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33 SAKI1S BEASTS By Phi 1 i ϕ Stevick (University of Connecticut) Few writers, says Christopher Morley, are "less profitable tow rite about" than H. H. Munro. "Saki exists only to be read. The exquisite lightness of his work offers no grasp for the solemnities of earnest criticism."! In a sense, of course, Morley is right. Much of what matters most about Saki, his wit, his formal mastery, his stylistic acuteness, his bitter urbanity that never becomes mere cynicism—these are qualities immediately obvious and pointless to analyze. Yet it is unfortunate to leave Saki in the hands of the Christopher Morleys of this world, for whom it is the highest compliment for a host to place a volume of Saki on the guest's night table. For in another and equally legitimate sense, placing Saki on the night table is as dubious an act as supplying the house guest with Krafft-Ebing. There is, behind the facile gloss, an uncompromising honesty in much of Saki together with a remarkably prescient insight into the unconscious life of his characters. BEASTS AND SUPER-BEASTS (1914) collects many of those stories which display Saki at his most surreptitiously tough minded. It begins with a sentence, from the story "The She-Wolf," which is worth taking as a statement of theme. "Leonard Bilsiter was one of those people who have failed to find this world attractive or interesting , and who have sought compensation in an 'unseen world' of their own experience or imagination—or invention." Leonard acquires a reputation for possessing "esoteric forces and unusual powers." Early in the story, the conversation goes like this: "I wish you would turn me into a wolf, Mr. Bilsiter," said his hostess at luncheon the day after his arrival. "My dear Mary," said Colonel Hampton, "1 never knew you had a craving in that direction." "A she-wolf, of course," continued Mrs. Hampton; "It would be too confusing to change one's sex as well as one's species at a moment's notice." "I don't think one should jest on these subjects," said Leonard. "I 'm not jesting, I'm quite serious, I assure you." Clovis, Saki's ubiquitous provocateur, contrives meanwhile to borrow a real wolf from a wild animal collection. And the afternoon of the collision between the spurious magic of Leonard and the mischief of Clovis approaches. By the following day the house-party had swollen to larger proporitions, and Bilsiter's instinct for self-advertisement expanded duly under the stimulant of an increased audience, At dinner that evening he held forth at length on the subject of unseen forces and untested powers, and his flow of impressive eloquence continued unabated while coffee was being served in the drawing-room preparatory to a general migration to the card-room. His aunt ensured a respectful hearing for his utterances, but her sensation-loving soul hankered after something more dramatic than mere vocal demonstration. "Won't you do something to convi nee them of your powers, Leonard?" she pleaded. "Change something into another shape. He can, you know, if he only chooses to," she informed the company. After this point, the story works toward the manifold nonsense of fainting women, defensive men, puzzled wolf, still more puzzled Leonard, and triumphant Clovis. But what is most significant about the story is not the cleverness of its plot and the wit of its presentation but its collection of images and symbols which give the story an instinctual dimension. First there is the contrast between the beast and the garden party, a party in which the participants are over-civilized and ineffectual, with their comic names, their empty chatter, and their incapacity to act. (The comic incongruity of beast and gentry is a frequent one in BEASTS AND SUPER-BEASTS with appearances by boai—pigs, an elk, an ox, a cat, a hen, and all manner of imagined animals from sheep to wild dogs.) Secondly, there is a heavily ironic emphasis on standards of decorum and propriety. Here Saki exploits the "sensation-loving" wish to become a beast; elsewhere he writes ironically of "sin" and "depravity." Finally, there is that amazing series of submerged metaphors in the...


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pp. 33-37
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