Waugh and Saki

In its latest issue, Prospect Magazine, an independent monthly journal published in the UK, includes an essay marking the 100th anniversary of the death of the writer Saki (a/k/a H H Munro). The essay, by Fatema Ahmed, opens with the following assessment:

Exactly a century after Saki’s death on 14th November 1916, it seems remarkable that his work has survived so well. In a line-up of the wits of 20th-century English literature, Saki is usually tucked somewhere between PG Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. Both were prolific writers (Wodehouse frighteningly so), and most of their work is worth remembering. Waugh was a brilliant and fair critic of fiction he had sympathy with, and once wrote that Saki produced no more than seven or eight short stories that are masterpieces. (The Collected Stories numbers over 120.) The rest “too often have the air of being fancies and jests unduly expanded, or of dramatic themes unduly cramped.” Seven or eight masterpieces, including his most famous story “Sredni Vashtar,” is more than most writers ever manage but—given such a low strike rate and the slightness of his chosen form—Saki’s enduring popularity, among fans including Roald Dahl, in children’s editions, and this year as the subject of a play, is one of the stranger literary feats I can think of.

The quote is taken from Waugh’s 1947 introduction to Saki’s only novel, The Unbearable Bassington. Waugh observes that Saki, in writing his short stories, seemed to have “conformed too complacently to the requirements of the editors of the time; perhaps this was a defect in his exemplary literary tact.” Despite this restraint which marred much of his work, as Waugh noted in the quote above, the 7 or 8 masterpieces he managed is in itself a “notable achievement.” Waugh went on to describe Saki’s novel, published in 1912, as “inferior to the best of the short stories.” But despite its defects, “its virtues are abundant and delectable…The wit is continuing and almost unfailing; there are phrases on every page that are as fresh and brilliant…as on the day they were written.” Waugh’s introduction is collected in Essays, Articles and Reviews, p. 323 and A Little Order, p. 87

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