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I have to admit that my main reaction to The Unbearable Bassington by Saki was puzzlement.  When I finished, I sat there wondering ‘what just happened?’  It is, assuredly, an odd book but also a rather amazing one.

The story opens with the introduction of Francesca Bassington, an unemotional, materialistic widow who “if pressed in an unguarded moment to describe her soul, would probably have described her drawing-room.”  The only person Francesca is truly attached to is her self-absorbed son Comus, an odious youth intent on his own amusements and happy to ignore and rebuff attempts to set him on the boring path to solid citizenship.  The episodic novel jumps about, giving us glimpses into both Francesca and Comus’ vapid lives, tracking them until a crisis is reached and, having finally gained the contempt of everyone he knows in London, Comus is packed off to obscure employment in West Africa.

This was my first encounter with Saki but it is not difficult to tell that he was someone more comfortable with the short story format.  As a novel, the construction leaves something to be desired.  The story has no real flow or grace to it and comes across as muddled and episodic.  Saki’s writing is wonderful and each little episode is perfectly formed but characters who are wonderfully introduced never appear again and certain scenes, however beautifully executed, leave one wondering why they were included since they don’t seem to add much to the story or our understanding of the central characters.

The final chapters, the most emotionally devastating ones, were what made the novel for me.  Without them, I would have gone away thinking how much I enjoyed Saki’s humorous writing but I would have completely forgotten the details of the book almost immediately.  The concluding chapters reveal so much more of both Francesca and Comus’s inner lives that, for most of the book, we had been completely ignorant of, seeing how they behaved and reacted to certain people and situations but never really understanding their emotions.  Seeing the depth of their love for one another, something which their tense relationship had made it difficult for them to express but which when separated leaves them both with an intense sense of longing and regret, upset me far more than I thought this book had the power to do.  It makes everything that came before all the more poignant and powerful.

Saki’s writing is filled with brilliance and humour.  His observations and details were so precise, so perfect – what he manages to fit into this slim volume is truly amazing.  My favourite description is of one of the minor female characters.  In only a few words, he tells you all you need to know about that woman’s vanity and shrewdness:  “Most men liked her, and the percentage of women who disliked her was not inconveniently high.”  And then there is this magnificent description of Francesca Bassington, revealing so much about her personality, her approach to mothering, and Comus himself:

Francesca prided herself on being able to see things from other people’s points of view, which meant, as it usually does, that she could see her own point of view from various aspects.  As regards Comus, whose doing and non-doings bulked largely in her thoughts at the present moment, she had mapped out in her mind so clearly what his outlook in life ought to be, that she was peculiarly unfitted to understand the drift of his feelings or the impulses that governed them.  Fate had endowed her with a son; in limiting the endowment to a solitary offspring Fate had certainly shown a moderation which Francesca was perfectly willing to acknowledge and be thankful for; but then, as she pointed out to a certain complacent friend of hers who cheerfully sustained an endowment of half-a-dozen male off springs and a girl or two, her one child was Comus.  Moderation in numbers was more than counterbalanced in his case by extravagance in characteristics.

I’m still stunned by the power exerted over me by the unexpected ending.  While reading, I had been amused by and appreciative of Saki’s writing style and humour but, as I was nearing the end, it was starting to wear thin; too much polish for not enough plot.  The ending, providing all of the emotion and honesty missing from the carefree, artificial world inhabited by Francesca and Comus, shocked me into a level of emotional engagement that I had not anticipated, even though I’d read enough reviews to know that something dramatic was coming.  It was brilliantly done on Saki’s part, making this a novel I will not soon forget.

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