Mark Twain (1835-1910)

So when Mark decided to walk Europe he had to take his friend Harris with him in order to have someone to blame things on and also because Harris knew more about art than Twain did.  They took ship to Hamburg, Germany and stayed for about a week, getting organized.  Then they decided to take the train to Frankfort because the pedestrian outlook was “unattractive”.  In Frankfort the people dressed nicely and they had excellent cigars, but the duo moved on to Heidelberg almost immediately as the University and the Neckar river were their first goals.

Viewing the extraordinary scenery, Twain was moved to relate his story about Jim Baker and the Blue Jay.  The former lived in a remote cabin in the California mountains and once observed a Jay dropping acorns into a deserted hovel through a knot hole in the roof.  In short order a thousand birds were hovering around, apparently curious as to why the acorns seemed to disappear into a bottomless pit.  Until one with more sense peeked in through the door and saw the floor covered with nuts.  Prompting the observation that “A Jay hasn’t got any more principal than a Congressman”.

Mr. Twain went to some length in describing the dueling clubs associated with the College in Heidelberg.  He was coerced into acting as second to a challenger, but both parties seemed upset when Twain suggested axes as appropriate tools of engagement, so he then proposed bricks at a distance of 3/4 of a mile.  One duelist was badly injured when a sudden fog came up and he accidentally tripped over Mark and suffered a broken arm, some cracked ribs and dislocated his hip.

After attending a performance of Lohengrin, he stated it was like going to visit the dentist, adding “the funerals of opera-lovers don’t occur often enough”

Becoming enthused about a walking tour up the Neckar river, famous for its scenery, Harris and Twain accoutered themselves with packs, alpenstocks, and brogues.  They got as far the train station and boarded it, only detraining at Heilbron, a fairly well-known tourist resort.  But Twain had trouble sleeping.  He checked his pedometer one morning and found he’d covered 47 miles in the night.  Harris blamed him for having a  nightmare about being drowned when Twain dumped a pitcher of water on his head.

They decided to ride a log raft down the river back to Heidelberg instead of walking.  The rafts were constructed in a sort of loose, elongated form, so as to enable them to flex when encountering sharp bends in the river.  For the most part, it was an ideal trip, with the two lolling about, smoking cigars, and noting the striking scenery:  castles surmounting the ridges and clffs, abundant forests, the sunshine, and the quiet gurgle of the water.  Nearing Heidelberg again, Twain persuaded the raft master to let him have a turn steering the vessel, citing his experience as a river boat pilot.  It was quite embarrassing when he ran the craft into a bridge abutment.  He didn’t have much to say about that.

Next they entrained to Baden-Baden for a very short stay, mainly due to the aggravating
Americans they found occupying the hotels and boarding houses.  They actually began real hiking when they reached the Black Forest.  They were delighted by the view of the Allerheiligan gorge from a point midway between Baden-Baden and Oppenau.  When they finally reached the latter town, Twain proudly noted that the pedometer registered 146 miles covered in only two days.  But he was chagrined when his map listed the distance as 10.25 miles.

Returning to Baden-Baden, they took the train to Lucerne, soon after visiting an art museum that was featuring a display of Turner landscapes.  Twain said a friend of his thought Turner’s work resembled ” a tortoise shell cat having a fit in a platter of tomatoes”…

They liked Lucerne, all except for the ubiquitous cuckoo clocks and the touristy gim-crackery.  After taking the small steamboat, they did hike up the Rigi (a 6000 foot high peak) and were pleased at having forgone the cog railway train.  They stayed overnight in the hotel on top.  One of the attractions was watching the sunrise from the top, featuring the early morning light illuminating the whole range of Alps.  Harris woke Twain in the morning and they wrapped themselves in red blankets and dashed outdoors, eager to catch the first flare of light.  Only to find themselves being stared at by 250 American tourists in the broad sunlight of full day.  They’d overslept and it was 2:00 in the afternoon.

Back in Lucerne, they wanted to hike to Interlaken, but the weather was too good, so they went by carriage.  Harris observed that the glaciers on the adjacent Jungfrau seemed dirty and that it was a shame that the local authorities didn’t arrange to have them cleaned once in a while.  Meanwhile, Twain had a dream fantasy that he was going to climb the Riffelberg ( a minor eminence of no great authority) and so hired 198 guides,  porters, and 4 pastry cooks, a herd of mules, 22 barrels of whiskey, and 7 cans of nitroglycerine.  On the second day a large rock obstructed the parade, so they camped overnight and were a woken by a loud explosion when one of the mules ate a can of nitro and blew itself and the rock to smithereens.  The party roped up and edged around the large hole in the ground and proceeded to make their way up the mountain.  Spending the night in the hotel, the next morning they climbed the Gorner Grat (a nearby  viewing site) and conducted a few scientific experiments.  They boiled a thermometer and a barometer and demonstrated conclusively that “Above a certain point the higher a point seems to be, the lower it actually is”.  Preparing for the descent of the mountain, the party ensconced themselves on the Gorner glacier, having heard that it moved down the mountain due to the influence of gravity.  They noticed that the glacier was leaking and Harris stated that the government was to blame for not plugging up the holes.  When Twain wanted to test the local gravity by substituting an umbrella for a parachute (with the assistance of Harris), a minor disagreement arose between the two friends that was only resolved when the entourage, becoming weary of waiting for the glacier to reach the bottom, gathered together their traps and slogged back to Interlaken.  They climbed Mt. Blanc (by telescope:  it only cost them 3 francs) and saw the moon rise over that mountain.  Twain promulgated another theory, that “the moon can’t be higher than 12,200 feet because of the gravity of its refraction being subdued by earth’s refrangibility”.  And they did do some hiking on the local moraines, and proposed ascents on Mts. Dinnerhorn, Popocatepetl, Powderhorn, Saddlehorn, and the Himalayas before leaving to tour Italy, Spain, France, and Belgium.

