Saturday, June 2, 2012

Book Review: A Tramp Abroad, by Mark Twain (1880)

Interesting sequel to The Innocents Abroad, but not one of Mark Twain's best.  Wait, was this supposed to be a sequel?  It sort of felt like one to me.  There are parts of this book that I love to read, parts that make me laugh.  But also several parts that are tedious.

The premise is Mark Twain, about a decade or so after The Innocents Abroad, decides to return to Europe.  He's going to hike this time.  And he makes a noble effort at it, but in the end we don't really care how he gets about.

When you start reading this book, get ready to be bored for the first few chapters.  For some reason, early in the book he spends a great deal of time in Heidelberg, or at least talking about Heidelberg.  He talks about its students, and their fencing leagues, and so on.  You get bored of this really quick.  But about that time he's just getting warmed up.  He tells you in vivid detail all about their different corps, and all about their duels, and on and on.

As he moves across the map, you will find a few things here and there that are actually pretty funny, others that are somewhat interesting.  Mark Twain can talk about an ant walking along the ground for pages, and it can be really humorous.  But then he rambles on about some sunset or other and you wander what the heck he was thinking.

This book does a lot of rambling.  But I think I could edit it down to a fairly good volume.  If I were to recreate this book today it would be half its current size.

After reading this and Innocents Abroad a few times, I've come to the conclusion that this book's biggest flaw is Mark Twain is no longer an "innocent abroad".  He is familiar enough with European customs and foreign ways that he no longer writes from a purely American point of view.  Instead of astonishing us with the details that would astonish us, he relates dry facts and stories that don't really astonish us at all.

To start with, all of those legends he tells us, they should have been in an appendix.  Instead, he stops what he's doing and plunges into some God-awful tale about a dragon and a knight with no happy ending at all.  I don't know why he does it, but it happens quite a few times.

One of Mark Twain's finest skills is exaggeration that feels true.  But there are places here where he tells stories that are obviously just stories.  In all his other travel logs, he tells us these tales that may or may not be true, but could be true.  But in A Tramp Abroad, he departs from that formula.  The story of the Ascent of the Riffelberg is the perfect example.  That story is hilarious!  We all loved it.  But it's so obviously fake that we scratch our heads over his decision to insert it as part of this book.

The Ascent of the Riffelberg should have been either a stand-alone story, or placed in some other format apart from a seemingly true account of his travels.  Unfortunately, it brings the surrounding story to an implausibility and gives the book a chaotic feeling.  That's especially true when you see that right in the middle of that story, he inserts another story that actually is true.  The tale of the "grandson" who is so arrogant and claims to be a "man of the world".  That little part fits in well with the rest of the book, but he stuck it right in the middle of a fake story.

That's why I say this book could have benefited from a good editor.  Perhaps when an author gets that famous, editors are too afraid or intimidated to suggest changes.  Actually, the answer to why he wrote it this way is probably out there if I wanted to google it, but I'm just way too lazy.

In a way, this book felt like an apology for his first book.  And he actually contradicted things he said in his first book.
We visited the picture-galleries and the other regulation "sights" of Milan—not because I wanted to write about them again, but to see if I had learned anything in twelve years...I found I had learned one thing. When I wrote about the Old Masters before, I said the copies were better than the originals. That was a mistake of large dimensions. The Old Masters were still unpleasing to me, but they were truly divine contrasted with the copies.
Whatever you do, don't contradict what made you famous before!  I don't know, I can't shake the feeling he just wanted to be accepted by the people who shunned his original statements.  So one of his themes in this book is a playful idea that he is an artist, and comes up with these terrible, humorous paintings.  But it's a good theme and works well.  If you read a good copy of this book it will have the original sketches.

There is playful banter with his traveling companion reminiscent of his first book.  One of the funniest stories is the two of them attempting to watch an alpine sunrise.  A hike that normally takes a few hours ends up taking them days.  Each morning they manage to miss the sunrise, each blaming the other for oversleeping or whatever.  Unfortunately, even that story is marred by that 19th century flowery descriptive nonsense.  If they could just edit that out, I'd appreciate it.  Because the rest of it makes me laugh out loud.  They're at a hotel on the summit, they jump out of bed, throw on a blanket, and run outside!

