Beasts and Super-Beasts by Saki (1914)

As the name suggests, Saki’s propensity for introducing wild animals into sedate Edwardian society with comic, ironic or gruesome effect goes into overdrive in many of the stories in this collection. Beasts and Super-Beasts is a collection of 36 Saki short stories. I give brief plot summaries and one or two quotes from each story which either sum it up or are just good examples of Saki’s ironic humour. Many of them feature Saki’s fictional avatar, the slender, svelte and hyper-ironic young man, Clovis Sangrail. For interest, I indicate whether Clovis appears in a story, or not, in brackets after the title.

The She-Wolf (Clovis)

‘I think it very unkind of you not to carry out my suggestion of turning me into a wolf,’ said Mary Hampton, as she crossed over to the conservatory to give her macaws their usual tribute from the dessert dishes.

Leonard Bilsiter is a boring non-entity. He went travelling with a friend across Russia but got caught in the railway strike and spent longer than expected in the far East of the country. Upon returning he gave out dark hints that he had acquired secrets of Siberian magic. He attends a house party given by Colonel and Mrs Mary Hampton where the hostess, on impulse, asks Leonard to turn her into a wolf!

Her husband demurs but Saki’s trouble-making young man, Clovis Sangrail, is at table and afterwards asks Lord Pabham, famous for his private menagerie, whether he has a wolf he can borrow. Yes, Lord Pabham does possess such an animal, a fine timber wolf named Louisa. By dinner next day Clovis has also recruited Mary herself into an elaborate practical joke.

After dinner the guests retire to the conservatory where Mary once again asks Leonard to change her into a wolf, as she saunters among the palms, disappearing from view. Then the pet parrots start squawking and from among the palms emerges… a lean, evil-looking wolf! Women scream, the men leap to their feet! Everyone assumes Leonard has used his Siberian magic to turn Mary Hampton into a wolf and so they entreat Leonard to turn her back but, of course, he can’t.

‘What!’ shouted Colonel Hampton, ‘you’ve taken the abominable liberty of turning my wife into a wolf, and now you stand there calmly and say you can’t turn her back again!’…
‘I assure you I didn’t turn Mrs. Hampton into a wolf; nothing was farther from my intentions,’ [Leonard] protested.

Laura

Laura died on Monday.
‘So dreadfully upsetting,’ Amanda complained to her uncle-in-law, Sir Lulworth Quayne. ‘I’ve asked quite a lot of people down for golf and fishing, and the rhododendrons are just looking their best.’
‘Laura always was inconsiderate,’ said Sir Lulworth; ‘she was born during Goodwood week, with an Ambassador staying in the house who hated babies.’

Laura is dying, She tells her friend Amanda she’d like to be reincarnated as an otter. To Amanda’s amazement, soon after Laura’s death a cheeky otter starts terrorising the neighbour’s poultry. And that’s just the first in a series of unfortunate reincarnations.

The Boar-Pig

Mrs. Philidore Stossen leads her grown-up daughter on a short cut through a paddock in order to gatecrash Mrs Cuvering’s garden party, the garden party of the season, which ‘the Princess’ is attending. Everyone else in the county has been invited and Mrs Stossen is damned if she’s going to let herself be left out.

Unfortunately, Mrs Cuvering’s malicious 13-year-old daughter, Matilda, is watching from up in an apple tree. She knows the Stossens will find the back gate into the garden locked and will be forced to retrace their steps through the paddock. So she releases the Cuverings’ enormous, scary boar-pig, Tarquin Superbus, from its stye into the paddock which is where, as they disconsolately troop back from the locked back garden gate, Mrs. Philidore Stossen and her grown-up daughter encounter it and come to a dead halt out of fear.

Matilda then proceeds to shamelessly demand £2 from the hapless mother and daughter to clear the boar-pig out of their only route back to the main road. They argue her down to ten shillings.

The Brogue (Clovis)

Jessie came back from the golf links next day in a state of mingled elation and concern.
‘It’s all right about the proposal,’ she announced; ‘he came out with it at the sixth hole. I said I must have time to think it over. I accepted him at the seventh.’
‘My dear,’ said her mother, ‘I think a little more maidenly reserve and hesitation would have been advisable, as you’ve known him so short a time. You might have waited till the ninth hole.’
‘The seventh is a very long hole,’ said Jessie; ‘besides, the tension was putting us both off our game.’

The Brogue is a very rebellious, even dangerous, horse which the Mullet family have been trying to get rid of for years. Alas, they sell it to a rich neighbour Mr. Penricarde just as he starts to show an interest in one of Mrs Mullet’s endless brood of daughters, Jessie. They are all distraught that the mad horse will throw Penricarde and kill him before Jessie can marry him, so they turn for advice to the ever-resourceful Clovis Sangrail.

The Hen (Clovis)

‘But he might kill me at any moment,’ protested Jane.
‘Not at any moment; he’s busy with the silver all the afternoon.’

Dora sells Jane a bronze Leghorn or some such exotic breed of hen at a rather exotic price. The hen turns out not to lay eggs. The letters which subsequently pass between the two women were a revelation as to how much invective could be got on to a sheet of notepaper.

Which makes it awkward that Jane is staying with the Sangrails and Dora is due to come and visit before Jane has left. Clovis conceives a plan: He has a tete-a-tete with Jane in which he explains that the Sangrail family’s faithful old retainer, Sturridge, is an unpredictable homicidal maniac and has heard some irrational rumours about Jane, and might attack her at any moment.

Amazingly, even this direct threat is not enough to budge her. Not until Clovis sends the butler (all unwitting) into the drawing room with a ceremonial sword on the pretext that Jane is interested in its old inscription (which she isn’t). But when she spies the butler entering the drawing room where she’s sitting, bearing a heavy old sword, she scarpers out the back passage, and is packed and waiting to be driven to the station in half an hour dead!

The Open Window

‘The doctors agree in ordering me complete rest, an absence of mental excitement, and avoidance of anything in the nature of violent physical exercise,’ announced Framton, who laboured under the tolerably widespread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one’s ailments and infirmities, their cause and cure.

Framton Nuttel has been told to take a rest cure and go and stay in the country, so he’s making the rounds of a number of acquaintances and is currently staying with a Mrs Sappleton. One October afternoon the house is empty except for him and Mrs Sappleton’s 15-year-old niece, Vera. It is then that the niece tells him about the Great Tragedy. One day Mrs Sappleton’s husband and two brothers set off on a hunt and never came back, they were sucked down into the great bog and never returned.

Ever since that day her aunt has always kept the french windows open in the vain hope that they will magically return… She weaves such a persuasive story that when they both see three figures looming in the distance, the niece is suddenly struck dumb with horror and Framton catches her mood, is convinced they must be the ghosts, has a panic attack, grabs his stuff, bolts out the living room out the front door and along the lane (nearly knocking over a cyclist).

Meanwhile the menfolk walk back in through the door, accompanied by their loyal spaniel and muddy from their hunting, and ask who the man is who they saw bolting out of the room. Most peculiar chap, explains Mrs Sappleton, just upped and ran out for no reason at all. At which point Vera delivers the coup de grace of the story:

‘I expect it was the spaniel,’ said the niece calmly; ‘he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him. Enough to make anyone lose their nerve.’

Romance at short notice was her speciality.

Delicious.

The Treasure-Ship

Lulu, Duchess of Dulverton, is rich and interested in ancient treasure in old shipwrecks. She reads about a new device which can suck up debris from the ocean bed or sunken ships if you can locate them. She has a penniless nephew, Vasco Honiton, who’s quite handy and she commissions him to try out the equipment on the Irish coast, off a patch of land her family own. Unfortunately, Vasco locates the wreck of the Sub-Rosa, which went down when its owner, Billy Yuttley, was suspected of suicide. Vasco not only locates the Sub-Rosa but locates a watertight strongbox in its locker, scoops it up to the surface and discovers within it, papers proving a far-reaching scandal, papers which incriminate Lulu herself. Very calmly Vasco tells Lulu he is going to blackmail her and use the proceeds to buy a villa in Florence and live a life of leisure, possibly taking up as a hobby collecting the paintings of Raeburn.

The Cobweb

Haunting story of young Mrs. Ladbruk, wife of a young chap who inherits an ancient farm and the staff who run it which includes ninety-four-year old Martha Crale. She is an ancient, rake-thin, decrepit crone. The story is short on gags and very long on atmospheric descriptions of an Edwardian farm, its rhythms and how Martha Crale is always in the way of young Mrs. Ladbruk’s plans to decorate and update everything. One day young Mrs. Ladbruk comes across her staring out the window, muttering about death and misinterprets it as her final breakdown. But in fact it is an eerie and spooky vision of the death of young Mrs. Ladbruk’s husband, who is brought in having been crushed by a falling tree.

The skill in the story is how it cuts away at the moment Mrs Ladbruk learns of her father’s death, so that we do not see or hear young Mrs. Ladbruk’s response, or get any description at all of her feelings and the impact on her of the death of her husband. Instead the scene cuts to a week or so later as she stands with all her belongings packed, waiting for a cart to collect her, and has a last sight of old Martha Crale trussing a pair of chickens just as she has done any time this last 80 years.

It’s not a ghost story exactly, but it’s about an almost ghostly presence, and it is a tragedy. In this respect, it echoes a lot of Kipling’s stories from exactly the same period, which are about the uncanny presence, magic and psychology of old Sussex hussifs.

The Lull

Latimer Springfield is a boring young man standing in a county election. Mrs. Durmot invites him to come and stay to break up the final weeks of the campaign. Mrs Durmot tells her niece Vera that the man needs a rest. Instead, when the entire household has gone to bed, Vera interrupts Latimer at his late night speech-writing by telling him there has been a flood, the local dam has burst and the river has burst its banks, the house is full of Boy Scouts who have been cut off, and could he look after one of the pigs and one of the prize chickens which have been rained out of the farmyard.

Very reluctantly Latimer agrees, the animals fight and keep him up all night and, of course, in the morning, the housemaid comes in with his tea as normal, he throws back the curtains, and realises there has been no flood at all. It has all been an elaborate practical joke.

The Unkindest Blow

A Tory joke. The narrator fantasises that the present spate of strikes (which plagued late-Edwardian society) becomes universal until, eventually, every trade and industry known to man has finally had at least one strike.

Utterly exhausted, society returns to normal, and looks forward to the Divorce of the Century, between the fabulously wealthy Duke of Falvertoon and his wife. A vast cottage industry of reporters, commentators, columnists and even the film business hire rooms and seats in the divorce court, ready to make a fortune. Until – and here’s the punchline – the Duke and his wife go on strike, refusing to go through with the case until they get a slice of the action.

The Romancers

Morton Crosby is enjoying a cigarette in a secluded spot in Hyde Park when he is approached in a roundabout manner by an obvious beggar. But Morton is one of Saki’s heartless ironists and the beggar has barely got going with his spiel before Morton launches into a drolly absurd claim to be a Persian, born on the border with Afghanistan, and proceeds to bamboozle the beggar with ridiculous, made-up customs, in the end claiming his religion absolutely forbids him to give alms in the month of November, rising and walking off with a spring in his step.

The Schartz-Metterklume Method

Lady Carlotta steps out of her train at a little rural station for a breather, to stretch her legs, and the train unexpectedly pulls away without her, leaving her stranded without her luggage. However, a cart pulls up and in it is Mrs. Quabarl, who insists that Lady Carlotta must be Miss Hope, the governess, they were expecting. Lady Carlotta, having a droll, Sakiesque sense of humour, decides to go along with the mistake, letting herself be driven back to the Quabarl house, introduced to the household, fed and informed as to her duties posing as the governess.

Next morning Mrs. Quabarl is astonished to discover her children re-enacting the Rape of the Sabine Women by abducting the two little daughters of the gatekeeper’s wife and, when Mrs. Quabarl remonstrates with Lady C, the latter simply walks away, through the gates, back to the station and catches the next train to her intended destination. Soon after which the real Miss Hope arrives and is very confused by the consternation and vapours which greet her.

The Seventh Pullet

He was beginning to realise how safe and easy depravity can seem once one has the courage to begin…

Blenkinthrope is a boring commuter, catching the same train, sitting in the same carriage with the same bored companions. His only subject is the vegetables he grows in his garden. ‘Make something up’, suggests his friend, Gorworth, and on the spur of the moment invents a tale that six of his prize pullets were mesmerised and killed by a snake, but the seventh survived because it’s a rare breed with feathers over its eyes, hence not susceptible to the snake’s charms. Next day, Blenkinthrope tells his commuter colleagues the story and is astonished at how riveted they are. The story is even passed on to a poultry magazine and appears as a titbit in a national paper.

In successive attempts at fiction, however, Blenkinthrope quickly oversteps the bounds of plausibility and becomes known as the Baron Munchausen of his little set. Thus, when his wife really does die from playing a cursed card game from which her own mother and grandmother had died – when Blenkinthrope excitedly tells everyone about this most strange and exciting thing which has genuinely happened to him… Nobody believes him. Chastened, he returns to boring stories about his not-that-special vegetables.

