Thursday, May 26, 2011

33. Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich by Stephen Leacock

Several years ago at my grandfather's funeral, I was admonished by a friend of the family's for not knowing who Stephen Leacock was. "He's Canada's greatest humourist!" And these were French-Canadians telling me this! So I've had his name in the back of my mind for a while now and was happy to put down a dollar for this slim volume, to at least get an introduction to his work and style.

I didn't realize quite how far in the past he is from and was suprised to see that this book was written in 1914. It is a fictional portrait of a small northeastern American city (though I later read that many think it was modelled after Montreal). It isn't a single narrative, but rather a series of loosely connected vignettes, each one poking satirical fun at the hypocrisy of the ruling classes. This isn't laugh out loud funny, but it is quite clever. There is lots of great dialogue with the wealthy and powerful speaking with complete earnestness about how they support the workers revolution, all the while lambasting the waiter for daring to bring the wine slightly off-temperature. The central theme of the book is that capital is all powerful, but must be guised in the rhetoric of social and spiritual welfare. In that, it certainly seems relevant today and reminds me that the struggle between private and public wealth is an old one indeed.

I was a bit disappointed that this book was not explicitly Canadian, but learned that he deliberately made that choice to expand his audience and that much of his other work, including the classic Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, does take place in Canada. I shall keep my eyes open for that one for sure.


Brian Busby said...

I prefer Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich precisely because it is set in Montreal - or at least a place modelled on the city. A portrait of a place that has passed out of living memory, populated by those who are no longer with us (Rev Dr McTeague, for example, is Rev James Barclay, father of Marian Scott), it provides a glimpse of Montreal the powerful - a city that dominated the dominion. But the thing I like most about the book is the fact that Leacock, not exactly a progressive, is poking fun at the pretensions, foibles and follies of the rich. All good fun!

OlmanFeelyus said...

Yeah, I just read that Leacock was a lifetime conservative (big and little c) and was against "non anglo-saxon immigration" and giving women the vote! I was quite surprised after reading what seemed like a thorough skewering of capitalism in general. I know of neither James Barclay or his daughter, but I will look them up and I thank you for the reference. And I thank you for the comment!