The Chronicles of Clovis by Saki (1911)

The spirit of mirthfulness which one associates with the name certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth… (The Unbearable Bassington)

In 1908, Hector Hugh Munro gave up foreign reporting and returned to London. Throughout his career as a foreign correspondent he had also been publishing short fictional squibs under the pen-name Saki, sometimes rising to the level of ‘short stories’, often little more than humorous anecdotes or dialogues set among London’s upper classes. From time to time they were brought together in book form.

The Chronicles of Clovis was Saki’s third such collection of very short stories and scenes. As the title suggests, most (though not all) of the stories feature the character of Clovis Sangrail, a world-weary, spoiled, selfish and cynical upper-class young man with a malicious sense of humour.

Clovis rearranged several cushions to his personal solace and satisfaction; he knew that the Baroness liked her guests to be comfortable, and he thought it right to respect her wishes in that particular.

Clovis, and his friend Reginald, who we know from Saki’s previous stories, are young men-about-town who take mischievous delight in shocking their conventional, stuffy elders. In fact the pair are interchangeable and Clovis performs precisely the same role of sardonic chorus or witty interlocutor to an older, conventional lady, easily shocked by his cynical quips, that Reginald did in the earlier texts. Clovis’s favourite interlocutor is named ‘the Baroness’. Another recurring character is a minor foil or confidante named Bertie van Tahn.

Clovis and Reginald take the upper-class arrogance, privilege and entitlement which has drummed into them at expensive public schools and to turn it against the older generation which had put them through the ordeal, delighting in shocking them not so much with deeds – for our heroes rarely lower themselves to actually doing anything – but with outré and unconventional attitudes, with their extreme cynicism or modish insouciance.

The stories portray a society which put a premium on decorum and good manners, on ‘good breeding’, but which bridled at too much intelligence or cleverness – all of whose boundaries and borders Saki relished driving a coach and horses through.

Mind you, it is inaccurate to say that it’s only Clovis and Reginald who bait their straightlaced peers, because the narrator does too. In fact Clovis appears in fewer than half the stories and it is the narrator who most of the time makes the cruellest jibes and weaves the most extended insults:

Lady Isobel was seen everywhere with a fawn-coloured collie at a time when everyone else kept nothing but Pekinese, and she had once eaten four green apples at an afternoon tea in the Botanical Gardens, so she was widely credited with a rather unpleasant wit. The censorious said she slept in a hammock and understood Yeats’s poems, but her family denied both stories.

The joke is not so much at Lady Isobel’s expense but at that of her family and, more generally, at the kind of society she moves in. It is partly the implication that ‘understanding’ Yeats’s poems is as eccentric as sleeping in a hammock. It is partly the comic notion that it is so exceptional that a denial has to be issued by the family. There are multiple levels of mockery in just that one sentence.

(In the story The Quest Clovis himself is portrayed as lazing in a hammock and it’s worth pausing a moment to reflect what an utterly suitable piece of household furniture a hammock is for Clovis and his character of drawling, ironic inactivity.)

Some people think that satire changes things, in which case you might say that Saki’s stories were designed to ‘satirise’ and ‘scandalise’ Edwardian high society. But I think it’s nearer the mark to start from the opposite premise – that satire changes nothing but merely amuses those being satirised. Compare and contrast the immensely popular Alex cartoon strip which started in 1987 and mocks the greed and heartlessness of City bankers and is… immensely popular with City bankers. In the same way Saki’s stories have been immensely popular from his day to ours because people enjoy recognising themselves, or a part of themselves, or a part of themselves they wish they had. Everyone always thinks it’s someone else who is being mocked.

Saki’s attitude as revealed in ‘Wratislaw’

In the story Wratislaw, two very upper-class European ladies, the shrewd Gräfin and the rather dim Baroness Sophie, are in conversation, exchanging the expected bon mots and cynical witticisms:

‘Haven’t you noticed that women with a really perfect profile like mine are seldom even moderately agreeable?’

The Gräfin is trying to marry off her objectionable son, Wratlislav, to the Baroness’s dim daughter, Elsa, a proposal to which the Baroness says:

‘I don’t want Wratislav. My poor Elsa would be miserable with him.’
‘A little misery wouldn’t matter very much with her; it would go so well with the way she does her hair, and if she couldn’t get on with Wratislav she could always go and do good among the poor.’

From this little exchange we can extract several of the premises which underlie Saki’s humour:

1. Nobody in this pampered upper class is ‘miserable’; or if they are, nobody else understands the concept because everyone is basically sorted for all their earthly needs. Extremes of want or emotion are unheard of and so are little more than conversational toys, empty words.

2. In any case, one of the key markers of being an aristocrat is not to take anything seriously: remember the general sitting astride a horse close to the Duke of Wellington during the Battle of Waterloo? There was an approaching rumble, a loud bang and the general remarked: ‘By Jove, Sir, I believe they’ve shot my leg orf.’ The Duke of Wellington looks over and remarks: ‘By Jove, Sir, so they have.’ This was the attitude of sublime and lofty nonchalance which characterised the English upper classes from the 18th century through to the public schoolboys I met at university.

3. And the extremest way of demonstrating one’s aristocratic nonchalance (like insouciance, a French word) is to take what servants and earnest middle-class types think of as ‘serious’ emotions, conditions and attitudes and to pointedly equate them with the lightest, most frivolous subjects imaginable, generally ‘female’ subjects such as fashion, clothes and, in this instance, hairdo. The utter inability to take anything seriously is demonstrated by the deliberately casual, mocking equation of lifelong emotional misery with someone’s hair colour. Exactly the same attitude recurs in The Story of St. Vespaluus:

Vespaluus…was the best looking, and the best horseman and javelin- thrower, and had that priceless princely gift of being able to walk past a supplicant with an air of not having seen him, but would certainly have given something if he had. My mother has that gift to a certain extent; she can go smilingly and financially unscathed through a charity bazaar, and meet the organisers next day with a solicitous ‘had I but known you were in need of funds’ air that is really rather a triumph in audacity.

‘The poor? Oh, I didn’t notice them.’

4. So the central aspect of the lofty insouciance which Saki both epitomises and satirises is to mock anyone who is ever serious about anything. This attitude had been brought to a pitch of perfection by Oscar Wilde a generation earlier:

  • ‘Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about.’ (Lord Darlington in The Importance of Being Earnest)
  • ‘We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.’ (Letter to Robert Ross)

Therefore, the notion that an unhappy Elsa might compensate for her unhappy marriage by ‘doing good among the poor’ is a) designed to show how absurd the very notion of someone from her class ‘doing good among the poor’ is; and therefore b) how charity can can only possibly be explained as a harmless diversion for unhappy, upper-class women.

Camp and homosexuality

This extravagantly, ostentatiously, teasingly and mockingly anti-serious attitude, the valorising of the trivial, the mocking dismissal of anything earnest or serious, would evolve, by the 1960s, into the quality known as ‘camp’, heavily associated with a certain type of homosexuality. (See Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp).

In this regard, it might be worth noting, here, the series of descriptions of improbably beautiful young men, all svelte and soignés, who trail through these stories. Here’s Vespaluus:

‘He was quite the best-looking boy at Court; he had an elegant, well-knit figure, a healthy complexion, eyes the colour of very ripe mulberries, and dark hair, smooth and very well cared for.’
‘It sounds like a description of what you imagine yourself to have been like at the age of sixteen,’ said the Baroness.

And Pan:

Across a thick tangle of undergrowth a boy’s face was scowling at her, brown and beautiful, with unutterably evil eyes.

Here’s the werewolf in Gabriel-Ernest:

On a shelf of smooth stone overhanging a deep pool in the hollow of an oak coppice a boy of about sixteen lay asprawl, drying his wet brown limbs luxuriously in the sun. His wet hair, parted by a recent dive, lay close to his head, and his light-brown eyes, so light that there was an almost tigerish gleam in them, were turned towards Van Cheele with a certain lazy watchfulness.

Naked and wet, asprawl in the sun. Pretty sexy, eh? Critics from Saki’s day to ours have wondered whether not only the male sensuality but also the extra element of malice, and the occasional turn to the macabre in Saki’s stories, in some way derives from Munro’s (necessarily repressed) homosexuality.

All that said, this stylised mockery of anything serious was also, of course, celebrated by many entirely ‘straight’ authors, from P.G. Wodehouse to Evelyn Waugh, in the name alone of Lord Peter Wimsy, in the tone of detached ironic humour which characterises the books of Jerome K Jerome. Is it, I wonder, a particularly English quality?

Childhood unhappiness

Personally, I don’t think Saki’s sexuality is that important. Personally, I think the key fact in Munro’s biography is that he was sent away from his parents at a young age, sent from a warm and loving home in British Burma all the way back to cold and miserable England where he was looked after by strict and stern guardians while he attended a series of miserable boarding schools.

Kipling underwent a similarly miserable childhood and the result was a lifetime of works marked by often very unpleasant sadism. (On one level, Kipling’s notorious ‘racism’ is merely a sub-set of his larger, more out-of-control anger against all kinds of people.)

Same here. I think the grimmer and more macabre Saki stories are Munro’s revenge on the cruel world which gave him such a miserable childhood. Hence the air of malice around ‘aunts’, all of them avatars of the strict, Bible-thumping governess who looked after young Hector. The same repressed anger, arguably comes out, in a displaced kind of way, in the misfortunes of the children in so many of the stories, who are routinely eaten or blown up.

The atmosphere of lonely, solitary childhood tyrannised by a punitive guardian portrayed in the story Sredni Vashtar seems to me the clue to all his works (that is, if you look for clues, if you are interested in biographical keys). Or you could just enjoy the stories’ sly elegance and outrageous storylines.


The stories

1. Esmé (features Clovis)

The Baroness tells Clovis about the time she was out hunting to hounds with Constance Broddle when they got lost but, hearing some hounds barking, discovered they’d got separated from the main pack and were now surrounding a creature at bay which, when the women held the hounds back, turned out to be a hyena! A hyena? Yes, it has escaped from the menagerie of Lord Pabham, whose grounds are nearby.

The Baroness liberates it from the hounds and they ride off to try and find the road home, with the hyena trotting faithfully behind. On an upper-class whim the Baroness names the hyena Esmé. They come across a gypsy waif playing in the path, pass by, the hyena drops back, then they hear a cry and see the hyena has the child in its jaws. They scold and shout and try to whip it and the Baroness throws her sandwich box, to no avail. The hyena drops behind the trotting women, there’s a crescendo and screaming and then an ominous silence and the hyena reappears with a satisfied smile on its face. The Baroness’s companion is horrified as they emerge into a road and make their way home.