The Blind Spot

‘My dear Egbert, between nearly killing a gardener’s boy and altogether killing a Canon there is a wide difference. No doubt you have often felt a temporary desire to kill a gardener’s boy; you have never given way to it, and I respect you for your self-control.’

Great-aunt Adelaide has died and left Egbert her heir and executor. Among her papers he comes across a letter from her brother, Peter, the canon, who was mysteriously murdered. His cook, Sebastien from the French Pyrenees, was accused and tried for the murder but the evidence wasn’t convincing and he was acquitted, at which point Egbert’s uncle, Sir Lulworth Quayne (who also appears in Laura), instantly hired him and has been enjoying the delights of his wonderful cuisine for several years.

Now, with a flourish, Egbert reveals that among Adelaide’s letters was one from her brother which described a violent argument he had with the hot-tempered Pyrennean, and how he was now going in fear of his life. This letter would supply the missing motive and be enough to convict the cook.

To Egbert’s horror Sir Lulworth takes the letter from his hand and tosses it into the heart of the fireplace.

‘What on earth did you do that for?’ gasped Egbert. ‘That letter was our one piece of evidence to connect Sebastien with the crime.’
‘That is why I destroyed it,’ said Sir Lulworth.
‘But why should you want to shield him?’ cried Egbert; ‘the man is a common murderer.’
‘A common murderer, possibly, but a very uncommon cook.’

Dusk

Norman Gortsby is sitting on a bench in Hyde Park at dusk. An old joxer is sitting there when he arrives but soon leaves, to be replaced by a likely young fellow who immediately starts telling a hard-luck story about how he booked into a hotel he was taken to, nipped out to buy a bar of soap at a chemists, then realised he was lost with no way of getting back to the hotel or money.

Note the extreme laconicism of the title. Saki had written scores of these stories by now. Arguably these mid-career stories are less funny than the earlier ones, in some ways more obvious in plot, but contain more subtle psychology and storytelling techniques.

A Touch of Realism

Blanche Boveal gives her friend Lady Blonze an idea for her Christmas house party: get everyone to adopt a character, not tell anyone what it is but act it out over the course of a few days, and the best one wins a prize.

So they go ahead, with various comic results: waspish Bertie van Tahn wakes up fat hypochondriac Waldo Plubley in the middle of the night to ransack his room for sheep, lost sheep. Yes, he is pretending to be Little Bo Peep. But the prize goes to Cyril Skatterly and Vera Durmot who, next morning before breakfast, drive the Klammersteins thirty miles to Slogberry Moor, and dump them there, in the snow. Why? Bertie van Tahn is the first to understand: Cyril and Vera were pretending to be Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain deporting the Jews from Spain!

Maybe I’m being over-sensitive, but having read Saki’s second novel, When William Came, with its antisemitic central character Murrey Yeovil, sensitised me to even fleeting mentions of Jews in Saki’s stories and so this deliberate, and even dangerous (dumped in midwinter, snowing, miles from anywhere), humiliation of the only Jews in the story, couldn’t help but ring my alarm bells.

Cousin Teresa (Clovis)

Sort of comic, this is more of a polemical satire with a bitingly jingoistic message, in the tone of When William Came.

Colonel Harrowcluff has two sons, Basset and Lucas. Basset has just returned from four years of worthy service in some colony and his father quietly hopes he might get an honour. His other son remained in England and is always coming up with half-cocked, hare-brained schemes. The story opens up with the younger son devising the lyrics and performance for a music-hall song titled “Cousin Teresa”. To everyone’s surprise, for once his dreams come off and the song is a roaring success.

In fact it’s so successful that the Minister decides he must be given a knighthood: not the Harrowcluff who spent years of his life shoring up the empire in a farflung colony, but the Harrowcluff who came up with a meaningless and irritating jingle.

So it’s a lampoon on a British society which is more interested in music-hall jingles than the solid defence of its empire and society. Saki invents a pompous society woman to give an idiotic speech in praise of the song:

‘Politics and patriotism are so boring and so out of date,’ said a revered lady who had some pretensions to oracular utterance; ‘we are too cosmopolitan nowadays to be really moved by them. That is why one welcomes an intelligible production like “Cousin Teresa”, that has a genuine message for one.’

And I am not at all surprised that when Saki ventures on this subject, he manages to squeeze in some antisemitism, which barely even makes sense. Lucas is the twittering idiot of the family, the superficial drone, the epitome of a social gadfly and so, for no logical reason, Saki says he looks Jewish!

His hair and forehead furnished a recessional note in a personality that was in all other respects obtrusive and assertive. There was certainly no Semitic blood in Lucas’s parentage, but his appearance contrived to convey at least a suggestion of Jewish extraction. Clovis Sangrail, who knew most of his associates by sight, said it was undoubtedly a case of protective mimicry.

I don’t quite understand that jab. Does it mean Lucas makes himself appear more Jewish in order to fit in with a show business dominated by Jews? I’m phrasing it like that because there are lines directly to that effect in When Wiliam Comes, that Jews are disproportionately represented in film and theatreland. As I wrote in my review of When William Came Saki’s antisemitism is a stain on his writing.

The Yarkand Manner

An odd satire on the notion that a wild fashion caught on for the editorial staffs of all London’s newspapers and magazines to remove to far-distant locations from where to edit and produce their periodicals. Thus one moves to Paris, but others quickly outdo it by moving to Nurenberg, Seville or Salonika, and then further East till one takes the biscuit by moving its entire editorial team to Yarkand.

Eventually all the newspapers come back to London, tired but with a new Oriental remoteness, a new tone. None more so than the Daily Intelligencer, which had begun to publish articles about foreign affairs of a noted bluntness and belligerence, many ostensibly based on leaks from the government.

The government gets fed up of issuing denials that the Intelligencer is leaking government policy, so one fine day the Prime Minister and a bunch of other ministers go round to the offices and are astonished to discover the true state of affairs: which is that the entire staff of the newspaper decamped for the East where they were promptly kidnapped by bandits who demanded a quarter of a million pounds ransom. The only member of staff left back in London, the office boy who received the bandits’ letter, decided that was too much and so hired some new staff and hid himself away in the Editor’s office, refusing to see anyone personally and issuing all kinds of orders via… himself!

This is presumably a satire on the newspaper industry which Saki knew so well. But here, as in many of the other stories, it’s crying out for intelligent notes to explain whether the story refers to specific incidents in Edwardian London: was there a fashion for one or more papers or magazines to up sticks and produce an entire edition from offices abroad? Or is this pure, whimsical fiction?

I doubt if it would justify the expense, but a fully Annotated Saki would be wonderful, with really good, long notes which thoroughly explained the background to all his many contemporary references.

The Byzantine Omelette

Satirical portrait of snobbish, superior champagne socialist Sophie Chattel-Monkheim. She is preparing herself for a grand dinner she is giving the Duke of Syria. But then disaster strikes. More precisely, the entire domestic staff go on strike. They have discovered that Gaspare, the chef, was himself a strike-breaker in the great strike at Lord Grimford’s two years ago. But he is the only one who knows how to make a byzantine omelette, which is the Duke’s favourite dish, wails Sophie.

All her female houseguests come begging her to do something, so she agrees to dismiss the chef. Half an hour later the guests, looking more or less presentable, are assembled round the dinner table when the butler enters with a sombre look, goes over to Sophie and announces there will be no dinner. The kitchen staff was of the same union as the chef and now they have downed tools in sympathy.

As so often, the story then cuts away completely, jumping forward in time and telling us that, 18 months later, Sophie Chattel-Monkheim is just about recovering from her nervous breakdown.

And so, like The Unkindest Blow, it’s another very topical satire on the widespread strikes which plagued late-Edwardian society.

The Feast of Nemesis (Clovis)

‘There is no outlet for demonstrating your feelings towards people whom you simply loathe. That is really the crying need of our modern civilisation.’

A broad and comic satire in which Clovis’s aunt, Mrs. Thackenbury, wearily laments how tiresome it is having to have to give presents to people one really doesn’t care for on so any feast days. This lament inspires her malicious nephew (Clovis) to concoct the idea of Nemesis Day when you take unbridled revenge on people you really hate.

Take, for example, the ghastly Webleys: wouldn’t it be a good idea to get up bright and early before everyone else on Nemesis Day and go and dig up their tennis court with a fork, later blaming it on ‘an unusually masterful mole or a badger in a hurry.’

How about taking greedy Agnes Blaik into the woods on the promise of a grand picnic and then contriving to lose her just before the eating starts. Or luring fat Waldo Plubley into the hammock in the orchard near where the wasps make their summer nest, getting him nice and comfortable, then throwing a firework into the wasps’ nest.

‘It takes some doing to get out of a hammock in a hurry.’
‘They might sting him to death,’ protested Mrs. Thackenbury.
‘Waldo is one of those people who would be enormously improved by death,’ said Clovis.

A masterpiece of malicious wit.

The Dreamer

Another laugh-out-loud funny story. Adela Chemping invites her sleek, pomaded 18-year-old nephew Cyprian with her to the sales. Most of the story is a satire on the wilful and illogical ways of a middle-aged, middle-class woman on a shopping expedition to a department store. But there is a delicious sting in the tail, when Adela leaves Cyprian for a while to go to the napkin department and, upon her return, discovers him posing as a shop assistant and selling sales goods amid the crush to harassed shoppers for cash and calmly pocketing the proceeds.

As in several of these stories the climax is wonderfully understated, almost omitted, for the next sentence describes Adela being helped into the fresh air and it takes the reader a moment to realise it’s because she’s fainted at the sight of her nephew pulling this impersonation, a fact Saki deliberately omits.

The deliberate omission doesn’t exactly add tension, it makes the effect more… more chiselled and exquisite. There is a tact in not stating what happens, leaving the reader to deduce it. And also a very understated, droll kind of comedy.

The Quince Tree

Heartless Mrs. Bebberly Cumble wants old Betty Mullen removed from her cottage because she never pays the rent and she’s fed up of subsidising her. On the spot her kinder niece, Vera, concocts a cock and bull story about how the jewels stolen in a recent high profile burglary have ended up in Betty’s cottage, and what a lot of people were involved on stealing them and passing them on, including Mrs Cumble’s daughter’s fiancé, that nice young Cuthbert, and also the Canon. Increasingly horrified at the web of crime she has untangled, Mrs. Bebberly Cumble decides to let Betty Mullen stay after all.

The Forbidden Buzzards (Clovis)

Clovis believed that if a lie was worth telling it was worth telling well.

A house party at Mrs Olston’s country home. Hugo Peterby takes Clovis aside and explains he’s rather keen on Betty Coulterneb but doesn’t stand much of a chance against dashing and very rich young Lanner.

‘Leave it with me,’ says Clovis, and proceeds to warn Mrs Olston in dark tones that Lanner has accepted her invitation, not to propose to the fragrant Miss Coulterneb, but to steal the eggs of the only nesting pair of rough-necked buzzards in the country. Clovis concocts an utter fiction about Lanner having one of the finest egg collections in Britain and how he has been associated with desperate measures to get his hands on rare eggs in the past.

‘What can we do?’ asks a horrified Mrs Olston, who promised her husband, before he left on a prolonged trip back to his native Norway, that she would do her uttermost to protect the buzzards. Clovis suggests that Lanner never be left alone for a minute day or night, but be permanently accompanied by a relay of chaperones, including: Mrs Olston herself, who sets out to show him every feature of the estate; her 14-year-old daughter Evelyn, who talks sombrely about how we must make the world a better place (plus ça change); her 9-year-old son who talks incessantly about the Balkan Wars; and the German governess who bombards the hapless Lanner with incessant talk about (the classic German poet) Schiller.

With the result that Lanner never gets a minute to himself, let alone five minutes with the fragrant Miss Coulterneb and so, after a couple of days, gives up and leaves early to return to London.

Leaving the field clear for his rival, Hugo Peterby, who inspired the whole whimsical fantasy in the first place. But, alas, Hugo, also, fails in his suit, and departs leaving the fragrant Miss Coulterneb as virginal and unmarried as ever. The conclusion.

Hugo did not bring off his affair with Betty Coulterneb. Whether she refused him or whether, as was more generally supposed, he did not get a chance of saying three consecutive words, has never been exactly ascertained. Anyhow, she is still the jolly Coulterneb girl.

And then the punchline.

The buzzards successfully reared two young ones, which were shot by a local hairdresser.

Stake

Eleanor Saxelby shuddered. She liked her meals to be of regular occurrence and assured proportions.

Mrs. Attray laments the character of her son Ronald to her friend Eleanor Saxelby. He is only 18 but already a gambling addict. She has deprived him of absolutely every source of money or credit he can possibly have, in order to quell his addiction. The punchline of the story is that Ronnie has excelled himself and managed to gamble away Mrs Attray’s cook to her landlords, the Norridrums, admittedly only for a few days, but this explains why the lunch served to them and Mrs Saxelby is execrable.

