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The Library of Babel

A Spin-off of http://bookwormshead.blogspot.co.uk

A Tramp Abroad - Mark Twain I bought this book by mistake in one of those charity shops that make any idle and rainy Saturday in Oxford a treasure hunt.
What I thought I had found was actually "Innocents Abroad" by the same Mark Twain, but somehow the word "tramp" was left out of my raptorous glance.

Well, "A Tramp Abroad" revolves around pretty much the same topic of "Innocents Abroad" which is Mr Twain touring Europe proud of being an American but at the same time eager to get all that the Old Continent has to offer to his transatlantic eyes.

A very good reason to grab this book is its humour.
One cannot wonder that Mark Twain was so funny a writer. Or perhaps it's just me having read "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn" when I was a kid and getting bored to death with all that exhausting fence painting business and that haughty Becky Thatcher.

And yet "A Tramp Abroad" is funny, witty and it's clear how Twain got amused in writing some of its pages. It's a kind of humour that one may find in a celebrated British author of the same period (1880s) such as Jerome Klapka Jerome, but Twain adds up his American touch: the exaggeration of likelihood.

Where Jerome (an eager traveller too) loved paradoxes and observations about the cultural oddities he found while navigating the Thames or cycling in Germany, Twain liked to put himself at the centre of the scene. But he did so in a very amusing way by pretending to be the bravest person around fooling us and himself in the process.
The travels of "A Tramp Abroad" are not particularly exotic involving Germany, Switzerland and a bit of Italy and Twain is not masterful in telling us how and why he got from, say, Heidelberg to Lucerne. Where he excels is in collecting the local stories, news and legends and reporting them on his account along with amazing fictional dialogues and expeditions deign of a maharaja.

Here you can find many gems like a passionate praise of tasty American food along with a lot of sarcasm referred to European menus thay may disappoint a German or a French gourmet, but it's actually only another example of Twain's comic exaggeration.
Twain is not afraid of despising the sense of perspective and proportions of the Old Masters in painting, in calling St Mark's church in Venice "ugly" and the edelweiss flower "cigar-coloured". There is no arrogance or sense of superiority in doing this, although someone may think and may have thought the opposite.
It seems unbelievable that Henry James lived in the same years and saw a good deal of the same British-American jet-set tourism portraying it in the most solemn and antiquated terms.

And then there are appendixes, introduced by a quote by Herodotus.
Mind you, do not miss these appendixes! And if your edition of "A Tramp Abroad" doesn't include them, raise an official protest with the bookseller who sold it to you!

Appendix D, titled "The Awful German Language", is one of the funniest things I've ever read. Eighteen pages of pure intellectual pleasure dedicated to the struggle Twain had with studying German with all the grammar exceptions, peculiarities and oddities of that language he could recall crowned by eight suggestions to make German better. I have never studied German, but I laughed till tears came to my eyes in reading this stuff. And appendix F "German Journals" is irresistible too. Not to mention appendix C "The College Prison". Etc, etc.

On the whole, this book is huge and heavy and for that reason not quite comfortable to read if you're not surrounded by pillows half-lying on a double bed, but "A Tramp Abroad" is worth a try when you want to cheer up yourselves. Not a book to travel with, but a book to travel for.