May 16, 2010

Nonsense Novels by Stephen Leacock (NYRB Classics)

Nonsense Novels by Stephen Leacock

Nonsense Novels is a 1911 collection of humorous short stories that parody several well-known literary genres: the detective story, the ghost story, the medieval romance, the Victorian sensation novel, the historical romance in the tradition of Walter Scott, the sea adventure, the eighteenth century sentimental novel, early science fiction along the lines of H.G.Wells, and so on.

I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that I’m a completely unapologetic fan of so-called genre fiction, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy a good spoof as much as the next reader. In fact, I suspect that the more you know and appreciate a genre, the more rewarding it can be to see it gently (or not so gently) parodied. The best parodies seem to be written by people who know their source material very well, and who more often than not have more than a passing fondness for it. Such is the case with Terry Pratchett’s early Discworld novels, with Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land, and, perhaps arguably, with Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm.

And this brings me to the first problem I had with Nonsense Novels: I don’t think Stephen Leacock knew these genres more than very superficially, and this means that his satire is also no more than superficial – which is to say, it’s often quite obvious. There isn’t much variation in the type of humour he uses, possibly because he didn’t have all that much to work with. Don’t get me wrong; I did enjoy many of these stories, and all through the book there were some truly hilarious moments. But after a while, I began to feel that these were all variations of the same joke, which can be summed up as, “Ha-ha, aren’t these types of stories dumb?” And that brings me to problem number two: Leacock’s brand of humour completely lacks kindness and warmth. It’s entirely of the laughing-against-something variety. I’m a big believer that satire can be biting, intelligent and effective without necessarily being cruel, so that was a bit of a let-down.

Before I go any further, let me give you a few examples of things I did like. I quite liked the story “Guido the Gimlet of Ghent: A Romance of Chivalry”, which mocks the kind of great tragic love story in which the lovers happen to barely know each other at all. For example:
The love of Guido and Isolde was of that pure and almost divine type, found only in the Middle Ages. They had never seen one another. Guido had never seen Isolde, Isolde had never seen Guido. They had never heard one another speak. They had never been together. They did not know one another. Yet they loved. Their love had sprung into being suddenly and romantically, with all the mystic charm which is love’s greatest happiness. Years before, Guido had seen the name of Isolde the Slender painted on a fence. He had turned pale, fallen into a swoon and started at once for Jerusalem. On the very same day Isolde in passing through the streets of Ghent had seen the coat of arms of Guido hanging on a clothes line. She had fallen back into the arms of her tire-women more dead than alive. Since that day they had loved.
No sooner had love entered Guido’s heart than he had determined to do some great feat of emprise or adventure, some high achievement of deringdo which should make him worthy to woo her. He placed himself under a vow that he would eat nothing, save only food, and drink nothing, save only liquor, till such season as he should have performed his feat.
…And then there’s “Gertrude the Governess: or, Simply Seventeen”, a Victorian drama that includes passages such as this:
The two were destined to meet. Nearer and nearer they came. And then still nearer. Then for one brief moment they met. 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. Was this the dawn of love? Wait and see. Do not spoil the story.
But even in these stories, I felt that the humour was demanding that I take sides. I laughed because I happen to find the idea of love at first sight ridiculous, just like I laughed at “‘Q’: A Psychic Pstory of the Psupernatural” because I do find supernatural shenanigans and attempts to find esoteric meaning in simple everyday coincidences silly. But all along, I was aware of the fact that those who didn’t side with Leacock on these things would probably not be very amused at all. The stories’ unkindness bothered me, even when I was not its target.

