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The Letters of H. H. Munro: Unfinished Business Adam Frost University of Cambridge ALTHOUGH he was a contemporary of Proust and Joyce, H. H. Munro (or Saki) seemed to have no interest in sharing his thoughts. He was a resolutely private man with few friends and a dislike of small talk. He preferred bird-watching to party-going. When asked about his past or his future plans, he would change the subject. "One had to dig hard to get a word out of him," his editor at the Westminster Gazette remembers .1 When he became a full-time writer, he was similarly unforthcoming . He kept no notebooks; he got rid of old manuscripts. He rarely, if ever, talked about his fiction. He was not interested in mixing with other writers and discussing his technique. He would sometimes write to his sister, but she obediently burnt all their correspondence after his death in the trenches. And so it is with the stories. Who wrote them? John Carey has written about the evolution of Saki's "brilliantly public comic medium."2 Simon Stern has described the workings of "Saki's Attitude," the way in which his watertight, self-enclosed tales resist interpretation.3 They are to be looked at, admired, then set down. They are not designed to be taken apart. The reader is not meant to peer inside. But the blinding glare given off by Saki's brilliant writing does tempt the reader to look again. Why is he so cagey? The concentration on surface and style, costume and masquerade, particularly post-Wilde, suggests hidden substance, buried tensions and a troubled consciousness . The modernist crusade for psychological truth and fidelity to experience frequently leads to obscurity and density, private jokes and arcane references, codes and quotes. Conversely Saki's commitment to impenetrability and superficiality often results in disclosures, insights, confessions. 199 ELT 44 : 2 2001 In his stories, this phenomenon is clearly visible. "Tobermory" is, on the surface, a tightly-plotted, tightly-written social satire. A worldrenowned linguist teaches a cat to talk. The cat proceeds to cause havoc at his owners' house party, revealing what he has seen from his privileged perspective, the infidelities, the insults and the deceptions. The party guests panic and only breathe easily when Tobermory dies in a tomfight. Is there anything more to say? It is silly, original and hilarious; it is great entertainment. However, on closer inspection, the rigid carpentry begins to creak. Why a cat? Why make it talk? Other cats in literature spring to mind: the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, the Cat That Walks By Itself in Kipling, the Black Cat in Poe. Is Saki in dialogue with these? Then there is the fact that, in 1909, when the story was written , other previously silent groups were finding a voice. Women, homosexuals , the working classes and colonized natives were all beginning to speak out and challenge the ruling elite. Is this a coincidence? It is with this in mind that I would like to look at the handful of letters that Saki wrote to John Lane, his publisher, between 1911 and 1916, now to be found in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas.4 These thirty documents, almost all that is left of Saki's personal effects, have not been examined before. Moreover, just as his stories, on a second reading, begin to reveal the influences and intentions of this most reticent of writers, so this small cache of business letters start to reveal at least something of the intense and intelligent man behind the reserved, reticent façade. The first thing to say is that they are essentially business letters. Saki did not enjoy a special relationship with John Lane; he did not feel the need to reward his publisher with information about how and why and what he wrote. He never mentioned his activities outside his books; never mentioned friends; never gave literary or political opinions. As such, this is an atypical correspondence. Saki is not like Byron or Wilde, amusing and quotable; nor is he persistent and neurotic like Lewis Carroll . Sometimes you wonder why he didn't just send a telegram...


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pp. 199-204
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Ceased Publication
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