In good company! Scan from http://www.philsp.com/data/images/a/argosy_uk_193709.jpg
On the internet, if you dig beneath the pictures of people’s food or cats and the anonymous abuse of figures in public life, you sometimes come across herculean efforts of single-interest obsessiveness like the Fiction Mags Index, which indexes thousands of magazines, including “pulp” magazines, and their contents. It has listings for both “H.H. Munro” and “Saki”, which are interesting because the details given mostly refer to reprints of the stories, usually in American or Australian magazines — information that is (as far as I know) not to be found elsewhere.
My title comes from an (anonymous) article on Munro published in The Argosy in September 1937, which also republished ‘The Mouse’ (from Reginald in Russia). I may have a go at tracking down the article — the title is intriguing, to say the least.
Octavian Ruttle was one of those lively cheerful individuals on whom amiability had set its unmistakable stamp, and, like most of his kind, his soul’s peace depended in large measure on the unstinted approval of his fellows. In hunting to death a small tabby cat he had done a thing of which he scarcely approved himself, and he was glad when the gardener had hidden the body in its hastily dug grave under a lone oak-tree in the meadow, the same tree that the hunted quarry had climbed as a last effort towards safety. It had been a distasteful and seemingly ruthless deed, but circumstances had demanded the doing of it. Octavian kept chickens; at least he kept some of them; others vanished from his keeping, leaving only a few bloodstained feathers to mark the manner of their going. The tabby cat from the large grey house that stood with its back to the meadow had been detected in many furtive visits to the hen-coops, and after due negotiation with those in authority at the grey house a sentence of death had been agreed on: “The children will mind, but they need not know,” had been the last word on the matter.
The children in question were a standing puzzle to Octavian; in the course of a few months he considered that he should have known their names, ages, the dates of their birthdays, and have been introduced to their favourite toys. They remained however, as non-committal as the long blank wall that shut them off from the meadow, a wall over which their three heads sometimes appeared at odd moments. They had parents in India—that much Octavian had learned in the neighbourhood; the children, beyond grouping themselves garment-wise into sexes, a girl and two boys, carried their life-story no further on his behoof. And now it seemed he was engaged in something which touched them closely, but must be hidden from their knowledge.
The poor helpless chickens had gone one by one to their doom, so it was meet that their destroyer should come to a violent end, yet Octavian felt some qualms when his share of the violence was ended. The little cat, headed off from its wonted tracks of safety, had raced unfriended from shelter to shelter, and its end had been rather piteous. Octavian walked through the long grass of the meadow with a step less jaunty than usual. And as he passed beneath the shadow of the high blank wall he glanced up and became aware that his hunting had had undesired witnesses. Three white set faces were looking down at him, and if ever an artist wanted a threefold study of cold human hate, impotent yet unyielding, raging yet masked in stillness, he would have found it in the triple gaze that met Octavian’s eye.
“I’m sorry, but it had to be done,” said Octavian, with genuine apology in his voice. Continue reading →
Is it possible to establish a connection between Saki and Argentina? It is indeed. Saki mentions Argentina on two occasions. In ‘The Way to the Dairy’ we find: “The Brimley Bomefields had a collective attack of nervous prostration on the day when she sold out a quantity of shares in Argentine rails”, and then in ‘Fur’ we also find: “Well, old Bertram Kneyght is over in England just now from the Argentine”.
Furthermore, the link between Saki and Borges is even more fascinating. They never physically met each other: Saki died tragically in 1916 and Borges was born in 1899. Different ages, different places. Yet a certain “relationship” between these two authors does reveal itself as true.
