Friday, December 18, 2015

Birthday: H.H. Munro, who wrote, "The young have aspirations that never come to pass, the old have reminiscences of what never happened."

Reginald closed his eyes with the elaborate weariness of one who has rather nice eyelashes and thinks it useless to conceal the fact.

The cook was a good cook, as cooks go; and as cooks go, she went.

Behind his careful political flippancy and cynicism one might also detect a certain careless sincerity, which would probably in the long run save him from moderate success, and turn him into one of the brilliant failures of his day.

The people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally. 

But, good gracious, you've got to educate him first. You can't expect a boy to be vicious till he's been to a good school.

I'm living so far beyond my means that we may almost be said to be living apart.

Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916)
Author, Journalist

He was a child of the raj; his father, an inspector general in the Indian Imperial Police, stationed in Rangoon. His mother was the daughter of an admiral. She died in 1872 after being charged by a cow; Hector and his brother and sister were shipped home to England, there to be raised by a shrewish grandmother and a Wodehousian collection of aunts.

After school and some traveling with his newly retired father, Munro joined the Burma Police in 1893, but was back in Britain by 1895, having contracted malaria.He took to journalism in London, writing for a variety of political magazines and daily papers; his only “serious” book (published in his name), The Rise of the Russian Empire (1900) was a history in the style of Gibbon. From 1902 to 1908 he was a foreign correspondent for the various Balkan conflicts and anarchist assassinations of the day; he serialized a parody of Alice in Wonderland, setting the intrepid girl in the House of Commons, in 1902. His comic novel, The Unbearable Bassington, came out in 1912, and two years later, a speculation on the German invasion of Britain appeared as When William Came.

A conservative, he rejected the fashionable pacifism of the last days before war, writing in an article, “If these men are on the side of the angels, may I always have a smell of brimstone about me.” And when the war came, as Christopher Hitchens put it:
...Saki surprised all his elite admirers. His reasons for insisting on signing up for the trenches, when he was easily old enough to evade that fate, were almost comically reactionary. Enraged by the antimilitarist left that thought socialism preferable to world war, he argued in effect that even world war was preferable to socialism. Yet he declined any offer of an officer’s commission, insisted on serving in the ranks, appeared to forget all his previous affectations about hollandaise dressing and the loving preparations of wine and cheese, and was so reduced by front-line conditions of wounds and illness that he grew a moustache to conceal the loss of most of his top teeth. He carried on writing, though chiefly about the interesting survival of wildlife in the no-man’s-land of the Western Front, and he repeatedly sought positions on the front line. In November 1916, near the village of Beaumont-Hamel on the river Somme, he found what it is quite thinkable that he had been looking for all along. On the verge of a crater, during an interval of combat, he was heard to shout “Put that bloody cigarette out!” before succumbing to the bullet of a German sniper who had been trained to look for such tell-tale signals. In that “vanished puff of cigarette smoke” or, if you prefer, his image of a dissolved bubble of effervescence, there died someone who had finally come to decide that other people were worth fighting for after all.
His burial site is unknown.

Munro avoided the collateral damage of the Oscar Wilde scandal in 1895; most of what is know of his personal life is from snippets that survive the bonfire his sister made of his papers after his death. and a biographical sketch she published years later. A proper biography did not come out until 2007.

What made Munro’s name was a cascade of short stories, ranging from the satirical to the fantastic, published in his decade in London under the pen name, “Saki.” His work had the same sort of wit as Oscar Wilde, but where Wilde delighted in paradox, and a glittering veneer of frivolity, Saki’s stories of the English upper classes were surgically acerbic, sometimes almost painfully so. Many involved a young man about London called Clovis; another series centered on an effete, world-weary character called Reginald who falls somewhere between a Wilde character and the more louche inhabitants of Ronald Firbank’s fiction:
Reginald slid a carnation of the newest shade into the buttonhole of his latest lounge coat, and surveyed the result with approval. “I am just in the mood,” he observed, “to have my portrait painted by someone with an unmistakable future. So comforting to go down to posterity as ‘Youth with a Pink Carnation’ in catalogue–company with ‘Child with Bunch of Primroses,’ and all that crowd.” 
“Youth,” said the Other, “should suggest innocence.” 
“But never act on the suggestion. I don’t believe the two ever really go together. People talk vaguely about the innocence of a little child, but they take mighty good care not to let it out of their sight for twenty minutes. The watched pot never boils over. I knew a boy once who really was innocent; his parents were in Society, but they never gave him a moment’s anxiety from his infancy. He believed in company prospectuses, and in the purity of elections, and in women marrying for love, and even in a system for winning at roulette. He never quite lost his faith in it, but he dropped more money than his employers could afford to lose. When last I heard of him, he was believing in his innocence; the jury weren’t. All the same, I really am innocent just now of something everyone accuses me of having done, and so far as I can see, their accusations will remain unfounded.
His novel, The Unbearable Bassington, features an amiable if off-kilter layabout son and his socialite mother, who wishes nothing more keenly than to marry her son off to a girl with money. Almost no one seems to have any redeeming qualities, rather like the characters in the early works of Evelyn Waugh twenty years later. His work darkened over time, becoming more scathing in their indictments of society, and more adventurous in their embrace of supernatural themes. Though his stories rest squarely in the long summer of Edwardian England, they have proved enduring popular; the BBC produced a series of them, set in a modern, upper-class gated community, in 2015. He was an inspiration to a generation of writers including A.A. Milne, P.G. Wodehouse, and Noel Coward (who wrote the preface to a collection of the stories), and early earned his place in the first ranks of short story writers in English.

Because his work was produced over such a short time, and his life was so cut short, Munro is often cast as a minor period writer. Virtually all his works remain available, both in anthologies and in the public domain.

#HenryBemisBooks #LiteraryBirthdays #Saki #HectorHughMunro

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