Saturday, October 16, 2010

Trollope, Saki, and Who Else?

Today I went on a beautiful walk around a perfectly calm lake, and by the time I got home had recovered my will to read.  I have been immersed in Trollope's Can You Forgive Her?--a breathtaking classic about politics and love--and have just reached the point where Burgo determines to run off with Lady Glencora.  Glencora loves Burgo, but wants to avoid behaving badly to her husband, Plantaganet Palliser, a member of Parliament who expresses no love for her.  Their marriage, which Glencora was pressured to make, was purely political and advantageous for the two great families.
More on this later.
Last night I finished Saki's The Unbearable Bassington, a 1912 novel reissued by Capuchin Classics.
If you've never understood the point of Saki's clever stories, and I have tried to read them in vain, The Unbearable Bassington is the place to start.  This fascinating satire of Edwardian England combines the best elements of Saki's short stories--the depiction of the effete hero, the casual badinage of drawing rooms, and the surprising turns of plot--with a more detailed delineation of characters and perhaps a more complex structure.  Saki is a predecessor of Firbank, Noel Coward, and Evelyn Waugh:  Waugh happens to write the preface for this elegant edition of the 1912 novel.
The novel centers on the materialistic but charming Francesca Bassington's determination to marry off her ne'er-do-well son, Comus, to an heiress. She is in danger of losing her gorgeous drawing room:  the house has been bequeathed to her only until her niece marries, and the manipulation of Comus is her only hope.  If only her niece would never marry!  And if only Comus would behave!  We meet the cruel Comus at boarding school, where he is a prefect and deliberately punishes a new student for nonexistent infractions again and again.  As an adult, he is witty, attractive, and presumably kinder, but indifferent to people's feelings, pressuring Elaine, the woman he loves and who loves him, to pay his debts, and ignoring her irritation, which inevitably leads her into another's arms. Of course, when we read a chapter from Elaine's point of view, we are startled by her cruelty and shallowness. Courtney Youghal, the politician who has won her, is even more selfish than Comus:  after their  marriage, there is no warmth, and Elaine despairs.  Francesca cruelly rejects Comus after he fails to marry Elaine.  In short, there are no good people in Saki's world.  And when all is said and done, Comus himself turns out to be the best, because he is totally without pretence and accepts his failures.  
The style is reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's--all the wit but fortunately less preciousness.  I enjoyed this so much that I am now eager to read his short stories--well, some of them anyway.  There are many collections of Saki, and you can also read him online at Gutenberg.  

Who next?  I'm on a roll here...let's hope I find some more classics.

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