06 February 2017

Professor Leacock Sets the Stage

Behind the Beyond
     and Other Contributions to Human Knowledge
Stephen Leacock
Toronto: Bell & Cockburn, 1913

Early Leacock is the best Leacock, and this one is very early indeed. His fourth book of humour in as many years, it falls between his finest, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town and Arcadian Adventures of the Idle Rich, and establishes a format repeated in many of the collections that followed: a relatively long opening piece, followed by gatherings of shorter writings.

The long piece here, "Behind the Beyond", takes the form of a running commentary on an evening at the theatre. The drama performed – untitled – is of Leacock's own imagination: Sir John Trevor, MP, is a man with much responsibility, troubled by serious matters in the House of Commons. A quarter-century his junior, his wife is never so concerned and, as soon becomes apparent, has found escape in the arms of Sir John's ineffectual secretary, young Jack Harding:
"Do you remember, Jack, when first you came, in Italy, that night, at Amalfi, when we sat on the piazza of the palazzo?"
     She is looking rapturously into his face.
     Mr. Harding says that he does.
     "And that day at Fiesole among the orange trees, and at Pisa and the Capello de Terisa and the Mona Lisa. Oh, Jack, take me away from all this; take me to the Riviera among the contadini, where we can stand together with my head on your shoulder just as we did in the Duomo at Milano, or on the piaggia at Verona. Take me to Corfu, to the Cappo Santo, to Civita Vecchia, to Para Noia, anywhere —"
     Mr. Harding, smothered with her kisses, says, "My dearest, I will, I will."
     Any man in the audience would do as much. They'd take her to Honolulu.
Leacock's is a "problem play". The term is no longer used, but the situation at the heart of it all will be familiar to today's reader. These eyes have seen something of it in Edith Wharton, Henry James and select episodes of The Edge of Night from my childhood.

The Edge of Night is no more, and humour ages poorly. Not everything in Behind the Beyond works today. "With the Photographer", is not so much funny as it is an interesting glimpse at a time gone by:
The photographer rolled a machine into the middle of the room and crawled into it from behind.
     He was only in a second – just time enough for one look at me – and then he was out again, tearing at the cotton sheet and the window panes with a hooked stick, apparently frantic for light and air.
     Then he crawled back into the machine again and drew a little black cloth over himself. This time he was very quiet in there. I knew that he was praying and I kept still.
     When the photographer came out at last, he looked very grave and shook his head.
     "The face is quite wrong," he said.
     "I know," I answered quietly, "I have always known it."
That said, the five pieces collected under the title "Parisian Pastimes" seem barely to have aged at all. Here's Leacock on the French child:
The child, I was saying, wears about two hundred dollars worth of visible clothing upon it; and I believe that if you were to take it up by its ten-dollar slipper and hold it upside down, you would see about fifty dollars more. The French child has been converted into an elaborately dressed doll. It is altogether a thing of show, an appendage of its fashionably dressed mother, with frock and parasol to match. It is no longer a child, but a living toy or plaything.
     Even on these terms the child is not a success. It has a rival who is rapidly beating it off the ground. This is the Parisian dog. As an implement of fashion, as a set-off to the fair sex, as the recipient of ecstatic kisses and ravishing hugs, the Parisian dog can give the child forty points in a hundred and win out. It can dress better, look more intelligent, behave better, bark better – in fact, the child is simply not in it.
The final piece, "Homer and Humbug – An Academic Suggestion", should be considered one of Leacock's greatest hits. I don't often laugh when reading – Fran Leibowitz, who I think is funnier than just about anyone, leaves me silent – but I did at this:
An ancient friend of mine, a clergyman, tells me that in Hesiod he finds a peculiar grace that he doesn't find elsewhere. He's a liar. That's all. Another man, in politics and in the legislature, tells me that every night before going to bed he reads over a page or two of Thucydides to keep his mind fresh. Either he never goes to bed or he's a liar. Doubly so: no one could read Greek at that frantic rate: and anyway his mind isn't fresh. How could it be? he's in the legislature. I don't object to this man talking freely of the classics, but he ought to keep it for the voters. My own opinion is that before he goes to bed he takes whisky: why call it Thucydides?
Why indeed?

I first read Behind the Beyond on the plane that carried me from my Montreal home to a new one in Vancouver. This was in the mid-nineties. I didn't read Leacock again until late last spring, when I picked up The Hohenzollerns in America. I resolved then and there to never let another year go by without Leacock. I'm sure I'll read him again before the year is up. These dark, dark days I appreciate him more than ever.

Fran Leibowitz, too.

Preferred over Hesiod and Thucydides.

Note: After writing this piece, I read Silver Donald Cameron's Introduction to my old New Canadian Library edition only to find that he'd made a couple of the very same observations.

What can I say?

Great minds think alike.

Fools seldom differ.

Trivia: In 1932, Gowans and Gray published a stage adaptation of "Behind the Beyond" by V.C. Clinton-Braddeley. I include an image of same, along this link to the booksellers, in the hope that some librarian somewhere will consider purchase. As it stands, just three Canadian libraries hold copies; Library and Archives Canada does not.

Leacock biographer Ralph L. Currie informs that the BBC broadcast a televised performance in 1937!

Object: A very attractive hardcover with crimson boards and gold embossing. The print is large. Though the text doesn't amount to 200 pages, thick paper provides bulk, as do the decorations and sixteen plates featuring illustrations by A.H. Fish. My jacketless copy, a first Canadian edition, was purchased in 1989 at the annual McGill Book Fair, a hop, skip and a jump away from the university's Leacock Building. Price: $2.00.

It looks to have once been a gift purchased from Quebec City bookseller H.F. Kimball.

Access: Our public libraries fail entirely. How can that be? As might be expected, the academic libraries come through... but not that of McGill University. How can that be?

Behind the Beyond did well in its day with editions in England and the United States enjoying several printings. In Canada, S.B. Gundy took over after Bell & Cockburn went bankrupt. The book joined the New Canadian Library in 1969, only to fall in the post-Ross purge of the 'eighties. It has been out of print ever since. Happily, it can be read here - gratis - courtesy of the Internet archive.

People preferring paper – I'm one – will be happy to learn that the used copies listed online are cheap.  Prices range from US$2.00 (a fourth printing of the NCL edition) to US$350 (a 1917 American reprint inscribed by the author). The latter is preferred, of course, but who has that kind of money?

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