February 2011

Arts & Letters

Parallel lives

By Peter Robb
Mark Twain and his Autobiography: Volume 1

A big book by Mark Twain became a bestseller in the US following its publication last November, a hundred years after its author’s death. It was Autobiography of Mark Twain: The Complete and Authoritative Edition, Volume 1 (University of California Press, 760pp; $70.00), a handsome book with a wonderful portrait photo of Twain on the jacket. Lovers of Twain’s elastic, laid-back, pungent, humorous and sometimes savage prose might have been surprised to find the book pretty well unreadable.

Inside, the print was small and the lines of it long. The book was square, too big to hold; its shape and heft made it flop shut during reading. One-third of the 750 pages were actual autobiography. This followed an introduction from the Mark Twain Project and preliminary materials, and were themselves followed by explanatory notes and appendices as long as the text itself. The Project’s philological rigour cruelly exposed the thinness of the material, a string of inconsequential anecdotes from the very end of Twain’s life. The autobiography was not a finished book at all, but a compilation of published and unpublished fragments of an old man’s – mostly dictated – recollection.

A reader who struggled through the thicket of outlying material might have found Twain’s own part of the book no less desolating. Twain’s brisk voice is tinged in his autobiography with rancour, self-congratulation and self-commiseration – it’s not exactly King Lear but a bit too close to the early Lear for comfort. The worst of it is the absence of point. Unlike Lear, Twain is not repudiated, humiliated, cast out, and he attains no terrible self-knowledge – at least not in this volume. The real tragedy is it reads like a celebrity memoir, at times even like a politician’s.

This becomes most painful when Twain moves – as he constantly does here, in a rejection of chronology and continuity, which might have been exciting – from accounts of his present life as a prominent person of the Gilded Age to recollections of his earliest life. Farms of his childhood, his father’s financial disasters, small-town life, an apparently untroubled sense that slave labour was a natural part of the way things were, his own working youth on the river, his younger brother’s death on a riverboat: the episodes revisited here with an old man’s punctilious care for detail were the material that had once filled his imaginative life as a writer.

The incidents of a tightly wound life come spooling out on the floor where they accumulate around his feet in loquacious loops. There is a sense of art being unmade. The undirected garrulousness reminds you that young Mark Twain had been a professional entertainer who knew he had to work for attention and laughs. He knew how to eliminate redundancy, however casual his voice might have sounded: he knew how to take his listeners or his readers with him, and where he wanted them to go. It’s the difference between a seemingly effortless and inevitable narrative art and the artless pleasure of droning on while someone else takes it all down. A lot of Autobiography is diverting enough, as it meanders through details of professional and family history, putting a few things right and settling a few scores on the way. But after a while the reader starts to feel trapped – even a reader who wants to know the life behind the art.

The ease of merely speaking, not to an audience but a lone stenographer, is fatal. Henry James was falling into the same looseness at the same time on the other side of the Atlantic, dictating his last novels in impenetrably cloudy prose. But at least they were novels. At least James knew where he was going. A long time before he died, with patience and cunning, the man born Sam Clemens had set about creating the Mark Twain persona on display in Autobiography – the white-suited public figure – and thus he shaped his own posthumous legend as an American icon. The dictated memoirs and their hundred-year embargo were part of the plan. Twain was a funny plain-speaker and a lot easier for Americans to be comfortable with than difficult, strange and elusive writers such as Herman Melville, Henry James or Walt Whitman. A hundred years on, it’s cruelly obvious that he ended embalmed in his self-created image.

Twain had his reasons for working so hard at being grand yet approachable, and they weren’t only to do with a poor Southerner’s rise in East Coast society. His novel Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was a bleaker and more wonderful work than many of its ardent American admirers liked to recognise. Some people hated that book from the start and others still do, but Twain’s story of the boy and the slave on the Mississippi River was so gripping and so funny it made most readers forget how unforgiving and even terrible the book’s image of American society was. The Mark Twain persona was designed to keep them forgetful about this other side of his exquisitely American book.