‘Then depend on it he was gambling,’ said Eleanor, with the assured air of one who has few ideas and makes the most of them.

Clovis on Parental Responsibilities (Clovis)

‘Now, my mother never bothered about bringing me up. She just saw to it that I got whacked at decent intervals and was taught the difference between right and wrong; there is some difference, you know, but I’ve forgotten what it is.’

Mrs Eggelby is trying to interest Clovis in the achievements of her children, Amy, Willie and Eric, an invitation to curiosity which he does his best to resist. replying to her every sally with sardonic improbabilities.

‘Aunts that have never known a day’s illness are very rare; in fact, I don’t personally know of any.’

A Holiday Task

A timid nobody, Kenelm Jerton, is buttonholed over luncheon in a country hotel by a posh young lady who claims to have forgotten her own name but is convinced she has a title, Lady something or other. ‘I say, would you mind awfully helping me try to remember?’

The unnamed woman asks him to look through old copies of Country Life to see if he can spot her photo, which he dutifully sets himself to do. They meet up again at 5 and she asks him to look after her luggage while she slips out to catch a cab.

A fellow guest walks by chatting to another and mentions that he knows the tall young woman in grey who’s just slipped out. Kenelm asks who she is and finds out she is plain Mrs. Stroope, a golfing lady from thereabouts who often loses her memory. This story is contrived and has some interesting social detail but is not particularly funny.

The Stalled Ox

‘My garden has just been put straight for the winter, and an ox roaming about in it won’t improve matters. Besides, there are the chrysanthemums just coming into flower.’

Theophil Eshley is a timid painter of the rather small landscape he can see from the end of his garden. One day his neighbour, Adela Pingsford, comes banging on his studio door and asks if he can help her shoo away a large ox which has somehow got into her garden. Theophil is useless and Adela is quite magnificently sarcastic.

Eshley took a step or two in the direction of the animal, clapped his hands, and made noises of the ‘Hish’ and ‘Shoo’ variety. If the ox heard them it gave no outward indication of the fact. ‘If any hens should ever stray into my garden,’ said Adela, ‘I should certainly send for you to frighten them out. You ‘shoo’ beautifully. Meanwhile, do you mind trying to drive that ox away?’

The story really lifts off when Eshley a) manages to shoo the ox out of the garden alright – straight through the french windows into Adela’s front room! and b) revolts against the woman’s hysterical imprecations, and instead goes and gets his painting equipment, makes himself comfortable, and paints the masterpiece which was to be the making of his career, Ox in a morning-room, late autumn,  which became one of the sensations of the next Paris Salon, and led on to the Royal Academy showing of its smash-hit sequel, Barbary Apes Wrecking a Boudoir.

The Story-Teller

A confirmed bachelor is stuck in a railway carriage with an aunt accompanying a small girl, an even smaller girl and a small boy. She tells them a feeble story to try and keep them quiet, but they keep asking stupid questions and the smallest girl repeats the first line of On The Road To Mandalay so many times that the bachelor snaps and says he bets he can tell a better story than the aunt.

The bored children immediately ask him to, and so he tells a story about a little girl who is so super-good she wins medals for goodness, and the Prince asks her to visit him in his castle and then to see his lovely park, but then a wolf breaks into the park, sees the girl in her spotless white dress and chases her. She hides in thick bushes and would have gotten away with it except she was trembling so much her medals jingled against each other, the wolf heard her, tracked her down, and ate her up, every morsel, except her shoes and her medals for being so good.

The aunt is, of course, appalled, but the children think it is the best story they’ve ever heard.

A Defensive Diamond

Treddleford is happily ensconced beside a fire on a rainy October evening at his club, settling down to read a book about faraway Samarkand when his peace is broken by the club bore Amblecope sidling up and trying to start conversation on a number of topics. The comedy of the story is that, on each topic, Amblecope has barely begun before Treddleford leaps in and tells huge, preposterous stories which outflank any anecdote Amblecope could tell him.

Eventually Amblecope gives up and sidles away but an hour or so later, as Treddleford makes to leave the room they both happen to arrive at the door at the same moment where, emboldened, Treddleford waves him back with the immortal remark:

‘I believe I take precedence,’ he said coldly; ‘you are merely the club Bore; I am the club Liar.’

The Elk

Teresa, Mrs. Thropplestance, was the richest and most intractable old woman in the county of Woldshire. She has outlived her son and now supervises her heir apparent, vague young Bertie.

‘Bertie might not be disposed to pay much attention to the consecrations of Fate, but he would not dream of opposing his grandmother.’

The story humorously chronicles the forlorn attempts of Mrs. Yonelet to marry off her daughter, Dora and her conversations with the vicar’s wife to whom she confides every stage in her campaigns, up to and including the exciting news that Bertie has just rescued Dora from the old elk Mrs T keeps in a field.

Teresa calmly informs Mrs Yonelet that Bertie has previously rescued two other maidens and the gardener’s son, none of whom he intends to marry. Later the vicar confides to Mrs Yonelet that the woman Teresa wants her grandson to marry is the Bickelbys’ German governess.

Which makes it all the more ironic when, a few months later, the family elk really does attack and kill the Bickelbys’ German governess, leading Teresa to die of heartbreak and frustration a few months later, after which Bertie does, indeed, finally, marry Dora Yonelet. All thanks to The Elk.

‘Down Pens’

Comedy about the gruelling torment of having to write thank you cards as a young couple, who have already written twenty between them, try to think of something genuine and not too insincere to write to the couple who sent them a calendar.

Abruptly the husband comes up with a plan: to write a letter to every newspaper in the land suggesting the abolition of Thank you notes and the declaration of a Writing Truce between Christmas and New Year. Notes of thanks can be attached as formatted counterfoils sent with invoices along with all presents, which only require a quick squiggle of the recipient’s pen.

Obviously a satire on middle-class social conventions.

The Name-Day

Constitutionally timid John James Abbleway works for his firm in Vienna. One winter his fiancée invites him to join her at Fiume. He takes the train south and it starts to snow, very heavily, turning the line into a snowdrift. The engine struggles harder and harder then there is a jolt and John James Abbleway’s carriage slows to a halt. Looking out the window he sees the rest of the train puffing into the distance.

He is left alone in his first class carriage and, on going through to the third class carriage, discovers a solitary old peasant woman. They hear wolves howling. Constitutionally timid John James Abbleway fears they will be eaten by the wolves. Or starve. The woman tells him it is her name day so she knows her saint will protect her. She sells him some of the food in her basket (blood sausages) for an extortionate rate.

Then she announces she knows a house nearby and is going to try to get there. Constitutionally timid John James Abbleway is petrified she will be massacred by the wolves which are howling all round the carriage, but the peasant woman insists it is her name day and she will be perfectly alright. She gets out and steps forth and next thing Abbleway knows, the ‘wolves’ are frolicking round her! He eases open a window and calls her. She shouts back that these are not wolves at all, but her cousin Karl’s dogs and he keeps a pub just beyond the trees. She’ll be back in a bit.

The Lumber Room

Young Nicholas is too clever by half, and for his latest escapade is excluded from the holiday trip which his cousins’ mother arranges for all the children to be taken to Jagborough sands. His aunt forbids him to go into the gooseberry garden. That’s fine by young Nicholas because today is the day he plans to take the big old key from its hiding place on top of some shelves and sneak up to the fearsome and legendary ‘lumber room’ at the top of the house.

When he lets himself into the lumber room it turns out to be precisely the treasure trove such a place should be, dim and dusty with a moth-eaten old fire screen showing an exciting hunting scene and a big old book full of pictures of exotic birds. He hears shouts from the aunt and quickly replaces the book, locks the lumber room door, replaces the key on the shelf and saunters back into the garden.

Missing him, the aunt had herself gone into the gooseberry garden in search and fallen into the empty water tank. Now she is shouting for help. Nicholas saunters over to the water tank and decides to have some fun. ‘How do I know you’re not the Evil One taunting me?’ he taunts. ‘My aunt told me I was forbidden to go in the gooseberry garden’, and so on. The more she protests her identity the more ironically Nicholas replies before casually strolling away.

It is some time before a kitchenmaid, in search of parsley, eventually rescues the aunt from the rain-water tank.

Fur

The sacrifices of friendship were beautiful in her eyes as long as she was not asked to make them.

Eleanor has a super-rich elderly cousin, Bertram Kneyght. She wants to persuade him to give her something really good for her birthday. Her friend Suzanne suggests they ambush the old boy as he walks to his club and inveigle him into the posh department store, Goliath and Mastodon’s where they can hint none too subtly about Eleanor’s birthday.

Indeed they do this but, unbeknown to Eleanor, Suzanne has a plan of her own. She tells Kneyght to buy her friend a fan, just any old fan will do, but then launches on a sad story about how it’s her (Suzanne’s) birthday, too, soon, and how a rich man once promised her a lovely fox-fur stole but never gave it to her.

So the result is that Kneyght gives Eleanor a disappointing fan but Suzanne gets just the luxury silver-fox stole she had been angling for. The friendship between the two women has never recovered. Women Beware Women.

The Philanthropist and the Happy Cat

Direct comparison between Jocantha Bessbury and her cat. Jocantha smugly thinks she has everything she needs, including a lovely house and a lovely garden. Her cat, Attab, spends all day sleeping and at night goes out to catch baby sparrows.

Jocantha falls to reflecting on all the poor around her, poor working girls, shop girls. On an impulse she decides to treat a pair of poor working girls to tickets to the theatre. Well, maybe one one would be better, no need to go mad.

So Jocantha walks to a ticket agency and buys a ticket for a current show, ‘The Yellow Peacock’, then wanders round till she finds an ABC tearooms. Here she spots a sad, pale, forlorn-looking girl sitting by herself, and is about to take pity and play Lady Bountiful when she is surprised by the arrival of the girl’s beau, who is strikingly handsome and self-assured. Jocantha watches them chat then, eventually, the girl has to go.

The story then turns to Jocantha’s half dozen ways of trying to get the dishy young man to catch her eye, including complaining loudly about a muffin, spilling her milk and generally making a commotion. Nothing works. The young man is deeply absorbed in a novel. Eventually Jocantha gives up and comes home, and for the first time regards her house as dull and overfurnished.

She looks at the bloody cat, curled up and smug as ever. ‘But then he had killed his sparrow.’ The droll implication is that Jocantha is every bit the pussy her cat is, but without the hunting abilities. The further implication being that the entire conscious motive of ‘helping the poor’ was a cover for the more self-seeking aim of finding a dishy lover. I.e. philanthropy is bunk, a right-wing (or satirist’s) point of view.

On Approval

None of the discerning patrons of the Restaurant Nuremberg, Owl Street, Soho, are quite sure whether Gebhard Knopfschrank, the young man who caught a ship from Pomerania to London, really is a genuine artist of genius or merely a self-promoting dabbler. He certainly creates striking works.

His pictures always represented some well-known street or public place in London, fallen into decay and denuded of its human population, in the place of which there roamed a wild fauna, which, from its wealth of exotic species, must have originally escaped from Zoological Gardens and travelling beast shows. ‘Giraffes drinking at the fountain pools, Trafalgar Square’ was one of the most notable and characteristic of his studies, while even more sensational was the gruesome picture of ‘Vultures attacking dying camel in Upper Berkeley Street’. There were also photographs of the large canvas on which he had been engaged for some months, and which he was now endeavouring to sell to some enterprising dealer or adventurous amateur. The subject was ‘Hyænas asleep in Euston Station’, a composition that left nothing to be desired in the way of suggesting unfathomed depths of desolation.

Sounds surprisingly science fiction, doesn’t it, a touch of H.G. Wells.

Anyway, over time the regulars notice that Gerhard’s orders at the restaurant are becoming simpler, wine gives way to lager and then to water. This is because Gebhard Knopfschrank is starving. Nothing is selling.

Then one evening he orders a massive, slap-up feast, the finest of everything and puts the Star-Spangled Banner on the music box. The restaurant regulars mutter that he must finally have been ‘discovered’ by a rich American, speculate that his prices will now shoot up, and they quickly hurry to buy up the sketches he’s brought along, as usual, in his portfolio, and at the asking price of ten shillings a pop.

It is only when he’s sold them all that Gerhard disabuses them. His benefactor is an American alright, but one who ploughed his car into the flock of pigs his parents back in Pomerania were walking along a road to market. Being American he promptly offered way over the asking price, making Mamma and Papa rich at a stroke, and they have sent their son in London some of the largesse. Nothing to do with his paintings.

God be thanked for rich Americans, who are always in a hurry to get somewhere else.

And his paintings? Oh, he thinks they’re worthless so he’s burnt them all. Tomorrow he catches the boat back to Pomerania and he’s never coming back. Leaving the restaurant regulars feeling very stupid at having splashed out so much money in a panic for now-worthless drawings.

Obviously a satire on the wild fads and inflated prices of the art world which is, of course, nothing like that 110 years later.


Animals

Obviously the title of the volume is justified by the centrality, in most of the stories, of an animal. In many instances the robust natural behaviour of the animal highlights the artificiality and hypocrisy of the humans. For example, just the blunt existence of the boar-pig highlights the sneakiness and snobbery and competitiveness and bitterness-at-not-being-invited-to-the-party of Mrs. Philidore Stossen.

Animals are innocent because they are not free to make choices. They just do what they do, and their lack of freedom of action somehow highlights the tremendous over-freedom which human beings suffer from, and all the silly snobberies and social restrictions and manners and conventions which we squander that freedom on.

Smart youth versus dumb age

She was a woman of few ideas, with immense powers of concentration.

This is not the first time Saki has expressed this idea and it prompts the reflection that the stories often present a pretty straightforward dichotomy between the simple-minded but obstinate older generation (the apparently never-ending series of prohibiting aunts) who insist on narrow, inflexible ideas of right and wrong and decency etc; and the nimble-witted, ironic and satirical young men and women, who dance ironical rings around them.

The most consistent embodiment of the latter is Clovis Sangrail, but the same spirit is at work in some of the other young adult characters, and often in Saki’s children. His children consistently lack the narrow-minded, good-mannered hypocrisy of their elders, and simply do and say what they fancy, and are all the more shocking for it.

For example,  Mrs Cuvering’s malicious 13-year-old daughter, Matilda, in The Boar-Pig or Mrs. Sappleton’s 15-year-old niece who makes up the story about her dead menfolk in The Open Window or youthfully malicious Nicholas in The Lumber Room.

Are these malicious children the ‘super-beasts’ of the title?

Is Clovis a knut?

In the story The Dreamer Adela Chemping worries that her sleek, pomaded 18-year-old nephew Cyprian might be a ‘nut’. In A Holiday Task the narrator compares Kenelm Jerton to a ‘supernut’. A what?

The term ‘nut’ was Edwardian slang for an idle, upper-class, man-about-town. The word was immortalised in the popular music-hall song Gilbert The Filbert, written and composed by Arthur Wimperis and Herman Finck in 1914 and made famous by the well-known singer Basil Hallam. Here it is from a 1966 disc featuring English character actor Arthur Treacher (on the right) and (improbably enough) the American host of a US TV chat show, Merv Griffin, both cashing in on the fashion for ‘Swinging London’.

Anyway, the point is the lyrics:

I am known round Town as a fearful blood
For I come straight down from the dear old flood
And I know who’s who, and I know what’s what
And between the two I’m a trifle hot
For I set the tone as you may suppose
For I stand alone when it comes to clothes
And as for gals just ask my pals
Why everybody knows.

Chorus: I’m Gilbert the Filbert, the Knut with a K,
The pride of Piccadilly the blasé roué,
Oh Hades, the ladies, who leave their wooden huts
For Gilbert the Filbert the Colonel of the Knuts.

You may look upon me as a waster, what?
But you ought to see how I fag and swot
For I’m called by two, and by five I’m out
Which I couldn’t do if I slacked about
Then I count my ties and I change my kit
And the exercise keeps me awfully fit
Once I begin I work like sin
I’m full of go and grit.

P.G. Wodehouse described the phenomenon of the ‘knut’ at length. In the preface to Joy in the Morning (1946) he wrote:

The Edwardian knut was never an angry young man. He would get a little cross, perhaps, if his man Meadowes sent him out some morning with odd spats on, but his normal outlook on life was sunny. He was humble, kindly soul, who knew he was a silly ass but hoped you wouldn’t mind. He liked everybody, and most people like him. Portrayed on the stage by George Grossmith and G. P. Huntley, he was a lovable figure, warming the hearts of all. You might disapprove of him not being a world’s worker, but you could not help being fond of him… Most knuts were younger sons, and in the reign of good King Edward the position of the younger son in aristocratic families was… what’s the word, Jeeves? Anomalous? You’re sure? Right ho, anomalous. Thank you, Jeeves.

So is Clovis a ‘nut’ or ‘knut’ (the spelling seems to have been unstable)? On the face of it, yes, and the aunts quoted above are right to be worried that their 18-year-old nephews may be turning into unemployed, hyper-well-dressed, unemployed young men-about-town.

In 1994 a new word, ‘metrosexual’, made its first appearance in print to describe: ‘a heterosexual urban man who enjoys shopping, fashion, and similar interests traditionally associated with women or gay men’. Maybe the metrosexual is a descendant of the k/nut which scandalised the older generation in the decadent 1890s and the Edwardian 1900s.

(Interesting to note, in passing, that the term ‘waster’, which in my teenage years was used to describe potheads, was in common use in 1914.)

Silly names

People remember Saki’s stories for their high society cast and settings, for the often exotic animal interventions, for the droll humour and the sometimes macabre turns of events. But Saki was also prolific in the creation of silly names:

Leonard Bilsiter, Mrs. Hoops, Clovis Sangrail, Sir Lulworth Quayne, Mrs. Philidore Stossen, Miss Matilda Cuvering, Sylvester Mullet, Toby Mullett, Mr. Penricarde, Dora Bittholz, Jane Martlet, Framton Nuttel, Mrs. Sappleton, Lulu, Duchess of Dulverton, Vasco Honiton, Mrs. Ladbruk, Martha Crale, Latimer Springfield, Duke of Falvertoon, Morton Crosby, Miss Hope, Mrs. Quabarl, Blenkinthrope, Edmund Smith-Paddon, Zoto Dobreen, Egbert, Norman Gortsby, Lady Blonze, Blanche Boveal, Rachel Klammerstein, Waldo Plubley, Basset Harrowcluff, Sophie Chattel-Monkheim, Mrs. Thackenbury, Agnes Blaik, Adela Chemping, Mrs. Bebberly Cumble, Betty Coulterneb, Mrs. Attray, the Norridrums, Eleanor Saxelby, Marion Eggelby, Editha Clubberley, Hildegarde Shrubley, Kenelm Jerton, Lady Starping, Lady Braddleshrub, Kestrel-Smith, Lady Mousehilton, Lady Ulwight, Lady Befnal, Mrs. Stroope, Theophil Eshley, Adela Pingsford, Treddleford, Amblecope, Mrs. Thropplestance, Mrs. Yonelet, Dora Yonelet, the Froplinsons, Mrs. Stephen Ludberry, Colonel Chuttle, John James Abbleway, Bertram Kneyght, Sylvia Strubble, Mrs Nougat-Jones,

Having taken the trouble to compile this list, at least two points arise. The names are obviously eccentric and unusual but they have neither the inspired grotesqueness of Dickens’s characters (Flintwich, Quilp, Uriah Heep, Ebenezer Scrooge) nor the silver mellifluousness of Oscar Wilde’s characters (Lady Windermere, Dorian Grey).

Instead Saki’s names are genuinely odd and bizarre – Waldo Plubley, Basset Harrowcluff, Mrs. Bebberly Cumble, Lady Braddleshrub – without actually being funny. They are more like explorations of the bizarre possibilities of combining English phonemes in unexpected ways than names anyone would ever actually bear.

The second thing I noticed as I collected the names, is the number of stories which start with the statement of a name, start by introducing a character in the very first sentence, go on to give them a swift paragraph of profile, and then plunge them headfirst into a plight.

My point being that Saki’s stories rarely start with descriptions or settings or anything symbolical or with the explanations of facts or events. They start with, their very first words, are silly names. And this emphasises the way his stories aren’t about issues or ideas or places or atmospheres or landscapes or cityscapes or politics or history, but are entirely about people, people from a very narrow stratum of society, who are immediately introduced, by the narrator or in dialogue with a spouse or friend. The almost immediate introduction of the main protagonist is a function of the way the stories are extremely short and crisp and very tightly wrapped.

In fact, to dig a bit deeper, a brief review of the openings of the stories in this collection suggest that they open in one of three ways:

  1. immediate naming of a character
  2. a line of dialogue which introduces a character and/or the speaking character
  3. a brief description

1. Immediate naming

  • Leonard Bilsiter was one of those people who have failed to find this world attractive or interesting, and who have sought compensation in an ‘unseen world’ of their own experience or imagination – or invention. (The She-Wolf)
  • Norman Gortsby sat on a bench in the Park, with his back to a strip of bush-planted sward, fenced by the park railings, and the Row fronting him across a wide stretch of carriage drive. (Dusk)
  • Lady Carlotta stepped out on to the platform of the small wayside station and took a turn or two up and down its uninteresting length (The Schartz-Metterklume Method)
  • Basset Harrowcluff returned to the home of his fathers, after an absence of four years, distinctly well pleased with himself. (Cousin Teresa)
  • Sir Lulworth Quayne was making a leisurely progress through the Zoological Society’s Gardens in company with his nephew, recently returned from Mexico. (The Yarkand Manner)
  • Sophie Chattel-Monkheim was a Socialist by conviction and a Chattel-Monkheim by marriage. (The Byzantine Omelette)
  • Marion Eggelby sat talking to Clovis on the only subject that she ever willingly talked about – her offspring and their varied perfections and accomplishments. (Clovis on Parental Responsibilities)
  • Kenelm Jerton entered the dining-hall of the Golden Galleon Hotel in the full crush of the luncheon hour. (A Holiday Task)
  • Theophil Eshley was an artist by profession, a cattle painter by force of environment. (The Stalled Ox)
  • Treddleford sat in an easeful arm-chair in front of a slumberous fire… (A Defensive Diamond)
  • Teresa, Mrs. Thropplestance, was the richest and most intractable old woman in the county of Woldshire. (The Elk)
  • Jocantha Bessbury was in the mood to be serenely and graciously happy. (The Philanthropist and the Happy Cat)
  • [Name at the end of the sentence] Of all the genuine Bohemians who strayed from time to time into the would-be Bohemian circle of the Restaurant Nuremberg, Owl Street, Soho, none was more interesting and more elusive than Gebhard Knopfschrank.

A line of dialogue introducing a character

  • ‘You are not really dying, are you?’ asked Amanda.
  • ‘I hope you’ve come full of suggestions for Christmas,’ said Lady Blonze to her latest arrived guest.’ (A Touch of Realism)
  • ‘Dora Bittholz is coming on Thursday,’ said Mrs. Sangrail…’ (The Hen)
  • ‘My aunt will be down presently, Mr. Nuttel.’ (The Open Window)
  • ‘I’ve asked Latimer Springfield to spend Sunday with us and stop the night,’ announced Mrs. Durmot at the breakfast-table.’ (The Lull)
  • ‘You’ve just come back from Adelaide’s funeral, haven’t you?’ said Sir Lulworth to his nephew. (The Blind Spot)
  • ‘It’s a good thing that Saint Valentine’s Day has dropped out of vogue,’ said Mrs. Thackenbury. (The Feast of Nemesis)
  • ‘I’ve just been to see old Betsy Mullen,’ announced Vera to her aunt, Mrs. Bebberly Cumble. (The Quince Tree)
  • ‘Is matchmaking at all in your line?’ Hugo Peterby asked the question with a certain amount of personal interest. (The Forbidden Buzzards)
  • ‘Ronnie is a great trial to me,’ said Mrs. Attray plaintively. (The Stake)
  • ‘Have you written to thank the Froplinsons for what they sent us?’ asked Egbert. (‘Down Pens’)
  • ‘You look worried, dear,’ said Eleanor.

Description

  • The hunting season had come to an end, and the Mullets had not succeeded in selling the Brogue.
  • The great galleon lay in semi-retirement under the sand and weed and water of the northern bay where the fortune of war and weather had long ago ensconced it. (The Treasure-Ship)
  • The farmhouse kitchen probably stood where it did as a matter of accident or haphazard choice; yet its situation might have been planned by a master-strategist in farmhouse architecture. (The Cobweb)
  • The season of strikes seemed to have run itself to a standstill. Almost every trade and industry and calling in which a dislocation could possibly be engineered had indulged in that luxury. (The Unkindest Blow)
  • It was autumn in London, that blessed season between the harshness of winter and the insincerities of summer (The Romancers)
  • It was the season of sales. The august establishment of Walpurgis and Nettlepink had lowered its prices for an entire week as a concession to trade observances (The Dreamer)
  • It was a hot afternoon, and the railway carriage was correspondingly sultry, and the next stop was at Templecombe, nearly an hour ahead. (The Story Teller)

Related links

Saki’s works

The Unbearable Bassington by Saki (1912)

The spirit of mirthfulness…certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth

‘Comus,’ she said quietly and wearily, ‘you are an exact reversal of the legend of Pandora’s Box. You have all the charm and advantages that a boy could want to help him on in the world, and behind it all there is the fatal damning gift of utter hopelessness.’

Saki published two novels. This is the first one, relatively short (47,720 words) and cast in 17 chapters. It has a slim plotline which I will now summarise:

Executive summary

Francesca Bassington is a member of London’s High Society. She is 40, a widow, and living in a very nice house in Blue Street, surrounded by her precious possessions. The house was left to her by her friend Sophie Chetrof when she died, but only till Sophie’s daughter, Emmeline marries, at which point it will revert to Emmeline (and her husband). Emmeline is still only 17 but that gives Francesca only 4 or five more years of possession and it makes her anxious.