...And then, of course, there were the cases in which I was. For example, “A Hero in Homespun: or, The Life Struggle of Hezekiah Haylo” is a political parody about how liberals will lead the world to ruin because we bend too far back for criminals and evildoers, all while letting the hard-working and the righteous of this world be CRUSHED. And also, philanthropists and those who sponsor the arts and letters are childish and completely empty-headed – why else would they waste their money like that? And in “The Man in Asbestos: an Allegory of the Future”, I was the butt of the joke simply because I believe in gender equality and refuse to be reduced to the decorative role that, as a female, I should be more than content to perform:
“Tell me,” I said, “are there no women now? Are they gone too?”
“Oh, no,” answered the Man in Asbestos, “they’re here just the same. Some of those are women. Only, you see, everything has been changed now. It all came as part of their great revolt, their desire to be like the men. Had that begun in your time?”
“Only a little.” I answered; “they were beginning to ask for votes and equality.”
“That’s it,” said my acquaintance, “I couldn’t think of the word. Your women, I believe, were something awful, were they not? Covered with feathers and skins and dazzling colours made of dead things all over them? And they laughed, did they not, and had foolish teeth, and at any moment they could inveigle you into one of those contracts! Ugh!”
He shuddered.
“Asbestos,” I said (I knew no other name to call him), as I turned on him in wrath, “Asbestos, do you think that those jelly-bag Equalities out on the street there, with their ash-barrel suits, can be compared for one moment with our unredeemed, unreformed, heaven-created, hobble-skirted women of the twentieth century?”
Don’t you think this sounds remarkably like the kind of story that a man who fervently opposed women’s suffrage would write? If so, that would be because that’s exactly what it is. And before anyone accused me of being biased, I knew nothing at all about Leacock when I began Nonsense Novels. But what I found out once I’d finished it didn’t surprise me in the least. I suppose that to fully enjoy these stories, you have to always belong to the “us” and have no qualms whatsoever about laughing at the “them”. Or perhaps you just need to be less sensitive than I am. Nevertheless, I can’t think of anyone but an upper-class early twentieth-century white man who’d fit the profile of the reader Leacock imagined he was nudging in the ribs.

I read this book, a NYRB Classic, for the Spotlight on Small Publishers Series. I was going to say that I was a little disappointed that my first experience with a NYBR Classic hadn’t been more of a success, but then I realised that I have in fact read some of their books before, albeit in different editions. And most of them (E.g. The Summer Book, The 13 Clocks or The Enchanted April) were absolutely wonderful. I look forward to reading more of their catalogue in the future.

(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be glad to add your link here.)


  1. Mean-spirited humor can be so off-putting, especially combined with antiquated ideas about women. I'm sorry this didn't plan out.

  2. Oh too bad, the premise of the book sounds interesting enough but the best satires make everyone feel included.

    I adore parodies of my favorite genres (e.g. detective fiction), and feel that the more you know about it, the better you´ll enjoy yourself. And you´re right, it´s really best if fans of the genre write a parody, they do so with warmth and knowledge :)

    I don´t think I´ve heard of the NYRB classics before, will have to look them up.

  3. Oh my. Definitely sounds like a book I'll be avoiding. I love a good laugh at a good parody but mean spirited is never cool.

  4. What a clever idea; too bad it lacked the follow thru.

  5. I love reading spoofs of classics, but they have to be well-done. I remember reading one last August - well, part of it anyway - that seemed to be clever but after awhile just got old. But when spoofs are well-done, they're wonderful every once in awhile. I'm sorry this one didn't work out for you.

  6. I'm still not finished with Sunshine Sketches of a Small Town but I think his humour is a little gentler in it.

    Thanks for participating!

  7. Sounds like a really good premise but from the quotes you have given it doesn't sound like it was executed all that well. Thats a great shame really.

  8. Well, the idea is good, too bad it didn't work out in the end.

  9. It's too bad the author didn't have a better understanding of the genres he was parodying.

  10. Thank you for participating, Ana! I'm sorry the book wasn't more fun to read. The premise and title SOUND so great, so that is even more disappointing.

  11. The humour in Sunshine Sketches is definitely gentler, but these examples don't seem too harsh for Leacock--except for Asbestos Suit example, but I feel like I'd have to read more of that story to be sure. In Sunshine Sketches Leacock attacks all sides fairly equally, and everyone is an outrageous parody, and you may be confusing that outrageousness with "mean-spiritedness". He definitely has a blindness to women and first peoples issues, though he wasn't especially cruel in Sunshine Sketches.

