Occasionally on Twitter I will post pictures of upcoming books. None in recent memory got quite the response that the new NYRB Classics edition of Saki’s The Unrest-Cure and Other Stories with its illustrations by the great Edward Gorey. This is the first time such an edition has appeared in English, and it’s all that you’d hope: beautiful, whimsical, disturbing, macabre, hilarious.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.

I should start this with a confession: I have not finished this book yet. It collects 26 tales by Saki (a.k.a. H.H. Munro), published from 1904 to 1919. Though they are all short and could easily be read in a day, I didn’t want to rush through them (I’m currently enjoying one or two at night — and they go down so smoothly). However, rather than wait until I finish the whole book, I wanted to get the word out now. Most of us have encountered Saki and Gorey in the past, so you probably don’t need much from me other than notice that the book is now out.

If, on the other hand, this is your first encounter, I would like to say that Saki and Gorey are a divine — or devilish — match (does providence want us to contemplate our ridiculous state in such an irreverent way?). Both Saki and Gorey have a way of revealing our ridiculous, emotional, precarious state by showing us just how easily, how gruesomely, this life can end for the old and young alike. In some ways, it’s not such a big deal. If society is so hypocritical, if life is so ridiculous, it doesn’t hurt to chuckle a bit at our demise.

Then again, in some ways, I suppose, Saki may be doing the work of God, revealing to us our hypocrisies, the way we worry more about society than our own soul. There is, for example, an early story from Saki’s Reginald stories, “The Woman  Who Told the Truth.” Here an Edwardian woman has a distasteful preference for telling the truth: “It may have been pleasing to the angels, but her elder sister was not gratified.” Society is scandalized and speaks their own half-covered truths:

It was unfortunate, every one agreed, that she had no family; with a child or two in the house, there is an unconscious check upon too free an indulgence in the truth. Children are given us to discourage our better emotions. That is why the stage, with all its efforts, can never be as artificial as life; even in an Ibsen drama one must reveal to the audience things that one would suppress before the children and servants.

It is all a lot of fun, reminding me often of P.G. Wodehouse. For example, this opening from “The Reticence of Lady Anne”:

Egbert came into the large, dimly lit drawing-room with the air of a man who is not certain whether he is entering a dovecote or a bomb factory, and is prepared for either eventuality. The little domestic quarrel over the luncheon-table had not been fought to a definite finish, and the question was how far Lady Anne was in a mood to renew or forego hostilities.

Gorey-1

It turns out it’s fitting I think often of Wodehouse when reading Saki; Saki is apparently one of Wodehouse’s primary influences. And all of this leaves me with a bit of depression. It seems we currently live in an age of cleverness, an age of voice. How wonderful it would be to have a resurgence from the age of wit.

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By |2014-08-12T17:09:16-04:00June 18th, 2013|Categories: Saki|Tags: |4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. leroyhunter June 18, 2013 at 5:38 am

    I already have 3 editions (Collected, Selected) of Saki but I think I will have to make space for this one as well: the Gorey factor means it’s not to be missed.

    You’re right about the link with Wodehouse, although I think he is essentially benign; whereas Saki is often pleasingly malign in how he deploys his characters and punishes their foibles.

  2. winstonsdad June 18, 2013 at 12:18 pm

    yes its a shame that sharp wit of Saki and some Wodehouse has gone ,I always love his refering to servants in stories such a different time things like she was a good cookmas good cooks went ,she went (sorry may misquoted just of top of my head one my favourite quotes of his I read him in late teens as gran had a number of his books ,all the best stu

  3. ABB June 18, 2013 at 11:38 pm

    Gorey and Saki sounds like a perfect pairing. I must look out for this edition. I have a treasured “Complete Saki” from Penguin books that is well read. There are similarities between Wodehouse and Saki, especially in the use of language and the unexpected turn of phrase. But Wodehouse is sunnier and his characters, for all their attempted sophistication, are essentially innocent (think Lord Emsworth). Saki’s world is much darker, his young men-about-town are cynical and worldly-wise, violence is always just around the corner, and innocence is in short supply. The juxtaposition of the civilized and the wild is a constant theme, with the untamed wild often irrupting into the social scene. Many of his stories are savagely funny – not sunlit at all. Take a read at “Esme”, or “Gabriel-Ernest”, while “Sredni Vashtar” shows a much darker side of childhood. In my mind, Saki is closer to Mervyn Peake than he is to Wodehouse.

  4. Max Cairnduff June 26, 2013 at 5:11 pm

    I’ve never read Saki, but an edition with Gorey illustrations sounds the perfect place to start. No wonder the picture on twitter got a reaction.

    Even for his time, Wodehouse was rather a one-off. I see him as a unique talent rather than the product of an age, though of course he was both.

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