Under my byline

Twain time

Posted in Books, Living, Profiles by Rrishi on 22 May 2010

OVERLEAF 72

An enviable immortality is available to those few of our race who can fuse wit and wisdom to greatest effect. Look through your email inbox for collections of “funny” and “thought-provoking” quotes that friends have forwarded you, and very likely you will see these names: Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, Benjamin Disraeli, Socrates, Eleanor Roosevelt, Billy Crystal, Groucho Marx, if you’re lucky Mae West (“I didn’t discover curves; I only uncovered them”) — and Mark Twain.

It’s too easy to dismiss Twain (real name Samuel L Clemens) as an entertainer. He was that, and a damn good one. Like a few of his contemporaries (Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling) he combined popular writing with lucrative lecture tours, chiefly in America. Indeed, in the case of Twain the telling came before the writing; The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was published when Twain was 49, and he only made his big money after that, but before that he had spent years paying attention to down-home storytellers in the small American towns where he lived. So he learnt how to make a story with more than just words, with all the physical and theatrical resources at his command. Read any of his books or stories and it is obvious how well Twain understood spoken language. They beg to be read aloud.

Which is why they might not strike one immediately as high literature. Also, Twain’s heroes are ordinary — democratic, plainspoken and practical. Yet, in the tale featuring one of his most practical protagonists can be seen another feature of Twain: the author as a tumbler of myths, political theorist and missionary of democracy. In Huck Finn he poked gently, but in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court he shoves hard, almost too hard.

Superficially, A Connecticut Yankee (published in 1889 but three years in the writing) is heavy satire. Hank Morgan is a 19th-century Yank who works in a factory and has a flair for machines and mechanics. One day a dispute with a labourer leads to a knock on the head, and Morgan wakes up in the 6th century, in the time of Arthur of Camelot. Being equipped with the formidable mechanical knowledge of his own century, he quickly impresses the medievals with fireworks and other displays of magic and miracle. He becomes Arthur’s right-hand man.

While the court and its silly aristocrats amuse themselves with jousting and quests, Morgan gets down to running the country, behind the backs of its idiot rulers. He sets up factories and schools to train intelligent non-nobles, lays down telephone lines and builds up modern armed forces. He aims to sideline the courtly class, which he considers useless and a burden on the nation — which is represented by its honest workers. Finally, Morgan hopes, he will be able to awaken the slumbering people, enslaved by their own ignorance and by the Church’s instructions to suffer quietly and obey.

Of course this is a sarcastic takedown of Sir Thomas Malory‘s Le Morte d’Arthur — the collection of medieval romances upon which the modern Arthur legend was built. Enough romanticisation of a past that was in truth brutal to the majority, Twain appears to say. But eventually he turns from satire. The end of A Connecticut Yankee is astonishingly cruel, yet startlingly realistic. The experiment fails, and Morgan’s small cohort of converts wins a battle but loses the war. You can bring tools to the medievals, but you cannot force them to change their way of thinking. Morgan is a failed prophet.

Though Twain was one of the progenitors of American literature, in this book he toed an ancient line. A Connecticut Yankee is really about the eternal present. The public is always gullible and biddable, rulers are usually delusional. Yet the ideal exerts a powerful attraction. Think of Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). The alien outsider who arrives to study or save a people from themselves: Avatar, Star Trek, Alexis de Tocqueville. Think of the Spanish conquistadors in America. Consider Nehru and his technocrats/secularisers in newly independent India.

This year is the 175th anniversary of Mark Twain’s birth, and the centenary of his death. It is being celebrated in America with a host of events at places where Twain lived and worked. But Twain is as relevant anywhere in the modern world, and deserves a certain amount of worship here in India as well.

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