SAKI: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro by A. J. Langguth
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SAKI: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro

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A perfect marriage of biographer (the sharp storyteller/journalist who wrote Hidden Terrors) and subject (the even sharper storyteller/journalist who made hidden terrors funny)--so perfect that this critical biography remains readable and involving even when the materials are stretched out a tad too far. Langguth views the short, sad life of H. H. Munro with shrewd compassion and extra-dry wit--never sentimentalizing, never preaching, never defending the indefensible. Moreover, he does an unusually graceful job with the biographer's two trickiest tasks: suggesting psychological undercurrents; and relating the life to the work. Motherless, virtually fatherless, raised (with sister and brother) by two unlovably neurotic and aggressively genteel spinster-aunts, Hector (b. 1870) was oppressed from the start--and would learn ""to humiliate his oppressors in a dozen ingenious ways on the printed page."" With family support (sister Ethel would be ever-idolizing) he took up writing after a ""protracted boyhood"" and a brief stint as a military policeman in Burma. He tried a history of the Russian Empire (""an impeccably dressed young man with self-effacing manners unleashing elemental passions in the Reading Room of the British Museum""). He had a spot of success with political (anti-Liberal) satire during the Boer War. And then, while working as a foreign correspondent in the Balkans and St. Petersburg (much intriguing history here), he began writing stories--horrible, comic, subtly homo-erotic, undeniably cruel, with a ""refined but very real blood lust."" Happily, though Langguth doesn't shy away from Munro's anti-Semitism and Tory politics, he sees the fiction in primarily human, not social, terms: Munro's homosexuality--precisely distinguished from Wilde's (Saki has ""currents of more genuine, if faintly nasty, desire"")--is a convincingly key concern. And when, at 42, Munro insists on joining up as an enlisted man (""an effort to ally himself finally with the majority,"" to bury his former selves), Langguth makes it a moving ritual--apparently (and successfully) suicidal. With generous (sometimes too-generous) quotes from journalism and fiction--plus an appendix bonus of six uncollected Saki stories--a minor but fully satisfying study, appropriately miniature in feel, sometimes rising to real eloquence: ""God was gone, Eve was gone, and Hector had left himself with only Adam and the snake. Yet, rejoicing in that narrow range, he fashioned a comedy of manners that looks to be enduring.

Pub Date: July 29th, 1981
Publisher: Simon & Schuster