Francesca has one cherished hope which is that she can persuade her only son, the difficult tearaway Comus Bassington, to marry Emmeline.

Once this is all explained, we get a chapter showing Comus at his boarding school where he is shown gleefully thrashing Emmeline Chetrof’s brother, Lancelot, thus permanently turning Emmeline against her. Oh well, so much for that plan.

Jump forward two years and Comus is now 19 and a dashing, slender, good looking addition to London society. He comes to the notice of the fabulously rich Elaine de Grey and the most of the rest of this short novel is devoted to describing the rivalry between young, selfish Comus, and twenty-something handsome Courtenay Youghal for her hand.

This basic premise is spun out via scenes depicting classic activities of the class Francesca and Comus belong to – dinner parties, society gossip, riding in Hyde Park, the opening of a new art show at a fashionable gallery and the first night of a new play, all of which give Saki ample opportunity to display his knowledge of Edwardian High Society, and its refined gossip and malice.

In the event quite a trivial argument with Comus (he asks Elaine for yet another loan to cover his gambling debts, while they’re sitting in deckchairs by the Serpentine) is the straw that snaps Elaine’s patience, and she stalks off by herself. Later she goes out for dinner with Youghal and says yes to his proposal of marriage.

News of this gets back to Francesca, who has a confrontation with her son in which she says that, since he has blown all his opportunities for advancement in London (first with Emmeline, then with Elaine) there’s nothing for it but to throw himself into the Empire. Her brother, Henry Greech, has news of an opening ‘in West Africa’. Comus accepts this meekly but with great misery. He attends the first night of a play, drinking in the sights and (bitchy) sounds of London society, knowing it is the last time he’ll ever see them.

There are three remaining scenes. In one, we see Francesca on honeymoon in Vienna, discovering that Youghal is every bit as selfish and self-centred as Comus, when he forces her to go to a masked ball and has a whale of a time, leaving her bored and disconsolate.

In the second scene, we find Comus in some God-forsaken hole in West Africa, fiercely hot, exhausted, mildly feverish, and oppressed by the pointlessness of being so utterly outside his own set of values and identities. The Africans seem to him like so many teeming ants and he hangs his head in genuine despair.

In the final, short scene, Francesca is in her lovely house in Blue Street, surrounded by her lovely belongings, when she receives a telegram saying Comus has died of illness. Everything turns to ashes. She would give all her wretched belongings just for him to walk through the door. The rest of her life will be misery and anguish.

Despair

Bleak, isn’t it? It leaves a real taste, not of mere unhappiness, but of powerful despair in the mouth. Suddenly the text felt like an echo of Joseph Conrad’s stories about white men who go to pieces in the Tropics and a harbinger of Graham Greene’s despairing novel, The Heart of the Matter. Comus’s utter abandonment reminded me of the end of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Black Mischief. In fact maybe it fits into the tidy little tradition of English fiction describing how horrible a posting to the colonies was. (Would Orwell’s Burmese Days be included?)

Room for psychology

What’s interesting about Saki’s first novel is he has taken advantage of the extra legroom provided by the form to write in a far more leisurely, expansive and descriptive style than he allowed himself in his short stories.

All of chapter 1 is devoted to a thorough description of Francesca’s home, its furnishings, how they match her personality, and then a leisurely tiffin of tea and cucumber sandwiches with her brother, Henry. Normally, his short stories are cut back to the bone, sometimes barely more than short scenes or snippets of dialogue. Some of the stories in Chronicles of Clovis contained longer descriptions, especially of the countryside. In this novel Saki is able to develop that side of his writing.

Something else happens as a result of the extra legroom, which is that it becomes considerably less funny. If you’re writing a dialogue between two characters whose sole purpose is to set up a series of one-liners, nothing hinders the quest for comedy. If you’re essaying a long paragraph describing the interior of a middle-class woman’s home, well, there’s scope from some dry remarks, but it would be self-defeating to try and do it all in a series of quips. The prose, by virtue of aiming to be descriptive, must be flatter. Not without Saki’s characteristic droll, ironic inflection. But without the quotable gags.

Same goes for description of character. Here’s a typical description of young Comus:

Gaiety and good-looks had carried Comus successfully and, on the whole, pleasantly, through schooldays and a recurring succession of holidays; the same desirable assets were still at his service to advance him along his road, but it was a disconcerting experience to find that they could not be relied on to go all distances at all times. In an animal world, and a fiercely competitive animal world at that, something more was needed than the decorative abandon of the field lily, and it was just that something more which Comus seemed unable or unwilling to provide on his own account; it was just the lack of that something more which left him sulking with Fate over the numerous breakdowns and stumbling-blocks that held him up on what he expected to be a triumphal or, at any rate, unimpeded progress.

And a comic description of the errant Comus:

In seventeen years and some odd months Francesca had had ample opportunity for forming an opinion concerning her son’s characteristics. 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 of which Francesca herself could seldom see the humorous side.

The boy was one of those untameable young lords of misrule that frolic and chafe themselves through nursery and preparatory and public-school days with the utmost allowance of storm and dust and dislocation and the least possible amount of collar-work, and come somehow with a laugh through a series of catastrophes that has reduced everyone else concerned to tears or Cassandra-like forebodings. Sometimes they sober down in after-life and become uninteresting, forgetting that they were ever lords of anything; sometimes Fate plays royally into their hands, and they do great things in a spacious manner, and are thanked by Parliaments and the Press and acclaimed by gala-day crowds. But in most cases their tragedy begins when they leave school and turn themselves loose in a world that has grown too civilised and too crowded and too empty to have any place for them. And they are very many.

As you can see, that description is not only longer than we’re used to from the short stories, but also more serious. Almost a requiem for the generations of boys turned out by Britain’s public schools, who are heroes and stars at school and quite unprepared for the long disappointment of real life, a querulous note found throughout early and mid-20th century English literature.

Detailed plot synopsis

Chapter 1

Introducing Francesca Bassington and her beloved house in Blue Street, W. filled with her beloved possessions, but how the whole thing hangs be a thread because she only has the house

Chapter 2

At their public school, young Comus and colleagues thrash Lancelot Chetrof, young brother of the heiress Francesca was hoping Comus could be set up to marry.

Chapter 3

Francesca Bassington attends a high society party given by her friend Serena Golackly, and spies up and coming star, Courtenay Youghal:

a political spur-winner who seemed absurdly youthful to a generation that had never heard of Pitt. It was Youghal’s ambition—or perhaps his hobby—to infuse into the greyness of modern political life some of the colour of Disraelian dandyism, tempered with the correctness of Anglo-Saxon taste, and supplemented by the flashes of wit that were inherent from the Celtic strain in him…

She spies a politicians who has just been made governor of a Caribbean island and engages him in conversation:

Sir Julian Jull had been a member of a House of Commons distinguished for its high standard of well-informed mediocrity, and had harmonised so thoroughly with his surroundings that the most attentive observer of Parliamentary proceedings could scarcely have told even on which side of the House he sat. A baronetcy bestowed on him by the Party in power had at least removed that doubt; some weeks later he had been made Governor of some West Indian dependency, whether as a reward for having accepted the baronetcy, or as an application of a theory that West Indian islands get the Governors they deserve, it would have been hard to say. To Sir Julian the appointment was, doubtless, one of some importance; during the span of his Governorship the island might possibly be visited by a member of the Royal Family, or at the least by an earthquake, and in either case his name would get into the papers.

Her plan is to get to know him over several meetings and slowly plant the seed of the idea that her son, Comus, would make a wonderful personal secretary in his new position. Next morning this careful scheme is wrecked when, next morning at breakfast, she sees her son has written a witty letter to the Times disinterring some old speeches of Jull’s in which he is ignorant and rude about the West Indies. Once again, Comus has scuppered Francesca’s best-laid plans!

Chapter 4

A wall of ice slowly grows between the mother, trying her damnedest to get Comus a good position in life, and her son who seems hell-bent on wrecking everything. The are both invited to dinner at the home of the ageing Lady Caroline Benaresq:

She came of a family whose individual members went through life, from the nursery to the grave, with as much tact and consideration as a cactus-hedge might show in going through a crowded bathing tent.

And:

Lady Caroline was a professed Socialist in politics, chiefly, it was believed, because she was thus enabled to disagree with most of the Liberals and Conservatives, and all the Socialists of the day. She did not permit her Socialism, however, to penetrate below stairs; her cook and butler had every encouragement to be Individualists.

Hard not to love Saki’s permanent tone of wit and irony bordering on the rude. Anyway,

Chapter 5

Introduces us to the fact that, when he was 16, Courtenay Youghal was seduced by an older woman ‘some four or five years his senior’, Molly McQuade. Since then they have maintained a flirtatious friendship. Now they are meeting in their familiar trysting place of the London Zoo, where Youghal delicately breaks the news that he is planning to get married (to Elaine de Frey). They are both people of the world now, and Molly is relieved to hear the lady has money. Saddened that this phase of their relationship is coming to an end but she begs him to come visit her and her husband in the country for hunting once he’s bedded in to the new marriage. It is nowhere indicated that this is a sexual relationship, maybe we are meant to be sophisticated enough to take this as read.

Chapter 6

Elaine de Frey sits in her stately garden and lets her two suitors, the up and coming politician Courtenay Youghal and the spoilt schoolboy Comus Bassington, spar wittily for her affections. Things crystallise when Comus pettishly takes the silver bread and butter tray down to the lake to feed the swans and then refuses to give it back because he wants it, the spoilt schoolboy.

Chapter 7

In Bond Street Francesca bumps into the tiresome Merla Blathlington before shaking her off and continuing to a bridge party at Serena Golackly’s, where there is gossip and catty competition, not least with Ada Spelvexit, a tiresome do-gooder among the poor (‘Hostesses regarded her philosophically as a form of social measles which everyone had to have once’) and Lady Caroline Benaresq, an ageing Socialist and demon bridge player.

The gossip turns towards the up and coming politician Courtenay Youghal and the women speculate who would make a good wife for him when they are joined by dapper George St. Michael who tells then Youghal is pairing off with the fabulously rich Elaine de Frey

Chapter 8

Out riding in the country, Elaine is forced out of the main road because a circus is passing by and is astonished when the man who greets her turns out to be the once-famous adventurer and traveller, Tom Keriway, who was struck down by illness and retired to an obscure farm. And here he is. It is a beautifully kept place but Keriway reveals it is the seat of all kinds of Darwinian struggles and can’t conceal that he is bitterly unhappy. The countryside often brings out the really bestial (wild animals eating children) and tragic in Saki, as in the Hardyesque short story, The Hounds of Fate.

Chapter 9

Late June in Hyde Park. Courtenay Youghal is riding his ‘handsome plum-roan gelding Anne de Joyeuse’ up and down. He is buttonholed by Lady Veula Croot and they have a sly political duel, being of opposite parties, before being interrupted by a dimwit named Ernest Klopstock.

Not far away Elaine de Frey and Comus Bassington are sitting on deckchairs. She likes him but is getting bored by his selfishness and he oversteps the bounds when he asks her to lend him £5, partly to pay a £2 gambling debt. Elaine agrees but gets up rapidly and says she is leaving, for Comus not to accompany her. It is a snub.

She bumps into Courtenay and insists he takes her to luncheon, which he does, at the Corridor, with its fatherly maitre d’ who discreetly asks Courtenay whether he is engaged to the young lady. ‘Tell him yes,’ said Elaine, on impulse.

Chapter 10

At the Rutland Galleries for an exhibition of Mervyn Quentock’s collection of Society portraits. Comus regards Quentock’s portrait of his mother and sees in it an expression he hasn’t seen for years, now that he permanently irritates and mortifies her. It inspires him to be nicer and above all fulfil his mother’s plan to marry Elaine de Grey. Amid other gossip a little flurry is caused over by the doors when Courtenay arrives. Pressing closer Comus overhears others gossiping the news that Courtenay and Elaine are now engaged.

Chapter 11

After lunch with Courtenay, Elaine returns to the house in Manchester Square where she is staying with an aunt, and reflects on her decision to accept Courtenay. She feels ‘an unusual but quite overmastering hankering to visit her cousin Suzette Brankley’ who has also recently announced her engagement. She pops round the two women bitchily try to outdo each other, Elaine winning and damping her cousin’s mood, specially when her young man appears, the boring Egbert, who speaks pompously to the visible embarrassment of Suzette and her mother, who is also present.

All this time Elaine had been pondering a long and soulful letter to Comus explaining her reasons, but on returning to her aunt’s place she finds a message from him has been delivered briskly acknowledging the news and returning the fiver she’d lent him, along with the notorious bread-and-butter dish which caused the big argument in chapter 6.

Reading the letter again and again Elaine could come to no decision as to whether this was merely a courageous gibe at defeat, or whether it represented the real value that Comus set on the thing that he had lost.

