Sunday, 19 April 2009

23. Hector Hugh Munro - 'The Background' (1911)

'She cancelled the sale of the work of art, and a few days later Deplis learned with a sense of consternation that she had presented it to the municipality of Bergamo, which had gratefully accepted it.'

(The Dragon's Head: Classic English Short Stories, Oxford University Press, 1988, p.176)

The second story of week #4 is from the same volume of stories collected in the 1930s. Munro, better known as 'Saki', was Burmese born, but raised and schooled in England - and this is clearly the work of a cosmopolitan Briton, taking up the baton from Wilde and others. There is a dark humour, cruelty and effortless development of a conceit reminiscent of Wilde and possibly looking forward to early Evelyn Waugh.

This is one of the Clovis Chronicles, and yet not about the aforementioned Clovis at all; it is a bizarre tale told to Clovis by a journalist friend - though it all takes off as a result of an offhand, presumably typical expression of Clovis's irritation at a woman's 'art-jargon': 'She's so fond of talking of certain pictures as "growing on one", as though they were a sort of fungus.' (p.175)

Saki's wonderful conceit - of Henri Deplis gaining money and spending it on some 'harmless extravagances', including getting the tattooist Signor Andreas Pincini to cover his back with 'a glowing representation of the Fall of Icarus' - is utilised to the absurdist and satiric hilt. The framing of the story reminds me, in its truncated, deliberate truculence, of the way 'A Sphinx without a Secret' opens - highest praise from me. Deploying the Wildean trope of a human being a work of art, it unfolds with inexorable black humour, without the sense of socialism Wilde imbues in most of his tales, but much glorying and mocking of aestheticism. In some senses, the style might be said to prefigure Kafka or Orton or shame something with G.K. Chesterton. The world-view is notably bleak, back into line with the first few stories assessed as part of ASSAD, and it is unsurprising that this reminds me of Dahl, as I believe that writer used Saki's conceit for an episode of the TV anthology series, Tales of the Unexpected.

Henri Deplis, 'traveller of commerce', is a perpetually unfortunate native of Luxemburg, buffeted around, unable to move freely around regions or nations. Once the 'work' is ruined, he is kicked out of Italy 'as an undesirable alien' and ends the story as an absurd relic in Paris - and I won't quote it anymore to avoid any more spoilers. Read it! Bizarre, amusing stuff; I certainly look forward to more Saki in future.


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