Swifty, Tom. A Course in Nonsense: Your Pea-Green Guide to Nonsense Literature. Rotterdam: Brave New Books, 2015.
Tom Swifty’s book is exactly what it purports to be, a quick introduction to nonsense literature from ancient Greece to modern times.
As the American nonsense poet Dr. Seuss put it, ‘Oh, the thinks you can think!’
This book is a guide to such thinks. It is a reader’s guide with a simple premise: if you like the works of Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, you may also like these other poems, stories and plays. These pages will show you that there us more to the English school of nonsense than just Lear and Carroll, and that there are more schools of nonsense than just the English one (5).
Although it is presented as a “consumer’s guide” (12) to nonsense and pretends to have no pretense at presenting its own theory of nonsense the volume devotes the first three chapters to showing how nonsense is “a parody of sense” based on three main principles: futility, uselessness and excess.
These opening chapters are then followed by “A Brief History of Nonsense” from Lucian’s True History to the early Victorian age, among the most interesting finds (for me) in this chapter are a “novel within the novel” entitled Il Castello di Grimgothico, or Memoirs of Lady Hysterica Belamour. A Novel inserted in Eaton Stannerd Barrett’s parodistic The Heroine, or Adventures of a Fair Romance Reader (1813) (available at Project Gutenberg in a 1909 edition) and Something Concerning Nobody. Edited by Somebody (1814).
Full chapters are then devoted to Lear, Carroll, their imitators and finally one each for modern practitioners in England, America, Germany and France: these consist for the most part in short appreciations of several authors.
What I found particularly refreshing was the consistent refusal to find any sort of sense in nonsense: “We are so hopped up on sense that we have difficulty to just let nonsense be. Nonsense is our escape from the clichés of reality, so it seems a tad perverse to want to translate it all back into those terms” (77).
All in all a very useful book with only a major defect, it fails to provide a chapter on Italian nonsense: Burchiello is only mentioned in a bibliographic note, Basile, Campanile, Rodari, Toti Scialoja and Fosco Maraini – to name just a few – are completely ignored, alas. But after all, all countries probably have their own nonsense traditions and even if your name is Tom Swifty, you won’t be able to read it all.