Intellectually, Borges grew up in his father’s personal library, a collection full of English books. Moreover, Borges inherited his father’s literary idols such as Swinburne, Keats, Spencer and Shelley. Guillermo Borges translated Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát into Spanish and his version of the famous Persian poem was finally published in Proa, a literary magazine established by his son and Ricardo Güiraldes, in the year 1924. Later on, Borges wrote a poem about Omar Khayyám’s masterpiece. As we know, Saki took his peculiar penname from the Rubáiyát stanzas. In his preface to ‘The Reticence of Lady Anne’, Borges confirms this conjecture: “His name, Munro, belongs to an ancient Scottish family; his penname, Saki, comes from the Rubáiyát (this word in Persian means cupbearer)”.1
Saki and Borges were cosmopolitans. About Saki’s cosmopolitanism, we should recall A.A. Milne’s words: “A strange creature, this Saki, to us many others who were trying to do it too. For we were so domestic, he so terrifyingly cosmopolitan”.2 During his youth, Saki travelled around Europe with his father and siblings. In nineteenth-century Victorian England, it was common for upper-class young adults like Saki, who had recently finished grammar school, to travel to the Continent, visiting museums, recreational resorts and art galleries in France, Germany and Switzerland. This “educational trip” allowed Hector Munro to absorb entirely the historical, cultural and social Mitteleuropa atmosphere. As Charles Gillen declares: “This tour, too, helped to make Munro the true cosmopolitan”.3 In his adulthood, Saki also discovered Russia and the Balkans as a journalist working for The Morning Post. Yet Saki always returned to London. England was his shelter, far from the madding crowd. Borges asserts:
His life was a cosmopolitan one, but all his work (with the exception of one short story that we will mention later on)4 happens in England, in that England of his melancholic childhood. He never got over that period, whose irreparable misfortune was his literary matter. There is nothing special about this fact; unhappiness is, as they said, one of the elements of poetry. That England he suffered and took advantage of, was that of the Victorian middle class, ruled by boredom, organisation and by the eternal repetition of certain habits. Munro satirised that society with a quintessentially English dry humour.
In 1914, just before the Great War began, Borges and his family moved to Europe because his father’s eyesight had started to fail (Borges would inherit his father’s congenital blindness). In Geneva, a famous eye doctor treated Guillermo Borges while his son “Georgie” went to school. This tour to Europe was also considered essential for an Argentinian upper-class young adult: a chance to gain first-hand acquaintance with the Western culture. Besides, in those days the Argentine peso was strong.
Apparently, Borges was unhappy in Geneva because he couldn’t get used to the misty, damp and cold weather. He summarises his gloomy experience there: “I spent the war years in Geneva; [it was] a no-exit time, tight, made of drizzle, which I’ll always remember with some hatred”.
Later on, the Argentine fiction author Adolfo Bioy Casares (a very close friend of Jorge Luis Borges) became Saki’s first Spanish translator in 1940 with his version of ‘Sredni Vashtar’. It was published by Sur, one of the most important literary magazines in Buenos Aires during the 20th century. Borges and Bioy Casares were fascinated by this tale. Both certainly enjoyed speculative as well supernatural fiction. Borges declares particularly about ‘Sredni Vashtar’: “If we have to choose between two short stories of our anthology (and we are certainly not compelled to that duality), we would focus on ‘Sredni Vashtar’ and ‘The Interlopers’. The first one, as in every good story, is ambiguous: We can assume that Sredni Vashtar was really a god and that the unfortunate child sensed it, but the hypothesis that the child’s cult made a divinity from the ferret is also reasonable, nor is it prohibited to think that the force of the animal came from the child that might have really been the god and didn’t know it. It is fine that the ferret goes back to the unknown from where it came; not less admirable is the disproportion between the happiness of the freed child and the trivial fact of making toast”.