It’s hard to know what to say bout this book, other than it’s zany to the point of derangement.  I’ve read a lot of Twain and mostly found him to be mildly satirical and politely humorous, but this book is jammed full of stories (which i’ve avoided mentioning) and opinions and dreams and attitudes which are so outlandish and hilarious that they seem to border on mania, sometimes…  It was great fun to read and really swept me into Twain’s extraterrestrial world…  I can honestly say that i’ve never read anything quite like it…  highly recommended as a cure for those in distress from too intensive an association with reality…



Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

Amy Dorrit was born in prison.  Her father, William, being a rather hapless and undirected personality, ran the family into debt, hence the sequestration in Marshalsea prison.  Fanny and Edward (Tip) accompanied their father along with his long-suffering wife who was pregnant at the time.  Amy was born and raised in the penal environment and learned to be responsible for others at an early age.  In fact, she spent much of her time (when she wasn’t earning money through her needle-work) taking care of her siblings and her father.

Arthur Clennam was raised in a severely Puritan household, with a mother who reigned with a copy of the Old Testament in one hand and an account book in the other.  The family ran their own business with the help of Jeremiah Flintwinch as part-time butler and clerk.  His wife, Affery, did the housework and the cooking.

The story opens with Cavaletto and Rigaud in a Marseilles jail for smuggling and, in Rigaud’s case, for murdering his wife.  The Meagles (parents, daughter Minnie and maid Tattycoram) have just been released from being quarantined aboard a ship docked at the same port;  they are on their way back to England.

Back in London, Arthur has left home, not caring to be under the iron hand of his mother any longer.  He has become acquainted with Amy, in her capacity as sewing person working for his mother, and he’s discovered that she lives in prison.  As the plot continues, he learns about the Barnacles and the Circumlocution department.  The Barnacles are an extended family who run the Circumlocution bureau, religiously appointing each other to office as seats become vacant.  The philosophy of this important government division is termed the “How Not To Do IT” method.  The members, all the way from Mr. Tite Barnacle in the premier position, down to the lowest Barnacle in the lowest echelon, are devoted to maintaining the status quo, roundly rejecting patents, ideas, amendments, laws, or changes of any sort.  Arthur has become acquainted with Daniel Doyle, an inventor of some genius who has invented a number of original industrial devices, and who has been trying to get patents declared for them for  twelve years but has been constantly foiled due to the intransigency of the said department.  The pair walk and talk while returning to Doyle’s place of business, located in Bleeding Heart Yard, a small district providing residence for a number of persons ancillary to the plot of the book.  There’s Mr. Pancks, rent collector for the Patrician, Mr. Casby; the Plornishes:  he’s a plasterer with a starving family;  Cavaletto, who is hiding from the murderous Rigaud;  and miscellaneous characters that live a hand-to-mouth existence.

As the love affair between Arthur and Amy gradually advances, we meet Flora Finching, a former girl-friend of Arthur’s (her father is Mr. Casby), Mr. and Mrs. Merdle, the richest couple in England, Mrs. Merdle’s son by a former husband, Edmund Sparkler, Henry Gowan, a listless artist of noble ancestry, Mr. Rugg, Panck’s landlord and a legal resource, and quite a few more.

As the plot progresses, Arthur and Mr. Doyle become partners but go bankrupt due to the malfeasance of Mr. Merdle, Tattycoram runs off with Mrs. Wade, a bitter sexual revolutionary, Minnie Meagle marries Gowan, Fanny marries Sparkler, William Dorrit is released from prison due to an unexpected inheritance, Amy’s uncle Fred quits playing the clarinet for the same reason, there are explosions both psychic and literal, and most of the plot threads are neatly rounded off.  Almost.  There’s no resolution for Affery:  she plays a critical part in the final resolution, but vanishes without a trace.  And the same occurs, more or less, to Mrs. Wade, who is left stranded in Calais.  Rigaud comes to a bad end also, although his body is never found:  a disturbing and possibly perilous situation for some of the characters (but only after the end of the book).

I gather from reading several reviews that this is not one of Dicken’s more popular novels.  But i found it to be terribly funny at times, and i sympathized with Dicken’s wrath at the class system and the unfair wealth distribution of the time.  He could be extremely clever at word play, some of which seemed too obscure to be intentional, although i think he knew exactly what he was doing.  For instance, the character Merdle. If you remove the ‘L” from the name (which is the symbol for English pounds sterling), you’re left with a French term that might be interpreted as the author’s opinion of extravagant wealth as worshipped in the upper classes.  There are other “coincidental” usages, but part of the fun of reading Dickens is discovering them for oneself.  Great writer and wordsmith.

