Good Reading : July 2009
BOOKBITE 1 encounters brief by Susannah Fullerton It might surprise you to know that Australia was visited by many greats of literature in the 19th and early 20th century. Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain) was one of them. W hen it was time to depart, all the Clemenses felt sad to be leaving Australian hospitality behind them. They’d enjoyed the ‘English friendliness with the English shyness and self-consciousness left out’, and had found people ‘good and kind to us everywhere’. Twain called Australia ‘the cordial nation’. He was also, he said, impressed with the rapid development of cities and towns and with the Australian willingness to spend money on public works and buildings. He found the hospitals, asylums, botanic gardens and town halls all excellent, and his personal love of technology had been especially taken with the speedy lifts installed in the hotels he’d stayed in – they were so much faster than European lifts which carry ‘two people and a half, and you arrive at old age on your trip to the 6th floor’. The Australian vernacular also pleased him, with its differences from American speech (‘In America if your uncle is a squatter, you keep it dark, in Australia you advertise it’), and with wonderful phrases all its own. ‘No Man’s Land’, ‘never-never country’ and ‘new chum’ became favourites, and as for ‘My word!’ – well, he wasn’t impressed when he saw it written down, but when he heard it spoken, ‘it was positively thrilling’. His quick ear caught the accent and soon he was joking about the Australian fondness for the letter ‘y’, as in the case of the hotel maid who announced: ‘The tyble is set, and here is the piper; and if the lydy is ready I’ll tell the wyter to bring up the breakfast’. The ‘funniest man in America’ clearly enjoyed Aussie humour and Aussie larrikinism. One of the most amusing after-dinner speeches he ever heard was in Australia, and he liked the jokes and comments called out to him whenever he appeared in public. One that came close to going too far, but in the end succeeded, was the tale about the ‘Mark Twain Club of Corrigan Castle’. Many years before, he had started to receive mail from Australia, all signed by a man who called himself the President of this Mark Twain fan club. He was sent the club’s constitution and by-laws, a list of the names of its thirty-two members, programs of their planned events and other information concerning the club activities. He was asked for a photograph, which he duly sent, along with a letter. But soon he was being bombarded by letters from the club, each requesting more photos, comments on those aspects of his novels which puzzled members of the club, and also his opinions on the club’s speeches and reports: These reports came every month. They were written on foolscap, 600 words to the page, and usually about twenty-five pages in a 22 goodreading ı juLy 2009 report … a solid week’s work … By and by I came to dread those things; and this dread grew and grew and grew, grew until I got to anticipating them with a cold horror. For I was an indolent man, and not fond of letter-writing, and whenever these things came I had to put everything by and sit down – for my own peace of mind – and dig and dig until I got something out of my head which would answer for a reply. This went on for five years, then ‘at last I rose in revolt. I could endure my oppressions no longer. I pulled my fortitude together and tore off my chains, and was a free man again, and happy. From that day I burned the secretary’s fat envelopes the moment they arrived, and by and by they ceased to come’. It was one night in Bendigo that Twain finally learned the true history behind all those letters. The entire fan club had originated from one man – he had sent the letters, imagined the members, invented the speakers and their speeches, and had written every long report. He’d even invented the name of ‘Corrigan Castle’. Twain was delighted, even though he’d been the victim of the joke: ‘It was wonderful – the whole thing; and altogether the most ingenious and laborious and cheerful and painstaking joke I have ever heard of. And I liked it; liked to hear him tell about it; yet I have been a hater of practical jokes as long back as I can remember’. ‘Good breeding consists in concealing how much we think of ourselves and how little we think of other persons’, Twain once commented. As Mark Twain he was certainly polite: he praised the landscape and its animals, responded with cordiality to the thousands of people he met around the country. How much was he concealing? Were the opinions expressed by Mark Twain also those of Sam Clemens? It’s hard to be certain – both men regarded too much truth as an impediment to good literature – but it’s probable that the real views emerge in Sam’s personal notebooks and diaries. There he records that, like Trollope, he was inclined to think Australians ‘blew’, and he was far from sure they had that much to blow about: ‘The truth is that the native Australian’, he wrote two months after his departure, ‘was as vain of his unpretty country as if it were the final masterpiece of God, achieved by Him from designs by that Australian. He is as sensitive about her as men are of sacred things – can’t bear to have critical things said’. Did he leave with any desire ever to return to its shores? ‘My word no!’ Brief Encounters by Susannah Fullerton is published by Picador, rrp $34.99.