Friday, 21 December 2012

Reginald in Russia - Saki

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.

18 comments:

  1. My first introduction to Saki was a short story about a cat. Loved it.

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    1. Ah, yes, I know the one. It's such fun - the cat who speaks, can you imagine how awkward that would be??

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  2. I never heard of Saki before, I must admit. Are all the stories set in Russia, or just one of them?

    kind regards,

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    1. In this collection I think only one is explicitly set in Russia, but there were a few Russian names scattered through the rest, so maybe it was intended to be a broader theme... he normally sets stories in England.

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  3. I *loved* the first volume of Reginald stories - so I think maybe this should creep up the tbr over the Christmas break!

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    1. Lovely! They are perfect for the odd five minutes you get to yourself. And I must go back and read the Reginald collection.

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  4. I am wanting to start reading short stories in 2013 and have forgotten all about Saki. I will put 'Beast and Super-Beasts' on my list. Thank you.

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    1. Hurrah! It's so good. Short story collections are often quite affected, to my mind - overly literary etc. - but these are nothing like that. Just very funny, and very dark.

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  5. I am such a barbarian: I haven't read Saki since I left school 40 years ago. Thanks for the reminder to pick up something of his in the new year.

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    1. Did you study some Saki at school, or did you just read it for fun then? Hope you enjoy him in 2013!

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  6. I do have a Complete Stories of Saki on my nightstand. I read Bassington and loved it and have meant to go on to the others. I'm snowbound and Reginal might be just the thing.

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    1. Lovely! Sorry that you're snowbound, but this is definitely a good answer to that problem... glad you loved Unbearable B, it's so good, and so moving.

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  7. I am a devoted fan. If you haven't read Saki you are in for a treat - gallows humour, wit that rivals Oscar Wilde and simply superb story telling.

    He is one of the best short story writers I have read.

    Sue

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    1. I think he's my second favourite, after Katherine Mansfield. Do you think he's well known now? I see Selected Saki in every secondhand bookshop, but most people I talk to in real life don't seem to know him.

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  8. I have The Unbearable Bassington waiting on my shelf...I got it based on your recommendation and hope to get to it soon!

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    1. Fab! It's so good - do let me know what you think when you get to it.

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  9. See now, that's why I love the book blogging community - other people here have heard of Saki. No one I've ever met in person (bar bookshop owners) has heard of him or knows why I am such a fan. I have my all-in-one on the bedside bookcase to read and review next year as he's one of those authors that really should be on my blog given how much of a reading cornerstone he is for me. :)

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    1. I've got used to book bloggers having heard of authors I love - thank you for reminding me to appreciate it! I look forward to Saki appearing on your blog - I'd love to read a post about how he is a reading cornerstone for you.

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