Sunday 26 April 2009

Overworked and in frail health - trying to learn German

No, I'm not trying to learn German. And my husband, who speaks German as a second language, is quite robust, thank you. In fact, the title of this post is a partial quotation from a funny piece called "Frank Fuller and My First New York Lecture" (more below), published in a new collection called Who is Mark Twain?. This book was authored by - you guessed it - Mark Twain himself.

This is a collection of previously unpublished pieces Twain wrote but then decided against trying to place anywhere. As such, it's a motley collection of fiction, memoir, and editorial (to name just a few of the genres represented), all presented in bite-sized pieces. In fact, some of the entries aren't even finished and it's interesting to see how Twain sometimes began something, got distracted, and ultimately gave up - but not enough not to destroy it.

In his introduction, the editor of this book, Robert H. Hirst, notes that:
It is important to say that these works are not being offered here as a group of overlooked masterpieces that will somehow begin to compete with Mark Twain's most famous work. In large part, their interest lies elsewhere - in what they show us about how Mark Twain worked as a writer. But it would also be a mistake to assume that they were left unpublished because he thought they fell short of his usual standard. (xiii)
Hirst goes on to assert that "Most of them [the pieces included in this anthology] are quite capable of standing on their own merits" (xxiii). Generally, I agree with what Hirst is going for, i.e., that the interest here may be primarily archaeological, but prepare yourself for some hearty belly laughs and knee slapping (or cheek-rending, as appropriate, e.g., when reading "Telegraph Dog").

I personally enjoyed Who is Mark Twain? most for its signature Twainian hilarity, which while much less frequent than in his published works (such as "Hunting the Deceitful Turkey", which is probably one of the best short stories ever written), was still firmly present. Also, his writing is constantly impeccable and a pleasure to read for its own sake even if, I admit, I didn't find the subject matter of "On Postage Rates on Authors' Manuscript", for example, to be the most compelling.

My favourite piece was, by far, "Frank Fuller and My First New York Lecture." Sending up 19th-century celebrity worship (apparently not much has changed!), Twain begins this meta-lecture (as it was designed to be a lecture about a fictitious lecture he was supposed already to have delivered) by providing a list of all the famous people who were invited to said first lecture but who couldn't come:
Gen. Logan wanted to come but was not well and could not sleep where there was noise.

Admiral Farragut - just at that time a child was born to - not to him, and I don't remember now who it was born to, and now I come to think, I believe it was not born that year - but anyway he couldn't come.[...]

P. of Wales...tried to send regrets but was overcome by his feelings.[...]

The present Kaiser (about 3 yrs old) sent regrets - was overworked and frail in health - trying to learn German. (6)
I'm glad I read this, and if I didn't love every minute of it, it did remind me why I've always loved Twain. And why I should really get back to him, especially A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, which to my readerly detriment I haven't yet read.

There's a website for the book here AND The New Yorker is offering a free download of John Lithgow reading the book, for all you book listeners out there.

Also, I really like the cover and I think it may single-handedly bring the roguish mustache + top hat combination back into fashion.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your comments on the Mark Twain collection. After decades of neglect I am trying to work my way through some of his lesser-known works. For example, the autobiography:!

Our Ex Libris book group read Innocents Abroad together and that got me started.

I like your blog very much.