It is dark and there is the sound of a motor car roaring up, a thud and a yell and when they catch up, a motorist has hit and killed the hyena. He is a jolly pukka young chap and he apologises most sincerely to the ladies and calls his chauffeur to fetch a spade and they bury the beast, under the impression it is a dog. With admirable sang-froid, the Baroness claims it is indeed a prize pedigree hound. She gives the driver her address. Some time later he sends her a brooch with the name of the ‘dog’ engraved on it.

What then clinches the utter heartlessness and amoral insouciance of the character, is that she sells the brooch for a tidy profit. Nothing means anything to these people except the game of ‘appearances’ and ‘manners’.

2. The Match-Maker (Clovis)

Not a story, more a meandering scene with Clovis arriving at the supper table, polishing off some oysters while waxing lyrical about their selflessness to his host, then segueing into a discussion of his mother’s two previous marriages and how he rustled up an old Empire Johnny to be her third husband.

3. Tobermory (C)

At Lady Blemley’s house-party at ‘the Towers’, rather boring Mr. Cornelius Appin turns out to have made the stupefying achievement of teaching the house cat, Tobermory, how to talk. Not only that but Tobermory drawls, with the exaggerated languid tones of the effete upper classes. That’s satire 1.

Satire 2 is that the cat immediately starts spilling the beans about the ‘goings on’ among the humans and, more viciously, repeating exactly what they say about each other behind each others’ backs which is, of course, often malicious and wounding. General panic.

Tobermory spots the neighbours’ cat out the window and scarpers after it. Sir Wilfred and Lady Blemley agree the cat must immediately be put down. Dinner is a tense affair, as is breakfast, but spirits lift when Tobermory’s corpse is found in a flowerbed. As to Mr Cornelius Appin, some weeks later he is reported gored to death by an elephant at Dresden Zoo which he had been teaching German irregular verbs.

4. Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger (C)

Mrs Packletide’s life is dominated by rivalry with Loona Bimberton. Loona Bimberton had recently been carried eleven miles in an aeroplane by an Algerian aviator, so Mrs Packletide decides she is going to bag herself a tiger!

I think she must already be in India because she pays the headman of a local village to tether a goat in order to lure a rather elderly and ailing tiger for her to shoot. Mrs P hides in a tree with her paid companion, Miss Mebbin, and soon enough the tiger shows up. A single gunshot rings out and the tiger rolls over dead but, on closer inspection, it appears it was the harmless the goat which was shot and the tiger simply died of a heart attack at the loud noise!

The natives take their 1,000 rupees and swear to silence and thus Mrs Packletide returns to London in triumph, makes the tigerskin the centre of her Curzon Street apartment, gives endless parties where it is the centre of conversation, sends a tiger claw brooch to her rival, Loona Bimberton, even has a wild animal fancy dress party, where Clovis makes a fleeting appearance.

Until, that is, her ‘companion’, penny-conscious Miss Mebbin, blackmails her, threatening to reveal the truth (the old tiger died of a heart attack) unless Mrs Packletide buys her a nice little cottage near Dorking.

Mrs. Packletide indulges in no more big-game shooting. ‘The incidental expenses are so heavy,’ she confides to inquiring friends.

Saki is full of sly details. The thing that made me smile most in this story was that Miss Mebbin names her country cottage ‘Les Fauves’, a jokey reference to the recent French art movement which was given that name in 1905, so quite a modish reference at that.

5. The Stampeding of Lady Bastable (C)

Clovis and his mother, Mrs Sangrail, are staying with Lady Bastaple. Mrs S asks Lady Bastaple if she can keep Clovis on for a further 6 days while she, Mrs S, travels north to stay with the MacGregors. She offers to let Mrs Bastaple off her bridge debt of 49 shillings.

6. The Background (C)

A delirious and bizarre story about a modest commercial traveller, Henri Deplis, who comes into a legacy and decides to spend 600 francs on having a massive picture of the Fall of Icarus tattooed on his back by the premier tattooist in Italy, Andreas Pincini. Pincini dies and Deplis thinks he is let off payment but Pincini’s widow pursues him by which point Deplis no longer has 600 francs left to pay her. After some bad-tempered haggling, the widow donates the picture to the municipality of Bergamo, thus making Deplis’ back into state property. The result is that he is unable, as a state property, to leave Italy, an unusual legal situation which is worked through in delirious detail.

7. Hermann the Irascible — A Story of the Great Weep

A satire on the Suffragettes. It is set in a hypothetical future, in the second decade of the twentieth century after a Great Plague has devastated England, and Hermann the Irascible, nicknamed the Wise, sits on the British throne. One of the recurrent problems he faces is the vociferous and violent Votes For Women movement. Hermann comes up with a comic solution. He suggests a bill to make voting for women compulsory with a £10 fine for failing to vote, and then adds a long list of elections and elected officials which women are now compelled to vote in:

Every woman between the ages of twenty-one and seventy will be obliged to vote, not only at elections for Parliament, county councils, district boards, parish councils, and municipalities, but for coroners, school inspectors, churchwardens, curators of museums, sanitary authorities, police-court interpreters, swimming-bath instructors, contractors, choir-masters, market superintendents, art-school teachers, cathedral vergers, and other local functionaries whose names I will add as they occur to me. All these offices will become elective, and failure to vote at any election falling within her area of residence will involve the female elector in a penalty of £10. Absence, unsupported by an adequate medical certificate, will not be accepted as an excuse.

Of course this transforms voting into an intolerable burden for most women: working women are spending half the week traipsing to and from voting booths, while rich women find their holiday plans wrecked as they are continually being called back to vote for their local cathedral verger or what not, and quickly run up fines of multiples of £10.

Eventually the burden of voting becomes so extreme that it gives rise to a No-Votes-For-Women League  to which Saki maliciously and hilariously attributes all the self-righteousness, inflammatory rhetoric and violence of the original Suffragette Movement. The No-Votes-For-Women League goes one better and invents ‘the Great Weep’ being the systematic crying by women at gatherings large and small.

Eventually, making a great show of making a great concession, Hermann the Wise signs into law a bill depriving women of the right to vote and everyone is happy. And greatly amused.

8. The Unrest-Cure (C)

This is one of Saki’s most famous stories because it is so compact and fluent and beautifully designed. On the train down to be guest at a house party, Clovis overhears two friends chatting, one lamenting that he has got very set in his ways, the other recommending that he shake his life up a bit and have what he calls ‘an unrest-cure’. Clovis’s ears prick up, he makes a note of the conventional man’s name and address (J. P. Huddle, The Warren, Tilfield, near Slowborough.”

He then sends this man a telegram saying ‘the bishop’ is coming to stay, preceded by his private secretary – this is of course Clovis, who proceeds to shock and amaze timid Mr Huffle by announcing that the bishop and a general who will be joining him are planning to round up all the Jews in the neighbourhood and massacre them! Mr Huddle is speechless, his sister responds with a migraine:

It was not her day for having a headache, but she felt that the circumstances excused her, and retired to her room to have as much headache as was possible before the Bishop’s arrival.

The ‘plan’ which Clovis unfolds becomes steadily more outrageous. He explains they are going to invite all the Jews from the neighbourhood and murder them one by one. He explains the house is now surrounded by a hidden ring of boy scouts who will shoot anyone who leaves! Indeed an eminent Jew arrives soon after in his motor car and is hustled quickly upstairs by the terrified brother and sister. Things go on like this for a bit while Clovis lounges in Huddle’s library smoking one of his excellent cigars, before quietly slipping away. None of it was true. It was an entire fiction.

9. The Jesting of Arlington Stringham (C)

Stringham is a politician. He makes a joke in Parliament which enlivens a boring debate. His wife disapproves. He’s never made a joke before. She comments to her mother. Stringham makes another joke, which his wife doesn’t get. Over the next few weeks Stringham makes several more. Then a catty ‘friend’, Gertrude Upton, points out that these are all well-known quips by Lady Isobel, the implication being that Stringham is seeing quite a lot of Lady Isobel.

So far so gently mocking the boringness of politicians, the straightlacedness of their families and so on. So it comes as a shock when the last few lines tell us that Eleanor Stringham killed herself with an overdose of chloral. Does he… does Saki mean that she killed herself because the jokes implied her husband was having an affair?

10. Sredni Vashtar

Conradin is a sickly boy looked after by his disapproving cousin and guardian in a strict and tedious house which has driven him mad with resentment and frustration, which makes him sick ‘under her pestering and domineering and superior wisdom’.

Mrs. de Ropp was the ground-plan on which he based and detested all respectability.

One day the local butcher boy brings him a large polecat-ferret in return for all the silver Conradin has saved up and he hides his cage in the garden shed and develops a private religion based round the fierce animal which he gives the made-up name of Sredni Vashtar.

More and more mystified by Conradin’s regular visits to the shed, Mrs de Ropp one day ransacks his bedroom for the key, orders Conradin to stay in his bedroom, from whose window he watches her go to the shed, unlock it, and enter in. He fervently prays to his god, prays for death and destruction. The minutes pass and the dread witch doesn’t return. Then, with wonder, he sees his god slink out of the shed with dark red strains round its jaws, undulate down to the stream, take a drink, and disappear into the undergrowth. Conradin’s dream has come true. His god has answered his prayers. No more repressive aunt.

11. Adrian (C)

Adrian is a working class lad from Bethnal Green where his mum is a laundress.

One can discourage too much history in one’s family, but one cannot always prevent geography.

He is taken up by the hugely posh Lucas who treats him to dinner at places like the Ritz or Carlton. His aunt Mrs Mebberley hears about this protege and decides to take him off on a tour of Europe.

‘I love Americans, but not when they try to talk French. What a blessing it is that they never try to talk English.’

She takes him to an Alpine resort. Here he flourishes but not in the way expected. He turns out to be quite a wild youth. Where he grew up breaking any cutlery was a crime. Among posh people he discovers that, done at the right time and place, it wins kudos.

Lucas hears about Adrian’s increasingly outrageous exploits via the pen of Clovis who is ‘moving as a satellite in the Mebberley constellation.’ One is that Adrian abducts the ugly Grobmayer child and dressed it as a pig in an evening’s drama performance till it wailed, revealed its identity and the parents were furious. But his masterpiece was swapping all the room numbers on an entire landing and especially affixing the ‘Bathroom’ sign to the door of old Frau Hofrath Schilling who was thereupon terrified out of her wits by a succession of half-dressed visitors.

