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. Read the rest of this entry
A reading of H. H. Munro’s miniature masterpiece
‘The Open Window’ is one of Saki’s shortest stories, and that’s saying something. Few of his perfectly crafted and deliciously written tales exceed four or five pages in length, but ‘The Open Window’, at barely three pages, outstrips even ‘The Lumber-Room’ or ‘Tobermory’ for verbal economy. It is so brief it has almost the air of a parable about it, except that it’s far from clear what the ‘moral’ of the story is, or even if there is one. Saki uses language so deftly and to such effect, that it is worth unpicking and analysing ‘The Open Window’ (which can be read in full here) a little.
Although on first glance it seems different from some of Saki’s better-known stories, such as his classic werewolf tale ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ and his story about a polecat worshipped as a god, ‘Sredni Vashtar’, ‘The Open Window’ follows the same essential setup as many of Saki’s other stories, in having an adolescent character whose supposed innocence (supposed by the adult character, that is) turns out to be guile, cunning, and the mischief in disguise. But whereas Nicholas in ‘The Lumber-Room’, Conradin in ‘Sredni Vashtar’, or Gabriel-Ernest actively seek to cause harm to their adult antagonists (or, in the case of Nicholas, to refuse to help an aunt who has got herself trapped in the water tank), Vera’s only weapon is her imagination. Yet this alone suggests that she shares some kinship with Conradin in ‘Sredni Vashtar’, whose cousin and guardian dislikes her ward’s imaginative streak. Read the rest of this entry
A reading of a classic short story
The 1911 short story ‘Sredni Vashtar’ contains many of the ingredients we find in Saki’s best fiction: it challenges the idea that children are innocent and free from designs or cunning (or, indeed, evil), it pricks the pomposity of adults and their conservative treatment of children, and it suggests a kinship between children and animals, something we can also observe in Saki’s earlier story, ‘Gabriel-Ernest’. But ‘Sredni Vashtar’ might also be considered a darker version of the familiar trope found in children’s fiction: the idea of the child having a wish granted. It might also be viewed as a satirical take on religious practice and observance. The story is shot through with Saki’s celebrated wit, and deserves closer analysis. You can read the story here.
First, a brief summary of the plot of ‘Sredni Vashtar’. Conradin, a young boy of ten, has a deadly disease. He lives with his cousin and guardian, Mrs De Ropp, whom he dislikes. He likes to spend his time in the garden shed among the two living companions he likes: a hen and a ferret. The latter has become more than a pet: Conradin has made him the basis of his own personal religion, and he worships the ferret as a god, giving it the name ‘Sredni Vashtar’ and bringing it offerings of stolen nutmeg. The shed has become his own private church. Read the rest of this entry