I am not alone in my admiration for Saki. No less than A. A. Milne had this to say:
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."
~A. A. MILNE.
As a way of introduction to Saki, let me introduce you to one of his star characters:
I did it — I who should have known better.
I persuaded Reginald to go to the McKillops’ garden-party against his will.
We all make mistakes occasionally.
“They know you’re here, and they’ll think it so funny if you don’t go. And I want particularly to be in with Mrs. McKillop just now.”
“I know, you want one of her smoke Persian kittens as a prospective wife for Wumples—or a husband, is it?” (Reginald has a magnificent scorn for details, other than sartorial.) “And I am expected to undergo social martyrdom to suit the connubial exigencies”—
“Reginald! It’s nothing of the kind, only I’m sure Mrs. McKillop Would be pleased if I brought you. Young men of your brilliant attractions are rather at a premium at her garden-parties.”
“Should be at a premium in heaven,” remarked Reginald complacently.
“There will be very few of you there, if that is what you mean. But seriously, there won’t be any great strain upon your powers of endurance; I promise you that you shan’t have to play croquet, or talk to the Archdeacon’s wife, or do anything that is likely to bring on physical prostration. You can just wear your sweetest clothes and moderately amiable expression, and eat chocolate-creams with the appetite of a blasé parrot. Nothing more is demanded of you.”
Reginald shut his eyes. “There will be the exhaustingly up-to-date young women who will ask me if I have seen San Toy; a less progressive grade who will yearn to hear about the Diamond Jubilee—the historic event, not the horse. With a little encouragement, they will inquire if I saw the Allies march into Paris. Why are women so fond of raking up the past? They’re as bad as tailors, who invariably remember what you owe them for a suit long after you’ve ceased to wear it.”
“I’ll order lunch for one o’clock; that will give you two and a half hours to dress in.”
Reginald puckered his brow into a tortured frown, and I knew that my point was gained. He was debating what tie would go with which waistcoat.
Even then I had my misgivings.
* * * * *
During the drive to the McKillops’ Reginald was possessed with a great peace, which was not wholly to be accounted for by the fact that he had inveigled his feet into shoes a size too small for them. I misgave more than ever, and having once launched Reginald on to the McKillops’ lawn, I established him near a seductive dish of marrons glacés, and as far from the Archdeacon’s wife as possible; as I drifted away to a diplomatic distance I heard with painful distinctness the eldest Mawkby girl asking him if he had seen San Toy.
It must have been ten minutes later, not more, and I had been having quite an enjoyable chat with my hostess, and had promised to lend her The Eternal City and my recipe for rabbit mayonnaise, and was just about to offer a kind home for her third Persian kitten, when I perceived, out of the corner of my eye, that Reginald was not where I had left him, and that the marrons glacés were untasted. At the same moment I became aware that old Colonel Mendoza was essaying to tell his classic story of how he introduced golf into India, and that Reginald was in dangerous proximity. There are occasions when Reginald is caviare to the Colonel.
“When I was at Poona in ’76”—
“My dear Colonel,” purred Reginald, “fancy admitting such a thing! Such a give-away for one’s age! I wouldn’t admit being on this planet in ’76.” (Reginald in his wildest lapses into veracity never admits to being more than twenty-two.)
The Colonel went to the colour of a fig that has attained great ripeness, and Reginald, ignoring my efforts to intercept him, glided away to another part of the lawn. I found him a few minutes later happily engaged in teaching the youngest Rampage boy the approved theory of mixing absinthe, within full earshot of his mother. Mrs. Rampage occupies a prominent place in local Temperance movements.
As soon as I had broken up this unpromising tête-à-tête and settled Reginald where he could watch the croquet players losing their tempers, I wandered off to find my hostess and renew the kitten negotiations at the point where they had been interrupted. I did not succeed in running her down at once, and eventually it was Mrs. McKillop who sought me out, and her conversation was not of kittens.
“Your cousin is discussing Zaza with the Archdeacon’s wife; at least, he is discussing, she is ordering her carriage.”
She spoke in the dry, staccato tone of one who repeats a French exercise, and I knew that as far as Millie McKillop was concerned, Wumples was devoted to a lifelong celibacy.
“If you don’t mind,” I said hurriedly, “I think we’d like our carriage ordered too,” and I made a forced march in the direction of the croquet-ground.
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. The Archdeacon’s wife was buttoning up her gloves with a concentrated deliberation that was fearful to behold. I shall have to treble my subscription to her Cheerful Sunday Evenings Fund before I dare set foot in her house again.
At that particular moment the croquet players finished their game, which had been going on without a symptom of finality during the whole afternoon. Why, I ask, should it have stopped precisely when a counter-attraction was so necessary? Everyone seemed to drift towards the area of disturbance, of which the chairs of the Archdeacon’s wife and Reginald formed the storm-centre. Conversation flagged, and there settled upon the company that expectant hush that precedes the dawn—when your neighbours don’t happen to keep poultry.
“What did the Caspian Sea?” asked Reginald, with appalling suddenness.
There were symptoms of a stampede. The Archdeacon’s wife looked at me. Kipling or someone has described somewhere the look a foundered camel gives when the caravan moves on and leaves it to its fate. The peptonised reproach in the good lady’s eyes brought the passage vividly to my mind.
I played my last card.
“Reginald, it’s getting late, and a sea-mist is coming on.” I knew that the elaborate curl over his right eyebrow was not guaranteed to survive a sea-mist.
* * * * *
“Never, never again, will I take you to a garden-party. Never . . . You behaved abominably . . . What did the Caspian see?”
A shade of genuine regret for misused opportunities passed over Reginald’s face.
“After all,” he said, “I believe an apricot tie would have gone better with the lilac waistcoat.”