But then we get this humongous boring bunch or words thrown at us.

(skip this, I only put it here as an example of boring writing)
In a moment we were deeply absorbed in the marvel before us, and dead to everything else. The great cloud-barred disk of the sun stood just above a limitless expanse of tossing white-caps—so to speak—a billowy chaos of massy mountain domes and peaks draped in imperishable snow, and flooded with an opaline glory of changing and dissolving splendors, while through rifts in a black cloud-bank above the sun, radiating lances of diamond dust shot to the zenith. The cloven valleys of the lower world swam in a tinted mist which veiled the ruggedness of their crags and ribs and ragged forests, and turned all the forbidding region into a soft and rich and sensuous paradise.
"Radiating lances of diamond dust shot to the zenith"?  Are you kidding me?  Stop doing that!  Stop writing that kind of stuff.  He didn't put that in Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn.  Why does he feel the need to put it in his travel memoirs?  Sheesh.

In fact, he seems to have two styles of writing and he puts them side by side.  Throughout this and other books we can see those competing styles.  One second he's writing for the average reader's entertainment, and the next he's writing for some ivory-towered sir-snoots-alot who demands that diamond dust shoot to the zenith.

And to prove it to you, the very next paragraph he gives us this gem.
Presently Harris exclaimed: 
"Why—nation, it's going down!"
Perfectly true. We had missed the morning hornblow, and slept all day. This was stupefying. 
Harris said: 
"Look here, the sun isn't the spectacle—it's us—stacked up here on top of this gallows, in these idiotic blankets, and two hundred and fifty well-dressed men and women down here gawking up at us and not caring a straw whether the sun rises or sets, as long as they've got such a ridiculous spectacle as this to set down in their memorandum-books. They seem to be laughing their ribs loose, and there's one girl there that appears to be going all to pieces. I never saw such a man as you before. I think you are the very last possibility in the way of an ass." 
"What have I done?" I answered, with heat. 
"What have you done? You've got up at half past seven o'clock in the evening to see the sun rise, that's what you've done." 
"And have you done any better, I'd like to know? I've always used to get up with the lark, till I came under the petrifying influence of your turgid intellect." 
"You used to get up with the lark—Oh, no doubt—you'll get up with the hangman one of these days. But you ought to be ashamed to be jawing here like this, in a red blanket, on a forty-foot scaffold on top of the Alps. And no end of people down here to boot; this isn't any place for an exhibition of temper."
And it goes on.  That is funny.  That is entertaining.  That is why we love Mark Twain, not that other tedious stuff.  Maybe back in the day, people like all that flowery fluff.  But something tells me he didn't gain popularity by following the crowd.  It was his ability to stand out that gave him a name.

At one point early in the book, Mark Twain decides to get on a raft and float down a river.  Bravo!  There's got to be some humor in this.  But he decides to stop everything and tell us some boring old legends that should have been put in the appendix.  If you can just read the rafting part and skip the legends you won't be disappointed.  Mark Twain helps out by steering the raft until...
...but perceiving, presently, that I really was going to shoot the bridge itself instead of the archway under it, I judiciously stepped ashore. The next moment I had my long-coveted desire: I saw a raft wrecked. It hit the pier in the center and went all to smash and scatteration like a box of matches struck by lightning. 
I was the only one of our party who saw this grand sight; the others were attitudinizing, for the benefit of the long rank of young ladies who were promenading on the bank, and so they lost it. But I helped to fish them out of the river, down below the bridge, and then described it to them as well as I could. 
They were not interested, though. They said they were wet and felt ridiculous and did not care anything for descriptions of scenery. The young ladies, and other people, crowded around and showed a great deal of sympathy, but that did not help matters; for my friends said they did not want sympathy, they wanted a back alley and solitude.
Even writing this, I chuckle to myself.  It's the kind of writing that made Mark Twain famous.  It's who he is.

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