Saki, Filboid Studge, the Story of a Mouse That Helped (2011)
Frank O’Connor, The Cornet-Player Who Betrayed Ireland (2011)
It is the fiftieth anniversary of Penguin Modern Classics and, to mark the occasion, Penguin are launching the ‘Mini Moderns’, a series of pocket-sized story collections and novellas. Fifty titles are published tomorrow and, this week, twenty-five bloggers will each be reviewing two of them. I am one of those of bloggers; my titles are by Saki and Frank O’Connor.
I’m not very knowledgeable when it comes to classic literature, so when I do read and review it, it’s very much in an exploratory spirit. One of my projects so far this year has been to read an anthology of early twentieth-century short stories. Saki and O’Connor are both writers I’ve read in that anthology, of whose work I’d like to read more; so, although I didn’t request them specifically, I was pleased to receive these two Mini Modern collections. I think it’s an ideal format for discovering a new writer: long enough to gain a substantial impression of the author’s work, short enough to give one room to explore further.
Both collections begin with a title story that more or less sets the tone for what is to come. Saki’s volume goes by the wonderful title of Filboid Studge, the Story of a Mouse That Helped. Its eponymous story, barely five pages in length, is a satire based around advertising; Filboid Studge is a vile breakfast food that nobody buys; the ‘mouse that helped’ is Mark Spayley, a poor artist who wishes to marry the daughter of Filboid Studge’s manufacturer, and may get his chance – if, that is, he can devise a successful campaign for the product. And Spayley’s campaign is successful: Filboid Studge flies off the shelves, and is eaten stoically, because the campaign makes people feel they should eat it, and ‘people will do things from a sense of duty which they would never attempt as a pleasure’ (p. 3). So, Spayley will have his wish… won’t he?
Two things which stand out for me in this story, and which I see reflected in Filboid Studge’s other tales, are a satirical eye for people’s behaviour, and a closing twist of fate. The former is perhaps best illustrated by ‘Tobermory’, in which a cat is taught to speak and reveals more about the assembled human company than they would wish; but it’s also there in the doggerel recited in ‘The Recessional’, whose would-be poet naturally thinks is brilliant. Then there is a sense of fate giving characters their comeuppance in stories like ‘Mrs Packletide’s Tiger’, whose eponymous society lady wishes to shoot a tiger purely for the purposes of outdoing her rival in terms of display – and it doesn’t work out quite how she intended; or ‘Sredni Vashtar, in which a young boy makes a god out of his pet ferret, and prays for revenge against his overly strict guardian.
Throughout, there’s a great sense of glee to Saki’s prose; one imagines these stories would be excellent candidates for reading aloud. I suspect that Saki’s work is best dipped into rather than read en masse, but I found the seven stories in Filboid Studge a fine sampler.
There are four stories in Frank O’Connor’s The Cornet-Player Who Betrayed Ireland, all of which, in their different ways, look at the effect of broader social forces on the lives of ordinary individuals. The cornet-player of the title story is Mick Twomey, the only supporter of William O’Brien in a brass band whose other members support O’Brien’s rival political leader, John Redmond; normally, they put their differences aside in the name of music – but now the band is due to play at a reception for a visit by Redmond, and relations between Mick and his bandmates change irrevocably. O’Connor’s focus here is firmly on his characters, with the politics more in the background (his narrator is Mick’s son, who understands little more than that his neighbourhood is in favour of O’Brien and against Redmond); there’s a gradual, grinding – and thoroughly believeable – inevitability to the way Mick and the band become estranged.
The three other stories in the collection retain this focus on character, but in rather different contexts. ’First Confession’ is the lightest in tone, as a seven-year-old boy gives confession for the first time, and his sister – who was taunting him over the possible consequences – is infuriated to find that the outcome is not what she’d expected. ‘Guests of the Nation’ tells of two Irish soldiers who have befriended their English prisoners, despite the knowledge that the order to execute them may come at any time; O’Connor draws an effective contrast between the impersonal orders being issued by commanders, and the reality of the soldiers’ lives ‘on the ground’. The final piece, ‘A Story by Maupassant’, is perhaps the most intensely focused on character of all in its depiction of a man who comes to realise that his life has become the very thing at which he laughed dismissively as a child.
I’ve enjoyed exploring the work of both O’Connor and Saki in these collections, looking beyond the individual stories. I have no doubt that I’ll be reading both authors again, and seeing what else there is to discover in this series.
I’m going to link here to all the other Mini Moderns blogs, as I come across them.
Bookgeeks reviews Ian Fleming.
Gaskella reviews H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Coover.
Leyla Sanai reviews Vladimir Nabokov.
Asylum reviews Saul Bellow.
Eve’s Alexandria reviews Eileen Chang.
Stuck in a Book reviews E.M. Forster and Primo Levi.
Park Benches & Bookends reviews D.H. Lawrence and Malcolm Lowry.
Lizzy’s Literary Life reviews G.K. Chesterton and Angela Carter.
Reader, I Read It reviews Samuel Beckett and Raymond Chandler.
Charles Lambert reviews H.G. Wells and M.R. James.
Fleur Fisher reviews Kingsley Amis and James Joyce.