Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Phil Paine on Twain's Mysterious Stranger

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.

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