Brian Gibson, well known to readers of this website as the author of Reading Saki, has published an article on Munro’s writings during the First World War. It can be found in the journal First World War Studies and is entitled “‘For the duration of the war’: The radical self-abnegation and anti-anthropocentrism of Munro/Saki’s front-line writings”.
With the advent of the First World War, H. H. Munro (1870–1916), eagerly enlisting at 43, attempted to patriotically simplify his selves, conscripting his authorial persona, Saki – whose fiction usually shimmers with metamorphosis and surprise – for jingoistic exhortations and denunciations of unmanly non-soldiers in ‘An Old Love’ (in the Morning Post) and four pieces for the 22nd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers’ Fortnightly Gazette, April to June 1915. Yet this reductively pro-Empire, pro-military stance turned into a self-distancing retreat from the front lines after Lance-Sergeant Munro arrived in Northern France in late 1915. In the radically self-reflexive and self-reflective story ‘For the Duration of the War’, Saki parodies the poem from which his pseudonym-persona had sprung, pokes fun at his fiction’s dominant themes – especially Fate and savage nature – and even questions the point of literature at a time of war. And in his final two works, set near the front, Munro and/or Saki muddies the genre, removes himself far more from events (as if anticipating his death), and questions the artifice of writing itself amid his species’ ravaging of the natural landscape. In ‘The Square Egg’, Munro/Saki offers one-part essay and one-part story, with the former written at a marked remove and the latter told by an unidentified ‘Acquaintance’. In ‘Birds of the Western Front’, Munro/Saki relates a detached study of bird-life in and around the trenches, the ‘one’ of the narrative-voice no unitary, pro-England spokesman but a barely human observer of winged wild creatures. These final writings by Munro and/or Saki are both radical and transcendent, looking beyond the soldier-self and the author-self at the non-human world to offer a pointed, poignant selflessness at a time of mass European self-annihilation. There is a profound generosity through self-effacement that is not seen in any of the works by the major English writers of the war.
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.
The programmes are also available via the BBC iplayer app and its successor/replacement, the fairly stupidly named “BBC Sounds”. Some BBC content is, unfortunately, only available within the UK. (Being in Germany, I couldn’t access the ‘Tobermory’ reading.)
The literary blog Interesting Literature (“A Library of Literary Interestingness”) has a top-ten list of Saki’s stories along with some short analysis and comments on their choices. The obvious ones are there (‘Gabriel-Ernest’, ‘Sredni Vashtar’, ‘Tobermory’,‘The Music on the Hill’, ‘The Lumber-Room’) as well as some lesser known but worthy entries (‘Filboid Studge’! Yes!). I don’t completely agree with the choices made (‘The Jesting of Arlington Stringham’ has a good joke about rabbit curry but is otherwise only average Saki) but then again, isn’t the point of these lists that you can argue about them?
Yahoo republishes an article in the Daily Telegraph about the Victorian bathhouse. While most of the article is about the fashion for orientalism in architecture and design in the nineteenth century, it does begin with a picture of the Jermyn Street Turkish bath where Saki set ‘The Recessional’.
Turkish baths occur occasionally in Saki’s stories. (I speculated a bit about the reasons here.) The habit of going to such places also provoked the following bit of wisdom about human nature:
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. (‘Filboid Studge’)
Ruth Golding, who recorded a (free!) audio version of The Westminster Alice for the excellent website librivox.org, also recorded some accompanying explanatory notes for the general reader. They’re available in both audio and text form on her website and also on archive.org. You can also listen to them below.