In the last part of the nineteenth century, there were three incomparable writers of stories. (Not only three: this was the great age of the story and novella.) The three in question lived at the same time on three different continents and wrote in three different languages. Mark Twain was the eldest, and his best work came from his hard early life on the Mississippi. The Brazilian Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis was born four years after Twain in Rio de Janeiro, the grandson of a black slave and son of a house painter and a laundrywoman. Anton Chekhov was the son of a failed grocer and grandson of a fierce serf who had bought his family’s freedom. He was more than 20 years younger than Twain and Machado but died before both.

Born in vast and only partly settled countries on the periphery of the western world, the three grew up in seething, restless societies shadowed by genocide, slavery and serfdom – countries of social mobility, economic energy and cultural hunger. They all got their start writing comic fillers for a popular press that was sprouting everywhere, enabled by industrial economies of scale and spreading literacy. Twain and Machado both worked for printers as boys and got their start that way, writing to order the material they set in type. Chekhov, driven by need and tirelessly prolific, supported parents and siblings and got through medical school on the earnings he made from his hundreds of published comic sketches.

All three writers stayed close to their origins even as they deepened as artists. None lost his empathy for the people of his poor beginnings or that sense of cruelty and futility that veined the comedy. Each kept his ear for plain speech and the social drama freighting it, his way of catching words on the wing. Chekhov’s fiction finally metamorphosed into dramas of unmediated words and actions, as the writer slowly died and the art lived in his plays. All three kept their early sense of the fragmentary and the transient, and all liked to work in short and disconcerting forms.

In his double life as writer and physician, Chekhov steered a private course between reaction and revolution, between medical bureaucracy and government censors. He visited the prison island of Sakhalin in Russia’s far east and wrote a carefully researched book against the penal regime. In Rio the black man Machado led another outer life, as a distinguished Brazilian bureaucrat, an honorary white assimilated to the social elite whose delusions and hypocrisies he was white-anting in perfidiously subtle fictions that the elite itself adored. Twain ran his parallel careers as public raconteur and Yankee grandee, the roles that eventually imprisoned him.

Late in life, chafing at the constrictions of his chosen persona, Twain wrote sharp things about imperialism in general and the new American imperialism in particular, and about the mad religious underpinnings of American values. Chekhov battled for medical reform. Machado, more dangerously exposed in a society still running on slave labour when he was almost 50, played his cards closer to his chest and subverted from within. Sometimes he showed a flash of claw on matters of slavery or repression.

Both Machado and Chekhov internalised the cruelties and contradictions of their countries in the late nineteenth century in wonderfully comic and bitter stories of delusion, frustration and madness. In an early novella, A Dreary Story, Chekhov showed the phases of a medical professor’s realisation, at the end of his life, of the futility of his existence. In the later novella An Anonymous Story, he showed a middle-aged revolutionary, planted as a spy in a household of the regime, being drained of his life’s convictions. Of Machado’s three lighthearted masterpiece short novels, Brás Cubas was a dead man’s sardonic review of his wasted life, the incomparable Dom Casmurro an idyll of adolescent eroticism transmuting imperceptibly into adult jealousy and betrayal, and Quincas Borba a story of sanity lost among the corrupt and treacherous Rio elite.

In the anglophone world, Machado remains the great unknown of the three amazing contemporaries. But the Brazilian’s three finest novels have been out for a few years now in excellent translations by Gregory Rabassa and John Gledson, along with a fourth called Esau and Jacob. (Like Twain, Machado was fascinated by twins, doubles and contrasts.) Twain’s humour was more robust and his storytelling less subtle than Chekhov’s or Machado’s. He belonged to a knockabout culture and it showed. Henry James could hardly bring himself to mention Twain’s name. But Twain too was aware – in a way James wasn’t – that social condition could be a prison. Toward the end he realised he was caught himself, as he became the figure now shown trapped in the official edition of Autobiography. Long before this, he knew how slavery had poisoned the body politic for the first 30 years of his life. When he was aged almost 50, nearly 20 years after the civil war had been won and the slaves freed, he wrote Huckleberry Finn, his one transcendent masterpiece, the book that put him alongside Chekhov and Machado, and it turned on the human realities of slavery.

