Nonsense Novels – Stephen Leacock

Nonsense Novels ALB

A collection of humorous short stories that parody popular genres like the sleuth story, medieval tale of chivalry, tragic Russian romance, and paranormal mystery. 1911.

Ah, nothing could have been a more perfect read for these last few days. Before giving Nonsense Novels a go, I’d been suffering severely from Good Book Withdrawal. Yes, this is a thing, and yes, SUFFERING.

I find this condition occurs most commonly when I’ve recently finished a really fantastic book. In this case, it was The Passing Bells. I read and enjoyed A Fair Barbarian afterward, but it didn’t quite fit the bill for a mind-blowingly amazing book. Fearing the onset of Good Book Withdrawal, when I closed that book I set my mind to finding something EPIC for my next read.

Two days and countless strike-outs later, I decided to define “epic” a little more clearly. I made a list; I sallied forth anew. It seemed like a winning strategy. Two more days later, still no epic book fulfilling my wildest dreams, I was starting to lose my mind. No, scratch that—-I was DEFINITELY losing my mind.

I became plagued by that horrible, ridiculous fear: What if I never find a good book again?? The prospect alone is enough to make me forfeit my will to live—-and yet, oddly enough, it also makes me search all the harder for that book of my dreams.

Now, just in case I don’t sound picky enough already (I’ve never claimed to be otherwise), I should clarify that I did in fact have a great book all ready to go. But I believe that every book, just like every person, comes into your life at a particular time, for a particular reason. And it just wasn’t quite that book’s turn yet. It was, however, the perfect time for me to meet Stephen Leacock.

Nonsense NovelsAh, where do I begin with the brilliance that was Leacock…Well, to start off, he was actually a political scientist, an academic. And then he started writing these short, humorous pieces and submitting them to magazines. Originally his fiction writing was meant to supplement his income, but this guy’s got a talent that simply demands recognition. During the period in which he published, it’s said that more people had heard of him than had heard of Canada. Yes, Canada as in THE COUNTRY. (Also, the place where he lived.)

From the very first page of Nonsense Novels, I was grinning and shaking my head in amazement. Each of these stories parodies a genre that in itself isn’t entirely bad, but includes some very repetitious themes. I got the feeling, in reading Leacock’s stories, that he was a skeptical reader of the fiction popular in his day, such as the heavily romantic stories Sir Walter Scott wrote and inspired others to mimic. At the same time, Leacock’s parodies never convey a snarky feeling, as parodies sometimes do. Instead, they’re just funny, and oh so smart.

For instance, I think my favorite story was “Gertrude the Governess: Or, Simple Seventeen.” It parodies the genre of “beautiful, innocent young woman becomes governess to an aristocratic family that hides a dark secret.” (It sounds rather specific for a “genre,” but come on, I think we’ve all read books like this. I’m pretty sure Victoria Holt made an entire career of them!) What I loved about this story was how every single sentence was a parody—-sometimes a slightly absurd one. Such as this:

Gertrude DeMongmorenci McFiggin had known neither father nor mother. They had both died years before she was born.

Ha! Yes, why are these pitiable young ladies always orphans?? Or this:

‘You are proficient in French,’ she asked.

Oh, oui,‘ said Gertrude modestly.

‘And Italian,’ continued the Countess.

Oh, si,’ said Gertrude.

‘And German,’ said the Countess in delight.

Ah, ja,‘ said Gertrude.

‘And Russian?’

Yaw.’

‘And Roumanian?’

Jep.’

And of course the Countess is “amazed at the girl’s extraordinary proficiency in modern languages”! One last example, I promise:

As they passed Gertrude raised her head and directed towards the young nobleman two eyes so eye-like in their expression as to be absolutely circular, while Lord Ronald directed towards the occupant of the dogcart a gaze so gaze-like that nothing but a gazelle, or a gas-pipe, could have emulated its intensity.

Another story I absolutely loved was a parody of the tragic Russian love story, told in diary format. It features a young, absurdly romantic narrator who, though betrothed to a tall, handsome, rich young man, falls in love with a short, rotund painter who is clearly annoyed with her, until he realizes she will hand over all of her jewels and money as keepsakes of their undying love. With the title “Sorrows of a Super Soul,” I think we can guess what Leacock was parodying here…

Finally, the last story of the collection, “The Man in Asbestos,” actually surprised me for how well it parodied not only the sci-fi/time travel genre, but proposed (albeit in an extreme way) the changes we might like to see in society. Such as: no more fashion changes, and the subsequent labor it demanded; no more transportation, as it was dangerous and only “brought into every town a lot of people from every other town”; no more falling in love or reproducing (annoying babies!); and most importantly, no more work! The time traveler is unnerved, in the end, by the placid order of life in this supposed year 3000. I know this is “only” humor writing, but I heard a nice moral in the story. Life may be perilous and fraught with hard work and heartbreak, but at least it is interesting!

My first taste of Leacock has certainly proved fulfilling. In the future when I’m looking for a quick, funny, intelligent read, I plan on turning to another of his many story collections. Thank goodness he was prolific!

It does beg the question, though: why has his work been forgotten???

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