for stealing – He had all the energy of a great collector without any of collector’s fine judgment (“The Seven Cream Jugs”) – or for being tight-fisted – Louisa Mebbin had a protective attitude towards money (“Mrs Packletide’s Tiger”) – are just two of many examples of the writer’s discreet forbearance. In Saki’s stories, we will also find some elegant paradoxes, reflecting over which may be a really entertaining experience. Let’s take this one: If your private life is cautious and highly respectable, you don’t necessarily want everyone to know it (“Tobermory”). But, it’s not about rhetorical figures. It’s about Saki’s lightness of style and distance which pervade almost each his story and which are likely to make a sort of compensation for the lack of happy ends.
And here, we’re moving on to another “therapeutic” feature which I could call “literary desensitization.” Confronting his readers with fortuity of events, Saki somehow lets them get accustomed to the crudeness of life. His stories have little in common with candy-coated tales offering consoling morals. On the contrary, they show life as it is, with all its randomness and irony of fate, where bad doings get sometimes punished and good doings get punished equally often.
Capricious lot doesn’t spare Tobermory, the cat, who after having been taught to speak the human language, voices a number of painfully truthful remarks about the guests invited by his mistress. Before Lady Blemley is in time to prevent Tobermory from the further breaking of social conventions by making away with him, the poor creature gets killed in the fight with another cat.
Not luckier is Martin Stoner, a broke outcast, who not knowing where to go, by mere chance, happens to find a comfortable shelter in a manor house. It is just when he starts to hope for the better when he’s taken for another man and shot. Fate is not to be escaped also in the case of two quarreling landowners who, when they finally decide to bury the hatchet, get crushed by a falling tree and torn to pieces by wolves.
In general, it is not rare that in Saki’s stories, the crudeness of life is represented by the world of nature or, more precisely, of animals. Some of Saki’s biographers relate this fact to the experience of his mother’s tragic death – she was charged by a cow. However, even more than in the world of nature, Saki is interested in social relationships. Faults most often displayed (“displayed” is much better a word than, e.g., “criticized” as there’s not a shade of didacticism in the stories, just sheer, humorous description of events and relations) are hypocrisy, Philistine littlemindedness, dishonesty, and simple, disinterested interhuman antipathy – an excellent example of which may be Mrs Packletide’s feeling: In a world that is supposed to be moved by hunger and by love, Mrs Packetide was an exception: her movements and motives were largely determined by dislike of Loona Bimberton (“Mrs Packetide’s Tiger”).
Saki, exposing his readers either to the unpredictability of existence or to the bitterness of social relations and doing so in a possibly light manner, resembles a psychotherapist who desensitizes his patients making them experience their terrible memories and phobias as they lie comfortably on his coach.
As much as the second therapeutic feature is about confronting the readers with the dark side of life, the third one is related to giving them vent for their suppressed feelings and thoughts.
It’s true that Saki seldom grants happy ends. He often makes a reader sympathize with the miserable protagonists of his stories, just to thrust him/her into a state of anxiety or disillusionment when the protagonists fall victim of deception, cruelty, or irony of fate. It does not mean, however, that vile characters get always unpunished. Selfish girls, professors parading their social position, vain upper-class ladies – they all are forced to pay dearly for their meanness. This way, Saki lets his readers enjoy the sense of justice, not to say sweet revenge, creating an alibi for a less merciful side of their nature.
Other times, he draws the readers into a sort of complicity, making them almost want to exclaim: “How well you put it! How much I agree with you!”. Many times in our lives, we daren’t say things we believe true for fear of offending other people or being ill thought of. In Saki’s stories, reflections over life, social relations, or simply comments about individuals are pronounced in such a straightforward and unforced way that it all comes as liberation, as a kind of safe acting out of one’s suppressed and never uttered thoughts. In this context, Saki appears as a spokesman for those less courageous and “emancipated.”
Interestingly enough, Saki’s stories prove equally “effective” when presented to children. Once, during an English lesson, I gave my young learners an abridged version of a few of Saki’s stories. The one which they took most fancy to was about little Bertha, a “horribly” good girl who was awarded three medals – one for never being late, one for being polite, and one for being the best child in the world. She wore them all three, and they clinked as she walked. One day, she was even invited by the king of the country to come to his royal garden. And, just when she was having a nice walk, she happened to come across a big, hungry wolf. Bertha hid herself in the bushes; but as her heart was beating very fast, her medals started clinking heavily. This way, the wolf hadn’t the least difficulty finding and eating her, leaving the medals which were uneatable.
Pursuing perfection does not always pay off, it seems. And, what’s more, it may generate quite serious side-effects.
At any rate, if still there are readers not entirely convinced about the therapeutic aspect of Saki’s stories, as recommendation, let me refer to the words I’ve once read in some book, not being aware of their meaning at that time. It went more or less like this: The best expression of your friendship is to give your friend a collection of stories by Saki.
The Sheep by Saki
The enemy had declared “no trumps.” Rupert played out his ace and king of clubs and cleared the adversary of that suit; then the Sheep, whom the Fates had inflicted on him for a partner, took the third round with the queen of clubs, and, having no other club to lead back, opened another suit. The enemy won the remainder of the tricks – and the rubber.
“I had four more clubs to play; we only wanted the odd trick to win the rubber,” said Rupert.
“But I hadn’t another club to lead you,” exclaimed the Sheep, with his ready, defensive smile.
“It didn’t occur to you to throw your queen away on my king and leave me with the command of the suit,” said Rupert, with polite bitterness.
“I suppose I ought to have – I wasn’t certain what to do. I’m awfully sorry,” said the Sheep.
Being awfully and uselessly sorry formed a large part of his occupation in life. If a similar situation had arisen in a subsequent hand he would have blundered just as certainly, and he would have been just as irritatingly apologetic.
Rupert stared gloomily across at him as he sat smiling and fumbling with his cards. Many men who have good brains for business do not possess the rudiments of a card-brain, and Rupert would not have judged and condemned his prospective brother-in-law on the evidence of his bridge play alone. The tragic part of it was that he smiled and fumbled through life just as fatuously and apologetically as he did at the card-table. And behind the defensive smile and the well- worn expressions of regret there shone a scarcely believable but quite obvious self-satisfaction. Every sheep of the pasture probably imagines that in an emergency it could become terrible as an army with banners–one has only to watch how they stamp their feet and stiffen their necks when a minor object of suspicion comes into view and behaves meekly. And probably the majority of human sheep see themselves in imagination taking great parts in the world’s more impressive dramas, forming swift, unerring decisions in moments of crisis, cowing mutinies, allaying panics, brave, strong, simple, but, in spite of their natural modesty, always slightly spectacular.
“Why in the name of all that is unnecessary and perverse should Kathleen choose this man for her future husband?” was the question that Rupert asked himself ruefully. There was young Malcolm Athling, as nice-looking, decent, level-headed a fellow as any one could wish to meet, obviously her very devoted admirer, and yet she must throw herself away on this pale-eyed, weak-mouthed embodiment of self-approving ineptitude. If it had been merely Kathleen’s own affair Rupert would have shrugged his shoulders and philosophically hoped that she might make the best of an undeniably bad bargain. But Rupert had no heir; his own boy lay underground somewhere on the Indian frontier, in goodly company. And the property would pass in due curse to Kathleen and Kathleen’s husband. The Sheep would live there in the beloved old home, rearing up other little Sheep, fatuous and rabbitfaced and self-satisfied like himself, to dwell in the land and possess it. It was not a soothing prospect. Towards dusk on the afternoon following the bridge experience Rupert and the Sheep made their way homeward after a day’s mixed shooting. The Sheep’s cartridge bag was nearly empty, but his game bag showed no signs of over-crowding. The birds he had shot at had seemed for the most part as impervious to death or damage as the hero of a melodrama. And for each failure to drop his bird he had some explanation or apology ready on his lips. Now he was striding along in front of his host, chattering happily over his shoulder, but obviously on the look-out for some belated rabbit or woodpigeon that might haply be secured as an eleventh-hour addition to his bag. As they passed the edge of a small copse a large bird rose from the ground and flew slowly towards the trees, offering an easy shot to the oncoming sportsmen. The Sheep banged forth with both barrels, and gave an exultant cry. “Horray! I’ve shot a thundering big hawk!”
“To be exact, you’ve shot a honey-buzzard. That is the hen bird of one of the few pairs of honeybuzzards breeding in the United Kingdom. We’ve kept them under the strictest preservation for the last four years; every game-keeper and village gun loafer for twenty miles round has been warned and bribed and threatened to respect their sanctity, and egg-snatching agents have been carefully guarded against during the breeding season. Hundreds of lovers of rare birds have delighted in seeing their snap-shotted portraits in Country Life, and now you’ve reduced the hen bird to a lump of broken feathers.”
Rupert spoke quietly and evenly, but for a moment or two a gleam of positive hatred shone in his eyes.
“I say, I’m so sorry,” said the Sheep, with his apologetic smile. “Of course I remember hearing about the buzzards, but somehow I didn’t connect this bird with them. And it was such an east shot.” “Yes,” said Rupert; “that was the trouble.”
Kathleen found him in the gun-room smoothing out the feathers of the dead bird. She had already been told of the catastrophe.
“What a horrid misfortune,” she said sympathetically.
“It was my dear Robbie who first discovered them, the last time he was home on leave. Don’t you remember how excited he was about them? Let’s go and have some tea.”