Working a felicitous no-man’s-land between conscious intent and happy accident, Twain had prepared his ground perfectly. He had written a book called The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: a funny, sharp small-town eclogue, which played on the uncertain distinction between a book for boys and a book about boys. It milked Americans’ vein of wonder at their own lost innocence and essential goodness at a time when people were feeling, ten years after the civil war, how much America had changed.

Following eight years later, Huckleberry Finn was Tom Sawyer’s sequel. Huck was one of Tom’s small-town friends. Unlike Tom, a small-town boy already in part assimilated to the status quo, Huck was an outsider, a poor white, son of a derelict drunk, an orphan child on the brink of manhood. And he told his own story. Like Chekhov and Machado, Twain made his greatest art in the first person. Huck’s voice was like no other, and in it Twain uttered a heartbreaking song of America.

The impersonal force of the mighty Mississippi carried the story along, with the runaway boy and the escaping slave Jim floating down it on their raft. The river defined the lives and deaths of the people they met. In the vast presence of nature, the clarity and directness of Huck’s adolescent voice – small and frank and imperfectly articulate – had an authority and a truthfulness that the other settler voices lacked. Huck’s wry and practical way of seeing things gave his story a vast and liberating comedy.

Chekhov’s first major novella, The Steppe, which came out four years after Huckleberry Finn, recounted a young boy’s learning journey into the vast spaces of Russia. It was a passive thing by comparison. The captivating voice of Twain’s boy was missing and so was the dynamism and humour in the growth of Huck’s moral understanding. “It was 15 minutes before I could work myself up to go and humble myself to a nigger – but I done it, and I warn’t ever sorry for it afterwards, neither.” The drama of Huck’s later decision to help free Jim was that it came from a boy who believed he would be damned forever for his wicked act.

Ernest Hemingway, who saw in the book’s last part a terrible falling off – he insisted, “the rest is only cheating” – missed Twain’s implacable point. Tom Sawyer’s small-town pranks bookended the story of Huck and Jim’s flight. Tom’s last manipulative games forced Huck back to the infantile and brutal social world he’d left, the spuriously placid world of Phelps’s farm: “all still and Sunday-like, and hot and sunshiny – the hands was gone to the fields; and there was them kind of faint dronings of bugs and flies in the air that makes it seem so lonesome and like everybody’s dead and gone … as a general thing it makes a body wish he was dead, too, and done with it all.”

For Huck the story’s closing-in was fatal: “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me and I can’t stand it. I been there before.” The image that matches these lines is the boy’s face in the last frame of François Truffaut’s film The 400 Blows (1959) – frozen in close-up as he escapes the reformatory.


Huck’s voice was heard again 90 years later in a novel published in Budapest in 1975, which then took another 30 to reach an anglophone audience. This, too, was spare and deeply meditated autobiographical novel about a boy of 14, told in the first person in an adolescent’s stripped-down language. The style of the later voice was more formal, as you might expect from a middle-class Jewish boy from Budapest in the 1940s. This, too, was a story of entrapment, flight, near death and return, in this case through Auschwitz and Buchenwald and back to Budapest. This journey was also made by a boy setting out from a false and oppressive present and growing his own moral sense in unpromising places. He, too, found a mentor, in Auschwitz – a Jim who saved his life – in the worker Bandi Citrom. And, like Huck’s, this journey arrived at a terrible moment of choice, not for the boy but for the doctor, who used a moment of confusion to save the boy at the expense of another boy who knew he was being sent to die. It’s over in a few lines.

Like Huck’s, the Jewish boy Gyuri’s journey returns to the world of its beginning, in which everything has changed and everything is hideously the same. Only the boy is now a man. Fatelessness by Imre Kertész is a book that makes its time unforgettable, as Huck Finn did its own 90 years before.

Peter Robb
Peter Robb is the author of Midnight in Sicily, which won the Victorian Premier's Literary Award for non-fiction and was named a New York Times Notable Book. His other books include A Death in Brazil (the Age Non-Fiction Book of the Year in 2004) and Street Fight in Naples.

Mark Twain at home in New Hampshire, 1906. The writer penned the annotation as part of a series of narrative portraits. © Bettmann / Corbis
Cover: February 2011

February 2011

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