Thursday, January 3, 2013

Book Review- The Autobiography of Mark Twain - By Mark Twain withAlbert B. Paine

A charmed life of a charming personality. The book is written in a very, should I say, extraordinary style, moving to and fro between different life stages of the genius author's life. Not having read Mark Twain, great creater of unforgettable characters like Huck Finns and Tom Sawyer, not well at least, except under the rare occasions when my academic progress depended on reading The Tale of Two Cities, and a televised adaptation from my childhood days with only memories of funny hairstyles staying with me.

I picked this book wish a sense of trepidation, Mark Twain, or Samuel Clemens' stature being some sort of nobleman of highest order in the world of authors, a high royalty in the royal court of literature. Notwithstanding his excellent repute as world's leading humorist, I found it hard to pick the book and run through it without a sense of awe and an explicable fear of not being able to raise my intelligence to the level required to comprehend and appreciate the humor of the great writer, and thereby exposed to my own blatant stupidity.

But I did pick the book up, The Autobiography of Mark Twain, his own life in the illuminating words of the master, splendid enough to lighten the darkest of the nights, supplemented by historic inputs from Albert B. Paine, which towards the end of the book, amply demonstrates why he was bestowed with the coveted Pulitzer, with his beautiful and elegant prose rounding off the magnificent book.

Must confess, troubled by my own pathetically poor writing style, I picked this book up to be able to learn some tricks of the trade and tricked I was into a charmed life. It is not much about rigours of writing, the trials and tribulation which an author of highest order must be facing while producing the greatest works of literature. To my utter surprise, it is the breezy, felicity of the book which greets you the moment you pick up the book and it lovingly holds you by your arm in a happy bright world of trees, happy families, friends who do not meet you to fill their Friday nights, adventurous kids, enterprising young men, sunny days, and enchanting brook in the bushes.

Twain, the darling of American speaking circles of the day, leans on lovely journal excerpts of her daughter Suzy's indulgent biography of her father. Her mis-spells notwithstanding, which Mark Twain retains with obvious love and insistence, ("cannot bring myself to change any line or word in Susy's sketch of me...coming from beautiful heart of child" writes the doting father) shows the bright genetic sparks of amazing control over words she had even at the age of five, the time around which she set herself on this endeavour of writing the biography of his legendary father. The leitmotif of the book is outstanding sense of happiness, which runs in the backdrop of the book and Twain's life, even through the sad episodes of death of his mother, his wife and most devastatingly painful demise of Suzy, graver by the suddenness with which it appears in the book.

Amazingly devoid of any taxing exercise of vocabulary for someone who has not grown up speaking English as a kid, this is a simple story of a life well lived, in magical times and lines from Susy's biography of her father furthers the magic, and shows great insight into the subject which only a child can have. The love of father is outstanding, and in spite of his unequalled literary greatness, the deep sense of affection stands out when speaking of grammatical or spelling errors, lovingly he proclaims, "It was Susy's and it shall stand. I love it and can not profane it. To me, it is gold. To correct it would alloy it, not refine it. It would spoil it." The moment when Mark Twain writes this, all the ice of awe which wrapped around me on melts in the sudden warmth as he comes across as a father, as any father, with as much love for his daughter as I have for my daughter. He immediately becomes so alive, so close to me, so one of us, like a colleague with whom I drive to work, someone who lives next door and maybe a doting father next door to you, trying to take his kid's snap on School's annual day, much to the annoyance of other parent. Suddenly, in stead of an awe-inspiring figure, you find living through the book a human figure, who will bleed if he were to get a bruise in the arm and ache in pain like you and me.

Samuel Clemens was a temperamental man, with a youthful sense of adventure about him which stayed constant companion to him all his life, which Susy forgives saying," he has temper, but so does everyone in the family. A devoted family man, he was much loved for his story-telling within the family as much as in the wider world, as Susy, his closest biographer says, dripping in affection "he does tell perfectly delightful stories" and how the world loved the yarns he knit. An accidental writer, not someone who dreamt being a writer all his life, and a love of experiments, which defined in his life which saw him investing in failed business ventures, the doomed typewriter, becoming a pilot on Ship to Mississippi,where he earned his now iconic pen name, before becoming a journalist, a celebrated speaker and eventually the greatest writer language has known; and I would hazard a guess, may be this earned him the affectionate address from his loving life companion, Olivia, who called him 'Youth'. Rarely one finds a youth so youthful.

The narrative has some very lovely and amusing episodes like the alarm installed in his home, which was so erratic in its operation that in his inimitable style Twain claims they found "it was buzzing its blood cuddling alarm merely for its own amusement." The episode where having caught swearing by his conscience keeper and adoring wife, author wanted to escape, if possible, through the windows, which sadly was good enough only to the shirt, gives us a peek into a world gone by, with its quaint beauty. The punishment he was assigned for the slip is equally telling as Mrs Clemens or Livy, as Youth called her, repeated Mr Twain's uttering to him, thereby making him note the cruelty and ugliness of words. That was a time of thought before words, where words were not loosely spoken nor loosely responded to (there is a very detailed account of Duels in the United States and Europe those days, one of which Twain missed by a blip to the relief of literary world), blessed is the world where words are treated with love, care and affection. The overall jovial tone of the book continues till the day Haley's comet returns in the century to take back it's prodigal Son, except the death of Susy at the age of twenty four, which he calls the happy age to die, but it is hard to miss the pain which sneaks through cleverly crafted words, as he tries to possibly assuage feelings of reader or may be his own, claiming "after that responsibility comes and with it cares, the sorrows, and the inevitable tragedy."

This is an amazing life story of a great man and great wordsmith, with enough of buoyant winds in it to soar any sagging spirit to the joyful sky of happiness and contentment. It is an example which amply proves that one always has a choice if only one is willing to pay the price for it, and no price is too high to earn the right to hear to the raging voices within your soul, and in the end, nothing is more satisfying, irrespective of whether you survive from one visit of the comet to other or not.

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