12. The Chaplet (C)

It was a gala evening at the Grand Sybaris Hotel, and a special dinner was being served in the Amethyst dining-hall. The great chef Monsieur Aristide Saucourt has slaved over his masterpiece dish, Canetons à la mode d’Amblève. But just as it is served to the foreign philistine guests, the very average orchestra strikes up the strains of the dull and obvious tune, The Chaplet and, in their relief at recognising a tune amid a lot of other rather more ‘modern’ music, many of the diners stop to listen, to applaud, tinkering with the famous dish or letting it grow cold! So M. Saucourt in a fury seizes the conductor and plunges him head first into a large tureen of boiling soup!

13. The Quest (C)

Clovis is staying at the Villa Elsinore when there is a disaster: Mrs Momeby misplaces little diddums baby Erik. The household is in an uproar. Only Clovis lazing in a hammock is more concerned about which sauce cook is preparing to accompany the asparagus while outraging everyone with his calm suggestion that maybe the little darling has been eaten by an escaped hyena.

A neighbour calls, Rose-Marie Gilpet who is a devout Christian Scientist and therefore believes there is no such thing as illness and also that we all think positively the lost child will appear. She goes to search the road again and lo and behold finds an abandoned baby there who she restores to the bosom of her family amid tears and celebrations. Which makes it embarrassing when the real Erik is discovered hiding in the garden roller. So who is the imposter? Then arrives the nursemaid from the Villa Charlottenburg across the way to reclaim darling little Percy who had gone missing. Mystery solved and Clovis is off to see the cook about the asparagus sauce.

14. Wratislav (C)

(Described above.)

15. The Easter Egg

What you might call a ‘grim’ story, like the apparent suicide of Eleanor Stringham. In this one Lady Barbara has a son who is a pusillanimous coward, Lester Slaggby. They go to say in a small Germanic resort, learn from the local Burgomeister that the Prince is paying a visit, a local couple suggest that a touching gesture would be for their little 4-year-old to be dressed up and give the Prince the gift of an Easter egg filled with his favourite food, plovers’ eggs. Lester helps to train the little mite and on the big day is gesturing the child towards the Prince sat on his dais when, looking round for the proud parents, he sees them stepping hastily into a cab and, in a flash, realises the egg is filled with a bomb. Lester does the one great brave deed of his life and runs to catch up with the child, grabs the egg planning to throw it far, yells to everyone the one word ‘Bomb!’ but is astonished when the little brat holds onto it with obsessive grip. Then it blows up. The story cuts to some time later and makes the simple point that Lady Barbara is now blind.

So it had been sort of funny up till that point and then becomes bitterly tragic. The note of languid insouciance I mentioned earlier, the Oscar Wilde tone of whimsical detachment, doesn’t apply here. Possibly a conductor being drowned in a tureen of soup is sort of funny. But a woman committing suicide from profound misery or being blinded… not so funny.

16. Filboid Studge, the Story of a Mouse that Helped (C)

Mark Spayley is a commercial artist, he creates advertising posters and is on a piddling £200 per annum. He nervously asks for the hand in marriage of Leonore, the daughter of the vastly successful businessman, Duncan Dullamy, ‘the great company inflator’. What neither he nor anyone else knows is Dullamy’s business empire is about to crash, which is why he accepts Spayley’s offer and suggests a surprisingly quick wedding. Dullamy doesn’t reveal about the looming crash but does lament that his new product, Pipenta, has been a failure. Now he’s his son-in-law to be, Mark offers to help out. In short order he has changed the product’s name to Filboid Studge and created a vast poster showing lost souls in hell clamouring for an opportunity to eat the delicious food, with a big strapline: a single grim statement ran in bold letters along its base: “They cannot buy it now.”

This campaign is surprisingly successful and Filboid Studge becomes a runaway success, which the narrator describes with a few waspish asides about the power of advertising (this was 1908). Dullamy’s fortune is restored and he, of course, breaks off his daughter’s engagement to Spayley and sells her to a much more appropriate beau.

17. The Music on the Hill

Clever Sylvia Seltoun has not only inveigled Mortimer Seltoun into marriage, but to abandon ‘Town’ with its delights and friends, a relocate to his country seat, Yessney.

She looked on the country as something excellent and wholesome in its way, which was apt to become troublesome if you encouraged it overmuch

Here she becomes aware of some kind of presence in the woods, a fleeting golden thing, and is oppressed by a feeling of being watched in among the desolate farm buildings. Boring Mortimer astonishes her by revealing that he believes in the great god Pan and for warning her when she takes some grapes which had been left to a beautiful statuette of the god in a remote clearing. In revenge, the laughing, malicious youth diverts a hunted stag so that it gores Sylvia to death. Maybe a life in Town wouldn’t have been so bad after all.

The title refers to the several occasions on which Sylvia heard remote and eerie music, ‘a low, fitful piping, as of some reedy flute’, coming from somewhere on the hills around her husband’s manor house.

This story takes its place alongside other Edwardian invocations of Pan, to be found in Peter Pan, the Piper at the gates of dawn chapter in Wind In The Willows and The Story of a Panic by E.M. Foster to name only the most obvious. (Pan in popular culture.) Why? The end of the 19th century saw a kind of rarefied, aestheticised classicism, the paintings of the Olympians, and this seems to have overlapped with the florescence of the children’s story during the Edwardian decade. Pan represents a melding of the two.

18. The Story of St. Vespaluus (C)

Clovis tells ‘the Baroness’ a long cock and bull story set in the early Middle Ages when ‘when a third of the people were Pagan, and a third Christian, and the biggest third of all just followed whichever religion the Court happened to profess’.

Bad-tempered King Hkrikros has no children but a number of nephews among whom his favourite is elegant, sporty young Vespaluus. The king wants to nominate him as his heir but then discovers that Vespaluus is a Christian. Damn. The king is a fervent pagan who devotedly maintains ‘the sacred serpents, who lived in a hallowed grove on a hill near the royal palace.’

The king hires the Royal Librarian, who has time on his hands, to go cut branches and switches from the woods and give young Vespaluus a sound thrashing. Doesn’t change his mind. Then he has the boy locked up in a tower without food and water though the guards take pity on him and sneak in grub.

But when he’s released in time for the great summer games Vespaluus refuses to take part in the ritual worship of the sacred snakes and the king’s patience snaps. He arranges him to be stung to death by the royal bees. However, the bee-keeper loves Vespaluus (everyone does) and so spends a laboursome night before the scheduled punishment pulling out all the bee stings. So that when crowds of pagans assemble to watch the ritual stinging-to-death of Vespaluus everyone is astonished to see him covered in bees and writhing yet emerging unscathed. It is a miracle! He must be a saint!

The furious king berates his librarian but before he can do any more harm himself dies of an apoplectic fit. At which point Vespaluus is crowned king and, assuming his Christian faith, the entire Court sets about getting itself baptised, neighbouring Christian powers make approaches, the pagan rites begin to be deprecated.

But the punchline is that Vespaluus isn’t a Christian at all. He is a devout pagan and worships the same sacred snakes as the king. Then why on earth, the Chamberlain asks him, did he pose as a Christian and cause himself and everyone else so much bother?

‘I used to pretend to be a Christian convert just to annoy Hkrikros. He used to fly into such delicious tempers. And it was rather fun being whipped and scolded and shut up in a tower all for nothing.’

He is a classic Wildean fop, loving pranks and mocking the earnest.

19. The Way to the Dairy (C)

The Baroness and Clovis again. As usual Clovis tells her a bitchy or spiteful or droll anecdote. This time it’s about an aunt who unexpectedly comes into some money, at which point she is drooled over by her nieces, the Brimley Bomefields, namely Christine, Veronique and another. The nieces are horrified when they learn that the aunt, getting on in years, proposes to leave her fortune to a nephew of hers, named Roger. So Veronique comes up with a cunning plan which is to catch Roger out, gambling or somehow frittering his money away. Every year he goes on holiday to northern France so the nieces persuade the aunt to go on holiday to Dieppe. But, in a comic reversal, while they’re waiting to catch Roger at the tables it is the aunt who has a casual flutter (on the old mechanical game named Les Petits Chevaux) gets bitten by the gambling bug, and turns into a gambling addict, while Roger bumps into them from time to time says, knowingly, that he realises the aunt is just a front for the nieces, who are running a gambling syndicate. Infuriatingly, they eventually give up and straggle home with a reputation for headaches and a permanently depressed look. Which is how Clovis and the Baroness saw them in ‘the Park’ and which prompted the anecdote in the first place.

20. The Peace Offering (C)

Clovis and the Baroness again. She asks him to help with a theatrical production to soothe her local county society who have been rather ruptured by a bitterly contested election. As satire, Clovis suggests they write a Greek tragedy on the theme of the Return of Agamemnon and then proceeds to explain who all the characters are to the Baroness who is cheerfully ignorant and philistine.

They then cast the play with local worthies, each stupider than the next. But the crux is the rivalry which breaks out between the Baroness, playing Clytemnestra and Clovis, who gives himself the minor but beautifully costumed role of the charioteer. When the Baroness pinches some of his best lines, Clovis plots his revenge. He coaches the dimwit playing Cassandra in a special speech and, on the grand night, with all of local county society assembled, when Clytemnestra goes off to make a costume change, Cassandra steps forward and delivers the speech Clovis has written for her… denouncing the great and the good in the audience as ‘corrupt, self-seeking, unscrupulous, unprincipled politicians[who] continue to infest and poison our local council…’ By the time the Baroness returns onstage it is to find everyone calling for their coach and leaving.

In a way the Baroness did succeed in healing local divisions… by uniting everyone who was anyone in condemning her ‘outrageously bad taste and tactlessness’.

21. The Peace of Mowsle Barton

Crefton Lockyer has gone for a rest cure and break from hectic city life by renting a room in an isolated farm. Little does he expect to discover that is the epicentre of a bitter rival between two local witches who cast spells on each other. These aren’t the florid witches of Hollywood, but uncanny and ancient crones and the spells in question amount to little more than preventing the kettle in the farm from boiling and rendering the ducks which in the hated rival’s little pool from being able to swim.

So, small stakes but this is one of the longer of the stories in the collection and the interest is in the spooky and threatening atmosphere which Saki conjures. It’s interesting because Rudyard Kipling, in his Sussex phase, wrote similar stories about village crones.

22. The Talking-Out of Tarrington (C)

Clovis is with his aunt when the latter spots a tiresome young man approaching who she is at pains to avoid because he’s probably heard she’s arranging a luncheon with ‘the Princess’ and will cling leechlike till he’s invited. The aunt makes a run for it leaving Clovis to deal with the young man who introduces himself as Tarrington. Unfortunately Clovis has determined to reply to every question and conversation gambit with irrelevancies and supercilious twitting, until the poor young man, defeated, beats a hasty retreat.

