Monday, February 21, 2011

Mark Twain Insult of the Day #6

Mr. Clemens and his family frequently traveled overseas and lived for two brief stretches in Florence, Italy. In 1904, in a futile attempt to restore his wife Olivia's failing health via rest in a temperate climate (I'm constantly struck by how tremendously medical science has progressed in the past century), Clemens leased the Villa di Quarto in Florence for several months. Once a modest palace, the villa had gone to seed and was then owned by an American who'd tried to marry her way into money and high society, both unsuccessfully. She was the Countess Massiglia, and Clemens genuinely despised her.

She is excitable, malicious, malignant, vengeful, unforgiving, selfish, stingy, avaricious, coarse, vulgar, profane, obscene, a furious blusterer on the outside and at heart a coward. Her lips are as familiar with lies, deceptions, swindles and treacheries as are her nostrils with breath . . .

The Countess boasted to me that nothing American is still left in her, and that she is wholly Italian now. She plainly regards this as a humiliation for America, and she as plainly believed she was gracing Italy with a compliment of a high and precious order. America still stands. Italy may survive the benefaction of the Countess's approval, we cannot tell . . .

. . . I should wish the Countess to move out of Italy; out of Europe; out of the planet. I should want her bonded to retire to her place in the next world and inform me which of the two it was, so that I could arrange for my own hereafter.

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Let me pass on some advice to anyone reading the Autobiography of Mark Twain beside or behind me: don't ignore the notes in the back. I read a couple hundred pages under the assumption that the endnotes comprised academic trivia that I could skip. Then I took a closer look. They're actually a very nice companion that provides information, context and corrections to the body of the text. For example, Clemens might mention a person, place or incident; the endnotes offer additional details that enhance the tale. Importantly, they provide an interesting fact-check on Clemens, verifying his stories to the extent possible and pointing out where they conflict with other sources or historical fact. Clemens's memory wasn't always sharp and he plainly stated he wouldn't let accuracy stand in the way of a good yarn, even in his autobiography; the endnotes do a nice job of calling him out in a way that does nothing to diminish the author's reputation or charm.

The notes are organized by chapter and listed by page number, so it's easy to read a few pages then flip to the back to get the bigger picture. I recommend it.

* * *

I'm afraid my blogging will remain haphazard for a while. Still working hard on other projects that lay claim to any spare moments, particularly my next (I hope) book, Mystery Project X. I need to thumbnail faster; I'm not really sure how to do that without getting too sloppy, but at the rate I'm sketching it'll take me months to get through the story. One expected benefit of the process has already emerged: sixty pages in, I decided the design of one of my characters wasn't functioning like I wanted it to and I reworked her. She's better now. This is right in line with the character design process I described back in November. Nice to see I can take my own advice.


Sherwood Harrington said...

I decided the design of one of my characters wasn't functioning like I wanted it to and I reworked her. She's better now.

So she's a duck now?

Brian Fies said...

Let it go, Sherwood. In the name of all that's holy, for all our sakes, you've got to let it go.