IN AUGUST, 1914, H. H. Munro -- journalist, short story writer, novelist, and playwright -- said to a friend, "I have always looked forward to the romance of a European war." The romance, however, was short-lived, for the army soon pulled out his decaying upper teeth, and in 1916, having refused an officer's rank, Munro died in France at the age of 45.
While his reputation rests on such brilliant short stories as "The Open Window," "Tobermory," and "Sredni Vashtar" -- often reprinted in anthologies of short story masterpieces -- Munro has received little attention from critics and biographers. A. J. Langguth has now published what may be as complete a biography as we are likely to get, for he has made use of unpublished papers and notebooks and has interviewed Munro's relatives and friends.
Therein lies one of the biographer's problems. Langguth sees Munro as a homosexual, a view based on innuendo and hearsay, a principal source of which is Ben Travers, editor and playwright, who told Langguth that Munro's homosexuality "was known in publishing circles around 1913." In citing evidence of Munro's sexual preference, Langguth quotes passages from Munro's stories (the theme of blackmail, for example, is presumed to be an indication) and from the journalistic dispatches that Munro sent to the London Morning Post from France, the Balkans, and Russia, where for six years he reported on politics and culture (a period of Munro's life that Langguth presents skillfully). From Belgrade, for example, Munro wrote: "Wandering boys from Tzigane orchestras made their way to their night lodging, hunting as they went for cigarette ends under the outdoor tables of the restaurants, and grasping joyfully at the cigarette silently and unexpectedly offered" -- an indication, says Langguth, of Munro's "flirtations of the moment, which Hector could describe, assured that his readers would take them as innocent." But how does Langguth know that these were "flirtations"? An instance of assumption transformed into fact?
Though there is room for conjecture concerning Munro's alleged homosexuality (he had no significant adult relationships with women except with his sister), Langguth makes no attempt to question his sources or clarify the allegation (was Munro's homosexuality over, inhibited, or latent?) Another "source," Munro's sister (who, Langguth says, was at the age of 40 "handsome and unmarriageable" and later an obvious eccentric), wrote a biolgraphical essay in which she concludes: "In writing all I have cared to tell of Hector's life . . . "Langguth cites this ambiguous half of a sentence as "a rather over reference" to her brother's homosexuality. Clearly, the biographer is having difficulty with the evidence by forcing the point.
Langguth presumes that Munro's wit was colored -- if not caused -- by homosexuality (indeed, Langguth has some dubious remarks to make about the nature of "homosexual wit"). To be sure, Munro was influenced by the writings of Oscar Wilde, which provided him with fundamental techniques. Munro and Wilde had, says Langguth, "shared assumptions" with respect to their wit: the trivial acquires monumental significance, whereas society's cherished values are satirically underminded. This device, of course, is the wit of the dandy, Wilde's supreme achievement. In Munro's "Reginald" stories, Wildean wit and dandyism provide a satirical framework for the Edwardian world of cultivated leisure. In "Reginald at the Theatre," the eponymous hero, with measured solemnity, deplores the intrusions of the actors: "That is the worst of a tradegy . . . one can't always hear oneself talk." And, like Wilde, Munro plagiarized himself. In his story "The Feast of Nemesis" and in his play The Watched Pot (unproduced in his lifetime), he refers to a character as "one of those people who would be enornously improved by death."
While Wilde was flamboyantly theatrical, Munro was uninteresting and subdued. Langguth states that Munro had a "Trappist wit that did not speak aloud." Indeed, a rare photograph makes him appear more like a despondent priest than a dandy. In his early life, Munro learned that severity was perhaps the better part of valor (though, on occasion, he perpetrated practical jokes). Born in Burma of a father who was a major in the British army, he was sent to England, after his mother's death, to be raised by a grandmother and two constantly bickering aunts (the sterner of the two appears in many of Munro's works). At the age of 23, he joined the military police in Burma, but malaria forced him to resign a year later. He first used the name "Saki" (after the cupbearer in The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam) when he published political satires in 1900, but he always included his given name under the "pseudonym" to distinguish himself from another Hector Munro, who was publishing novels at the time.
Following his biography, Langguth includes, as a supplement, six uncollected stories, the most impressive being "The Pond," an example of what he calls Munro's "surprising modernity." An unhappy married woman, who had always seen herself cast for a "tragic role" and who was "accustomed to speak of the Angel of Death almost as other people would speak of their chauffeur waiting round the corner to fetch them at the appointed moment," becomes absorbed, like Narcissus, by a mysterious pond. Drawn by a self-destructive impulse to "its air of an almost malignant despondency," she later accidentally slides into the "foul, stagnant depths," discovering, however, with resentment, that the pond is only an inch and a half deep! This splendid comic absurdity -- central to Munro's satirical vision -- is the means of psychological self-correction.
Three years after this story appeared, Sakian irony accompanied Munro's own encounter with the Angel of Death, for as a lance-sergeant in the 22nd Battalion, Royal; Fusiliers, at the battle of Beaumont-Hamel, he ordered a soldier to extinguish a match. An instant later, Munro was struck by a bullet.