23. The Hounds of Fate

A tragedy, something like a ghost story or a rural tragedy slightly in the manner of Thomas Hardy. Martin Stoner has failed in everything and is down to his last few coins, tramping through muddy country lanes towards the sea with the vague purpose of throwing himself in, as night draws in and it starts to rain and he sees the lights of a farmhouse, he finds himself walking up the path and knocking on the door.

To his amazement the door opens and he is welcomed in by the old retained as ‘Master Tom’, back from Australia. He is given food and then shelter for the night, and given his old room, and his horse is saddled for him, all the time Stoner carries on the masquerade of impersonating this ‘Master Tom’. Slowly it emerges that Tom fled to Australia after some local scandal but try as he might, he can’t get the old retainer (named George) to spell it out.

Then one day old George hurries to find him and tells Stoner that Michael Ley is back in the village and bound on taking his revenge. At a guess, I speculate that Tom ravished Ley’s sister, who killed herself and that’s why he fled and Ley is now determined to take revenge. Old George gives Stoner three sovereigns and tells him to go hide out in the nearest town till Ley has gone away, when he’ll be able to return.

Three sovereigns is a lot of money for a former beggar, and Stoner goes his way rejoicing to have brass in pocket, reconciling himself to moving on from the Tom persona as easily as he adopted it. Easy come, easy go. But at that point Michael Ley steps out from the shadow of an old oak tree, a shotgun in his hand and implacable hatred in his eyes.

24. The Recessional (C)

Clovis is in a Turkish bath with his buddy, Bertie van Tahn, but equipped with a fountain pen and notebook. What is he doing? Well, Mrs. Packletide’s great enemy and rival Loona Bimberton has just had a Coronation Ode accepted by the ‘New Infancy’ magazine and Mrs P is spitting blood. Since she has helped him out so many times, financially, Clovis offers to compose a rival poem, and here he is, composing away like mad. The result is dire:

‘The tawny tigress ‘mid the tangled teak
Drags to her purring cubs’ enraptured ears
The harsh death-rattle in the pea-fowl’s beak,
A jungle lullaby of blood and tears.'”

25. A Matter of Sentiment (C)

Lady Susan is holding a house party and the guests are betting on the big race. Trouble is Lady Susan sternly disapproves of everything, especially horse racing. The guests have to retreat to the far end of the garden where they discovery that Motkin, Lady Susan’s butler, has a second cousin who was head stable-lad at a neighbouring racing establishment, and usually gifted with much inside information as to private form and possibilities. The butler goes off to see this relation and that evening, over dinner, secretively passes on the name of the top tip to each of the guests as he circulates with the sherry.

However, the hot favourite loses, as all the guests assembled in the hall the next morning discover when a telegram arrives, and Lady Susan is delighted because, for the first time in her life she has bet on a race, and her bet won!

26. The Secret Sin of Septimus Brope (C)

Mrs Riversedge is hosting guests including Clovis and his aunt, Mrs Troyle. Mrs Troyle announces that another guest, meek and shy Septimus Brope, appears to be wooing her maid, Florinda. She has overheard him chanting her name (‘I love you Florrie’) and the other day picked up a piece of paper he had dropped with a note to meet him down by the old yew tree. Mrs Troyle wouldn’t mind but her maid is the only person on earth who understands her hair.

The other ladies are scandalised and also surprised, as mild-mannered Mr Brope scratches a living editing the ‘Cathedral Monthly and being enormously learned about memorial brasses and transepts and the influence of Byzantine worship on modern liturgy.

Clovis is the one who solves the mystery when the two men are left alone in the smoking room after dinner. He discovers that Brope makes money on the side by writing the lyrics for trashy popular songs, and is struggling to write one for a hypothetical subject named Florrie. Nothing whatsoever to do with Mrs Troyle’s maid (who is actually named Florinda).

Clovis promises to not only keep his secret but help him writing his ditties. In fact he proposes a characteristically Clovisian twist: why not try lyrics which slam the woman in question. And sure enough a month later a new song is taking the music halls by storm in which the singer threatens to throw his Florrie into a quarry!

All Clovis requires in return is to accompany Brope on an all-expenses-paid trip to the Continent.

27. ‘Ministers of Grace’

The Duke of Scaw is religious but not quite in the traditional sense. He is discussing politics and social reform with his friend, Belturbet, speculating how easy it would be to replace the existing bunch of disappointing politicians with something more malleable. Why not with angels? Don’t be silly, says his friend. Piqued, the Duke replies:

‘I shall summon angelic forces to take over some of the more troublesome personalities of our public life, and I shall send the ousted originals into temporary retirement in suitable animal organisms.’

And this he does. The rest of the story describes how he converts various leading politicians, the archbishop of Canterbury and top industrialists into various animals and creates their doppelgangers from angels. Suddenly politicians agree and businessmen adopt caring policies. Imagine the confusion of the country, but that is as nothing to the confusion of their wives!

The conceit is developed at some length with very thinly veiled, jokey references to contemporary politicians including David Lloyd-George, Lord Rosebery and so on. Eventually one of the animals the Duke of Scaw has consigned the soul of one of these politicians to, a bad-tempered black swan, grabs Scaw as he is walking through St James Park, drags him into the lake and drowns him. Whereupon the angel-politicians disappear, replaced by their human counterparts, and business resumes as usual.

28. The Remoulding of Groby Lington

This is an eerie story about a man whose personality changes to reflect that of his pets. It opens with him being beaky-nosed and repetitive as his parrot. His brother brings him a pet monkey and he swiftly becomes as malicious and disruptive as his pet. When that dies, his brother buys him a tortoise and now Groby Lington potters slowly around his garden in slow motion. It has many comic details but the overall impression is of the tale’s strangeness.


Themes

Mocking the British Empire

Remember that Hector Hugh Munro was born in Akyab (now Sittwe), British Burma, which was then part of British India, and that Saki was the son of Charles Augustus Munro, an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police, and his wife, Mary Frances Mercer (1843–1872), the daughter of a Rear Admiral  – and that he then himself went on to serve in the Indian Police Force. He was steeped, in other words, in the traditions and discourse of the British Empire. So what must his parents have made of his determined ridiculing of it and its stiff-upper-lipped maintainers?

He’d spent most of his life on the Indian frontier, building roads and relieving famines and minimising earthquakes, and all that sort of thing that one does do on frontiers. He could talk sense to a peevish cobra in fifteen native languages, and probably knew what to do if you found a rogue elephant on your croquet-lawn; but he was shy and diffident with women.

The Recessional sounds as if it’s going to be a parody or skit on Kipling’s famous poem of the same name but is nothing of the sort. Saki cannot write verse. Still, the thought was there.

Studied heartlessness

Specially regarding children who are either revealed as heartless brutes (The Strategist) or discussed with utter heartlessness by their parents (The Baker’s Dozen) or are eaten (Ernest-Gabriel and Esmé) or blown to smithereens (The Easter Egg).

Eleanor hated boys, and she would have liked to have whipped this one long and often.

It is not the attitudes as such which are reprehensible, they are fictional, they can be taken in the reader’s stride. It is the shallowness and lack of feeling which Saki is mocking.

Christianity

It almost goes without saying that everyone in these stories has been brought up to treat Christianity as the accepted ‘thing’. Saki’s satire aims at the way none of these conventional Christians show any understanding or putting into practice of its moral teachings. Wherever possible members of the cloth are mocked (as they were in so many 18th century novels, through Trollope, Waugh, every chaplain in every public school in fiction).

More than that, Christianity offers a massive opportunity for satire whereby the manners of the gentleman can be contrasted with Christian morality, with the satirical intention that, in Victorian and Edwardian society, manners and appearance were more important than conventional Christian morality. It is a central part of the macabre comedy of The Unrest Cure that the person said to be panning the massacre of the Jews is the local bishop, whose character Saki then delights in twisting into his own style of gruesome amorality.

‘The Bishop is sorry to hear that Miss Huddle has a headache. He is issuing orders that as far as possible no firearms shall be used near the house; any killing that is necessary on the premises will be done with cold steel. The Bishop does not see why a man should not be a gentleman as well as a Christian.’ (The Unrest Cure)

Culture

Rather like Christianity, most of these upper-class types profess an interest in culture without actually understanding it at all. Painting and music are the two areas Saki picks on, with Reginald making the standard joke that the purpose of the Royal Academy is not to look at the pictures but to look at, and mingle with, other high society types. It is a recurring joke that the English understand a work of art so long as there is a good descriptive title to aid their understanding.

In the same spirit the British upper classes are portrayed as nervously philistine when it comes to music.

Thither [to the Amethyst dining-hall] came in shoals the intensely musical and the almost intensely musical, who are very many, and in still greater numbers the merely musical, who know how Tchaikowsky’s name is pronounced and can recognise several of Chopin’s nocturnes if you give them due warning; these eat in the nervous, detached manner of roebuck feeding in the open, and keep anxious ears cocked towards the orchestra for the first hint of a recognisable melody.

‘Ah, yes, Pagliacci,’ they murmur, as the opening strains follow hot upon the soup, and if no contradiction is forthcoming from any better-informed quarter they break forth into subdued humming by way of supplementing the efforts of the musicians. Sometimes the melody starts on level terms with the soup, in which case the banqueters contrive somehow to hum between the spoonfuls; the facial expression of enthusiasts who are punctuating potage St. Germain with Pagliacci is not beautiful, but it should be seen by those who are bent on observing all sides of life. One cannot discount the unpleasant things of this world merely by looking the other way.

And:

‘Hark!’ said most of the diners, ‘he is playing “The Chaplet.”‘ They knew it was “The Chaplet” because they had heard it played at luncheon and afternoon tea, and at supper the night before, and had not had time to forget.

Money / greed

Saki is funny about the miserly such as Laploshka or the paid companion, Miss Mebbin, in Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger, who resents even centimes unnecessarily spent, or Lady Bastaple (‘Lady Bastable loved shillings with a great, strong love.’)

Aunts

Tell me about the Brimley Bomefields.’
‘Well,’ said Clovis, ‘the beginning of their tragedy was that they found an aunt.’


Related links

Saki’s works

The Soul of the Marionette by John Gray (2015)

Everywhere , the self-assured confidence of priests, scribes and intellectuals has been mocked by unexpected events… (p.143)

‘Humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

The Soul of the Marionette

The Soul of the Marionette is a short, easy and very stimulating read. Its brevity is indicated by the way it’s set in a larger-than-usual typeface for a Penguin paperback in order to pad it out its 170 or so pages. Really, it’s two extended magazine essays linked by a common theme.

John Gray (b.1948) is a retired political philosopher. He mainly taught at the London School of Economics with spells at Yale etc, so he’s an academic by trade.

