Today, I’d like to discuss one of my favourite novels, The Unbearable Bassington by Saki. Saki, or Hector Hugh Munro, was an Edwardian author, who wrote some wonderfully hilarious and satirical short stories, a few one act plays, and two novels, before his death in the First World War. Of all his wonderful works, his masterpiece is, in my opinion, The Unbearable Bassington, though there are those who would disagree.
The novel follows Comus Bassington, the Unbearable Bassington of the title, as his mother tries to get him married, or at least adjust to life in the world and become an independent fellow. The book is, simply, my favourite, since it ties sharp wit and humorous situations, with true empathy and a tragic plot.
–The humour of the book is obvious; Saki always had a gift for creating well-crafted caricatures in one sentence. The first one encountered is Comus’ mother, Francesca, whom Saki describes with the wonderful sentence
‘Francesca herself, if pressed in an unguarded moment to describe her soul, would probably have described her drawing-room.’
–That is only one example. Throughout, Saki creates fantastic caricatures or, on occasion, incredibly in-depth characters, with only short descriptions. The humour comes through easily, such as when Francesca’s mother sends Comus a letter, despite being advised against it, and even agreeing with the advice. The reason? For she could not bear to waste a stamp, whether or not it would be bad to send the letter. Again, just to illustrate once more the humour in the book, Francesca, at a party, overhears the following conversation:
One group that Francesca passed was discussing a Spanish painter, who was forty-three, and had painted thousands of square yards of canvas in his time, but of whom no one in London had heard till a few months ago; now the starling-voices seemed determined that one should hear of very little else. Three women knew how his name was pronounced, another always felt that she must go into a forest and pray whenever she saw his pictures, another had noticed that there were always pomegranates in his later compositions, and a man with an indefensible collar knew what the pomegranates “meant.” “What I think so splendid about him,” said a stout lady in a loud challenging voice, “is the way he defies all the conventions of art while retaining all that the conventions stand for.”
–A wonderful description. I don’t know about the reader, but I have definitely encountered similar such conversations, and it is wonderful how little they have changed from Saki’s time. Especially given how easily Saki’s satire applies to now, as it did then.
–There are many other examples of hilarity, and the dialogue is always sharp and funny, but there is more to talk about than just the humour. The empathy Saki displays comes through especially towards the powerful ending, but also throughout the whole novel, when he inflicts one with a cutting line, which does its best to break your heart. For one example, there is a dinner party which Comus attends. Saki describes the hostess, a higher-class woman who married a man who is always putting on parties and celebrating. There is humour here, and, from the rest of the book, one would expect the marriage to be rather like the Palmers’ marriage in Sense and Sensibility, and thus the seed of much laughter. And, indeed, there is much to laugh at here, until Saki forces you to see the sorrow in the situation with the lines:
To see her standing at the top of an expensively horticultured staircase receiving her husband’s guests was rather like watching an animal performing on a music-hall stage.
One always tells oneself that the animal likes it, and one always knows that it doesn’t.
The harshness of the simile, and the quietness with which it was produced, highlights painfully her character. Immediately, one gains sympathy and understanding, and she is far more than a character who appears in one or two scenes, and the whole of her world is brought to life.
Or, again, when Saki describes a party attended by a woman who has just married, and, at the last scene we ever see her, he writes:
Was that how [character I will not name for plot reasons] regarded her? Was that to be her function and place in life, a painted background, a decorative setting to other people’s triumphs and tragedies? Somehow to-night she had the feeling that a general might have who brought imposing forces into the field and could do nothing with them. She possessed youth and good looks, considerable wealth, and had just made what would be thought by most people a very satisfactory marriage. And already she seemed to be standing aside as an onlooker where she had expected herself to be taking a leading part.
A page later, her aunts describe how unhappy she is, and what a foolish mistake she has made. But, they say, it could have been worse, and are content to leave it, although the reader’s heart is breaking for her.
There is more, such as Comus’ relationship with his mother, so sorrowful as one sees how they love and care for each other. But their relationship is strained and damaged, and neither can really express anything to one another but disappointment and argumentative words. Tragic stuff.
Again, Comus is a tragic figure, in the Ancient Greek sense. From the first, Saki describes how he is the type of man who could not fit into society. Such men, he says, could reach unimaginable heights and be celebrated by all for their courage, greatness, or what have you. Unfortunately, Comus is one of the many who are only rejected, by virtue of the nature which could make them great, and ends up having lost his place. That being said, the ending is happier than you’d imagine, from my review on it, as the mother comes from being a shallow woman, who’d describe her soul as her drawing room, to a more… Well, ‘in-depth’ person, shall we say? As for Comus, he fares similarly, though one has to go away from the book and think about, before it comes apparent.
I have talked for a long time, but this book is close to my heart. The humour is wonderful, and the sorrow is so well-done, that one feels so much for the characters. And, the sad elements are brought out so easily and unexpectedly, that they highlight themselves in the place of the humour, as the light-heartedness of the first half gives way to the heartbreak of the latter half. It is a favourite of mine, and you all should read it, especially as it clocks in at only around 250 pages, and is easily available online!