    Also, writing almost a century ago, many of the genres Leacock was parodying weren't established in his time, or were established in different ways, so it seems difficult to accuse him of "not knowing his genres".

  12. Sounds like it had potential. I'm liking my NYBR Classic so far- Wish Her Safe at Home

  13. Clare, I absolutely agree.

    Bina: Yes, exactly - warmth and knowledge make it so much better. Anyway, this book aside the NYBR classics are well worth exploring.

    Amy: There were stories I liked, but overall it wasn't my thing. Still, don't avoid it on my account!

    Christina: The idea is a great one, yes. I just didn't expect it to be so unkind.

    Amanda: Yes, I agree - I do love a good parody! You need to read Cold Comfort Farm, btw :P

    Christ: I'll keep that one in mind - there were bits here that I did find hilarious, so I wouldn't refuse to read him again.

    Jessica: I liked some of them, really, but overall, meh.

    Andreea: Oh well... can't love them all, right?

    Kathi: Yes, I really think that would have made the book a lot better.

    Aarti: Thank you (and Chris and Amy) for hosting! I'll definitely be reading more NYBR Classics in the future.

    andré: If you pay even a little bit of attention to what I wrote, you will no doubt notice that the term "mean-spirited" shows up absolutely nowhere in my review. You will also notice that only the final example is of something I consider harsh - the rest were of things I LIKED. Also, I have little patience for using the time period in which a book was written as an excuse for why sexism shouldn't affect me. If the 19th century could produce a George Gissing or a John Stuart Mill, surely it was possibly to be less blatantly sexist than Leacock was in 1911. But that's neither here nor there - I'm a 21st century woman so of course that my sensibility will affect how I respond to the book, and this is not something I'll ever apologise for. And finally, are you seriously saying that the medieval romance, the historical saga, the sentimental novel or the Victorian sensation novel were not yet established in 1911?! Yes, the detective story was new-ish, as was science fiction, and the ghost story was just gaining momentum - but even then, if they were solid enough to be parodied, they were solid enough to justify parodies that were a little less superficial and repetitive than Leacock's.

    bookmagic: I've been dying to read that ever since Aarti reviewed it.

  14. This sounds kind of awful :( At first when you were describing it I thought I may want to read it and that it sounded interesting. Sounded like he had a good idea with this one, but that the fact that THIS man wrote it just wasn't such a good thing :/ I don't care if this was written in the stone ages, it's just plain hurtful to say such horrible things about women :( And I'm sure there were other hurtful comparisons of other populations or genres made throughout the book. Though I get that the parody of the genre is the focus of the book and I accept that for it's humor. But with this guy, I can almost see it becoming dismissive at times. I'm totally becoming judgemental of a book I haven't even read now :p I should shut up :p

  15. I agree with you that good satire requires the author to know the source material. Thank you for such a though provoking review.

  16. Chris: I believe in making allowances for the historical context of a work in the sense that I don't let sexism, racism or homophobia affect my overall opinion of an author from another period as much as it would if it were written today. But that doesn't really affect how I *experience* the book as a contemporary reader - it wouldn't even if it were from the stone age, like you said - and it's that personal experience that I want my posts to reflect. If someone wants to read that as me clamouring for the book to be burned in a bonfire, so be it :P Also, the stories did sound extremely dismissive of the genres they were parodying, and that put me off too.

    Zee: Yes - the problem is that otherwise, all the author has to work with are the most obvious of stereotypes. And that makes the humour a little too predictable after a while.

  17. I think the only way a parody can be created and the only way it can be enjoyed is if one is familiar with and enjoys the original genre. If you don't love it and understand it, you can't manipulate it without creating something mean-spirited or petty.

    Too bad though because this is such a fun idea.

