The story is set in the year 1490, in a fictional Austrian village (Essendorf [= “Ass Town”]). The narrator is a sixteen-year-old village boy named August Feldner, an apprentice in a print-shop. Twain, who was himself a printer’s apprentice in Hannibal, Missouri when he was the same age as August, fills the narrative with the arcana of the printing trade. The print shop’s master is a sympathetic character, but there are several villains: the master’s shrewish and scheming wife, a fraudulent magician-alchemist, and a persecuting priest. The apprentices, among whom August counts for little, are a mixed bag of characters, but all are obsessed with the perquisites and pecking order of the trade. Twain takes every occasion to demonstrate the superstitious and credulous mentality of the time, using his well-honed satirical style. But he also evokes the innocence of childhood and the humble pleasures or village life. Twain began writing this version while he was staying in a small Swiss village, which he likened to Hannibal in his diary. Into this fictional community there suddenly arrives a mysterious stranger, a boy apparently of August’s age, bedraggled, seeking food and shelter, for which he offers to work. When asked his name, he gives it as “Number 44, New Series 864,962.” Twain dwells on the boy’s bewitching beauty. Befriending August, and taking him into his confidence, he reveals himself as an “angel”, in fact a relative of Satan himself (Satan, of course, being the rebel angel), and existing outside of space and time. He communicates telephathically with August, teaches him how to make himself invisible, brings him articles from the future, and whisks him to mountain tops and China in an instant. They travel to the past. He also shows August humanity’s horrors, including the burning alive of a “witch”, the tragic lives of the poor, and the grim results of alternate time-lines of history. He seems utterly oblivious to August’s notions of propriety, piety, and ethics. When No.44’s diligence earns him a position as apprentice, the other apprentices go on strike in resentment, sabotaging an urgent printing job. No.44 conjures up an army of dopplegangers who do the work, and there is a comic battle in which each character fights his own duplicate. Finally, No.44 is burnt as a witch, only to reappear to August and explain to him that:“Nothing exists; all is a dream. God — man — the world, — the sun, the moon, the wilderness of stars: a dream, all a dream, they have no existence. Nothing exists save empty space — and you!”… “And you are not you — you have no body, no blood, no bones, you are but a thought. I myself have no existence, I am but a dream — your dream, creature of your imagination. In a moment you will have realized this, then you will banish me from your visions and I shall dissolve into the nothingness out of which you made me….”It’s no wonder that Twain considered the book unpublishable. And it’s not surprising that it was written in the shadow of tragedy. Of the three daughters that Twain doted on, one died of meningitis in 1896, at the age of twenty-four, another drowned in a bathtub in 1909. Earlier, his only son had died of diptheria when but a toddler. Olivia, his wife of thirty-four years, to whom he was utterly devoted, died after a protracted illness while they were in Italy. Twain had plenty of reason to be bitter. This strange novel embodies, in one way or another, all of his life-long obsessions, from his fascination with childhood, and with the Middle Ages, to his paring of dual characters, one “normal” and the other a kind of pagan spirit — Tom and Huck mutated into August and #44. His hatred of injustice and religious hypocrisy are in there in spades. But most of all, the novel dwells on the puzzle of suffering and the multi-faceted nature of consciousness. All Twain’s doubts and torments are resolved in a bizarre kind of metaphysical solipsism. In the same year that the recovered text reached general publication, a small film production company made a reasonably faithful cinematic version of the story. This is one of the oddest “family films” (for it was marketed as such) ever made. No.44’s final speech, blasphemous by any Christian standards, is in the film, which would nowadays make it non grata in the U.S., even though it probably voices the disenchantment of many modern Americans. It was filmed in Austria. Production values were low-end, but adequate. August was played by Chris Makepeace, a Canadian child actor who had briefly been successful in the comedy Meatballs. No.44 was played by Lance Kerwin, a hard-working juvenile television actor.
Tuesday, August 11, 2015
Phil Paine on Twain's Mysterious Stranger