I don’t reread books very often. Brian Ted Jones published a recent essay in The Millions wherein he posited that returning to books and rereading them is a sign of adulthood. I suppose that’s possible, but life’s so short, and the thing about books is that they never stop coming: each and every month brings a new tide of books, many of them brilliant, and it’s always seemed obvious to me that none of us are going to have time to read all of them. Not to be morbid — this isn’t something I spend a lot of time dwelling on — but I don’t think I’m going to have the time to get to all of the books I want to read even once during the course of this all-too-brief life, let alone time to go back and read the same book over and over again.
But then, perhaps that’s as good a reason as any to do it. If you’re not going to have time to read all the books you want to read anyway, then why not go back and read the same book twice, if it means something to you and moves you in some way?
I pulled a book down from the shelf this week that I hadn’t thought of in a long time. It’s a battered green paperback that’s older than I am, a 1961 Grey Arrow edition of The Best of Saki (Selected and Introduced by Graham Greene) that I no doubt swiped from my mother before I left home. Or earlier, actually: a dated notation on the inside cover from my teenaged writing-in-books period suggests that I first read Saki a couple of weeks after my 14th birthday. The pages are getting brittle. I remember, turning them carefully, that this jewel of a book is one of the very, very few exceptions to my habit of never reading the same book twice. I must have read this thing a dozen times before I left home at 18. I’ve carried it with me from city to city.
Saki — actually, let’s drop the nom de plume and call him by his real name, which was H.H. Munro — was a precursor to P.G. Wodehouse and one of Wodehouse’s influences. He specialized in short, sharp little stories, filled with biting dialogue of the wittier-than-thou variety; in fact, some of his stories were composed almost entirely of this stuff, as in the first story of the collection, “Reginald at the Theatre”, which opens mid-argument:
“After all,” said the Duchess vaguely, “there are certain things you can’t get away from. Right and wrong, good conduct and moral rectitude, have certain well-defined limits.”
“So, for a matter of that,” replied Reginald, “has the Russian Empire. The trouble is that the limits are not always in the same place.”
Reginald and the Duchess regarded each other with mutual distrust, tempered by a scientific interest.
Munro’s signature characters, Clovis and Reginald, read like Bertie Wooster’s equally ruined but vastly more intelligent older brothers. But Munro, on the whole, is far darker than Wodehouse. He wrote a great many light and often very funny send-ups of the stifling conventions and manners of the Edwardian age, involving misunderstandings, witty one-liners, and practical jokes. But on the other hand, three of the first eight stories in the book involve corpses, with two of these being small children eaten by wild animals — respectively, a hyena and a werewolf. A child is blown up by a bomb hidden in an easter egg; a woman sits dead in a dimly-lit drawing room while her unknowing husband tries to draw her into conversation; a man nearly dies of humiliation in a railway carriage. Clovis is funny, but frankly a bit of a sociopath. His isn’t exactly the reaction one might hope for in a house guest when a child goes missing, for example, as in “The Quest”:
“We’ve lost Baby,” she screamed.
“Do you mean that it’s dead, or stampeded, or that you staked it at cards and lost it that way?” asked Clovis lazily.
The practical jokes are often vicious. The stories often hold an edge of cruelty, and Graham Greene blames Munro’s miserable childhood for this; Munro was born to British parents in Burma, but raised largely by his grandmother and aunts in a strict puritanical household in England after his mother’s death. His mother was charged by a cow on a visit home to England, the shock caused her to miscarry, and she died a short time later. One could speculate on the source of the streak of dark absurdism that runs through his work.
Greene does draw the obvious lines between the personal history and the darkness of Munro’s depictions of childhood, particularly in the magnificent “Sredni Vashtar.” The hero of the story is Conradin, a sickly 10-year-old who lives under the guardianship of his cousin, a woman who takes a certain pleasure in beating him “for his own good.” But he has a secret joy and solace: in the back of a disused garden shed, he’s been keeping a ferret. It’s not his only friend — he also keeps a hen — but it’s his only god. It was originally just a ferret, but it became a god and idol at the moment he dreamed up its spectacular name. He makes offering of crimson berries and fruits before Sredni Vashtar, nutmeg on special occasions. He prays to Sredni Vashtar daily. When the cousin discovers his secret and goes to the shed to open the cage and investigate, he kneels by the dining room window to offer up a hymn that after countless readings still gives me a chill:
Sredni Vashtar went forth
His thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth were white
His enemies called for peace, but he brought them death
Sredni Vashtar the Beautiful.
I’ll return to this book, I realize, thumbing through the yellowed pages, again and again for the rest of my life.