Beside his short stories (which were first published in newspapers, as was customary at the time, and then collected into several volumes), he wrote a full-length play, The Watched Pot, in collaboration with Charles Maude; two one-act plays; a historical study, The Rise of the Russian Empire, the only book published under his own name; a short novel, The Unbearable Bassington; the episodic The Westminster Alice (a Parliamentary parody of Alice in Wonderland), and When William Came, subtitled A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns, a fantasy about a future German invasion of Britain.
The name Saki may be a reference to the cupbearer in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyam, a poem mentioned disparagingly by the eponymous character in "Reginald on Christmas Presents" and alluded to in a few other stories. (This is stated as fact by Emlyn Williams in his 1978 introduction to a Saki anthology) It may, however, be a reference to the South American primate of the same name, "a small, long-tailed monkey from the Western Hemisphere" that is a central character in "The Remoulding of Groby Lington"
Born in Akyab, Burma (now known as Myanmar) when it was still part of the British Empire, Hector Hugh Munro was the son of Charles Augustus Munro and Mary Frances Mercer (1843-72). Mary was the daughter of Rear Admiral Samuel Mercer; and her nephew, Cecil William Mercer, became a famous writer as Dornford Yates. Charles Munro was an Inspector-General for the Burmese Police.
In 1872, on a home on a visit to England, Mary was charged by a cow; and the shock caused her to miscarry. She never recovered and soon died. Charles Munro sent his children, including two-year-old Hector, to England, where they were brought up by their grandmother and aunts in a strict puritanical household.
Munro was educated at Pencarwick School in Exmouth, Devon and at Bedford Grammar School. On a few occasions, when he retired, Charles travelled with Hector and his sister to fashionable European spas and tourist resorts. In 1893, Hector followed his father into the Indian Imperial Police, where he was posted to Burma (like George Orwell a generation later). Two years later, having contracted malaria, he resigned and returned to England.
At the start of World War I, although 43 and officially over-age, Munro refused a commission and joined the British Army Royal Fusiliers as an ordinary soldier. More than once he returned to the battlefield when officially still too sick or injured. In November 1916, he was sheltering in a shell crater near Beaumont-Hamel, France, when he was killed by a German sniper. His last words, according to several sources, were "Put that bloody cigarette out!" After his death, his sister Ethel destroyed most of his papers and wrote her own account of their childhood.
Munro was homosexual; but, at that time in the U.K., sexual activity between men was a crime. The Cleveland Street scandal (1889), followed by the downfall of Oscar Wilde (1895), meant that "that side of [Munro's] life had to be secret". Politically, Munro was a Tory and somewhat reactionary in his views.
In England he started his career as a journalist, writing for newspapers such as the Westminster Gazette, Daily Express, Bystander, Morning Post, and Outlook.
In 1900, Munro's first book appeared: The Rise of the Russian Empire, a historical study modelled upon Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
From 1902 to 1908, Munro worked as a foreign correspondent for The Morning Post in the Balkans, Warsaw, Russia (where he witnessed Bloody Sunday), and Paris; he then gave that up and settled in London. Many of the stories from this period feature the elegant and effete Reginald and Clovis, young men-about-town who take mischievous delight in the discomfort or downfall of their conventional, pretentious elders. Shortly before the Great War, with the genre of invasion literature selling well, he also published a "what-if" novel, When William Came, subtitled "A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns", imagining the eponymous German emperor conquering Britain.
To recognize his contribution to English literature, a blue plaque has been affixed to a building in which Munro once lived on Mortimer Street in central London.
Saki wrote what’s possibly the best short story in the history of the universe. ‘The Unrest Cure’ is funny, anarchic, irreverent, and deeply politically incorrect. If Clovis Sangrail (a regular in Saki’s short stories) isn’t gay I’ll eat my hat. And I suspect Reginald (another one of his regularly featured characters) isn’t far behind I’ll eat Saki’s hat, too. Writing at the turn of the twentieth century, this author would have had to tread very carefully in his depictions of the wearers of the green carnation. I think he’s done it brilliantly. --Charlie CochraneFurther Readings:
The Complete Saki (Classic, 20th-Century, Penguin)
Paperback: 960 pages
Publisher: Penguin Classics (May 1, 1998)
Amazon: The Complete Saki
Saki (Hector Hugo Munroe) is perhaps the most graceful spokesman for England's "golden afternoon" - the slow and peaceful years before World War I. This volume contains the whole of Saki's work - all the short stories, his three novels and three plays.
The Ruling Passion: British Colonial Allegory and the Paradox of Homosexual Desire by Christopher Lane
Paperback: 344 pages
Publisher: Duke University Press Books (October 10, 1995)
Amazon: The Ruling Passion: British Colonial Allegory and the Paradox of Homosexual Desire
In The Ruling Passion, Christopher Lane examines the relationship between masculinity, homosexual desire, and empire in British colonialist and imperialist fictions at the turn of the twentieth century. Questioning the popular assumption that Britain’s empire functioned with symbolic efficiency on sublimated desire, this book presents a counterhistory of the empire’s many layers of conflict and ambivalence.
Through attentive readings of sexual and political allegory in the work of Kipling, Forster, James, Beerbohm, Firbank, and others—and deft use of psychoanalytic theory—The Ruling Passion interprets turbulent scenes of masculine identification and pleasure, power and mastery, intimacy and antagonism. By foregrounding the shattering effects of male homosexuality and interracial desire, and by insisting on the centrality of unconscious fantasy and the death drive, The Ruling Passion examines the startling recurrence of colonial failure in narratives of symbolic doubt and ontological crisis. Lane argues compellingly that Britain can progress culturally and politically only when it has relinquished its residual fantasies of global mastery.
Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro by A. J. Langguth
Paperback: 334 pages
Publisher: Figueroa Press (November 1, 2003)
Amazon: Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro
"Mr. Langguth has surmounted the problem that confronts any biographer of a writer like Saki. Without appearing to compete with his subject, he writes cleverly enough to hold his own against copious quotation from that witty subject's work." The Atlantic Monthly
"Mr. Langguth, the author of Hidden Terrors, Macumba and Jesus Christs, is superb at stitching Saki's witticisms into a history of the fop who failed...(he) writes perfect sentences." The New York Times
"A. J. Langguth, a novelist and an ex-New York Times correspondent in Saigon, now offers the first full biography (of Munro.) As biographer-critic, he proves knowing, balanced and blessedly brief." Time Magazine
"Both subject and author have an aptitude for exactly the right word, the perfect choice. They are also both fine and perceptive observers of the world around them." The Los Angeles Times
"More than once, the biographer approaches his subject's skill at the well-turned phrase." The Times Literary Supplement
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