26. Literary Lapses – Stephen Leacock
The post title looks like I’ve broken my Lentern fast, doesn’t it? Well, I haven’t, I can assure you. Rather, it’s another book in my 50 Books You Must Read etc. etc. In fact, it’s one of the ones which came to my mind first when thinking about compiling this list two years ago, but somehow he hasn’t appeared until now. As the list is in no particular order, this is no indictment of Mr. Leacock…
I don’t know how well known Stephen Leacock is nowadays. It was my Aunt Jacq who first pointed me in his direction (though I had unwittingly already read something by him in my indispensable Modern Humour (1940) which was my introduction to EM Delafield) – I suspect, if anybody has heard of him, it will be any Canadian readers of Stuck-in-a-Book, for Canadian Leacock was. Any Canadians out there? According to Wikipedia, it was said in 1911 that more people had heard of Stephen Leacock than had heard of Canada.
Intrigued? Essentially, Stephen Leacock is a humorist par excellence. If I utter his name in the same breath as PG Wodehouse, it is not because their styles are all that similar (though both make fantastic use of stylistic exaggeration) but because Leacock is the only writer I would dare hold up to Wodehouse. Two comic genii. Most of Leacock’s works are little sketches or stories, though there is the odd longer narrative – his speciality is the slightly absurd, usually well-to-do, experiencing the odd and the mundane, finding humour and absurdity in both. Difficult, as always, to pinpoint why I love him so much – little tricks of style bound to make you laugh without realising quite why.
Jacq introduced me to Stephen Leacock back in 2002 or 2003, when I didn’t have such a backlist of books to be read – consequently I ‘did an Elaine’ (a reference to Elaine from RandomJottings!) and read lots and lots of his in one fell swoop. My choice of Literary Lapses (1910) is perhaps arbitrary, but it was the first one I read and remains my favourite. What’s more, there are lots available through Amazon. It’s even all online at this link, if you wish to read it that way. I’ll leave you with a taster, the little tale ‘Borrowing a Match’:
You might think that borrowing a match upon the street
is a simple thing. But any man who has ever tried it will
assure you that it is not, and will be prepared to swear
to the truth of my experience of the other evening.
I was standing on the corner of the street with a cigar
that I wanted to light. I had no match. I waited till a
decent, ordinary-looking man came along. Then I said:
“Excuse me, sir, but could you oblige me with the loan
of a match?”
“A match?” he said, “why certainly.” Then he unbuttoned
his overcoat and put his hand in the pocket of his
waistcoat. “I know I have one,” he went on, “and I’d
almost swear it’s in the bottom pocket–or, hold on,
though, I guess it may be in the top–just wait till I
put these parcels down on the sidewalk.”
“Oh, don’t trouble,” I said, “it’s really of no
“Oh, it’s no trouble, I’ll have it in a minute; I know
there must be one in here somewhere”–he was digging
his fingers into his pockets as he spoke–“but you see
this isn’t the waistcoat I generally…”
I saw that the man was getting excited about it. “Well,
never mind,” I protested; “if that isn’t the waistcoat
that you generally–why, it doesn’t matter.”
“Hold on, now, hold on!” the man said, “I’ve got one of
the cursed things in here somewhere. I guess it must be
in with my watch. No, it’s not there either. Wait till
I try my coat. If that confounded tailor only knew enough
to make a pocket so that a man could get at it!”
He was getting pretty well worked up now. He had thrown
down his walking-stick and was plunging at his pockets
with his teeth set. “It’s that cursed young boy of mine,”
he hissed; “this comes of his fooling in my pockets. By
Gad! perhaps I won’t warm him up when I get home. Say,
I’ll bet that it’s in my hip-pocket. You just hold up
the tail of my overcoat a second till I…”
“No, no,” I protested again, “please don’t take all this
trouble, it really doesn’t matter. I’m sure you needn’t
take off your overcoat, and oh, pray don’t throw away
your letters and things in the snow like that, and tear
out your pockets by the roots! Please, please don’t
trample over your overcoat and put your feet through the
parcels. I do hate to hear you swearing at your little
boy, with that peculiar whine in your voice. Don’t–please
don’t tear your clothes so savagely.”
Suddenly the man gave a grunt of exultation, and drew
his hand up from inside the lining of his coat.
“I’ve got it,” he cried. “Here you are!” Then he brought
it out under the light.
It was a toothpick.
Yielding to the impulse of the moment I pushed him under
the wheels of a trolley-car, and ran.