To read a Saki story is to hire an assassin. There have been many attempts in the last hundred years to re-create that specific Saki feeling; the pleasures of laying waste to convention combined with the quickening promise of something wilder in its stead. Nobody has yet managed it entirely, but in the pursuit of Saki a great deal of gleeful choler has been produced. If you were feeling ungenerous, you might compare the writing of an introduction to an animal marking out territory (the same could be said of writing essays for literary publications), and so it is with the list of writers who have introduced Saki’s work: Noël Coward, A.N. Wilson, Tom Sharpe, Will Self. Coward’s use of Sakian humour, though, is constrained by his urgent pursuit of the next punchline; Sharpe’s has a seaside postcard quality that has dated more in forty years than Saki’s has in a hundred. Saki is often said to ring through the novels of P.G. Wodehouse, but Wodehouse turns his raw material into something far gentler than Saki did; there is kindness in Saki but not sweetness, and in a truly Sakian Wodehouse story, Bertie would be trapped under a piece of vintage furniture and torn apart by the dog Bartholomew. Coward and Saki do both give off-kilter advice, and they are at their most archetypal when laying down the law. Coward renders schoolboy humour urbane: ‘Never trust a man with short legs; his brains are too near his bottom.’ Saki is calmly outlandish: ‘Never be flippantly rude to any inoffensive grey-bearded stranger that you may meet in pine forests or hotel smoking-rooms on the Continent. It always turns out to be the King of Sweden.’ The work in Coward’s quips is audible; in Saki’s it is undetectable. As with Donne, Nabokov and Spark, the mechanisms of wit are unseen and so inimitable.
Read in the the London Review of Books.
Read The Background by Saki and compare it with Skin by Roald Dahl.
“That woman’s art-jargon tires me,” said Clovis to his journalist friend. “She’s so fond of talking of certain pictures as ‘growing on one,’ as though they were a sort of fungus.”
“That reminds me,” said the journalist, “of the story of Henri Deplis. Have I ever told it you?”
Clovis shook his head.
“Henri Deplis was by birth a native of the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg. On maturer reflection he became a commercial traveller. His business activities frequently took him beyond the limits of the Grand Duchy, and he was stopping in a small town of Northern Italy when news reached him from home that a legacy from a distant and deceased relative had fallen to his share.
“It was not a large legacy, even from the modest standpoint of Henri Deplis, but it impelled him towards some seemingly harmless extravagances. In particular it led him to patronize local art as represented by the tattoo-needles of Signor Andreas Pincini. Signor Pincini was, perhaps, the most brilliant master of tattoo craft that Italy had ever known, but his circumstances were decidedly impoverished, and for the sum of six hundred francs he gladly undertook to cover his client’s back, from the collar-bone down to the waist-line, with a glowing representation of the Fall of Icarus. The design, when finally developed, was a slight disappointment to Monsieur Deplis, who had suspected Icarus of being a fortress taken by Wallenstein in the Thirty Years’ War, but he was more than satisfied with the execution of the work, which was acclaimed by all who had the privilege of seeing it as Pincini’s masterpiece.
Continue reading The Background
by Roald Dahl
That winter – 1946 – was a long time going. Although it was April, a freezing wind blew through the streets of the city, and overhead the snow clouds moved across the sky.
The old man who was called Drioli shuffled painfully along the sidewalk of the Rue de Rivoli. He was cold and miserable, huddled up like a hedgehog in a filthy black coat, only his eyes and the top of his head visible above the turned-up collar.
The door of a café opened and the faint whiff of roasting chicken brought a pain of yearning to the top of his stomach. He moved on glancing without any interest at the things in the shop windows – perfume, silk ties and shirts, diamonds, porcelain, antique furniture, finely bound books. Then a picture gallery. He had always liked picture-galleries. This one had a single canvas on display in the window. He stopped to look at it. He turned to go on. He checked, looked back; and now, suddenly, there came to him a slight uneasiness, a movement of the memory, a distant recollection of something, somewhere, he had seen before. He looked again. It was landscape, a clump of trees leaning madly over to one side as if blown by a tremendous wind. Attached to the frame there was a little plaque, and on this it said: CHAIM SOUTINE (1894 – 1943).
Continue reading Skin.