Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Mark Twain

The new autobiography of Mark Twain arrived today and it is a tomb - 736 pages with appendices, explanatory notes, indexes and the smallest, smallest of type. One-hundred and fifty pages are "preliminary manuscripts and dictations" which are Twain's early abortive attempts at memoir-writing which Twain dismissed as "random and spasmodic diaries" The actual autobiography does not begin until page 203 and goes on only until page 250. This is the first of three volumes with the other two being published in the next two years. One reviewer hoped the editors will get out of the way in the next two volumes and another felt all the pages of notes were "freshly fascinating".

The editors justify their Explanatory Notes by claiming "they attempt to point out which of [Twain's] statements are contradicted by historical evidence, providing a way to understand more fully how his memories of long-past events and experiences were affected by his imagination and the passage of time. Twain freed himself to say whatever he wanted about whomever he wanted by forbidding the complete and uncensored publication of his life story until 100 years after his death. The team of editors went through a mountain of manuscripts and handwritten notes to suss out what Twain wanted to include and how he wanted it to be structured.

The style of writing does not go chronologically but at the whim of wherever Twain decided to go at the moment. Newspaper clippings, fan letters and transcripts of old speeches are planted throughout the shuffled narrative. Even through all of this, the reviewers say Twain has the uncanny ability to speak across the hundred-year divide and make you feel you are at his beside. They say Twain's writing here is electric, alternately moving and hilarious. He couldn't write a ho-hum sentence.

Don't be frightened by the size of this book - start at page 203 if necessary and get out the magnifying glass.


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