Imagine, if you will, that Psmith visits Blandings Castle, and while there kills the Empress of Blandings and has her served at breakfast to Lord Emsworth without his knowledge…If you have that picture in your mind, then you have a picture of Clovis Sangrail, one of the most languidly malicious characters in all of literature.
As with all of Planet Saki, the stories are all immensely readable for their elegant style and because they are hysterically funny — though with Saki, as V. S. Pritchett famously wrote, “our laughter is only a note or two short of a scream of fear.” The tone is what Robertson Davies called “a malice without ugliness.”
Here we see Clovis in “The Stampeding of Lady Bastable”:
“…Clovis said suitable things in a highly unsuitable manner, and proceeded to make punitive expeditions among the breakfast dishes with a scowl on his face that would have driven the purr out of a peace conference. The arrangement that had been concluded behind his back was doubly distasteful to him. In the first place, he particularly wanted to teach the MacGregor boys, who could well afford the knowledge, how to play poker-patience; secondly, the Bastable catering was of the kind that is classified as a rude plenty, which Clovis translated as a plenty that gives rise to rude remarks. Watching him from behind ostentatiously sleepy lids, his mother realized, in the light of long experience, that any rejoicing over the success of her manoeuvre would be distinctly premature. It was one thing to fit Clovis into a convenient niche of the domestic jig-saw puzzle; it was quite another matter to get him to stay there…”
Or here from “The Quest”:
“An unwonted peace hung over the Villa Elsinore, broken, however, at frequent intervals, by clamorous lamentations suggestive of bewildered bereavement. The Momebys had lost their infant child; hence the peace which its absence entailed; they were looking for it in wild, undisciplined fashion, giving tongue the whole time, which accounted for the outcry which swept through house and garden whenever they returned to try the home coverts anew. Clovis, who was temporarily and unwillingly a paying guest at the villa, had been dozing in a hammock at the far end of the garden when Mrs. Momeby had broken the news to him.
“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.
“He was toddling about quite happily on the lawn,” said Mrs. Momeby tearfully, “and Arnold had just come in, and I was asking him what sort of sauce he would like with the asparagus–“
“I hope he said hollandaise,” interrupted Clovis, with a show of quickened interest, “because if there’s anything I hate–“
“And all of a sudden I missed Baby,” continued Mrs. Momeby in a shriller tone. “We’ve hunted high and low, in house and garden and outside the gates, and he’s nowhere to be seen.”
“Is he anywhere to he heard?” asked Clovis; “if not, he must be at least two miles away.”
“But where? And how?” asked the distracted mother.
“Perhaps an eagle or a wild beast has carried him off,” suggested Clovis.
“There aren’t eagles and wild beasts in Surrey,” said Mrs. Momeby, but a note of horror had crept into her voice.
“They escape now and then from travelling shows. Sometimes I think they let them get loose for the sake of the advertisement. Think what a sensational headline it would make in the local papers: ‘ Infant son of prominent Nonconformist devoured by spotted hyaena.’ Your husband isn’t a prominent Nonconformist, but his mother came of Wesleyan stock, and you must allow the newspapers some latitude.”
“But we should have found his remains,” sobbed Mrs. Momeby.
“If the hyaena was really hungry and not merely toying with his food there wouldn’t be much in the way of remains. It would be like the small-boy-and-apple story–there ain’t going to be no core.”
Read the complete tales here…
And as Will Self says:
“Delight in Saki’s capacity to render the sensate in terms of the insensate, as he compares the soul to a drawing room, or comments on the pain threshold of toast. Titter nervously as he avers that the oyster is more beautiful than any religion. And gasp with delight as your expectations are not so much reversed as sent into free fall…”