I enjoyed The Innocents Abroad so much last year that I soon lined up more of Mark Twain's travel writing. Though I started this book a couple of times, I never got too far with it. This time I drew it from the book box, and when I finally settled down with it, I enjoyed it even more than the first. Written eleven years later, it is more pure comedy, often at Twain's own expense, frequently at his fellow travelers', especially young Americans. But in other ways, he has mellowed. He doesn't have the chip on his shoulder, the constant need to assert the superiority of the United States, to compare everything unfavorably with "back home." The all-American attitude creeps in every once in a while, but he is far from the typically "ugly American" tourist of his 1867 travels.
Twain announces at the start of the book,
One day it occurred to me that it had been many years since the world had been afforded the spectacle of a man adventurous enough to undertake a journey through Europe on foot. After much thought I decided that I was a person fitted to furnish mankind this spectacle. So I determined to do it. This was in March, 1878.
He hires an agent to accompany him, a Mr. Harris, and they set out with three goals: to take a walking tour, to study German, and to study art. As well as a traveling companion, Harris is there as Twain's proxy. He sends Harris off to do anything that he doesn't want to do himself, or is too lazy to do, but still plans to write about (and claim the credit for). The editors of the Penguin Classics edition that I read point out that in fact Twain traveled to Europe in the spring of 1878 with his family, and they label this book "autobiographical fantasy." They add, "Twain's travel narratives are as 'fictional' as his novels are 'autobiographical.'" However you want to classify this book, fact or fiction, it is great fun.
In Twain's account, their travels begin in Germany. From the start, this book reminded me of Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men on the Bummel. Despite constant protestations that his is meant to be a walking tour, he jumps on every train, horse, wagon, or boat that passes by, with transparent excuses like the roads are uphill, or the sun is up. There is a hilarious account of a trip down the Neckar River to Heidelberg on a raft of very small poles, which sometimes seems to foreshadow Huck Finn and other times reads like a perilous ocean voyage, complete with storms and near-shipwreck (or raft-wreck, to be technical). Any time Twain and his agent set out to actually walk somewhere, they mosey along, often losing their way and frequently quarreling. Like Jerome, Twain also becomes fascinated with the custom of dueling among university students. He gives a detailed account (over three chapters) of an afternoon spent watching the duelists in action. He follows that with a burlesque of a French duel at which he claims to have stood a second.
From Germany the account moves to Switzerland, where Twain becomes equally fascinated with the Alps and mountaineering. These chapters are an interesting mix. Twain recounts various expeditions, discussing seriously the dangers and the frequent loss of life. He writes lyrically about the scenery, the majesty of the different mountains, particularly Mont Blanc and the Matterhorn. In between, he tells a ridiculous story of a expedition he organizes, consisting of 198 people (including 15 bartenders and a Latin scholar), to ascend a minor point that didn't even need a guide. When he and Harris arrive at the village near Mont Blanc, on the other hand, he just tries to buy the certificate awarded to those who made the ascent, claiming it's for a sick friend.
From Switzerland, he travels on to Italy. Here he himself admits that he has come to appreciate art much more than when he traveled with the Innocents. Of course, his tongue is firmly in his cheek. This book is illustrated with Twain's own "art," which can only charitably be called primitive. In one of the last chapters, he discusses why Art can be indecent and Literature cannot. He is rather indignant that the statues in Florence have been "fig-leaved." But that is nothing compared to his anger over Titian's Venus of Urbino, which he considers the most pornographic picture ever painted, hanging in the Uffizi "for anybody to gloat over that wants to..." Yet, he says, if he tried to describe what the picture shows, his work would be banned as obscene. It's a weirdly serious chapter in the midst of this crazy book.
Twain's German studies seem to go about as well as his art studies. Fortunately for him, he finds English-speakers almost everywhere in Germany. This book includes his famous essay on "The Awful German Language," one of several appendices. The title page of the "Appendix" section has a quote from Herodotus, "Nothing gives such weight and dignity to a book as an Appendix." This book has six!