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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Our Feudal Immigration Policy

Why should an accident of birth determine who benefits from citizenship?

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

A True Original

The acerbic wit of Samuel Marchbanks

Benjamin Errett

There’s never been a writer like Samuel Marchbanks, mainly because there never was a Samuel Marchbanks. The self-proclaimed Philosopher of Skunk’s Misery, head of a one-man splinter party, and mid-century diarist in the Peterborough Examiner was also a pseudonym of Robertson Davies. Not his alter ego — a term that “suggests some dreadful non-cholesterol cooking substance,” Marchbanks insisted — but rather his doppelgänger.

Davies had seen London and New York, and now he had an unobstructed and unrelenting view of Peterborough, just as the Cold War was heating up in places that weren’t rural Ontario. His response — and his first significant literary project — was Marchbanks. “Some important atomic bomb tests were held today,” one early entry reads, “but no consequences were observable in my part of the world.”

The Diary of Samuel Marchbanks and The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks were published in 1947 and 1949. These collected musings can be read as a sprawling attempt to answer two simple questions: How should a person be clever in Canada? And could one avoid becoming a victim of Tall Poppy Syndrome? The first step was creating an imaginary curmudgeon, one unique to the Canadian literary ecosystem. Because, as Marchbanks discovered, the best way to win over a distrustful audience is to trust them even less. “Canadians don’t like to be kidded or mimicked,” he noted, “though they are extremely fond of kidding and mimicking others.”

Marchbanks was once advised by an “amateur astrologer” that he should aspire to a brighter disposition. “I went about beaming benevolently on everyone I met, and was greeted with scowls and rebuffs by most of them,” he explained. “The plain fact is that most Canadians dislike and mistrust any great show of cheerfulness.” And so he leaned into the scowl, dabbling with pleasure in the macabre. “I write for a highly exclusive public, subtle and pernickety in its tastes.”

Upon encountering a loutish door-to-door salesman, Marchbanks “disembowelled him neatly with the bread-knife, and called the Sanitation Department to come and clear away the mess.” And when a busybody solemnly informed him of some town gossip, he pushed “the secret button which opened a trapdoor at his feet, and dejected him smartly into a pickle-barrel in the cellar.”

Was all of this supposed to be funny? Marchbanks resented the insinuation. After all, “what record of man’s life, shot through and through with toil and anguish, disappointment and shame, frustration and denial is ever funny?” Marchbanks also lampooned those who tried to teach funniness: “It would be nice to be unfailingly, perpetually, remorselessly funny, day in and day out, year in and year out until somebody murdered you, now wouldn’t it?”

Famously, of course, Canadians didn’t have a sense of humour. Like our military today, which buys refurbished castoffs from other nations, Marchbanks’s compatriots reupholstered old jokes from elsewhere. “Old, crippled jokes, worn out in the Barren Lands and the outermost stretches of the Antipodes come to Canada at last, sure that they will have a happy home here for at least a century,” Marchbanks writes. “We like a joke to go off in our faces, like an exploding cigar, and then we can laugh heartily and get back to glum platitudes again. This characteristic is particularly noticeable in Parliament.”

If we lack a sunny disposition, might we blame the lack of sunshine? Marchbanks saw the value in this universal Canadian complaint and wove meteorological grievance through his writing: “In June, July and August, Canadians may do without a fire, but September and May are not to be trusted. Is it any wonder then that we brood? Is it surprising that our incidence of insanity is so great that it is a shame and a scandal to our country?” That’s also why Canadian men must be forgiven for their paucity of charm, as “a man, to be attractive, must be free to give his whole time to it, and the Canadian male is so hounded by taxes and the rigours of our climate that he is lucky to be alive.”

The particular genius of Marchbanks is that he called out his countrymen on their lack of subtlety with elaborate subtlety. The fact that it worked proves Marchbanks wrong and Davies right. We did have quite a good sense of humour — if you knew how to get at it. “People who enjoy this book will want to give it to the right kind of other people,” read the perfectly guarded Saturday Night review of the first volume. “People to whom it is given should regard the gift as a bit of a compliment.” Just a bit, mind you.

Davies wasn’t making fun of Canadians; he was making fun for them, specifically for the delicate, punctilious kind. And the success of the Marchbanks character opened an avenue for much more of it: “I am widely read in Old Folks Homes, orphanages, asylums for alcoholics, and Refuges for Gentlewomen in Reduced Circumstances; in poorhouses, too, I am a general favourite.” And why’s that? “Because I am always compassionate toward the weak and lowly, and scornful toward the rich, the book-learned and the privileged. Years ago, when I was a mere lad, I discovered that the way to win the hearts of the lowly was to tell them that they were the salt of the earth; this is a lie, but they love it.” In admitting to deception, the doppelgänger spoke the truth.

Benjamin Errett wrote Elements of Wit: Mastering the Art of Being Interesting.

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