Adolfo Bioy Casares, Victoria Ocampo (founder of ‘Sur’) and Jorge Luis Borges in 1935. Photo credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/ File:Bioy_Casares,_Ocampo_y_Borges.jpg
The only “discrepancy” between Borges and Saki was another British author: George Bernard Shaw. Borges esteemed him intensely and listed Shaw as one of his four favorite authors (the others were Cervantes, Chesterton and Emerson). Borges once declared drastically, “Shaw seems the only author I’ve read”. On the other hand, Saki couldn’t bear Shaw at all. In fact, he parodied him as “Sherard Blaw” in The Unbearable Bassington. In addition, the title of his book Beasts and Super-Beasts is just a mere satire of Shaw’s four-act drama Men and Super-Men. Bernard Shaw’s socialism and popularity were so unbearable for Hector Munro…
In conclusion, Saki and Borges were both remarkable and irreplaceable storytellers with a unique sense of irony. Borges was also a very fine reader and he explored British literature with a singular mastery. Definitively, Saki was part of his vast group of literary idols.
‘La Reticencia de Lady Anne’  was part of Jorge Luis Borges’s famous anthology: “La Biblioteca de Babel” or The Library of Babel. This anthology included many Borges’s preferred authors like Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, Gustav Meyrink, Franz Kafka, Rudyard Kipling, Herman Melville, Giovanni Papini, Edgar Allan Poe, León Bloy, Leopoldo Lugones, G.K. Chesterton, Oscar Wilde, etc. This preface in particular was published by Siruela Ediciones (Madrid, Spain).↩
H.H. Munro (Saki), Twayne’s English Authors Series (TEAS) #102 (Boston, 1969).↩
Borges is referring to his own selection of stories rather than to Munro’s entire oeuvre.↩
This is a guest blog post by Juan Facundo Araujo of the Universidad de Buenos Aires. He has both published and given presentations on various aspects of Saki. His currently research is into the depiction of suffragettes in Munro’s work. My thanks to him for agreeing to write something for this blog about Saki and Latin America.
It’s a bit off-topic, but the latest issue of the journal Critical Survey is devoted to writer William Le Queux and in particular his novel The Invasion of 1910 (published 1906), which is a notable example of the short-lived sub-genre that Munro also essayed with When William Came: the invasion-of-Britain fantasy (though the authors wouldn’t have accepted the description “fantasy” so readily).
I’ve not yet had a chance to see if Munro’s novel is mentioned in any of the articles.
“I’m writing a poem on Peace,”1 said Reginald, emerging from a sweeping operation through a tin of mixed biscuits, in whose depths a macaroon or two might yet be lurking.
“Something of the kind seems to have been attempted already,” said the Other.
“Oh, I know; but I may never have the chance again. Besides, I’ve got a new fountain pen. I don’t pretend to have gone on any very original lines; in writing about Peace the thing is to say what everybody else is saying, only to say it better. It begins with the usual ornithological emotion:
‘When the widgeon westward winging
Heard the folk Vereeniginging,2
Heard the shouting and the singing—’”
“Vereeniginging is good, but why widgeon?”
“Why not? Anything that winged westward would naturally begin with a w.”
“Need it wing westward?”
“The bird must go somewhere. You wouldn’t have it hang around and look foolish. Then I’ve brought in something about the heedless hartebeest3 galloping over the deserted veldt.”
The Quatrains of Uttar Al Ghibe Part I, from The Westminster Gazette, March 4, 1901. My thanks to Brian Gibson (author of Reading Saki) for sending me a copy.
Possibly I am the only person in the world to care about this question, but what the heck…
Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Munro’s work can hardly miss its references to that nineteenth-century poetic sensation, Edward FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám.
The most obvious link is Munro’s pen-name. The FitzGerald versions contain the word “Sákí” (meaning “cupbearer”). One of Munro’s earliest published pieces were some quatrains supposedly by a Middle Eastern poet named “Uttar Al Ghibe” in which he mocked the politicians of the time:
In marvel at each man’s allotted sphere
I mused “We know not wherefore we are here”;
Said One who ruled o’er markets and bazaars
“I had an Uncle once.” His case was clear.
Munro’s biographer A. J. Langguth conjectures that it was this early work that led Munro to pick “Saki” as his nom de plume.
