Thursday, September 24, 2015

Dead On the Grand Tour

Review: The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain (in the Delphi Complete Works of Mark Twain)

To clear a bad taste from my mouth (see Jacob's Ladder With Rungs Missing), my go-to method is to re-read a favorite. In this collection, I bypassed the familiar Mississippi novels, and went straight to the tale of 19th-century Americans abroad in Europe, Innocents Abroad.

In 1972 when I first read The Innocents Abroad, it was a paperback bought for a dime at a yard sale. We took turns, my spouse and I, reading it aloud on a long bus trip, in between extracts from two volumes of Will and Ariel Durant's The Story of Civilization. As a result, my memories of it are mingled with horror over the barbarism of Merovingian Franks and awe at the artistry of Asian civilizations.

Clearest in my recollection of Twain's Innocents is the reaction of the American couples to the historical sites and sights they were presented with in France, Italy and Spain. These raw newcomers to the historical grandeur of Europe were nevertheless accustomed to living "great men." In America, it was common that great works of engineering and art had been accomplished by someone currently living, someone with whom Twain could sit down in the beer-hall and stand to a round.

Imagine the dismay, and growing disgust, at the idea that every great accomplishment was from the past; that "glory days" could only be remotely behind one. Every artist, every builder, every great statesman they hear touted is deceased. Each statue celebrates an ex-personage. Eventually, Twain and his companions begin preempting the expected declaration. After waiting "as long as we can hold out, in fact," they ask their guides (each of whom Twain names "Ferguson"), "Is... is he dead?"

This is side-splittingly funny, especially when they make the same inquiry about an Egyptian mummy or an ancient rebel hung by his chin from the castle walls.

Twain's observations are spot-on, as always. It is not only the hapless Europeans he pinions, but also Old Travelers; tourists like themselves whose experience is just that hair broader that Twain's companions' and his own. These folks speak from the elevation of their knowledge to tell monstrous lies. There is the doctor, whose attempts to speak French are doomed by the lack of that tongue in the peasant he addresses. She turns out to be English.

Still, the travelers do get some thrills from their trip:
We recognized the brown old gothic pile (the Cathedral of Notre Dame) in a moment; it was like the pictures.

I feel much better now. Refreshed. I can tackle some writing of my own, so that a resounding "NO!" will be the proper answer to Twain's wry question, "Is... is he dead?"