Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Twain in Berlin

With a title like A Tramp in Berlin: New Mark Twain Stories & an Account of Twain's Berlin Adventures, it's a little hard to know what you're getting. Even after one reads it, the book isn't easy to describe.

Mark Twain's long visit to Berlin with his family, beginning in the fall of 1891, lies at the center of the slim new book. Most of the text consists of Adreas Austilat's description of Twain's "Berlin adventures." Three newspaper articles, all written near the time of Twain's arrival in Berlin, are also included. And then there are the "new Mark Twain stories," which are the reason most readers will pick up this book in the first place.

These stories, which are stories more in the journalistic sense than the fictional sense (although with Twain, it was never easy to tell the difference), prove to be a mixed bag. The most entertaining of the four is one called "On Renting a Flat in Berlin," in which the American author describes, with his typical exaggeration, his difficulty in finding a suitable place for his family to live.Twain intended to sell this article for publication, but Austilat, a Berlin journalist, says it embarrassed Olivia, his wife, and she forbade it.

The second essay describes an imagined conversation with Satan about Twain's German stove, which he loved. Why Satan? Probably because he knows a thing or two about heat, although the fact that the author is pleased rather than tormented by the heat prevents the story from being as amusing as it might have been.

The least interesting piece is the opening chapter of a novel Twain intended to write about Wilhelmine, the sister of Frederick the Great. He was probably wise to abandon the project.

Finally we have something Twain wrote about Berlin for the Chicago Tribune, which was first published April 3, 1892. This sounds like Twain's typical travel writing, for which he is almost as well known as for his fiction.

The book offers numerous photographs and other illustrations, many of which show buildings in Berlin that didn't even exist at the time of Twain's visit. In fact, after more than a century and two world wars, very little of Berlin remains the same.

That Twain lived in Germany as much as he did and that he spoke German as well as he did may surprise many of his readers. That this book by and about one of America's greatest authors isn't more interesting will surprise many others.

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