Beyond Mariposa

Stephen Leacock is one of those things you're supposed to cherish if you're Canadian, like Margaret Atwood or the Commissioner of Official Languages. I don't care. I like him anyway. His acute sense of the absurd, his keen ear for language and his fearless inventiveness make him a true comic genius. His failed attempt to open a bank account, in "My Financial Career," is an unsurpassed depiction of intimidation in the face of large, impersonal modern institutions. Let Kafka's protagonists succumb in tediously lopsided contests against vast shadowy conspiracies. This is just man against self and losing badly.

Leacock also turns a phrase with Wodehousian virtuosity. In his satire of the Mariposa election contest between cynical vote-buying Liberal and Conservative candidates, when doomed independent clean-government candidate Edward Drone "tried to put up a streamer across the Main Street with DRONE AND HONESTY the wind carried it away into the lake." Those final three words plunge his campaign into exquisite ignominy. Also not to be missed is his account of protracted goodbyes in the era of the motor car, in which George Washington's Farewell Address ends "I have grown old in the service of this country and there is something wrong with my ignition."

Finally, his description of the country barber shop ends with the customer stripped to the waist so "The barber can then take a rush at him from the other side of the room, and drive the clippers up the full length of the spine, so as to come at the heavier hair on the back of the head with the impact of a lawn-mower driven into long grass." Successors like the Goon Show or Monty Python extend, they do not transcend, such surrealism.

Despite all these virtues Leacock is unfortunately best known, especially at second hand, for his merciless satire of parochial small-town life in fictional Mariposa that still offends many in the real Orillia. But it is the least noteworthy material in, for instance, A Treasury of Stephen Leacock (combining Literary Lapses, Sunshine Sketches and Winnowed Wisdom in one volume). The Mariposa material has lost some of its lustre partly because such small-town life, omnipresent in 1912, has all but vanished from the Canadian scene. Also, it was so well done so long ago that, like Boris Karloff's Frankenstein, it now seems hackneyed. A more serious complaint is that it displays a bit too much malice; a satirist should help redeem human folly not just condemn it. But mostly Mariposa is simply eclipsed by his other even funnier work.

For instance, partly because his day job was professor of political science and economics at McGill, Leacock is brilliant at capturing and refracting professional cant. His venture into the increasingly popular "statistical forecast business" is sterling economic gibberish overlaid on the timeless truth that, the world being so complex, "our conclusion upon the whole is that we don't know what business is going to do next month, and we don't believe that anyone else does." And in another flawlessly turned phrase, a farrago of nonsense about Brazil's currency, the milreis, ends, "Some people think this is a good time to buy it, but if it was ours we should sell it. We wouldn't want it round the place." Meanwhile "All Aboard for Europe" mercilessly contrasts the travel brochure with the real experience of sailing to Europe. And he equally masterfully spoofs genres from the detective yarn to the ghost story to the compressed survey of great knowledge for the modern businessman.

A number of his best pieces deal not with the age then ending but with then-dawning modern life; "My Pink Suit" for instance seems more topical today than when he wrote it. The specific slang in "Studies in the Newer Culture" is now obsolete but the satire is evergreen. Still others cover timeless follies, like "French Politics for Beginners" or when, where and how to deploy various standard fishing anecdotes, including telling "The Story of the Fish that Was Lost" when returning with a sorry catch the largest of which "looks as if it had died of consumption."

In short, you will laugh aloud at Leacock. Not because you're Canadian. Because he's hilarious.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson