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Out for blood, not tea

One hundred years after Saki’s death in the Great War, his stories are still wickedly funny, argues Fatema Ahmed

What Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), or “Saki,” thought of his life and work is a mystery. After his death, his sister Ethel destroyed most of his papers and instead wrote a short biographical sketch of her brother, which was published in 1924. The most vivid detail is her first memory of him, which has Saki running around the nursery with a blazing hearthbrush yelling, “I’m God! I’m going to destroy the world!” The second most vivid detail is their final encounter, when in the summer of 1916, Ethel declared “Kill a good few for me!” as Saki returned to the front in France. In November that year in the trenches near Beaumont-Hamel, Saki was reported to have shouted, “Put that bloody cigarette out!” only to be shot and killed by a German sniper.

“There is a hierarchy of beings in Saki’s stories. Wolves are at the top, followed by beautiful young men; women and aunts are at the bottom”

Exactly a century after Saki’s death on 14th November 1916, it seems remarka ble that his work has survived so well. In a line-up of the wits of 20th-century English literature, Saki is usually tucked somewhere between PG Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh. Both were prolific writers (Wodehouse frighteningly so), and most of their work is worth remembering. Waugh was a brilliant and fair critic of fiction he had sympathy with, and once wrote that Saki produced no more than seven or eight short stories that are masterpieces. (The Collected Stories numbers over 120.) The rest “too often have the air of being fancies and jests unduly expanded, or of dramatic themes unduly cramped.” Seven or eight masterpieces, including his most famous story “Sredni Vashtar,” is more than most writers ever manage but—given such a low strike rate and the slightness of his chosen form—Saki’s enduring popularity, among fans including Roald Dahl, in children’s editions, and this year as the subject of a play, is one of the stranger literary feats I can think of.

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In Prospect’s December issue: Sam Tanenhaus argues that Donald Trump was born to be a campaigning demagogue, but will he be too bored to rule? Ed Miliband and Michael Gove debate whether parliament should have a binding vote on the terms of Brexit and Christian Wolmar examines the driverless car delusion. Also in this issue: James Harkin examines the situation in Syria, focussing on Raqqa Ruth Dudley Edwards explores the battle in Ireland since the UK’s decision to leave the EU—will the border become a division? And Michael White looks at the life of Alan Johnson, the Labour MP and former postie.