Penguin Mini Modern Classics: Saki

By oldenglishrose - Last updated: Monday, April 18, 2011 - Save & Share - Leave a Comment

Although I may have no resolve at all when faced with a second hand bookshop, usually I have a will of iron in the face of one selling new books which are far beyond my comfortable price range at the rate at which I consume them.  However, all the reviews which popped up recently of the Penguin Mini Modern Classics, released to celebrate the 50th birthday of the Penguin Modern Classic, had piqued my interest.  Although I gazed covetously at the  complete box set on Amazon I decided that it would make more financial sense to buy a few of them to start out, and when I went into Waterstones to see them on 3 for 2 my mind was made up.  I selected three lovely little books by authors whom I’ve never read before as a way of introducing myself to their writing.  The first one I picked up to read was the offering from Saki, intriguingly entitled Filboid Studge, the Story of a Mouse That Helped, a collection of seven of his short stories: ‘Filboid Studge, the Story of a Mouse That Helped’, ‘Tobermory’, ‘Mrs Packletide’s Tiger’, ‘Sredni Vashtar’, ‘The Music on the Hill’, ‘The Recessional’ and ‘The Cobweb’.

Saki’s stories are absolutely marvellous.  They remind me a bit of E. F. Benson in their tone and focus on the foibles of the upper middle class, but unlike Benson (who I always feel has a soft spot for his characters no matter how much he may mock them) Saki is merciless in his approach.  The stories are dry, witty and biting and if they were long enough for the reader to get to know the characters at all it would be easy for them to seem rather cruel, but because they are only brief snapshots the reader is able to laugh without any accompanying feeling of guilt.  They may be a little bizarre and dark at times (‘Sredni Vashtar’ for example is the story of a young boy who has a pet ferret that he turns into a god) but, unlike some of the more modern short stories that I’ve read, they always have a proper narrative arc and so they are very satisfying to read.

Although all the stories are entertaining, my two favourites are ‘Tobermory’ and ‘Mrs Packletide’s Tiger’.  ‘Tobermory’ is about Mr Cornelius Appin, who announces at Lady Blemley’s weekend gathering that he has found a way to teach animals to talk and has successfully taught the cat, Tobermory, to talk.  The guests however are less than impressed when it becomes apparent that Tobermory enjoys exercising his new linguistic talents to reveal all the secrets of the guests at the party to the assembled crowd:

An archangel ecstatically proclaiming the Millennium, and then finding that it clashed unpardonably with Henley and would have to be indefinitely postponed, could hardly have felt more crestfallen than Cornelius Appin at the reception of his wonderful achievement.  (p. 17)

I think this comparison is just brilliant in its bathos.  It conveys how ludicrous the guests’ objections are in the face of such an amazing discovery and how bound they are by social convention.  It makes me chuckle every time I read it.  Saki also gives Tobermory a wonderful voice and personality which conveys a sense of relish at embarrassing and shaming his listeners with the things they say and do behind closed doors.  I only wish it had been a longer tale.

‘Mrs Packletide’s Tiger’ concerns a lady who decides that she wants to shoot a tiger in order to outdo Loona Bimberton who has just flown in a aircraft.  Soon a suitable candidate is found:

Circumstances proved propitious.  Mrs Packletide had offered a thousand rupees for the opportunity of shooting a tiger without overmuch risk or exertion, and it so happened that a neighbouring village could boast of being the favoured rendezvous of an animal of respectable antecedents, which had been driven by the increasing infirmities of age to abandon gamekilling and confine its appetite to the smaller domestic animals.  The prospect of earning the thousand rupees had stimulated the sporting and commercial instinct of the villagers; children were posted night and day on the outskirts of the local jungle to head the tiger back in the unlikely event of his attempting to roam away to fresh hunting-grounds, and the cheaper kinds of goats were left about with elaborate carelessness to keep him satisfied with his present quarters.  The one great anxiety was lest he should die of old age before the date appointed for the memsahib’s shoot.  Mothers carrying their babies home through the jungle after the day’s work in the fields hushed their singing lest they might curtail the restful sleep of the venerable herd-robber. (p. 22)

It seems so ridiculous, and yet the task proves much trickier than Mrs Packletide anticipates with humorous results.

It seems that a lot of people have been reading Saki recently, and before writing my review today was treated to reviews from Simon of  Stuck in  Book, Lyn of I prefer Reading and Hayley of Desperate Reader who’ve all been reading Saki’s The Unbearable Bassington. After reading these, I’m now looking forward to reading more Saki even more than I was after reading this short story collection.  What a lovely introduction!

Filboid Studge, the Story of a Mouse That Helped by Saki.  Published by Penguin, 2011, pp. 66.  Originally published in 1911 and 1914.

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