Chapter 12

Francesca is desperate to know the latest about Comus and Elaine but fritters the morning away with a few female friends wittering endless gossip. And then a walk in the Park after lunch leads to her bumping into the dreaded Merla Blathington, who witters on about chickens, and then George St. Michael arrives who in a few swift words confirms Francesca’s worst fears: Comus has blown it with Elaine.

Comus himself turns up and they have an argument. Having failed to bag an heiress, Francesca can see nothing for it but for Comus to disappear off to some colony. Her brother Henry told her the other day he can get Comus a little job in West Africa. Comus says they needn’t be that drastic, he can get a job in England, at, say, a brewery. But Francesca knows that remaining in England will mean Comus is always vulnerable to the lure of the West End, of racing and gambling and sponging off her till she dies. No. West Africa it must be.

Chapter 13

That evening Comus goes to the theatre which is an opportunity for Saki to satirise the upper class types one met there in the Edwardian era, lords and ladies, an archdeacon, the ageing gossip Lady Caroline Benaresq (who is a recurring character throughout the book, as are Serena Golackly and Lady Veula), the authoress of ‘The Woman who wished it was Wednesday’ (is that a jokey reference to G.K. Chesteron’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)?) with much chat about the church and politics. It is comically taken for granted that the play is an irritating intrusion into the true function of theatre which is to allow upper-middle-class people to meet and gossip and display themselves.

Everyone is there, but Comus sits through it all in a daze of misery, knowing that he is seeing it for the last time before being consigned to the Dark Continent. Lady Veula is the only person who acknowledges him, with her lovely smile and sad eyes.

Chapter 14

Francesca hosts a farewell dinner party for Comus. It is not a happy affair and is dominated by two show-off men, Henry Greech MP, her brother, and Stephen Thorle, brought by Serena Golackly because he is alleged to ‘know all about’ tropical Africa, but turns out to have loud opinions about everything. Lady Veula is present again, and shakes Comus’s hand goodbye. The mood is bleak, Francesca spills her champagne when she tries to make a toast, she can’t wait till everybody leaves. Comus adjusts his toilette and heads out for a night on the Town for one last time.

Chapter 15

Elaine has married Courtenay. They are on their honeymoon in Vienna, staying at the Speise Staal. Elaine is disillusioned and bored. At lunch she is irritated by three Germans talking endlessly about food, and the even worse party of Americans comparing everything unfavourably to the fabulous cherry pie they make back home. Two of Elaine’s extensive collection of aunts are staying at the hotel, a younger blameless one, and the older, shrewder Mrs. Goldbrook. They act as chorus to her obvious unhappiness.

Courtenay has arranged for them to go to a masquerade ball that night. Courtenay has a wonderful time dressed as harlequin, but Elaine is bored, ending up chatting inconsequentially with a Russian who a) tiresomely compares her to the same Leonardo painting that everyone does b) explains that Russians like culture so much because it is an escape from their real life, which is grim. (Interesting point coming from Saki who had been a foreign correspondent in Russia and, indeed, written a book about Russian history.)

The next day the aunts hear the two newly-weds sharply diverging accounts of the night before and conclude that Elaine is going to be unhappy.

Chapter 16

Cut to Comus in blisteringly hot West Africa where he is profoundly depressed by the sense that Africans are like ants and their life is the life of the teeming ant nest, going on with endless repetition, no variation, no progress, and no meaning.

The procession of water-fetchers had formed itself in a long chattering line that stretched river-wards. Comus wondered how many tens of thousands of times that procession had been formed since first the village came into existence. They had been doing it while he was playing in the cricket-fields at school, while he was spending Christmas holidays in Paris, while he was going his careless round of theatres, dances, suppers and card-parties, just as they were doing it now; they would be doing it when there was no one alive who remembered Comus Bassington. This thought recurred again and again with painful persistence, a morbid growth arising in part from his loneliness.

And:

Here a man simply made a unit in an unnumbered population, an inconsequent dot in a loosely-compiled deathroll. Even his own position as a white man exalted conspicuously above a horde of black natives did not save Comus from the depressing sense of nothingness which his first experience of fever had thrown over him. He was a lost, soulless body in this great uncaring land; if he died another would take his place, his few effects would be inventoried and sent down to the coast, someone else would finish off any tea or whisky that he left behind—that would be all.

And:

He would pass presently out of the village and his bearers’ feet would leave their indentations in the dust; that would be his most permanent memorial in this little oasis of teeming life. And that other life, in which he once moved with such confident sense of his own necessary participation in it, how completely he had passed out of it. Amid all its laughing throngs, its card parties and race-meetings and country-house gatherings, he was just a mere name, remembered or forgotten, Comus Bassington, the boy who went away.

He dreams of London where life had a meaning, where he had a place in it, where people had souls and complex personalities and purpose. Now he knows he has just become a dwindling memory, ‘Comus Bassington, the boy who went away’. He watches some native boys playing, fighting and chasing each other, then joined by some girls. He can never take part in their life, he is exiled forever. He puts his head in  his hands and sobs.

Chapter 17

A few days before Christmas Francesca receives a telegram saying Comus is severely ill. Then another one saying he is worse. She goes out for a walk round St James’s Park and dwells on her relationship with her son, all the false turnings and arguments right up to the ill-fated farewell party.

She returns home to the telegram waiting in the hall and takes it into her drawing room and, now, she hates every article in it because dashing, laughing, mocking Comus is there no more. She realises she hates it all, would give it all if only her beloved son would walk through the door.

Who does walk through the door is her irritating brother, Henry, bearing the ‘bad news’ that the big painting she’s so fond of is not in fact by the well-known artist Van der Meulen but is a good copy. He notices the anguish in her eyes and pats her hand and tells her not to be downhearted. Francesca clutches the telegram tighter in her hand in her anguish and begs for her brother’s inconsequential consolation to end.

It is an image of real, genuine, tormented anguish and a very dark, grim and upsetting note to end this light, mocking novel on.

Themes

In the middle part of the novel it is about a woman who has to decide between two lovers, a very old plot. And basing a novel on the theme of making a good marriage or marrying for money is as old as the genre, if we take the first English novel to be Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson.

Mother-son relationship

It is a prolonged and sometimes very insightful meditation on the intensity, the loves and hate, the Freudian ambivalence inherent in the mother-son relationship.

London high life

Plenty of scenes show off Saki’s knowledge of London high life – a gallery opening, first night at the theatre, riding in Hyde Park, dinner parties and so on, all conveyed with effortless insider knowledge, and generously spiced with malice and gossip which seemed to be the upper class’s main occupation.

Politics

Hector Munro’s first real job was writing political sketches which blossomed into a full-length satire on Westminster Alice in Westminster. This gives his mockery of British politics real authority.

It is striking to see how many of our political concerns, in 2021, were thoroughly understood and shared by the bien-pensant liberals of 1911. The aim of levelling up and increasing equality and being ‘for the many never’ goes out of fashion. It is a permanent interest of a steady proportion of the educated classes. Munro mocks and satirises gabby, well-meaning intellectuals, as is the wont of authors from his class and education.

Henry Greech had made an end of biting small sandwiches, and settled down like a dust-storm refreshed, to discuss one of the fashionably prevalent topics of the moment, the prevention of destitution.

Ah destitution, how ghastly it must be!

‘Talk is helpful, talk is needful,’ the young man was saying, ‘but what we have got to do is to lift the subject out of the furrow of indisciplined talk and place it on the threshing-floor of practical discussion.’ The young woman took advantage of the rhetorical full-stop to dash in with the remark which was already marshalled on the tip of her tongue. ‘In emancipating the serfs of poverty we must be careful to avoid the mistakes which Russian bureaucracy stumbled into when liberating the serfs of the soil.’

It’s the same kind of satire of high-minded ‘socialists’ which you find in John Buchan’s third Richard Hannay novel, Mr Standfast, which opens with extended satire on vegetarian, sandal-wearing socialists; or, later, in many passages of Aldous Huxley’s 1920s satires.

Christianity

As in all his stories, Christianity is presented as a joke, an affair of doddery old churchmen whose values the entire society pays ritual obeisance to but utterly ignores.

‘The dear Archdeacon is getting so absent-minded. He read a list of box-holders for the opera as the First Lesson the other Sunday, instead of the families and lots of the tribes of Israel that entered Canaan. Fortunately no one noticed the mistake.’

The British Empire

Saki has a pretty negative view of the British Empire.

What the woke and anti-racist and progressive commentators of our time (2021) tend to forget in their hurry to condemn all British history for its imperialism and racism is that for a lot of the time, a lot of people deprecated the Empire. The British were the first nation to ban the slave trade and then had the navy to enforce a very effective international ban on slave trading. Paradoxically, the two nations which were the last to ban slavery, Cuba and Brazil, are regularly held up as beacons of cool multiculturalism, while the earliest nation to ban it,m Britain, is held up for condemnation.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were very vocal opponents of the British Empire – the entire Liberal Party in the 19th century, and most of the Labour Party in the 20th. For many educated people, the British Empire was a scandal and an embarrassment, as were the gung-ho public school types who went off to run it.

Whereas when the French tried to give Algeria independence in the 1950s it nearly triggered civil war, several coup and assassination attempts, Britain granted independence to India with almost no domestic opposition, and went on to grant independence to its African and Caribbean colonies with barely any comment.

Insofar as the entire novel ends with its protagonist packed off to a colonial hell-hole where he dies in utter misery, it ends with a blazing symbol of the futility and inappropriateness of ’empire’ and this retrospectively highlights the anti-imperial comments which run through the novel.

‘Courtenay Youghal said it in the House last night. Didn’t you read the debate? He was really rather in form. I disagree entirely with his point of view, of course, but some of the things he says have just enough truth behind them to redeem them from being merely smart; for instance, his summing up of the Government’s attitude towards our embarrassing Colonial Empire in the wistful phrase “happy is the country that has no geography”.’

‘West Africa,’ said Comus, reflectively; ‘it’s a sort of modern substitute for the old-fashioned oubliette, a convenient depository for tiresome people. Dear Uncle Henry may talk lugubriously about the burden of Empire, but he evidently recognises its uses as a refuse consumer.’

There was nothing individuals like Francesca or Comus could do to alter the geo-political realities of their day, but they didn’t approve of the empire. Comus and Courtenay both think it’s an embarrassing joke.


Related links

Saki’s works

Emma Kunz: Visionary Drawings @ Serpentine Gallery

Work No. 003 by Emma Kunz Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Work No. 003 by Emma Kunz Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Emma Kunz (1892–1963) was a Swiss healer, researcher and artist.

Emma discovered her gifts for telepathy, prophecy and healing at an early age. She began to use her gifts at the age of 18, around the same time as she began drawing in exercise books.

Work No. 004 by Emma Kunz. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Work No. 004 by Emma Kunz. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

The drawings were intended to be visions of energy fields from which she could formulate diagnoses for the patients who began to visit her, seeking help for physical and mental ailments as her reputation as a psychic and healer spread.

From about 1938, when she was in her mid-forties, Emma began making the first large-scale drawings which she continued to produce for the rest of her life.

Work No. 011 by Emma Kunz. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Work No. 011 by Emma Kunz. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

She used a process she called ‘radiesthesia’. She would address a question to her divining pendulum and then record the way it swung, started and stopped onto large squares of graph paper. In this way she then converted the pendulum’s motions into meticulously worked-out and coloured-in geometric shapes, in which she discovered the answer to the original question she had posed.

Emma used mostly graphite and colour pencils, working intensely and continuously on each drawing for up to 24 hours. The lines of colouring-in are clearly visible in many of the works, much like the colouring-in of children in junior school.

She didn’t give any of the drawings titles, or date them, or go on record attributing any particular meaning to them. The numbers they now bear were attributed to them by art scholars after her death.

Work No. 012 by Emma Kunz. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Work No. 012 by Emma Kunz. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

The drawings were never displayed in Emma’s lifetime, indeed it is not certain that she regarded them as art works in the traditional way at all, but continued to think of them as tools to help with healing.

Geometric abstraction became a means for structuring and visualising her philosophical and scientific research which was not only rooted to her own times and the pursuit of her own restorative practices, but also for the future.

A selection of the drawings was only exhibited in her native Switzerland in 1973, some five years after her death.

This exhibition, at the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, is the first show devoted solely to Emma Kunz’s drawings to be held in the UK. It features over 60 of these calming, absorbing and intriguing works.

Work No. 013 by Emma Kunz. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Work No. 013 by Emma Kunz. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Interpretation

Emma considered the works an integral part of her approach to healing, and as emblems of her holistic worldview. As she explained:

Everything happens according to a certain regularity which I sense inside me and which never lets me rest.

The Serpentine curators agree with this spiritual interpretation. In their words:

Systematic yet expansive in their compositions, her ‘energy-field’ drawings simultaneously contain micro and macro perspectives of nature, chiming with current discourses on ecology, as well as a desire to forge meaningful connections with our environment.