For the past thirty years or more he’s been writing non-technical and accessible books, as well as numerous articles and reviews, and from time to time popping up with thought pieces on Radio 4. All of them bang on the same theme over and over again:

1. Modern liberals are wrong Modern progressive thought is wrong. Modern secular thinkers are wrong.

How so? In several connected ways. ‘Modern liberals’ think history is progressing towards a good end, think that there is some purpose or end-point of evolution, think that human societies are heading onward and upward, becoming more enlightened, liberal, permissive and diverse.

The belief that evolution is advancing towards some desirable end is ubiquitous… (p.61)

BUT

Evolution has no attachment to the attributes modern thinkers imagine are essentially human… (p.143)

Above all, modern liberals think human nature can be changed. All Gray’s work presents a barrage of arguments designed to annihilate this position:

2. The survival of violence and barbarism disproves the idea that humans are ‘improving’ Evolution has no goal or plan or design or intention. Stuff is just changing and humans are mad if they think they can alter it very much. Progressives like to think that we ‘learn from history’ or that liberal values are succeeding around the world – but violence, terrible crude sadistic violence, is still practiced all round the globe. There may be no repeats of the two epic world wars, but violence and brutality haven’t gone away; they have merely been scattered and diffused into the form of asymmetrical conflicts in a variety of failed states such as Syria, or sudden eruptions of barbarism as in Burma, or the ongoing horrors of the war in the Congo.

Or else a permanent state of civil unrest, where violent protests teeter on the brink of uprisings and armed conflict. This is the new normal.

In a scathing passage, Gray describes how violence has been internalised in the West, in the ways that America, for example, the supposed ‘land of the free’, imprisons more of its citizens than any other country in the world, and experiences almost daily mass shootings, with the result that its entire police force is now a warzone militia armed with machine guns and bullet-proof vests.

About 40,000 people were killed by guns in America in 2017, compared to the 2,500 who died on D-Day. Gray’s point is that homicidal violence hasn’t gone away because world wars have cease; it’s just become normalised in other ways.

The normalisation of amoral hyper-violence in American culture. This movie is a ‘comedy’.

3. The popularity of dictators demonstrates that human societies aren’t particularly progressing On a purely political level, the elections of Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Bolsonaro in Brazil, Erdoğan in Turkey, the endless rule of Putin in Russia, and the increasing authoritarianism of Xi Jinping in China – all show conclusively that political or cultural history is not moving steadily upwards towards some progressive, liberal nirvana.

Even more disillusioning for progressives is that most of these leaders were democratically elected because, as one section of the book emphasises, people more than anything else want meaning, order and security in their lives. People prefer meaning, order and security to uncertainty and chaos. You and I, being enlightened progressives, may think that the leaders I’ve listed above are not going to provide the meaning and security which they promised their electorates, but that only proves Gray’s other point, that none of us are really in control of our lives: we choose one thing, we get something completely different.

Most people’s lives are demonstrably in the grip of various impersonal, suprahuman forces – but almost all of us desperately want to feel that we’re in control. Electing strong leaders with assertive agendas gives us electors the illusion of control, that we’re taking part in a fightback against them, the nameless forces which seem to be ruining the world.

4. Technology changes, but people don’t change Above all (to repeat the point, as Gray does again and again), modern liberals think human nature can be changed and improved – but it can’t. The amazing technologies we have developed over the past 200 years have given over-educated and under-experienced Westerners the deluded sense that we can change human nature. Technologies may change, but people don’t change.

Thus one of the book’s central strands is an allusive history of human attempts to create super-humans, from Frankenstein in 1816 to all the hype about artificial intelligence in 2020.

Gray makes the simple point: How can we hope to make better, superior versions of human beings, when we don’t even understand ourselves? Scientists still don’t actually understand how minds work, how consciousness arises from matter, how flashing synapses produce the strange thing called consciousness.

Eradicating evil may produce a new species, but not the one its innocent creators have in mind. Humans have too little self-knowledge to be able to fashion a higher version of themselves. (p.43)

And:

We think we have some kind of privileged access to our own motives and intentions. In fact we have no clear insight into what moves us to live as we do. The stories that we tell ourselves are like messages which appear on Ouija boards. If we are authors of our lives, it is only in retrospect. (p.137)

5. Artificial intelligence is doomed to fail for the simple reason that we don’t understand human intelligence. This is why all the exhibitions I’ve been to recently showcasing artificial intelligence seemed so pathetic and inadequate. (And it’s not just me saying that: the BBC journalist sent to review the Barbican’s exhibition about artificial intelligence also thought the sum total of the best examples of artificial intelligence the curators could assemble from across the world, was ‘pathetic’.)

It’s because any ordinary person knows that machines which can climb up a flight of stairs on their own or a computer which can beat the world chess champion or one which does cumulative facial recognition, are trivial and irrelevant compared to what it is like to be a person – a confused, sleepy, fantasy-driven human consciousness making endless mistakes about bus times or shopping lists or homework or the countless other chores we struggle with every day, as well as trying to manage personal relations with family, friends and work colleagues.

Compared to the complexity of being human, beating this or that chess champion is so very, very narrow an achievement on the part of the programmers who have been slaving away perfecting chess programs for fifty years or more, as to be almost sublimely, hilariously irrelevant.

In fact the most telling thing about artificial intelligence – which comes over very strongly when you read interviews with the scientists developing it – is how keen they are to rush towards a post-human future. But why? Because, Gray says, they cannot cope with the human present.

Struggling to escape from the world that science has revealed, humanity has taken refuge in the illusion that science enables them to remake the world in their own image. (p.30)

6. Communism and other failed utopias Gray reserves some of his most scathing criticism for communists, the followers of Lenin and Stalin, who – in effect – thought that it was worth murdering millions of people in the here and now in order to secure a remote future in which everyone will live in peace. And then in the Cold War era to foment small wars around the world (Africa, South America, South-East Asia) in order to bring an end to war.

Same with the Nazis, who thought they could create a better world by first of all exterminating all the Jews and then all the Slavs.

In the twentieth century the worst episodes of mass killing were perpetrated with the aim of remaking the species. (p.88)

All the atrocities of the 20th century were carried out in the name of building a better world. Gray mocks modern liberals who carry on the same mantra (obviously without the holocausts) because they are basing it on the same basic delusions – that you can remodel human nature. You can’t.

7. Humans are, at bottom, incapable In fact, the reality is that humans barely understand themselves, and are laughably unable to ‘take control of their own destinies’:

Today’s Darwinists will tell you that the task of humanity is to take charge of evolution. But ‘humanity’ is only a name for a ragtag animal with no capacity to take charge of anything. (p.145)

Thus the comedy of climate change is that these pathetic people, this pathetic species, having created a global catastrophe, thinks it can change or fix anything. Oh no it can’t. Watch and learn.

8. The fundamental basis of all modern liberal thought – that things will get better i.e. history has a direction and an end goal – is based on Christian theology If you go back to the ancient Greeks or sideways to read the surviving works of the Aztecs, you find societies which were under no illusion that things – society of human nature – would ever change. Their religions and rituals were not linear and progressive but cyclical, based on the circular rhythm of the seasons plus the recurring astrological cycles.

Aztecs did not share the modern conceit that mass killing can bring about universal peace. They did not envision any future when humans ceased to be violent. (p.86)

The notion that history has a purpose and is heading for a Grand End-Point is a Christian idea (in fact it may be a Zoroastrian or Eastern idea originally, but it was picked up and incorporated in Christianity from its earliest days and thus spread throughout all Christian and post-Christian societies).

It is Christian theology which declares that history is heading to a Glorious End-Point when the Son of Man will return in glory and wind up history as we know it, at which point the dead will be raised and everyone will be judged and dispatched to heaven or hell.

Modern liberals unwittingly base their concept of history as a steady improvement towards some kind of nirvana or utopia on this very Christian theology, but without the subtle and complex insights into human nature developed by Christian thinkers over 2,000 years. Progressives have been:

reared on a curdled brew of Socratism and scraps of decayed Christianity… (p.160)

This is why progressive liberalism feels so shallow. It is piggy-backing on the back of Christian theology, but without the deep and penetrating insights into all aspects of the human psyche which tens of thousands of Christian theologians and writers carried out.

Secular thinking follows a pattern dictated by religion while suppressing religion’s most valuable insights. (p.19)

Instead, modern liberals join hands, sing Things Can Only Get Better and are shocked and amazed when they don’t. Their conviction that everyone is a progressive liberal at heart, if only they had enough education and the opportunity to read the right newspapers, cannot cope with the actual world in its often violent and even evil reality.

This basic naivety explains, in Gray’s opinion, the fact that ‘liberals’ are continually surprised at renewed outbreaks of human atrocity. ‘Liberals’ and ‘modern thinkers’ thought we had learned from the Holocaust and had ‘progressed’, and so they were unable to compute modern horrors like the wars in Yugoslavia, the Rwanda genocide or 9/11 or the Syrian civil war or the Rohynga massacres… and on and on it goes, the roll call of never-ending atrocities.

Events like that just don’t fit into the narrative that every day, in very way, we are becoming more tolerant and free and fair-minded and equal and ‘woke’ and aware. Oh no, Gray says, we aren’t.


Cherry picking from literature

The book’s strength is also its weakness. This is that it takes the form less of a sustained argument than of a kind of daisy chain of potted analyses of authors who Gray likes or whose works provide useful ammunition for his position.

It is very much not a work of political philosophy, in fact it references hardly any philosophers of any kind (apart from two or three pages about Thomas Hobbes and the same about Jeremy Bentham) and certainly no contemporary philosophers.

Instead Gray takes us on a hugely entertaining and colourful journey through the thought of a bright and shiny array of creative writers through the ages, cherry-picking authors whose mordant and gloomy points of view echo, support or anticipate his own.

This is exactly what Christians do with the Bible. The Bible is so vast, varied and contradictory, that you can find quotes to support almost any point of view, from the most socially conservative to wacky science fiction fantasies if you put your mind to it.

And as a literature graduate I know the same is true for the corpus of secular literature, especially if you broaden it out to include all European literature, and extend it back in time to the Renaissance, the Middle Ages or, as Gray does, back to the ancient Greeks.

There are now so many points of view, expressed by so many hundreds of thousands of authors, that – if you adopt Gray’s approach – it is easy to cherry pick ‘proofs’ and ‘evidence’ for any point of view imaginable.

Of course none of this is proof of any kind about human nature or human existence or consciousness or history etc. Proof in any of these areas would require an engagement with the latest scientific literature in areas of consciousness, AI, sociology and so on, with properly carried out studies, and with a world of data and statistics.

