In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle pays homage to the master of English comic fiction
Saki’s short stories have everything going for them. For one, they’re short: a few years before Virginia Woolf penned her series of very short sketches about modern life, such as ‘A Haunted House’, ‘The Mark on the Wall’, and ‘Kew Gardens’, Saki – no modernist, but decidedly modern – had reduced the short story form to three pages which contained everything the story needed to contain, with no filler but more wit per page than just about any other English writer, with the possible exception of P. G. Wodehouse (who must have been influenced by Saki). He’s also good on two things which it’s difficult to be good on, as the late Christopher Hitchens observed: children and animals. A number of Saki’s stories touch upon the weird or macabre, while others settle for making us laugh. Many manage both.
Although he is best-known for such anthology favourites as ‘The Lumber Room’, ‘Sredni Vashtar’, and ‘The Open Window’, I would offer up a lesser-known story, ‘Filboid Studge, the Story of a Mouse That Helped’, as one great ‘gateway drug’ into Saki’s wonderful world of wit. The story is a brief piece that might be described as an ‘anti-morality tale’ about the world of advertising, and foresaw the modern craze for muesli and other health cereals which we eat out of duty and for the good of our health rather than because we enjoy the taste. Spayley, a young suitor to a woman, wins the approval of the girl’s father to woo and marry her, and in exchange he takes it upon himself to find a way of making the father’s disgusting cereal brand sell. Marketing the cereal under a new and singularly unappetising name, Filboid Studge, Spayley transforms the fortunes of his would-be father-in-law’s cereal:
Spayley had grasped the fact that people will do things from a sense of duty which they would never attempt as a pleasure. There are thousands of respectable middle-class men who, if you found them unexpectedly in a Turkish bath, would explain in all sincerity that a doctor had ordered them to take Turkish baths; if you told them in return that you went there because you liked it, they would stare in pained wonder at the frivolity of your motive. In the same way, 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.
This taps into a largely unacknowledged truth about marketing, which is that people can be compelled to buy something because they feel they ought to rather than because they particularly want to own it. But what makes ‘Filboid Studge’ a classic example of Saki’s comic genius is the crackling wit of his prose:
No one would have eaten Filboid Studge as a pleasure, but the grim austerity of its advertisement drove housewives in shoals to the grocers’ shops to clamour for an immediate supply. In small kitchens solemn pig-tailed daughters helped depressed mothers to perform the primitive ritual of its preparation. On the breakfast-tables of cheerless parlours it was partaken of in silence. Once the womenfolk discovered that it was thoroughly unpalatable, their zeal in forcing it on their households knew no bounds. ‘You haven’t eaten your Filboid Studge!’ would be screamed at the appetiteless clerk as he turned weariedly from the breakfast-table, and his evening meal would be prefaced by a warmed-up mess which would be explained as ‘your Filboid Studge that you didn’t eat this morning.’
Part of Saki’s talent as a comic writer knows just how far he can take the joke, and here he realises that this central idea – that the more unpalatable a food might be, the more people might be compelled to purchase it out of a sense of duty – is not milked dry yet:
Those strange fanatics who ostentatiously mortify themselves, inwardly and outwardly, with health biscuits and health garments, battened aggressively on the new food. Earnest spectacled young men devoured it on the steps of the National Liberal Club. A bishop who did not believe in a future state preached against the poster, and a peer’s daughter died from eating too much of the compound. A further advertisement was obtained when an infantry regiment mutinied and shot its officers rather than eat the nauseous mess; fortunately, Lord Birrell of Blatherstone, who was War Minister at the moment, saved the situation by his happy epigram, that ‘Discipline to be effective must be optional.’
As well as being a sharp satire on the nature of advertising, ‘Filboid Studge, or the Story of a Mouse That Helped’ is also a sort of modern-day anti-fable, a witty story with no moral – despite the fact that its two central characters are symbolically figured as a ‘mouse’ and a ‘lion’. The world of Saki is decidedly amoral, if not immoral. And this is one of the things that mark him out as modern – and which make him such a joy to read.
You can buy The Collected Short Stories of Saki (Wordsworth Classics) for a couple of quid, and possess most of his best work in one handy volume.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books.