AION A

Emma earned her living as a naturopath but also thought of herself as an explorer and experimenter with natural healing techniques. She made investigations into the healing properties of all manner of natural materials. She used her pendulum on the flowers in her garden which, as a result, bore unusual multiple flowerheads where single flowerheads would have been expected.

In 1941 Emma discovered in a grotto in the old Roman Quarry outside the Swiss town of Würenlos a marvellous healing rock. She gave it the name AION A. The word aion comes from the Greek and means ‘without limitation’.

Emma first demonstrated the healing power of AION A on a patient of hers, Anton C. Meier, who was seriously ill with infantile paralysis. After treatment with AION A Meier recovered, a cure Emma attributed to the rock’s ‘accumulated biodynamic energy’.

45 years later the Emma Kunz Centre was opened at the self-same Roman quarries in Würenlos. Patients can visit the centre to discover more about its healing practices and undergo cures. In 1991 a museum was opened to showcase some of Emma’s 400 drawings.

View of the Emma Kunz Centre in Würenlos, Switzerland

View of the Emma Kunz Centre in Würenlos, Switzerland

AION A, mined from the same quarry, is still sold in pharmacies in Switzerland and is used to treat a host of health issues from joint and muscular pain to inflammatory skin disorders.

I was surprised to find chunks of the rock, in attractive yellow boxes, on sale in the Serpentine Gallery shop, as well as a spray which also, apparently, captures AION A’s healing properties.

Christodoulos Panayiotou

Christodoulos Panayiotou (b.1978) is a contemporary artist hailing originally from Cyprus.

He has collaborated on a number of projects and installations at the Serpentine, and he had a major creative say in the design and hang of this exhibition.

For the most part the approach has been to hang the drawings sequentially on the Serpentine Gallery’s plain white walls. Each one exists in its own space, giving you plenty of scope to study and examine it.

But the plain, one-picture-at-a-time approach gives way in the gallery’s enormous central room to a completely different design. Here around 25 of the drawings have been piled up on the walls to create powerfully cumulative impression.

After spending some time in this big room, looking at individual works then stepping back to survey each wall as a composition, it struck me that this big, white space has the feel of a chapel. The arrangement of the works is loosely analogous to the altar of a baroque or orthodox church, packed with holy images climbing vertically up the wall and framed to left and right by secondary images of saints and apostles. Not directly similar, maybe – but that’s the kind of feel which the images, the peace and the air of reverence encourage: a mood of quiet devotion.

Installation view of Emma Kunz at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

Installation view of Emma Kunz at the Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

Arguably Panayiotou’s main contribution to the exhibition is the stone benches. See the bench in the photo above (on the lower right)? It was shaped from stone from the AION A quarry in Switzerland. It is made from AION A. It has healing powers.

It was Panayiotou’s ideas to have these benches carved and located around the exhibition. Each of the gallery’s rooms has a bench in it. The gallery encourages you to sit on them and, while you are feasting your eyes and resting your soul looking at Emma’s hypnotic drawings, to let the AION A do its healing work on your body.

Variety

I found the single most impressive thing about the drawings was their variety.

A generic verbal description – geometric shapes on graph paper, decorated with coloured pencils – doesn’t do them any justice. In the flesh they display an impressive variety not only of design and pattern, but of resulting visual effect.

Work No. 307 by Emma Kunz. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Work No. 307 by Emma Kunz. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Some look like spirograph diagrams and please the part of the mind which likes simple, abstract patterns. Others are highly detailed mathematical diagrams which reward close attention to the way the shapes have been worked out to their logical conclusions.

Some feature what appear to be stylised human bodies – one appeared to contain a stylised man and woman, another contains about ten human forms reduced to geometric outlines and caught in a fiendishly complex web of lines.

Others contain uncanny optical illusions, drawing you into the depths of what part of your mind insists are only two-dimensional artefacts.

And all this is just to comment on the shapes, before you consider the colours, which are themselves very varied. Some contain plain washes, others more subtle gradations of colour; some are almost bereft of colour, others feel super colour-saturated. For me the variety of coloration was as surprising as the variety of pattern, and both were endlessly fascinating.

Conclusion

Whether Emma Kunz was a great spiritual healer, a true naturopath, and did make a significant contribution to human health by discovering AION A, I leave for others to decide.

But there’s no doubting that these lovely works, whatever the precise motivation to create them, are wonderfully attractive, calming, fascinating, varied and inspiring.

Emma Kunz at her working table, Waldstatt, 1958. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum

Emma Kunz at her working table, Waldstatt, 1958. Photo © Emma Kunz Zentrum


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958–2018 @ the Serpentine

This is a wonderful exhibition. I walked round it with a huge smile on my face and left with a spring in my step. What inventiveness, humour, precision planning, vision and persistence!


You may have noticed or seen news reports of the immense sculpture made of painted oil barrels which was erected on the Serpentine in London at the start of the summer.

The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park (2016-18) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2018 Christo

The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park (2016-18) by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2018 Christo

It is titled The London Mastaba and is the work of the modern artist, Christo, born 1935 in Bulgaria (and so 83 years-old).

Since the 1970s Christo and his late-wife, Jeanne-Claude, have created a series of dramatic and well-publicised site-specific installations.

The most memorable (for me) were:

  • erecting a curtain of orange cloth across a valley in California
  • wrapping the Pont Neuf in Paris in golden-yellow fabric (1984)
  • wrapping the Berlin Reichstag in polypropylene fabric, covered by an aluminum in (1995)

Christo and Jeanne-Claude always refused sponsorship or contributions of any kind to their vast installations, instead raising money themselves by selling off sketches, plans, designs and other elements connected with the projects.

The Christo presence at the Serpentine this summer is in two parts:

  1. The vast Mastaba edifice itself, positioned in the east half of the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park, which will remain in place until 23 September.
  2. And a fascinating retrospective of Christo’s career being held in the main Serpentine Gallery, with particular reference to his enduring fascination with oil drums, as symbols of modern civilisation and for their sculptural and artistic potential.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958–2018

Part one – Christo and barrels

I grew up in a petrol station. Well, in the house immediately behind a combined village store, petrol station and tyre bay. The smell of petrol, rubber, oil and all their associated products are part of my childhood. The massive shed-cum-warehouse at the back of the house stored hundreds of tyres, stacked vertically, reeking of rubber, especially when it rained and the leaky roof let the rain get in and made the tyres black, wet and shiny. Oily puddles were everywhere.

So I warm to Christo’s love of oil barrels. There is something primeval about them. Our civilisation, the entire world economy, is built on them. No oil – no cars, lorries, buses, lorries, planes, ships. No transport of people or food. No electricity. No light. No internet. No blogs.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London (19 June– 9 September 2018) © 2018 Hugo Glendinning

Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018, Installation view, Serpentine Gallery, London (19 June– 9 September 2018) © 2018 Hugo Glendinning

So I have deep autobiographical, and intellectual-economic reasons for being fascinated by displays to do with oil.

But there’s also something about ‘the barrel’ – as a shape, as an artefact – which is oddly picturesque.

Put it another way: the combination of the machine-repetition of hundreds, thousands, millions of identikit barrels – with the way that each one is then rendered individual by its unique collection of scratches, rust and dents makes them almost like human beings. Same basic model. A thousand variations, the dents of individual lives.

And in fact barrels do come in quite a combination of different sizes, makes and designs.

All this makes barrels a perfect material for artists from the schools of Arte Povera and Minimalism, committed to using industrial products and by-products, and to exploring the aesthetic impact of minimal combinations of simple, everyday materials.

Because of my childhood, because I like minimalism and the geometric in art, because I like the modern and urban, and I’m interested in political and environmental symbolism – I didn’t need any persuading to find oil drums, in and of themselves, beautiful objects, and that arranging them in patterns can be strangely attractive and beguiling.

Christo began with pots, apparently. Arriving in Paris in the late 1950s, he could only afford a small studio and became intrigued by the potency of paint pots. Pots plain, spattered with paint, or wrapped in cloth.

And then you can arrange them. One on top of each other, into little towers. Several towers next to each other. Some matt, some wrapped in fabric, some tied and colourised – some spattered. Experiment. Combine. Play.

Paint pots by Christo. Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the w, Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

Paint pots by Christo. Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the w, Serpentine Gallery. Photo by the author

Reminiscent of Jasper Johns’s paint pots and brushes of the same period. The joy of the everyday!

Painted bronze (Ballantine Ale) by Jasper Johns, 1960

Painted bronze (Ballantine Ale) by Jasper Johns (1960)

Then Christo moved into a larger studio, which happened to be near a loading yard. Full of barrels. Full barrels, empty barrels, new barrels, knackered old barrels, barrels of petrol, barrels of oil. (This explains the years given in the title to the exhibition – 1958 right up to the present day. Because it covers 60 years of Christo being fascinated by barrels and barrel opportunities.) Now he could ask the yard owners if he could take the oldest, pretty much useless barrels – and they were happy to get rid of them.

Following on from little towers of pots, Christo was now in a position to make bit towers of oil barrels! The exhibition includes some examples of those early ‘barrel columns’ in the flesh, as well as stylish black-and-white photos of the imaginative barrel combos he made back in the early 1960s, blown up to wall-size.

Oil barrel columns by Christo (1962) Photo by Jean-Dominique Lajoux

Oil barrel columns by Christo (1962) Photo by Jean-Dominique Lajoux

Cool, aren’t they? Vaguely Heath-Robinsonish. Or like something off The Clangers. Humorous. Or, more seriously, they could be totem poles, the totems of our tribe, the gas-guzzling, fuel-hungry tribe which is destroying the world. Misguiding spirits. Hollow memorials, ringing false.

Quickly, Christo realised you could not only pile them on top of each other, but build things out of barrels. Most obviously – walls! As early as 1962 he constructed a cheeky installation using them to block a side street in Paris.

Wall of Barrels - The Iron Curtain, Rue Visconti, Paris, 1961-62 by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: Jean-Dominique Lajoux © 1962 Christo

Wall of Barrels – The Iron Curtain, Rue Visconti, Paris, 1961-62 by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: Jean-Dominique Lajoux © 1962 Christo

Photos of this installation are in a room with several barrel sculptures and texts (in French) explaining the way that these barrel walls can hold, contain, limit, and block. And can be brightly coloured. Like the pixellations in old colour printing. Like Seurat’s dots. They eat up all kinds of references.

Beside the assemblages of pots and barrel totem poles and tripods, there are stylish sketches of how the Wall of Barrels could have been deployed as a fashion statement or design feature in the snazzy world of the early 1960s: at a gas station, on the ground floor of an apartment block, in your living room – if any architect had been mad enough to take up the idea.

Mur d'assemblage dans un station-service by Christo (1962)

Mur d’assemblage dans un station-service by Christo (1962)

If you can build walls of them on land – why not – floating barrels? Plans for a floating platform of barrels date back as far as the late 1960s, when Christo hoped to float a pyramid of barrels on Lake Geneva. In 1967 there were plans to build a floating pyramid of barrels on Lake Michigan.

Construction (Project for Lake Michigan – 1968) by Christo. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: André Grossmann, © 1967 Christo

Construction (Project for Lake Michigan – 1968) by Christo. Courtesy of the artist, Photo: André Grossmann, © 1967 Christo

Like the best minimalist art works, arrangements of oil barrels are both absolutely everyday objects and packed with meanings:

1. There is something seriously aesthetically about this plan for a floating pyramid of barrels. It is a beautiful object – severe, planned, organised and arranged to display a deeply repetitive pattern, but pattern with variations, of texture and colour.

2. At the same time there is something highly symbolic and meaningful, in a medieval allegorical kind of way – a riff on the age-old proverb about oil and water never mixing.

3. The image is also rich with serious socio-political overtones, a sardonic reflection on our civilisation’s prioritisation of oil over water – especially in light of the kind of disastrous oil spillages we used to get in the late 1960s and 1970s.

4. And, then again, there’s something purely cheeky and comic about it. It’s the kind of thing Bart Simpson might suggest.

‘Hey, let’s make a floating pyramid out of oil barrels!!’
‘Yeah, cool, Bart.’

In the corner of the main gallery is a smaller version of this pyramid of barrels – only one barrel deep, so more of a barrel triangle.

Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo by the author

Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo by the author

Looking at this brings us up to date, as it were, and introduces us to the long-gestating idea of The Mastaba!

Part two – Christo and the Mastaba

If you look at it and ponder it and walk around it and think about it, the nature of ‘the barrel’ places certain limits on what you can build with it.

You can have a vertical wall – like the one blocking the street in Paris – because the round surfaces pile very neatly on top of each other – but only so long as you have something to brace the edges of the wall against. Without two walls to hold the sides in place, a rectangular arrangement of barrels would simply fall apart. If you want your barrels to be freestanding, the most stable arrangement is the triangle, as in the arrangement above.