Gray skips lightly away from any such engagement and instead gives us an entertaining stroll through some of his favourite authors, who each get a thumbnail biography and then four or five pages summarising their thoughts and musing about human nature, history and so on.

And it comes as no surprise to anyone that all of these thinkers, plus his interpretations of various historical cultural events (his scepticism about the so-called ‘scientific revolution’, his dazzling reinterpretation of Aztec culture), all go to reinforce his anti-liberal, anti-modern secular bias.

A daisy chain of authors

This is a complete list of the authors and works referenced in The Soul of the Marionette:

Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811)’s essay The Puppet Theatre (1810) paradoxically suggests that it is the puppet who is free because he is not conflicted by a torn and agonised self-consciousness.

Novelist and poet Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) in The Avignon Quartet describes a modern-day Gnostic.

Communist crystallographer J.D. Bernal (1901-1971) speculated that human society would be replaced by a Utopia of post-human cyborgs.

Director of Engineering at Google Ray Kurzweil (b.1948) published a book with the sub-title When Humans Transcend Biology.

Polish-Jewish writer Bruno Schulz (1892-1942) wrote short stories on the theme of Gnosticism i.e that the world wasn’t created by a benevolent all-powerful God but by a blind or malevolent Demiurge, which explains why it is so botched and chaotic. Only those who come to know this (gnosis is Greek for knowledge) can, through an arduous apprenticeship and reading many mystical books, arrive at true knowledge of their place as souls trapped in fallen bodies in a badly made world, and break out towards the light of the True God.

Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) is famous for his sensuously melancholy verse but also wrote a long work of thoughts about human nature, the Zibaldone, which is bitingly pessimistic about human nature and ridicules the idea that science will improve humanity. He is particularly savage about Christianity which, he thinks (with plenty of evidence to back him up) promotes a universalist claim, Christ’s injunction to his disciples to convert the whole world, which – in practice – gave carte blanche to force everyone in the world to convert, at the point of a sword or under threat of being burned at the stake. This, in Leopardi’s view, explains why the barbarity of the Middle Ages far eclipsed anything known or comprehensible in the ancient, pre-Christian world.

American poet and short story writer Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) wrote some fictions which touch on the Gnostic theme in which characters have dreams which come true, or dream a better world into existence.

Mary Shelley (1797-1951) wrote Frankenstein, always predictably dragged out on these occasions as the forerunner of all ‘modern’ debate about creating artificial life or intelligence.

The Symbolist poet Villiers de L’Isle-Adam (1838-1889) coined the word ‘android’.

Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932) wrote The Golem (1915) another novel about people creating new uber-humans.

Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986) in his story The Circular Ruins imagines a magician whose dreams come true before he realises that he himself is someone else’s dream.

Polish science fiction author Stanislav Lem (1921-2006) in his novel Solaris (1961) imagines a planet whose surface seems to be alive and conscious in ways we cannot conceive, and which communicates with the humans in the space station orbiting it by creating people from their past or creatures from their dreams.

American science fiction author Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) wrote a whole series of novels exploring the possibility of alternative consciousness, and how individual consciousnesses might be able to bend and warp reality. Gray devotes an unusually prolonged passage to Dick and his works.

H.G. Wells (1866-1946) wrote The War of the Worlds suggesting other intelligences have no concern about us.

Michel Faber (b.1960) wrote Under The Skin in which aliens come to earth purely to capture and eat humans, whose meat is tasty!

Boris and Arkady Strugasky‘s novel Roadside Picnic is about people who venture into the forbidden zones where alien spaceships landed, settled, then took off again. The thrust of all three of these stories is why should we think artificial intelligences we create (if we ever do) will give a damn about us.

T.F. Powys (1875-1953) wrote a series of novels in the 1920s and 30s which featured God or Devil or Demiurge characters appearing as normal people, giving rise to a lot of discussion about creation and reality.

Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) masterpiece Leviathan is based on the idea that people will do anything, and submit to a strong central authority to avoid violence. But Gray thinks this is a chimera, a far too rational view of human nature. All the evidence suggests that people can initiate and put up with a quite staggering degree of violence i.e. human nature isn’t as one-dimensional as Hobbes paints it.

John Dee (1527-1608) was Elizabeth I’s astrologer and magician and an epitome of Gray’s view that what modern secular thinkers like to think of as ‘the scientific revolution’ was in fact deeply intertwined with all kinds of magical and voodoo beliefs, the prime example being Sir Isaac Newton who formulated the laws which underpinned the new scientific view of the universe but was also a mystic and heretical Christian who devoted an enormous amount of energy trying to decipher the prophecies contained in the Book of Revelation.

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), mathematician and philosopher, helped the Manhattan Project, is acknowledged as the father of cybernetics, and envisaged a future where man makes machines which outdo man.

John von Neumann (1903-1957), mathematician, physicist and computer scientist, also helped with the Manhattan Project and founded game theory. The ideas of both men underpin futurists’ confidence that man can remake man, or make a super-man machine, or machines which can help people achieve super-lives.

Guy Debord (1931-1994) is popular with students of the humanities and the arts because of his book Society of the Spectacle which expands on Marxist ideas that governments control us by getting us to buy into the mindless entertainments of the mass media. More than that, even political protests or extreme events like terrorist attacks, are all part of The Spectacle. Gray is, as you might expect, bitingly sceptical about Debord, concentrating on his career after the 1968 revolution failed to materialise, wandering the French provinces, slowly expelling all the members of his organisation, the Situationist International, drinking heavily, coming to the despairing conclusion that there can be no revolution because The Spectacle can assimilate anything and eventually committing suicide in 1994.

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) the ultimate in rationalist philosophers who formulated the ideas of Utilitarianism and said social policy should be judged on whether it promotes the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Gray describes Bentham’s idea for the Panopticon, a prison built in a circle so guards at the centre could monitor all the prisoners, and then goes on to claim that we live in a surveillance society infinitely more thorough and extensive than anything Bentham could have imagined.

E.M. Foster (1879-1970) famous for his novels of Edwardian upper class life, wrote a striking science fiction story, The Machine Stops (which I happen to have read and reviewed). Gray criticises the story for giving no indication of how the bubble world entirely controlled by some vast central machine came into existence. But he mentions it in order to speculate about how our societies might collapse and fall.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) wrote his satirical vision of the future, Erewhon which predicted there would be labour-saving machines and robots in the future. Well, half of that was correct.


Straw men

Most debaters set up straw men i.e. simplify the arguments of their opponents in order to caricature and counter them. I was struck by the way Gray does just this – establishing an entity or group or party or movement of ‘modern secular thinkers’ which he then proceeds to hammer from all directions – struck because he doesn’t mention a single name. Instead he rings the changes on a generic set of terms for ‘the Enemy’, which I began to find interesting in themselves:

  • many people today…
  • modern secular thinkers believe mankind can be recreated in a higher form…
  • it does not occur to these sublime moralists that in human beings the good and the bad may be intermixed…
  • those who aim to fashion a higher humanity with science…
  • … Gnostic themes that unnoticed or repressed, shape much of modern thinking…
  • this view of things is nowadays close to being incomprehensible…
  • The modern world inherits the Christian view…
  • … human impulses that modern thinking denies..
  • … how tenuous are the assumptions on which western thinkers base their hopes of peace…
  • … modern humanity insists that violence is inhuman…
  • … believers in reason, lacking any deeper faith and too feeble to tolerate doubt…
  • modern individualism tends…
  • Today there are some who expect such machines to be among us within a few decades…
  • …this modern catechism is mistaken…
  • modern thinkers have imagined that humans can achieve a state of freedom…

You can see how the repetition of the central terms builds up an image of a straw man (or straw liberal) who is particularly dim and uninsightful – but without troubling to name names or quote any texts.

Mentioning specific named writers would, of course, instantly complicate the situation, because it is unlikely that any ‘modern secular liberal’ is quite as dim as Gray likes to make out.


Sick writers

There are many ways to be entertained, amused and informed by this lovely jumble sale of a book, but I noted another strand which unintentionally confirms one of my own bête noirs or obsessions: which is that writers – poets and novelist and playwrights and philosophers – are, on the whole, among the very last people whose advice you want to take about life and living, seeing as almost all of them have been sick misfits, with a variety of mental illnesses and substance addictions. Thus:

Kleist was forced to join the civil service which he hated, wanted to be a writer but struggled to produce anything which satisfied him, tried and failed to join up to Napoleon’s army and ended up committing suicide in 1811.

Schulz was forced to become a school teacher in order to support ailing relatives, hated his job, struggled to write, had a failed engagement to a woman, and, as a Jew, was murdered by the Nazis.

Leopardi was a hunchback with poor sight, who was frail and sickly all his life, having a long but unsuccessful involvement with a married woman, living most of his life in poverty, before moving to Naples and dying of TB aged 38.

Edgar Allen Poe was a disastrous shambles of a man, who never secured a regular income despite starting umpteen magazines and journals, living hand to mouth in poverty, a chronic alcoholic, before being discovered roaming the streets of Baltimore out of his mind and wearing someone else’s clothes, dying in a pauper’s hospital aged 40.

Philip K. Dick was mentally ill for most of his life, dosing himself with alcohol and amphetamines to fuel his prodigious output of disturbing novels until he suffered a full-blown mental collapse in 1974, during which he claimed to have a had a great Revelation about life which he spent the rest of his life struggling to understand. Psychosis, five marriages, heavy drug addiction, repeated suicide attempts.

Guy Debord heavy drinker, despair, suicide aged 63.

Not exactly role models, are they? More to the point, where are all the people of their times who lived healthy, happy, fulfilled and productive lives? Well, they were too busy living life to the full, to write anything.

In other words, writers, on the whole, are a self-selecting and self-reinforcing, self-supporting, self-promoting group of the sick, the mentally ill, the addicted, impoverished, failed and frustrated.

To put it another way, writers in their writings tend to give a wildly inaccurate picture of human nature and human society. The works and thoughts of any ‘creative’ writer should, therefore, be taken with a large pinch of salt and not treated as any kind of ‘truth’, let alone as lessons by which to live life.


Gray’s prescription – withdrawal

Seeing all around him chaos, resurgent barbarism, and an array of misguided beliefs in meliorism, social improvement and scientific advances, Gray recommends withdrawing into yourself and there seeking to achieve harmony through acceptance of the fact that you are an irrational, conflicted being which doesn’t understand itself, let alone the world it lives in – and cultivating an inner freedom.

It’s worth quoting the book’s final passage in full as this turns out to be a surprisingly frank and candid piece of advice about how to live.

We do not know how matter came to dream our world into being; we do not know what, if anything, comes when the dream ends for us and we die. We yearn for a type of knowledge that would make us other than we are – though what we would like to be, we cannot say.