There are other obvious references too, such as ‘Reginald’s Rubaiyat’, or the reference in ‘A Young Turkish Catastrophe’ to “the heretic poet of Persia”. The Rev. Wilfrid Gaspilton’s invented poet Ghurab in ‘For the Duration of the War’ is inspired by (and compared to) Omar Khayyám, as well as Persia’s other great poet Hafiz.
Fitzgerald revised and expanded his translation throughout his life. There were five editions (the last being published posthumously based on his notes):
When checking references to the work in Munro’s writings, I’ve often wondered which edition I should consult. From that question came the idea for this article.
As a young man, Munro copied some lines from FitzGerald into his commonplace book, including the quatrain that contains his future nom de plume:
Yet ah, that Spring should vanish with the Rose!
That Youth’s sweet-scented manuscript should close!
The Nightingale that in the branches sang,
Ah whence, and whither ﬂown again, who knows!
Yon rising Moon that looks for us again
How oft hereafter will she wax and wane;
How oft hereafter rising look for us
Through this same Garden—and for one in vain!
And when like her, oh Sákí, you shall pass
Among the Guests Star-scatter’d on the Grass,
And in your blissful errand reach the spot
Where I made One—turn down an empty Glass!
Perplext no more with Human or Divine,
To-morrow’s tangle to the winds resign,
And lose your ﬁngers in the tresses of
The Cypress-slender Minister of Wine.
So when that Angel of the Darker Drink,
At last shall ﬁnd you by the river-brink,
And, offering his Cup, invite your Soul
Forth to your Lips to quaff—you shall not shrink.
Oddly, Munro has shuffled the order: he copied the quatrains in the order 96, 100, 101, 41, 43. More significantly for my inquiry, these versions were only found from the third edition onwards.
However, a few other allusions in other stories muddy the waters:
For example, in the early satire ‘The Angel and his Lost Michael’ (1903), the line “The Tabernacle is prepared within, why lags the lazy worshipper outside?” parodies a quatrain (number 2) that was added in the second edition and which runs “When all the Temple is prepared within,/Why lags the lazy worshipper outside?”. In the fifth edition, however, this has been changed to “When all the Temple is prepared within,/Why nods the lazy worshipper outside?”.
In addition, in ‘Reginald’s Rubaiyat’ Reginald pens the lines:
“The hen that laid thee moons ago, who knows
In what Dead Yesterday her shades repose;
To some election turn thy waning span
And rain thy rottenness on ﬁscal foes.”
The phrase “Dead Yesterday” is taken directly from FitzGerald, in lines which occur only in the first edition (ruba’i no. 37, to be exact).
In the same story, Reginald (or Munro?) misunderstands or misremembers a reference in the Rubáiyát:
“Hast thou the pen that once the gardener had?
I have it not; and know, these pears are bad.
Oh, larger than the horses of the Prince
Are those the general drives in Kaikobad.”
There is no place called Kaikobad: it is the name of a king of ancient Persia. The references can be found in rubáiyát 8 and 9 of the first edition, 9 and 10 of second (with slight alterations) and 9 and 10 of the fifth (again with small changes).
I had hoped that perhaps one of the versions would be more ambiguous, allowing me to identify which version it was that misled Munro, but as far as I can see they are all more or less equal: if you read fairly attentively you can see that the various names mentioned are those of people rather than of places (especially if you note the reference to Rustum, which ought to be well known to readers of English poetry because of Matthew Arnold’s 1853 poem Sohrab and Rustum).
So, in the end, there is no clear answer to my questions. Maybe that’s not so surprising, as Fitzgerald’s work was so enormously well known and widely quoted that there are over 130 separate references to it in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, encompassing around half the work.
Or perhaps Reginald’s terse comment “I am not collecting copies of the cheaper editions of Omar Khayyám” was inspired by something Munro wanted to tell his acquaintances?