But the facade is a problem. The tops and bottoms, or fronts and backs, of the barrels, the round ‘faces’ – are unavoidably flat. No way are they going to slope in any direction. Not unless you set each successive layer of barrels a set distance back from the one below – a foot, say, or half a barrel length. This would create a very sharp, stepped, zigzag effect. And it would have the drawback of being contrived – of not emerging naturally from the nature of the material.

And so, the logical conclusion of really thinking what you can build with barrels is the mastaba shape – two sides sloping gently with the natural slope created by piling rows of cylindrical objects on top of each other, each successive layer one barrel less wide than the one below. But the front and back faces of the pile rigidly flat and vertical, and so creating a straight, vertical wall.

Christo’s been working on trying to build just such a massive shape since the late 1960s. In the 1970s a great deal of planning and architect’s drawings were made to erect a massive mastaba painted orange to be sited amid the undulating sands of the United Arab Emirates.

Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London

Installation view of Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Barrels and The Mastaba 1958-2018 at the Serpentine Gallery, London. Photo by the author

There are photos of the location, and group photos of the Arab engineers and designers who collaborated on the plans. There are detailed sketches and draft designs. There’s even a scale model of the enormous result, complete with tiny stick humans scattered around the base.

The Mastaba by Christo (1979) Enamel paint, wood, sand and cardboard

The Mastaba by Christo (1979) Enamel paint, wood, sand and cardboard. Photo by the author

What with the desert and all, it’s hard to miss the blatant reference to the Egyptian pyramids. Mausoleums to dead tyrants. ‘Look on my work, ye mighty, and despair!’ as future generations will look back on our fossil fuel civilisation, and not with affection.

But it was not to be (there’s no explanation in the exhibition why the plan for a massive mastaba in the desert didn’t come off, but IChristo’s career has been full of ambitious plans which never quite make it).

Instead, the last room in the exhibition shows the focus switching to London, where the powers-that-be obviously gave the go-ahead for it to be constructed, and Christo’s team of designers, engineers and architects swept into action – as described here in a welter of sketches, designs and architect’s plans.

The Mastaba (Project for London, Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake) 2018. Pencil, charcoal, wax crayon, enamel paint, hand-drawn map, technical data and tape.

The Mastaba (Project for London, Hyde Park, Serpentine Lake) 2018. Pencil, charcoal, wax crayon, enamel paint, hand-drawn map, technical data and tape.

Conclusions

These images of Christo working with oil barrels, stretching back 50 years or more, indicate the enduring centrality of a lifelong interest in mass-produced industrial artefacts and what can be done with them, in their sculptural, architectural and aesthetic possibilities.

I used to associate Christo with wrapping buildings in foil, but for the rest of my life he will be ‘the man who was obsessed with barrels’.

The antiquity of some the sketches – dating back to the 1960s – indicate the incredibly long lead time required for all of his projects, many of which have taken decades to organise and fund, and which give you a real respect for his combination of ambition with dogged determination.

Plenty of time for the ideas themselves to be sketched, played with, and then planned in meticulous detail – all with the kind of safety and engineering requirements which bring in town planners, health and safety officials, engineers and so on.

The exhibition suggests the deep creative commitment required. And then the intensely collaborational nature of the final result.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park, 2016-18 Photo: Wolfgang Volz © 2018 Christo

The London Mastaba, Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park, 2016-18 by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Photo by Wolfgang Volz © 2018 Christo

And that final result? Is rich and strange and puzzling – banal in everyday daylight, strange and haunting at dusk, throwing an endless variety of rippled reflections across the surface of the lake, a statement of… what?

An artistic statement, a political statement, a cultural statement, an environmental statement. All or any of these.

It is the Rorschach test-like nature of his works which I find so liberating. The London Mastaba is a big impressive thing and what you make of it is up to you, a test of your imaginative resources and open-mindedness.

The exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery is FREE and so is the Mastaba. There for anyone to visit and investigate, or just to pull up a deckchair and ponder.

I think it’s wonderful.


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

Tomma Abts @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery

The Serpentine Sackler Gallery

There are two Serpentine Galleries. The original one was opened in 1970 in a one-time tea-room pavilion built in 1933, and has been putting on exhibitions by cutting-edge contemporary artists for nearly 50 years.

In 2013 a second site was opened – the Serpentine Sackler Gallery being the conversion into gallery space of a Grade II-listed, former gunpowder store, originally built in 1805. Whereas the original gallery is just south of the lake, the Sackler Gallery is over the bridge on the north side of the Serpentine.

The Serpentine Sackler Gallery consists of four display corridors set in a square around two large brick rooms which once held gunpowder, and hence are named the Powder Rooms. Artists and curators are free to utilise these rather dark mysterious spaces or not, as required.

From a practical point of view, maybe the most important thing about the two galleries is that, while they host a steady stream of exhibitions by leading contemporary artists, they are both COMPLETELY FREE.

Tomma Abts

Just opened at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery is the first ever solo exhibition by leading German woman artist, Tomma Abts. It is one of the largest collections of her work shown anywhere, bringing together 25 works from the last decade.

Feke (2013) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, New York

Feke (2013) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, New York

Abts is best known for her acrylic and oil paintings which ring an extraordinary variety of changes on a limited number of motifs and colours, all contained within a uniform canvas size of precisely 48cm by 38cm.

Why this size? Because, she explained at the press launch I attended, it allows freedom and flexibility. A little larger and you have to begin to plan and compose the work. At this size, works can be reworked, reversioned and remodelled.

The process of making

Starting with her standard-sized canvas, Abst lays down a bed of acrylic paint, lets it dry, and then begins experimenting with shapes, hand drawing in patterns, beginning to colour them with oil paint, getting a sense of their play and interaction.

There is no subject, nothing is being depicted. It is a completely open process. Guided only by intuition and a feeling for design, for what works and what doesn’t, Abts slowly builds towards a final version, painting over earlier patterns and designs, until shapes and colours crystallise into a new work.

Weie (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Collection of Danny and Lisa Goldberg

Weie (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Collection of Danny and Lisa Goldberg

The results are surprisingly varied and visually interesting. They also have a genuinely hypnotic quality.

For a start, you can get far more up-close-and-personal to Abt’s work than you can to most paintings.

  • None of them have a frame – which makes them more approachable in an obvious physical sense, but also in a more subtle aesthetic way.
  • They are not covered with a glass sheet, unlike so many paintings in so many galleries – thus you don’t get horrible reflections to put you off an immediate and full cognition of the image.
  • There is no marker on the floor a yard from the works and no officious security dude telling you to keep your distance. You can go up as close as you like. You could easily touch the surface if you wanted to, and you can certainly examine the canvas from just inches away.
  • There are no wall labels to distract you with information about the title, date, materials or anything else. Each work stands alone on the blank white wall in its own zone of attraction.
  • And the hang has been done deliberately so all the works are about five feet off the ground, at exactly head, and eye, height.

All of this has been done to encourage you to really ‘engage’ with the works. To look closely and then look again. I got chatting to one of the gallery assistants (an Italian guy) and we spent a good five minutes looking closely at Unno.

Unno (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas

Unno (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas

We noticed that:

  • The oil paint is deep. The canvas has been painted over, and then over again. This gives the surface of the canvas – seen up close – a noticeable grain and texture, and the image as a whole – seen from a little further back – a kind of richness and depth.
  • Looking close, you can see the traces of where previous designs have been painted over but left their marks. Each painting is thus a palimpsest (‘something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form’). The closer you look, the more residues and traces of earlier compositions you see – in the case of Unno you can make out wavy lines which had once existed but have been painted over to create a completely geometric image – but which nonetheless have left a ghostly residue.
  • Next, the light source. Only after really looking for a while did I realise that some of the patterns are given the illusion of depth by being painted as if casting ‘shadows’ – namely the two diagonal sticks. But only two of them. The third one doesn’t have a shadow. I presume the use of some shadow creates the illusion of depth and so the traditional painterly notion of looking into a three-dimensional space, while the unshadowed elements (the third stick and the ring) do not have shadow but sit purely on the surface. The result doesn’t clash, but adds complexity to your perception.
  • Also playing with conventions of light and depth is the way the brown circle which dominates the image is much lighter on the right, as if it is a metal ring and is being burnished by sunshine or some other light source coming from that direction. And yet, unlike the sticks, it doesn’t have a shadow.
  • Taken together, these are deliberately trompe l’oeil effects, aspects of oil painting which can be played with to deceive the mind. Having observed all these elements, if you put them back together you realise that, although they’re there, they don’t seriously disrupt or undermine the composition: they enhance and deepen it.

And all of this is before you come to consider the palette, the particular combination of colours being used – obviously dominated by the brown background, with a darker brown (though deceptively burnished metallic aspect) for the ring. And against this the three ‘sticks’ which combine pink and beige and light blue punctuated with their own brown blips to create… to create what?

Well, a distinct and powerful colour world. Just for this work. Other works have completely different palettes, for example, the acid yellow of Feke pictured at the top of this review, or the limited use of acid yellow against a much more sombre backdrop in Fiebe.

Each of these one-off colour schemes creates a specific ‘mood’, just as the patterns and shapes create a different action or motif. At one point I thought of ballet, of evenings of ballet I’ve been to where they put on three or four short works by completely different composers, each one creating its own mood, colour, music and imagine-world.

In a way Abt’s paintings are like ballets, each with a unique set, with dancers dressed in weird, abstract or geomorphic costumes, and each has its own peculiar ‘music’.

Fiebe (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection

Fiebe (2017) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection

Geometric and organic

So are they all rather rigid and geometric?

No. A number of them, admittedly a minority of the works on show here, make a point of being ‘looser’ and more organic.

Lüür (2015) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic and oil on canvas

Lüür (2015) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic and oil on canvas

Almost all of them use the same devices of shadow to create illusory ‘space’, and the ‘burnishing’ of some lines or surfaces as if they are metallic and closer to a light source – all the tactics I noticed in Unno – but each cast in their own strongly unified colour schemes. Each with its own music of colour and composition.

In some of them the shadowing gave the elements a bit more of a physical and tactile quality. I wanted to reach into this one and tug the ribbon or wool or paper or string, and dangle and twirl it for my cat to play with.

Playing with the canvas

Having got to grips with Abt’s core or base style, you then come across works where she plays with it, evolves it, varies it.

Specifically, there are a number of works which take the painting-as-object idea further by experimenting with the shape of the canvas. Some have one corner gently rounded off. Others have a corner sharply cut off. And some of the canvases have been cut entirely in two.

Hepe (2011) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas, 2 parts. Courtesy greengrassi, London

Hepe (2011) by Tomma Abts. Acrylic & oil on canvas, 2 parts. Courtesy greengrassi, London

The most radical experiment with form was the couple of works which she had designed and then had cast in aluminium – quite a big step away from the organic process of painting and repainting which the other works make such a virtue out of.

For me the ‘whole’ works, with their integrated colour schemes and subtle trompe l’oeil effects, with their textured surfaces and the just-visible traces of previous designs – maintain a subtle and pleasing balance between being objects you look into, absorbed by colour and composition, and objects you look at, beguiled by their obvious presence as objects-in-the-world.

I can see why Abts was drawn to experiment with her basic format – after all, why not? – and I was intrigued and pleased with some of them. But somehow I felt that the fundamental idea of a kind of never-ending sequence of 48cm by 38cm canvases itself had a kind of formal beauty. I felt a little let down by the ‘altered’ canvases.

Larger scale

And the same went for the three larger canvases which the show includes. These are all 86.5 x 63.5 cm, so nearly twice the dimensions of the ‘standard’ Abts work.

It was interesting to learn from the artist herself that this significant increase in scale required an entirely different working procedure, namely that the design had to be completely finished and composed before the work began. 86.5 x 63.5 cm turns out to be too big a scale to experiment, revise and repaint on.

Stylistically, they are recognisably the same kind of geometric patterns incorporating trompe l’oeil shadow effects as their smaller cousins – indeed the need for formal composition meant that Abts was able to select very precisely where lines would intersect or hit the canvas edge, and so all three seem a bit more vividly, even abrasively, mathematical in design.

Inte by Tomma Abts (2013) Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, Cologne

Inte by Tomma Abts (2013) Acrylic & oil on canvas. Private Collection, Cologne

But I didn’t feel they necessarily added anything to the fundamental concept which the 48cm canvases so powerfully convey. She’s interspersed the three big ones in among the regular 48cm works but, to my mind, they required seeing in a noticeably different way. I’d have preferred to see them hung next to each other, maybe with 2 or 3 others, to have made a separate section of the show, so that you could soak up all the implications of the difference in scale more thoroughly.

Conclusion

These paintings by Tomma Abts are really beautiful, absorbing, mesmeric works which offer up more and more rewards, the closer you look.

Many paintings are just paintings, but Abt’s works are like a kind of Zen training in How to Look, to look closely, and then to look again.

And the exhibition is FREE. It’s in a lovely, light, air-conditioned gallery right next to the picturesque Serpentine, with its deckchairs and its ice cream vendors.

Go, and give your mind a treat.


Related links

  • Tomma Abts continues at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery until 9 September 2018

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Serpentine

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