Why try to escape from yourself? Accepting the fact of unknowing makes possible an inner freedom very different from that pursued by the Gnostics. if you have this negative capability, you will not want a higher form of consciousness; your ordinary mind will give you all that you need. Rather than trying to impose sense on your life, you will be content to let meaning come and go. (p.165)


My thoughts

I agree with him.

I too believe human nature is unchangeable, that Western progressive liberals make up a minority of the human population which they arrogantly and ignorantly claim to speak for, that their view of human nature is insultingly shallow (amounting to little more that shouting ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’ at anyone who doesn’t fit their narrow parameters) and that their shallow ideology:

  1. fails to grasp, understand or prevent the failure of their political movements, as represented by the election of Trump, Johnson, Brexit
  2. fails to understand why populations would democratically elect right-wing populists such as Bolsonaro or Erdogan and above all
  3. fails to understand or explain why people continue to be barbaric, violent and sadistic in terrible conflicts all around the world

It’s not that progressive liberalism is morally wrong. It is that it is factually inadequate, biologically illiterate, philosophically impoverished, and so politically and socially misleading.

It is doomed to fail because it is based on a false model of human nature.

As to Gray’s prescription, that we abandon the effort to understand either ourselves or the world around us, I think this is a nice idea to read about, here or in Ursula Le Guin, or in a thousand Christian or Eastern mystics. It is a nice fictional place to inhabit, a discursive possibility, in the same way that I – and billions of other readers – inhabit novels or plays or works of art for a while.

But then I am forced to return to the workaday world where I must earn a living and look after my family, and where simply ‘letting meaning come and go’ is not an adequate guide to life.

To thinking about life, maybe. But not to actually living it.


Related links

The Good Soldier Švejk, Part One: Behind the Lines by Jaroslav Hašek (1921)

Švejk or Schweik, Shveyk or Schwejk (pronounced sh-vague) is a cultural icon in his native Czechoslovakia. His name is a byword and forms the basis of an adjective – Švejkian – which describes the insouciance and devil-may-care attitude of the common man in the face of hostile officialdom.

Švejk is a survivor, an amiably simple-minded, middle-aged man who never takes offence or gets angry, who walks through life with a sweet smile on his face, who faces down the various jumped-up officials and army officers who try to break him with a calm, imperturbable gaze, a survivor with a ready fund of cheerful stories about friends and acquaintances, which are appropriate for every situation he finds himself in, no matter how challenging, happy as long as he has a pint in one hand and his pipe in the other.

The Good Soldier Švejk as drawn by Joseph Lada

The Good Soldier Švejk is a very long book at 750 pages in the Penguin paperback translation by Cecil Parrott. But, unlike many supposedly ‘comic classics’, it is actually genuinely funny, in the way that Švejk’s imperturbable good humour either disarms or drives mad the endless stream of policemen, coppers’ narks, prison warders, lunatic asylum officials, army officers, chaplains and so on who confront and try to break him.

Švejk just doesn’t care. He lives in a shabby boarding house, frets about his rheumatism, and trades in mongrel dogs which he blithely tells everyone are thoroughbreds and pedigrees although they’re nothing of the sort. Some years earlier he had done military service in the 91st regiment but been kicked out for idiocy. He has a certificate to prove it – a certificate of imbecility – which he is liable to bring out and present to perplexed officials in the spirit of being helpful, ‘Yes, your worship, I am a certified idiot, your worship’.

Plot summary, part one

The story begins in Prague with Švejk’s landlady Mrs Müller, giving Švejk news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo that precipitates World War I. Švejk sets the tone by not grasping the importance of any of this, and mixing the archduke up with several other Ferdinands of his acquaintance.

He goes to the local pub, the Chalice, landlord Mr Pavilec, where a police spy, Bretschneider, is encouraging the drinkers to speak their minds about the news, and then promptly arresting them for treasonous talk.

Švejk is arrested and taken off to police headquarters where he discovers numerous other innocents are filling the cells. He hears their stories which reflect the absurdity and randomness of police and official procedures, one of the guiding themes of the book. (Later he learns that the completely harmless landlord Pavilec was arrested at the same time as him but convicted and given ten years.)

But it is also where Švejk first demonstrates his uncanny ability to stay calm and reasonable in the face of ranting officials, like the police inspector shouting abuse at him for being a dirty traitor.

Švejk being yelled at by ‘a gentleman with a cold official face and features of bestial cruelty’

Švejk is taken before an examining magistrate, then back to the cells, and is then paraded before medical experts who have to decide whether he really is such an idiot as he appears.

They refer him to a lunatic asylum, which he enjoys a lot despite being forced to wear a white gown and where he is inspected by another set of experts, this time psychiatrists.

Eventually Švejk is kicked out and taken by the police back to another police station. Here he’s put in a cell with an anxious middle-class man who’s been locked up for doing something disreputable and is pacing up and down cursing the impact it will have on his wife and children. Švejk tries to calm him by telling some of his endless fund of stories about people he’s met or known or heard of, though some of the stories are comically inappropriate like the tale of the man who hanged himself in a police cell.

Švejk is then released from custody but is being accompanied through the streets by a policeman when they see a small crowd around a poster of the Emperor on the wall and Švejk gives vent to a patriotic cheer, which prompts his rearrest and return to the police station (for stirring up crowds, causing civil unrest).

Švejk is brought before yet another police official who listens to his excuses and, in an unusually piercing scene, looks into his wide-foolish, baby blue eyes for a long moment and… decides to release him. Švejk walks forward, kisses his hand, and then exits the police station and makes his way back to the Chalice pub where this whole sequence began.

Commentary

All this happens in the first 50 or so pages, the first quarter of volume one – and you can see straightaway that the ‘plot’, such as it is, consists almost entirely of Švejk the little man being dragged before an apparently unending sequence of police, warders, investigators, magistrates, doctors, and psychiatrists.

It is, essentially, the same scene of the little man facing down officialdom, repeated again and again.

Plot summary, part two

Švejk discovers that Mrs Müller has taken lodgers into his room while he was away. Švejk kicks them out and life returns to its easy-going normality for a week or so. But then Švejk receives his call-up papers to report to the nearest army barracks.

Incongruously, and memorably, he gets Mrs Müller to wheel him to the recruitment offices in Prague in a wheelchair, while he clutches his crutches, teporarily unable to walk because of his rheumatism.

Švejk is transferred to a hospital for malingerers because of his rheumatism, where he discovers the inhumane and brutal treatment the poor and sick are subjected to (and which some die of). He attends a compulsory church service for the malingerers, where they are given a sweary drunken sermon from the disreputable chaplain, Otto Katz.

Švejk bursts into tears at the constant swearing and emotional battering of Katz’s sermon. Surprised, Katz asks to see him, then takes him on as his assistant.

Švejk is inspected by the learned doctors

This pair have various adventures containing broad satire at the church’s expense – bluffing their way through Catholic services they don’t understand, being too drunk to remember the words, losing various bits of holy equipment (particularly the scene where Švejk is sent to buy Holy Oil and ends up in an art shop where he is sold painters’ oil).

Then Katz drunkenly loses Švejk at cards to Lieutenant Lukáš, an army officer much given to drinking, womanising and gambling.

Lieutenant Lukáš and Švejk proceed to have a series of adventures of their own, the most memorable being:

  1. when one of the lieutenant’s innumerable lovers and mistresses turns up unexpectedly and demands to move into the lieutenant’s rooms, until Švejk has the simple idea of telegraphing her husband to come and collect her, which all goes off with surprising civility
  2. and when Švejk obtains a pet dog for the Lieutenant by the simple expedient of getting one of his mates in the dog-catching underworld to steal one for him

Lieutenant Lukáš is delighted with his new dog until he bumps in the street into its former owner, one Colonel Friedrich Kraus von Zilllergut, to whom the dog, of course, goes running, and who – alas – turns out to be Lukáš’s senior officer.

Furious, Colonel Friedrich promises to get Lukáš moved up to the front immediately. Lukáš returns to confront Švejk with the fact he concealed that the dog was stolen, and has gotten him (Lukáš ) turfed out of his cushy life and sent into danger. But when Švejk looks at him with his mild clear eyes Lukáš, like everyone else who tries to get angry with him, feels his fury fizzle out in the face of such stolid, good-tempered imbecility.

And so volume one ends with the promise that volume two will follow the adventures of Švejk and Lukáš to war!

Religion

Hašek’s attitude towards religion is unremittingly satirical. All religion is an empty con, as far as he’s concerned, and if it had any meaning or content that was all finished off in the Great War.

Preparations for the slaughter of mankind have always been made in the name of God or some supposed higher being which men have devised and created in their own imagination… The great shambles of the world war did not take place without the blessing of priests… Throughout all Europe people went to the slaughter like cattle, driven there not only by butcher emperors, kings and other potentates and generals, but also by priests of all confessions… (p.125)

A central character in this first volume is the alcoholic, womanising, sceptical army chaplain Otto Katz who takes Švejk as his assistant and stars in a number of comic scenes:

  1. the first one is when he gives a rambling drunk sermon to a congregation of prisoners from the punishment barracks, who all nudge each other in anticipation of the chaplain’s regular drunken ranting
  2. in another he and Švejk get a visiting chaplain (who actually seems to believe in God and all that nonsense) blind, rolling drunk, until it’s safe for Katz to explain to him (the drunk chaplain) that he (Katz) only masquerades as a chaplain because it’s a well-paid, safe way of avoiding being sent to the front.

Satirical contempt is Hašek’s attitude to religion, and he yokes in the religions of the Incas or primitive tribesmen or Mongols to show how the same con has been pulled time and time again, marauding killers inventing some God in whose name they can commit whatever atrocities they like.

Švejk and the two drunken priests, the sincere one on the lft, Otto Katz on the right

Brutality

As I said, The Good Soldier Švejk is genuinely funny and yet, at the same time, it is surprisingly brutal. If I think of Edwardian comedy I tend to think of H.G. Wells’s comic novels featuring bumptious counter-jumpers like Mr Polly who are sort of comparable to Švejk, or the lighter moments of E.M. Foster, or the first novels of Aldous Huxley (1921, exactly same year as Švejk) – light comedy about vicars or chaps falling off bicycles.

By contrast Hašek’s book describes a world which, even in its civilian incarnation, is astonishingly harsh and brutal. Anyone in even the slightest position of authority seems to think it acceptable to shout and scream at anyone junior to them. All the characters find it acceptable to punch others across the mouth or box their ears or kick them downstairs. There are continual references to flogging as a casual form of punishment.

