Most of the times that I’ve mentioned Saki in the past few years, it’s been about his novellas. Quite a few of us were reading The Unbearable Bassington a while ago, and earlier this year I read When William Came. It’s about time that I return to the form which introduced me to Saki, and for which Saki is best known: the blackly funny short story. I’ve only read Beasts and Super-beasts in full (and love it to pieces) – Reginald in Russia filled in 1911 for A Century of Books.
I haven’t actually read the earlier collection called simply Reginald, so I was prepared to be rather bemused by his adventures in Russia, but it turns out that (unlike that first collection) Reginald only appears in the first story, arguing with a Princess. The rest of Reginald in Russia covers vast territories – including someone accidentally shooting someone else’s fox, a feud between next-door neighbours, a werewolf, and a man trying to extricate a mouse from his trousers in a train carriage. It’s all rather mad, and often dark, but delightfully so.
My favourite story (‘The Baker’s Dozen’) is actually in the form of a play, where a widow and widower (once in love) meet again on a boat and decide to re-marry – but realise that between them, they now have thirteen children and stepchildren. This, naturally, is an inauspicious start to marriage for the superstitious, and one of their tactics is attempting to palm off a child on fellow passenger, Mrs. Pally-Paget:
Mrs. P.-P.: Sorry for me? Whatever for?Maj.: Your childless hearth and all that, you know. No little pattering feet.Mrs. P.-P.: Major! How dare you? I’ve got my little girl, I suppose you know. Her feet can patter as well as other children’s.Maj.: Only one pair of feet.Mrs. P.-P.: Certainly. My child isn’t a centipede. Considering the way they move us about in those horrid jungle stations, without a decent bungalow to set one’s foot in, I consider I’ve got a hearthless child, rather than a childless hearth. Thank you for your sympathy all the same. I daresay it was well meant. Impertinence often is.
You see the sort of frivolous style that Saki excels at – which makes the darkest topics he approaches (including a boy being eaten by a werewolf, for example) never feel remotely scary or even unsettling. It’s all just delightful, because Saki is so brilliant at that peculiarly 1910s combination of whimsy, hyperbole, and litotes – the sort of thing which Wodehouse managed to stretch out for decades, but which thrived most in those innocent pre-war days.
He reviled and railed at fate and the general scheme of things, he pitied himself with a strong, deep pity too poignant for tears, he condemned every one with whom he had ever come in contact to endless and abnormal punishments. In fact, he conveyed the impression that if a destroying angel had been lent to him for a week it would have had very little time for private study.
These stories are between two and six pages long each – brief, fun, easy to chuckle and turn to the next one. Reginald in Russia isn’t as good as Beast and Super-Beasts, for my money, but you don’t have to take my word for it – if you click on either of those, it’ll take you to Project Gutenberg where you can sample them yourself. Perfect for a winter evening.