  18. I read your review and I paid attention. You said there was an overall meanspiritedness or something, which I assumed, since it was everywhere, would be in your examples as well.

    I just meant that while some of those genres were established, they were radically different from what you'd consider those genres today. The fantasy Discworld parodies is much different from the fantasy Leacock would have encountered. I would have liked to have seen examples of how Leacock "didn't know his genres". I know you liked the romance novel example--but that seemed typical for the time, and so did the science fiction story. It's possible that story might be more nuanced that you realize--perhaps he was criticizing extreme positions on both sides? It's hard for me to say without having read it, because I don't know how reliable that narrator is.

  19. Trisha: That's pretty much how I feel about it too. If you don't know it in detail, you just don't have much more than the very obvious to work with, and at the very least all subtlety will be lost.

    André: No, I didn't say "overall meanspiritedness or something". I said the humour was divisive and of the kind that asks you to laugh against something - and I maintain that. And what kind of examples exactly would you need? I'm not sure what I could give you, other than saying yet again that all the stories felt like parodies of only the most superficial and obvious traits of these genres, which leads me to believe that the author's knowledge of them was not very in-depth. Yes, I could be wrong, and he could in fact have known them all very extensively. But the stories don't show it. And I'm not sure if I should waste my time coming up with concrete example to prove my point to someone who has yet to read these stories - that's bound to be frustrating for us both, as it makes the discussion about nothing but my word versus yours. And you seem determined to discredit me by implying that my opinion is based on my ignorance of literary history. By the way, while science fiction is radically different today than it was in 1911, I don't think the same goes for any of the other genres. That's one story out of ten, so I'm not sure if I see how your argument holds up.

  20. This doesn't really sound like my type of book I admit. I've only read a couple of NYRB classics too and my success has been a bit hit or miss but they do have a lot of books I'd like to get to one of these days!

  21. Hm. I'm curious about this, now! I'd love to read it so I can experience Leacock's strange-ish satire - even though it doesn't sound that credible. Great review.

  22. This collection of stories sounds very dated. I can see why you wouldn't especially care for some of the stories, Ana, given their viewpoint. I am not sure I would have liked them either.

  23. The man on the cover looks like Stephen Fry!

  24. Sorry to know that you didn't like Leacock's book. I have this on my 'TBR' list but haven't got around to reading it yet. I remember reading one piece about how he went to a bank to open an account and I remember feeling that it was humorous. I guess sometimes books don't stand up to scrutiny across eras.

  25. Iliana: Considering how diverse their catalogue is, it only makes sense that we wouldn't enjoy them all!

    Emidy: I definitely wouldn't want to discourage anyone from reading these. I hope you have better luck with them than I did.

    Wendy: It does show its time, yes. I guess humour is one of those things that don't always age well.

    Elise: Ha! I hadn't thought of that, but I see your point :P

    Vishy: I wouldn't say I disliked the book - I liked some of the stories and I thought he could be *very* funny at times - but I was hoping to love it unreservedly and didn't. I hope you fare better with it than I did!

  26. Writing superficially and using mean-spirited humor can make me close a book and dream I never opened it in the first place! Such a shame, the premise sounds promising but sometimes it just doesn’t work…

  27. How disappointing after such a promising premise. I'm still fascinated by the book though because it seems quite unique. Perhaps it was a product of its time? I haven't heard of NYRB classic so this is a new find for me. :-) Hope your next venture will be more successful.

  28. I am sorry to hear that this book turned out to be so caustic and disappointing for you. I don't think that I would be the right audience for this book either, and it's sad to hear that the author pokes such mean spirited fun at all these genres without even a little bit of love peeking through!

  29. Lua: It was a shame, yes - I had high hopes!

    Mae: It's definitely a product of its time, yes. Some things age well, but this, not so much.

    Zibilee: Caustic is the perfect word for it. Ah well...on to the next book.

  30. This one had caught my eye in the catalog. Sorry to hear it was disappointing; I guess now I know I don't really want to read it!


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