Švejk kicks the moneylender out of the house of Chaplain Katz

There is a generalised atmosphere of physical abuse which becomes a bit oppressive. On more or less every page people are kicked or hit or flogged:

  • p.163 Švejk tells the story of the trial of an army captain who was tried in 1912 for kicking his batman to death
  • p.165 the narrator describes informers who delight in watching fellow soldiers be arrested and tied up
  • p.167 Lieutenant Lukáš is described as routinely hitting his batmen across the jaw and boxing their ears

And the brutality applies not just to humans. When Švejk enters the employ of Lieutenant Lukáš we are told that all the Lieutenant’s previous servants tortured the his pets, starving the canary, kicking one of the cat’s eyes out, and beating his dog. Soon after starting work for him, Švejk even offers to flay the lieutenant’s cat alive, or crush it to death in a doorway, if he wants (p.167).

Or take Hašek’s detailed description of the physical assaults and torments to which supposed malingerers are subjected to by the medical authorities, described in chapter 8, page 62.

  1. cup of tea plus aspirin to induce sweating
  2. quinine in powder
  3. stomach pumped twice a day
  4. enemas with soapy water
  5. wrapped up in a sheet of cold water

More than one patient is described as having died from this treatment.

Maybe it’s a prejudice in me, but I can’t really recall this kind of thing, this level of violence and personal physical abuse, in any English novels of this era, certainly not in the comic novels – or when they do occur it is to highlight the psychopathic savagery of the exponents.

But here everyone behaves like this.

And this permanent background hum of punches and kickings and floggings occasionally rises to scenes of real horror. For example, in the barracks prison Švejk can hear other prisoners being beaten and tortured. He can hear the long, drawn-out screams of a prisoner whose ribs are being systematically broken (p.95).

And in the office of Judge Advocate Bernis are photos of the ‘justice’ recently meted out by Austrian soldiers in the provinces of Galicia and Serbia.

They were artistic photographs of charred cottages and trees with branches sagging under the weight of bodies strung up on them. Particularly fine was a photograph from Serbia of a whole family strung up – a small boy and his father and mother. Two soldiers with bayonets were guarding the tree, and an officer stood victoriously in the foreground smoking a cigarette. (p.93)

Goya’s drawings of the Horrors of war described all this a century earlier. What changed, maybe, was that the First World War was fought by civilian armies and so entire populations were subjected to horrors and atrocities with large numbers of soldiers either actively ordered to torture and murder civilians, or forced to stand by while it took place. Did anything like this happen in the West, I mean did the English army systematically torture and hang civilians in Flanders?

Kafka compared with Hašek – people

Bertolt Brecht pointed out that Josef Švejk is the identical twin but polar opposite of Kafka’s Joseph K.

Mulling over this remark, I realised this is because, for Kafka, other people barely exist: they are are sort of mirrors, or maybe extensions of the central protagonist’s own terror and anxiety, shadows dancing through the central figure’s endless nightmare.

Whereas Švejk’s life is full of other people – a steady stream of officials, doctors, police and army officers who try to break him, as well as the endless list of people he knows about or has met or heard or read about and who provide the subjects of the huge fund of stories, gossip and cheery anecdotes which he can produce at the drop of a hat to suit any situation.

So, at first sight they are indeed polar opposites – Kafka describes a haunted terrain of ghost figures, Hašek’s book is thronged with real substantial people, and can, up to a point, be taken as presenting a panoramic view of Austro-Hungarian society.

Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy

In chapter seven of The Castle the village mayor explains to K. how mistakes in the vast and complex bureaucracy up at the Castle have led to him being summoned to work as a Land Surveyor even though another department of the Castle had specifically cancelled this same request – but news of the cancellation didn’t come through in time. Now K is floating in limbo because the badly-run bureaucracy has both requested and not requested him, employed and not employed him: there is a reason for him being there, and no reason; hence his feeling of being a non-person, stuck in limbo.

Well, I was very struck when something almost identical happens in Chapter Nine of The Good Soldier Švejk. Here the narrator describes how Švejk comes up before Judge Advocate Bernis, and then proceeds to describe how, despite being ‘the most important element in military justice’, this Bernis is a masterpiece of ineptitude and incompetence.

Bernis keeps a vast pile of muddled documents which he continually loses and misplaces, and so simply makes up new ones. He mixes up names and causes and invents new ones as they come into his head. He tries deserters for theft and thieves for desertion. He invents all kinds of hocus pocus to convict men of crimes they haven’t even dreamed of. He presides over ‘an unending chaos of documents and official correspondence.’

But not only this. We learn that Bernis has a fierce rival and enemy in the department named Captain Linhart. Whenever Bernis gets his hands on any paperwork belonging to Linhart, he deliberately removes papers, swaps them with others, scrambles it up in the most destructive ways possible. And Linhart does the same to Bernis’s papers.

Thus their individual incompetence is compounded by active malevolence. And these are just two of the hundreds of thousands of incompetent fools who staffed the vast Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy. (In a satirical parenthesis we learn that the papers on Švejk’s case weren’t found till after the war, and had been wrongly filed in a folder belonging to JOSEF KOUDELA, and marked ‘Action Completed’.) (pp.91-92)

The Bernis-Linhart passage isn’t the only place in the novel where the bureaucracy of the police, legal system, medical authorities or army is described as being rotten and inept. In a sense, this vision of bureaucratic incompetence underlies the entire novel, with Švejk being an everyman figure sent on an endless picaresque journey through a landscape of muddle and confusion, which builds up into a powerful overview of a society in the grip of stasis and decay.

Indeed, even a casual search online turns up articles which paint a breath-taking portrait of the huge scale, byzantine complexity, and elephantine inefficiency of the Austro-Hungarian Empire:

Kafka compared with Hašek – bureaucracy

Anyway, the recurring presence of various wings of the state bureaucracy in The Good Soldier Švejk has two big impacts on our reading of Kafka.

1. Many critics praise Kafka for his ‘unique achievement’ in describing a vast, spookily endless and all-powerful bureaucracy. But Švejk is teaching me that such an enormous, omnipresent and incompetent bureaucracy really did exist in the late Austro-Hungarian Empire; that it is less a product of Kafka’s mind than we at first thought, that the general sense of decay which Kafka conveys was the actual state of the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy in its dying days, even down to the details of the absurdity caused when different sections of the bureaucracy failed to communicate with each other.

2. Insofar as they are both dealing with more or less the same entity – this vast bureaucracy – then it makes us reflect on the differences between the ways Kafka and Hašek describe it, which can summed up as the inside and the outside:

Kafka describes the personal and psychological impact of a huge faceless bureaucracy on its victims (Joseph K and K) – we see it from inside their minds and we experience along with them the nightmareish sense of helplessness, anxiety and stress it causes them.

Whereas nothing at all upsets Švejk. The Good Soldier Švejk is, to a surprising extent, just as much of an indictment of the stupid, all-encompassing, vicious and inefficient Habsburg bureaucracy, but it is described entirely from the outside, in objective and comical terms. The effect on the reader is like reading a journalistic report in a satirical magazine. The continual atmosphere of blundering officialdom, cruelty and sometimes really horrible violence, is kept entirely under control, remote and detached by the tone of brisk satire, and above all by the burbling presence of the indefatigable, unflappable, undefeatable figure of Švejk. Without Švejk it would be a horror show.

Conclusion

I need to read a) other novels of the period b) some actual history of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to discover just how true this was.


Related links

The Good Soldier Švejk

The Machine Stops by EM Foster (1909)

E.M. Foster isn’t a name you associate with science fiction, his line being more stories about middle-class young ladies in Florence or Surrey. And yet his short story, The Machine Stops (1909), regularly appears in lists of top sci-fi stories.

In the preface to his Collected Short Stories, Forster sardonically commented that ‘The Machine Stops is a reaction to one of the earlier heavens of H. G. Wells.’ Maybe he’s referring to Wells’s A Modern Utopia, published in 1905, though it’s an odd to speak of it being a ‘reaction’ because Wells was just as capable of portraying dystopias as utopias, The Time Machine (1895) being the first in a long line which portray the future as not at all idyllic.

I was surprised by how little I was surprised by the sci-fi future depicted in The Machine Stops. In the future all humanity lives in cells under the ground, cocooned in complete isolation from each other and content to communicate via telescreens. Every need and want is provided by The Machine.

Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk-that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh-a woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the little room belongs.

Now, what would you expect to happen next? I would expect someone to realise how unnatural this life is and want to rebel, to escape, just as in Brave New World or 1984 or The Matrix.

I’d expect this revolt to highlight the depths of pitiful dependency into which humanity has fallen, to assert some deep, spiritual need for people to feel the sun on their faces and the fresh air in their lungs etc.

I’d expect their nearest and dearest to be scandalised, to try and protect them from themselves, I’d expect there to be set-piece debates with defenders of The Machine emphasising how it has ended war and conflict and brought ‘peace’, and the young rebel to spit, ‘Peace? You call this life without colour and passion, peace?’

I’d expect the act of rebellion to lead to the sudden collapse of the whole System, the end of The Machine, the death of the old life, but the narrative to conclude with a consoling sense that the future belongs to the new dwellers on the earth’s surface, to the ‘real’ people, the ‘authentic’ humans, who will have to start again, to build a new, truer civilisation.

And guess what? That’s exactly what happens.

‘But Kuno, is it true ? Are there still men on the surface of the earth ? Is this – tunnel, this poisoned darkness – really not the end?’
He replied:
‘I have seen them, spoken to them, loved them. They are hiding in the mist and the ferns until our civilization stops. Today they are the Homeless – tomorrow ——‘
‘Oh, tomorrow – some fool will start the Machine again, tomorrow.’
‘Never,’ said Kuno, ‘Never. Humanity has learnt its lesson.’

As he spoke, the whole city was broken like a honeycomb. An air-ship had sailed in through the vomitory into a ruined wharf. It crashed downwards, exploding as it went, rending gallery after gallery with its wings of steel. For a moment they saw the nations of the dead, and, before they joined them, scraps of the untainted sky.

For some readers these may come as completely new and startling ideas and, wherever you meet them for the first time, I guess that’s where you’ll always associate their biggest impact, that book or film will always have power for you.

But at my age and having read hundreds of sci-fi books and seen hundreds of sci-fi films and TV shows, these feel like platitudes and clichés. I didn’t find the story remotely interesting, but I was interested in how Foster handled it, in his prose style, and in the sidelight it cast on the ideas of his time.

TV adaptation

There’s a fabulous 1966 black and white TV adaptation. Surprisingly faithful, with wonderful early Dr Who sets, and hand-made special effects, complete with mechanical worms!

Short experimental movie adaptation


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