Magazine article Verbatim

A Sampling of the Genius of Saki

Magazine article Verbatim

A Sampling of the Genius of Saki

Article excerpt

Over 65 years ago, my high school English teacher and idol, Spencer Brown, introduced me to the short stories of Hector Hugh Munro, who took as his pen name that of the cupbearer in Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat (Fitzgerald translation):

    "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 Saki, you shall pass
   Among the Guests star-scattered on the Grass,
   And in your joyous errand reach the spot
   Where I made One--turn down an empty glass!" 

Saki (it would be sacrilegious to use his given name) was born in 1870. His life, as fantastic as many of his stories, ended in World War I. The stories, mostly about the moneyed upper crust of prewar England, were originally published as separate books. Later, they were brought together in a single volume: The Short Stories of Saki (New York, The Viking Press, 1946; 715 p.). The book ends with a brief biography of Saki by his sister.

What distinguishes the 135 stories are not only the trap endings to most of them--like those, e.g., of O. Henry, and perhaps Conan Doyle--but also the delicate use of language. From a recent re-reading of these stories, I extracted 69 aphorisms that particularly please me. Other readers may enjoy making their own selections. Here are some of my favorites.

The art of life is the avoidance of the unattainable. ["Reginald on the Academy."]

You can't expect the fatted calf to share the enthusiasm of the angels over the prodigal's return. [Ibid.]

Beauty is only sin deep. ["Reginald's Choir Treat."]

Think how many blameless lives are brightened by the blazing indiscretions of other people. ["Reginald at the Carlton."]

People talk vaguely about the innocence of a little child, but they take mighty good care not to let it out of their sight for twenty minutes. The watched pot never boils over. ["The Innocence of Reginald."]

Thus, although possessed of only moderate means, he was able to live comfortably within his income, and still more comfortably within those of various tolerantly disposed associates. ["The Soul of Laploshka."]

It's no use growing older if you only learn new ways of misbehaving yourself. ["The Stampeding of Lady Bastable. …

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