FitzGerald (1809–1883), a gentleman poet and scholar, had discovered a set of Persian four-line poems (the technical name is ‘rubáiyát’) which had been written by an 11th century polymath named Omar Khayyám. FitzGerald translated and arranged a selection of these, publishing them in 1859. Taken up by Rossetti and Swinburne, among others, Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám became—after a slow start—extremely popular. (Quoted from the introduction to The Complete Annotated Reginald Stories.) ↩
Short historical note: “Al Ghibe” means A.J.B. (which was how Prime Minister Arthur Balfour was sometimes referred to); Balfour’s predecessor in the job was his uncle, the 3rd Marquess of Salisbury. ↩
Langguth also suggests that the difficulty of typesetting foreign accent marks was what led to “Sákí” becoming just “Saki” (pp. 60–64). ↩
It was distinctly hard lines for Lady Barbara, who came of good fighting stock, and was one of the bravest women of her generation, that her son should be so undisguisedly a coward. Whatever good qualities Lester Slaggby may have possessed, and he was in some respects charming, courage could certainly never he imputed to him. As a child he had suffered from childish timidity, as a boy from unboyish funk, and as a youth he had exchanged unreasoning fears for others which were more formidable from the fact of having a carefully thought-out basis. He was frankly afraid of animals, nervous with firearms, and never crossed the Channel without mentally comparing the numerical proportion of lifebelts to passengers. On horseback he seemed to require as many hands as a Hindu god, at least four for clutching the reins, and two more for patting the horse soothingly on the neck. Lady Barbara no longer pretended not to see her son’s prevailing weakness; with her usual courage she faced the knowledge of it squarely, and, mother-like, loved him none the less.
Continental travel, anywhere away from the great tourist tracks, was a favoured hobby with Lady Barbara, and Lester joined her as often as possible. Eastertide usually found her at Knobaltheim,1 an upland township in one of those small princedoms that make inconspicuous freckles on the map of Central Europe.
A long-standing acquaintanceship with the reigning family made her a personage of due importance in the eyes of her old friend the Burgomaster,2 and she was anxiously consulted by that worthy on the momentous occasion when the Prince made known his intention of coming in person to open a sanatorium outside the town. All the usual items in a programme of welcome, some of them fatuous and commonplace, others quaint and charming, had been arranged for, but the Burgomaster hoped that the resourceful English lady might have something new and tasteful to suggest in the way of loyal greeting. The Prince was known to the outside world, if at all, as an old-fashioned reactionary, combating modern progress, as it were, with a wooden sword; to his own people he was known as a kindly old gentleman with a certain endearing stateliness which had nothing of standoffishness about it. Knobaltheim was anxious to do its best. Lady Barbara discussed the matter with Lester and one or two acquaintances in her little hotel, but ideas were difficult to come by.
“Might I suggest something to the Gnädige Frau?”3 asked a sallow high-cheek-boned lady to whom the Englishwoman had spoken once or twice, and whom she had set down in her mind as probably a Southern Slav.4
“Might I suggest something for the Reception Fest?” she went on, with a certain shy eagerness. “Our little child here, our baby, we will dress him in little white coat, with small wings, as an Easter angel, and he will carry a large white Easter egg, and inside shall be a basket of plover eggs, of which the Prince is so fond, and he shall give it to his Highness as Easter offering. It is so pretty an idea; we have seen it done once in Styria.” Continue reading →
Jocantha Bessbury was in the mood to be serenely and graciously happy. Her world was a pleasant place, and it was wearing one of its pleasantest aspects. Gregory had managed to get home for a hurried lunch and a smoke afterwards in the little snuggery; the lunch had been a good one, and there was just time to do justice to the coffee and cigarettes. Both were excellent in their way, and Gregory was, in his way, an excellent husband. Jocantha rather suspected herself of making him a very charming wife, and more than suspected herself of having a first-rate dressmaker.
