Thanks to Betsy Bird, we learnt that the One Shot World Tour was stopping in Canada today. So here we are to say a few words about Stephen Leacock, and to try to convince you that, even though he looked like this,
(photo by 4BlueEyes)
his writing remains fresh and hilarious.
Stephen Leacock is famous in Canada, a sort of Canadian Mark Twain. There's a Leacock Museum, a Leacock Medal for Humour, a Leacock website at the National Museum of Canada, etc. He was so well known that his niece was able to sell a book of memories about him. What is it about Canada that breeds wit, even in a trained economist such as Leacock? There's no point in trying to figure it all out, instead let's just read what Leacock had to say about his writing (including the book we publish—with an introduction by Daniel Handler—Nonsense Novels) in a preface to one of his most successful books, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town:
I have written two books, one called Literary Lapses and the other Nonsense Novels. Each of these is published by John Lane (London and New York), and either of them can be obtained, absurd though it sounds, for the mere sum of three shillings and sixpence. Any reader of this preface, for example, ridiculous though it appears, could walk into a bookstore and buy both of these books for seven shillings. Yet these works are of so humorous a character that for many years it was found impossible to
print them. The compositors fell back from their task suffocated with laughter and gasping for air. Nothing but the intervention of the linotype machine—or rather, of the kind of men who operate it—made it possible to print these books. Even now people have to be very careful in circulating them, and the books should never be put into
the hands of persons not in robust health.
Many of my friends are under the impression that I write these humorous nothings in idle moments when the wearied brain is unable to perform the serious labours of the economist. My own experience is exactly the other way. The writing of solid, instructive stuff fortified by facts and figures is easy enough. There is no trouble in
writing a scientific treatise on the folk-lore of Central China, or a statistical enquiry into the declining population of Prince Edward Island. But to write something out of one's own mind, worth reading for its own sake, is an arduous contrivance only to be achieved in fortunate moments, few and far between. Personally, I would sooner
have written Alice in Wonderland than the whole Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Nonsense Novels, true to its title, is a collection of silly stories, each one sending up a different literary genre. On our website (or here), you can download a pdf of the rags-to-riches story "A Hero in Homespun," which we describe as "a heartwarming tale of a country lad with big dreams who moves to New York City and ends up burning it to the ground." Even better is Leacock's satire of the passionate heroine of the Russian novel, "Sorrows of a Super Soul" Here is the heroine's first encounter with her future love:
How beautiful he looked! Not tall like Alexis Alexovitch, ah, no! but so short and wide and round—shaped like the beautiful cabbage that died last week. He wore a velvet jacket and he carried a camp stool and an easel on his back, and in his face was a curved pipe with a long stem, and his face was not red and rough like the face of Alexis, but mild and beautiful and with a smile that played on it like moonlight over putty.
Do I love him? I cannot tell. Not yet. Love is a gentle plant. You cannot force its growth.
As he passed I leaned from the window and threw a rosebud at him. But he did not see it.
Then I threw a cake of soap and a toothbrush at him. But I missed him, and he passed on.
Daniel Handler's introduction to the book—really more of a nonsense novel of his own—is also available for download. And it should also be mentioned that the artist who pays homage to Leacock on the cover of the book is another famous Canadian, Bruce McCall.