Monday 18 April 2011

The Unbearable Bassington - Saki

One of my favourite things about the blogosphere is when lots of people start reading the same neglected author at the same time. I've seen it happen with Shirley Jackson, Barbara Comyns, and of course Persephone favourites Dorothy Whipple, Marghanita Laski etc. It's even more wonderful when it's a complete coincidence - I had just finished reading The Unbearable Bassington (1912) by Saki, when Hayley posted her review of it here. We even have identical battered Penguin copies. Actually, hers is much less battered than mine... Hayley and I belong to the same online reading group, and our united praise of the novel has sparked off everyone there dusting off their Complete Saki collections, or buying themselves copies. I had seen a cheap Penguin in my local secondhand bookshop, and offered it up for grabs - Elaine (aka Random Jottings) leapt at the chance, kindly reciprocating with E.F. Benson's The Luck of the Vails - and she has already posted her thoughts here. (I've just spotted, as I edit this post, that Lyn's review has popped up too!) Cut a long story short, we all thought it was great.

And now to cut a short story long. I have loved Saki ever since I stole my parents' copy of his complete works. (Er, sorry Mum and Dad... did I ever return it?) His short stories are wonderfully sharp, biting and a little macabre at times - but always hilarious. You can read a couple of them on here, if you select Saki from the drop-down author menu in the left-hand column. So I turned to The Unbearable Bassington expecting more of the same... well, there is certainly a lot of one-liners, the litotes which British authors do so well, and a sort of Wildean humour. I liked this line: "As far as remunerative achievement was concerned, Comus copied the insouciance of the field lily with a dangerous fidelity." (If the Biblical allusion passes you by, click here.) Even the epigraph could have been penned by our Oscar: 'This story has no moral. If it points out an evil at any rate it suggests no remedy.' And Comus Bassington could have stepped out of one of Wilde's works - he is a feckless, money-wasting burden upon his mother Francesca. He absently intends to marry heiress Elaine, but puts no effort into wooing her. Instead, he borrows money from her to waste, and generally lives a hedonistic, slightly sadistic, life. Here he is:
In appearance he exactly fitted his fanciful Pagan name. His large green-grey eyes seemed for ever asparkle with goblin mischief and the joy of revelry, and the curved lips might have been those of some wickedly-laughing faun; one almost expected to see embryo horns fretting the smoothness of his sleek dark hair. The chin was firm, but one looked in vain for a redeeming touch of ill-temper in the handsome, half-mocking, half-petulant face. With a strain of sourness in him Comus might have been leavened into something creative and masterful; fate had fashioned him with a certain whimsical charm, and left him all unequipped for the greater purposes of life. Perhaps no one would have called him a lovable character, but in many respects he was adorable; in all respects he was certainly damned.

Francesca is no saint, though. A really interesting discussion could be had as to which Bassington is most appropriately given the epithet 'unbearable'. Francesca ("if pressed in an unguarded moment to describe her soul, would probably have described her drawing-room") is dominant on the social scene, which means we see her fierce (but genteel) fighting with everyone else, put-downs delivered with a smile, and constant battling to stay on top (and solvent). Saki's eye for the viciousness of social interaction is matched only by E.F. Benson's, and Saki does less to cloak it. It's all rounded-off with delicious humour, of course, but there's no getting away from the fact that mother and son are equally selfish - although they care for each other, in a disguised and distorted manner. Here is Francesca's oh-so-empathetic thoughts about her brother:
In her brother Henry, who sat eating small cress sandwiches as solemnly as though they had been ordained in some immemorial Book of Observances, fate had been undisguisedly kind to her. He might so easily have married some pretty helpless little woman, and lived at Notting Hill Gate, and been the father of a long string of pale, clever useless children, who would have had birthdays and the sort of illnesses that one is expected to send grapes to, and who would have painted fatuous objects in a South Kensington manner as Christmas offerings to an aunt whose cubic space for limber was limited. Instead of committing these unbrotherly actions, which are so frequent in family life that they might almost be called brotherly, Henry had married a woman who had both money and a sense of repose, and their one child had the brilliant virtue of never saying anything which even its parents could consider worth repeating.

Saki continues in a similar vein for much of the novel, and it is delicious. Lots of social cattiness and social failure, awkwardness when nemeses are sat together at dinner, that sort of thing. If it did not have the bite of his short stories, or quite their brilliance, then it was still certainly very good - the sort of thing a Mapp & Lucia fan would want to read when they're at their most spiky.

I thought I had a firm grasp on what Saki was doing, and I was enjoying it a lot, until I came to the final chapter. Oh, that final chapter. I shan't tell you the catalyst, but it is some of the best and saddest writing I have ever read. So, so brilliantly done - not a word overwritten, and not a false emotion. Stunning. At first it felt like it had come out of nowhere, completely out of kilter with the rest of the novel - but it actually had the effect of unveiling my eyes to the rest of The Unbearable Bassington: suddenly I could see that laughter and weeping, joy and sadness, had danced together throughout the whole narrative. Laughter was resolutely winning most of the way - but when it slipped, and weeping rode higher, it was really only the undercurrent of the novel flooding into view.

The Unbearable Bassington really is the most incredible little book. I think I still prefer his exemplary short stories, for their quick and witty impact, but The Unbearable Bassington is spectacular in a different way. Capuchin have recently republished it, and I'm glad that someone has - this is a novel which shouldn't be neglected, and here's hoping that the recent spate of reviews across the blogs will encourage a mini Saki-revival...


  1. OK, I'm convinced, I'll put aside Dickens and read this! I bought The Complete Saki about a year or so ago after I rediscovered his short stories. I remembered reading "The Interlopers" years ago in a high school English anthology. I managed to track the story down and I became completely hooked on Saki. I've read some of the stories to my girls also, who find them hilarious. Their favorite is "The Storyteller."

    So now I have to decide if I should read Saki tonight or watch Upstairs, Downstairs. . . tough choice!

  2. great review! I've read the short stories but not this.

  3. Simon - thank you once again for sending me the copy and for introducing me to this quite wonderful little book. The ending reduced me to tears and though I mentioned the Ishiguro on my review, I have to say that it had the same emotional kick at the end as Little Boy Lost by Laski. This book is a GEM

  4. A Penguin first edition is on its way from Abebooks on the back of this glowing recommendation!

  5. Lovely review, Simon. There is a lot of sadness behind the laughter. Most of the characters seemed to me to be unhappy in some way & not too many of them had any meaningful connection with anyone else. I'm so glad I've read it.

  6. HURRAH this is available for free on the kindle. All downloaded and ready to go ;)

  7. Forgive me my pedantry, but is there an excess 'not' in the final sentence you quote? Apologies if I'm wrong and have simply got tangled in the multiple negatives.

  8. I've never heard of Saki before, but if he's as much like our boy Oscar as you say, he must be worth a try. And if it's on the kindle (thanks, Jessica, for the heads up!) then I can't wait the matter of minutes it'll take me to dig in to what sounds like a great character. Thanks for the wonderful reivew!

  9. Another one that I've never heard of, but I will keep my eyes open for Saki now.


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