Both bridge and shooting were given a rest for the next two or three weeks. Death, who enters into no compacts with party whips, had forced a Parliamentary vacancy on the neighbourhood at the least convenient season, and the local partisans on either side found themselves immersed in the discomforts of a mid-winter election. Rupert took his politics seriously and keenly. He belonged to that type of strangely but rather happily constituted individuals which these islands seem to produce in a fair plenty; men and women who for no personal profit or gain go forth from their comfortable firesides or club card-rooms to hunt to and fro in the mud and rain and wind for the capture or tracking of a stray vote here and there on their party’s behalf–not because they think they ought to, but because they want to. And his energies were welcome enough on this occasion, for the seat was a closely disputed possession, and its loss or retention would count for much in the present position of the Parliamentary game. With Kathleen to help him, he had worked his corner of the constituency with tireless, well-directed zeal, taking his share of the dull routine work as well as of the livelier episodes. The talking part of the campaign wound up on the eve of the poll with a meeting in a centre where more undecided votes were supposed to be concentrated than anywhere else in the division. A good final meeting here would mean everything. And the speakers, local and imported, left nothing undone to improve the occasion. Rupert was down for the unimportant task of moving the complimentary vote to the chairman which should close the proceedings.
“I’m so hoarse,” he protested, when the moment arrived; “I don’t believe I can make my voice heard beyond the platform.”
“Let me do it,” said the Sheep; “I’m rather good at that sort of thing.”
The chairman was popular with all parties, and the Sheep’s opening words of complimentary recognition received a round of applause. The orator smiled expansively on his listeners and seized the opportunity to add a few words of political wisdom on his own account. People looked at the clock or began to grope for umbrellas and discarded neckwraps. Then, in the midst of a string of meaningless platitudes, the Sheep delivered himself of one of those blundering remarks which travel from one end of a constituency to the other in half an hour, and are seized on by the other side as being more potent on their behalf than a ton of election literature. There was a general shuffling and muttering across the length and breadth of the hall, and a few hisses made themselves heard. The Sheep tried to whittle down his remark, and the chairman unhesitatingly threw him over in his speech of thanks, but the damage was done.
“I’m afraid I lost touch with the audience rather over that remark,” said the Sheep afterwards, with his apologetic smile abnormally developed.
“You lost us the election,” said the chairman, and he proved a true prophet.
A month or so of winter sport seemed a desirable pick-me-up after the strenuous work and crowning discomfiture of the election. Rupert and Kathleen hied them away to a small Alpine resort that was just coming into prominence, and thither the Sheep followed them in due course, in his role of husband-elect. The wedding had been fixed for the end of March.
It was a winter of early and unseasonable thaws, and the far end of the local lake, at a spot where swift currents flowed into it, was decorated with notices, written in three languages, warning skaters not to venture over certain unsafe patches. The folly of approaching too near these danger spots seemed to have a natural fascination for the Sheep.
“I don’t see what possible danger there can be,” he protested, with his inevitable smile, when Rupert beckoned him away from the proscribed area; “the milk that I put out on my window-sill last night was frozen an inch deep.”
“It hadn’t got a strong current flowing through it,” said Rupert; “in any case, there is not much sense in hovering round a doubtful piece of ice when there are acres of good ice to skate over. The secretary of the ice-committee has warned you once already.”
A few minutes later Rupert heard a loud squeal of fear, and saw a dark spot blotting the smoothness of the lake’s frozen surface. The Sheep was struggling helplessly in an ice-hole of his own making. Rupert gave one loud curse, and then dashed full tilt for the shore; outside a low stable building on the lake’s edge he remembered having seen a ladder. If he could slide it across the ice-hole before the Sheep went under the rescue would be comparatively simple work. Other skaters were dashing up from a distance, and, with the ladder’s help, they could get him out of his death-trap without having to trust themselves on the margin of rotten ice. Rupert sprang on to the surface of lumpy, frozen snow, and staggered to where the ladder lay. He had already lifted it when the rattle of a chain and a furious outburst of growls burst on his hearing, and he was dashed to the ground by a mass of white and tawny fur. A sturdy young yard-dog, frantic with the pleasure of performing his first piece of actice guardian service, was ramping and snarling over him, rendering the task of regaining his feet or securing the ladder a matter of considerable difficulty. When he had at last succeeded in both efforts he was just by a hair’s-breadth too late to be of any use. The Sheep had definitely disappeared under the ice-rift.
Kathleen Athling and her husband stay the greater part of the year with Rupert, and a small Robbie stands in some danger of being idolised by a devoted uncle. But for twelve months of the year Rupert’s most inseparable and valued companion is a sturdy tawny and white yard-dog.
[H.H. Munro] Saki’s short story: The Sheep