“I don’t suppose a more thoroughly contented personality is to be found in all Chelsea,”1 observed Jocantha in allusion to herself; “except perhaps Attab,”2 she continued, glancing towards the large tabby-marked cat that lay in considerable ease in a corner of the divan. “He lies there, purring and dreaming, shifting his limbs now and then in an ecstasy of cushioned comfort. He seems the incarnation of everything soft and silky and velvety, without a sharp edge in his composition, a dreamer whose philosophy is sleep and let sleep; and then, as evening draws on, he goes out into the garden with a red glint in his eyes and slays a drowsy sparrow.”
“As every pair of sparrows hatches out ten or more young ones in the year, while their food supply remains stationary, it is just as well that the Attabs of the community should have that idea of how to pass an amusing afternoon,” said Gregory. Having delivered himself of this sage comment he lit another cigarette, bade Jocantha a playfully affectionate good-bye, and departed into the outer world.
“Remember, dinner’s a wee bit earlier to-night, as we’re going to the Haymarket,”3 she called after him. Continue reading →
The Journal of the Leinster Regiment vol.1, no.4 (1910) frontispiece
It’s fairly well known that Munro published most of his short stories in newspapers and periodicals first; only later were they collected and published in book form. Principal recipients were the Westminster Gazette and the Bystander. The acknowledgements to his third collection, The Chronicles of Clovis, also mention a journal I’d never heard of:
‘The Background’ originally appeared in the ‘Leinsters’ Magazine’.
So, of course, I decided to look it up.
Slightly surpisingly, the magazine was the ‘in-house’ newspaper of a regiment of the British Army. The Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians), to give it its full name, was an infantry regiment formed in 1881 by merging the 100th (Prince of Wales’s Royal Canadian) Regiment of Foot and the 109th Regiment of Foot (Bombay Infantry). I managed to find a history of the regiment online which has the following to say about its magazine:
It while the Battalion was at Devonport [i.e. from 1909] that its second regimental paper was born. The Journal of the Leinster Regiment, or as it was called later, the Leinsters’ Magazine owed its success to the ability and demoniac energy of its editor, Captain R. F. Legge, assisted by Captain R. M. Raynsford as its sub-editor. It struck a completely new note in regimental journalism by subordinating regimental intelligence to general articles grave and gay, and, speaking with that impartiality which only the lapse of years can ensure, the opinion may be hazarded that neither before nor since has the Leinsters’ Magazine had a serious rival. It enlisted some distinguished outside writers, including the present Lord Rawlinson, Hilaire Belloc, C. B. Fry, the late Frank Richardson, Stephen Gwynn, Major Drury, L. S. Amery, Aliph Cheem, Saki, and many others. It was splendidly illustrated, turned out in Messrs. Gale & Polden’s very best style, and the amount of advertisements was the despair of rival regimental journals. It made a feature in each issue of humorous verse and was the only regimental paper which ever published a comic opera on the subject of manoeuvres. Alas! when the Battalion was ordered abroad the editor got a home job and the inevitable upheaval caused by the change to India killed the magazine which perished after just two years’ brilliant existence.
I wonder what exactly were the circumstances behind Munro’s involvement? Why not go with one of his more regular ‘customers’? There’s nothing military about ‘The Background’ that would have made the Leinsters’ Magazine a particularly suitable place for it. Langguth’s biography doesn’t mention it at all, nor is there anything in Byrne or Gibson’s books. With so many of Saki’s papers lost forever, perhaps we’ll never know.
I subsequently noticed that ‘The Baker’s Dozen’ in Reginald in Russia also originally appeared in the same magazine, though in this case it is credited with its full title The Journal of the Leinster Regiment.
A student of mine kindly sent me scans from the copy in Trinity College Dublin’s libary so I added one as an illustration to this post.
The History of the Prince of Wales’s Leinster Regiment, Volume 1, by Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick Ernest Whitton, p. 156.