One of the more evident focuses of the storyline was the similarity between the Marshalsea prison and the general condition of London society.  William Dorrit, after many years pan-handling and wheedling funds out of visitors and fellow inmates, came to be regarded as the Father of Marshalsea.  As a sort of prime minister of the social order imprinted on the edifice by the conditions of its establishment.  The political system of the outer city resembled this in a way, with the Lord Mayor, the upper classes, and the overweening awe and exaggerated respect with which the moneyed strata were regarded by the lower members.  So it seems Dickens was pointing out that English society in general was much like a prison, with arbitrary rules and laws governing the citizens, and occasional and undeserved penalties being dispersed almost at random, “justice”  being totally in abeyance as a foundation for a just society.  It was revealing to discover, just before i started writing this post, that Dickens’ father was incarcerated in Marshalsea prison and that Charles himself as a result was introduced into the shoe-black industry at an early age, which made a great impression on him and demonstrably colored his outlook for the rest of his life.

It is a complicated novel both plot-wise and in the subtle implications, psychological, philosophical and political, frequently cropping up, sometimes surprisingly, in the otherwise conventional language.  I understand there’s a movie made after the book;  maybe we’ll try to find it this week…

NB:  Di, at The Little White Attic.blogspot.com is doing a series of posts on this book at present time.  She’s excellent at excavating minutia and unearthing innuendos that i have a tendency to barge over or through…


Nevil Shute (1899-1960)

Henry Warren is a banker specializing in international funding and corporate support.  He spends a lot of time in the air, flying from one financial center to another:  Berlin, Oslo, Helsingfors, Tallin, Riga…  He’s divorcing his unfaithful wife, he’s overworked, and tired of his pointless life.  He fires the servants, puts the house up for sale and goes for a car ride.  Somewhere west of Carlisle he exits the Rolls and starts walking.  After putting up at inns and pubs for a few days, he’s approaching the town of Sharples when he’s suddenly overtaken by a gastric attack.  Doubled up, he falls down and is rescued by a truck driver and several passers-by and taken to hospital.  One of the good samaritans steals his wallet.  He has an operation, a resection of a twisted intestine, and spends several weeks in the over-crowded and struggling institution.  In the interim, he becomes curious about conditions in the little town and becomes informed about the serious financial depression that has shut down the ship yards and local mines.  The residents stand around in groups, looking unhappy and underfed.

Upon recovery, Warren begins research into solving the town’s  industrial predicament.  He’s made aware that a small Balkan country, Laevatia, is interested in shipping its oil reserves to England and points elsewhere, and that it has tentatively arranged for Germany to oversee the pipeline construction and the delivery of the product.  Warren’s money instinct is aroused and he flies to the capital city to investigate.  With the aid of several dance-hall ladies and a local card-sharp, he manages to bilk the German ambassador out of eighteen thousand pounds and to embarrass him before the Laevatian authorities.  And he bribes the financial secretary to award him the contract for three small oil tankers.  He gives the politico a jeweled umbrella and a case of Worcester sauce and 500 pounds.

Warren enlists a few friends to help get the ship yard running again:  arranging for steel and iron shipments, hiring back old welders and experienced yard workers, and lining up ancillary support structures.  (Spoiler Alert)… When he returns to London, he expects to be gone for a while and he is.  He’s arrested for stock manipulation and financial fraud.  He knows he’s guilty so he doesn’t try to defend his actions because he doesn’t want to interfere with the  industrial recovery at Sharples.  So he spends 2.5 years in choky.

When he gets out, he finds the town happy and thriving and he marries the hospital accountant that he had gotten familiar with while he was detained there and they live happily ever after.

This was not one of Shute’s better efforts, i thought.  In general i’ve greatly enjoyed his writing style:  unforced, logical, and effective;  but this work, although consisting of those qualities, is a bit repetitious.  It’s a lot like “Trustee of the Toolroom”, which i thought a much better book.  Maybe, though, that’s because it’s been a long time since i read it.  Shute was quite familiar with the Great Depression in England, having participated in the aeronautics industry as engineer and owner.  He owned an airplane building plant at one time Airspeed LTD., and during the second War, was involved in secret projects developing rockets for the government.  From all accounts he was a very nice person, honest and industrious and a great person to work for.  I don’t know if any biographies have been written about him.  I’d like to read one.  His most famous book, of course, was On The Beach, but A Town Like Alice was a close second.


Henry Fielding (1707-1754)

The narrator (probably not Fielding) has just died and has left his old body through its nose.  Surprisingly, he couldn’t fly, as he had always thought the recently deceased could do, so he hopped around for a while until a noble-appearing young man (Mercury) walked up to him and apprised him of the facts.  He was dead and had to catch a stage coach.  Walking through the walls, the pair approached a coach whose passengers were all asleep.  One of them was a doctor who had died from dosing himself with small-pox medicine (although he didn’t have the disease), another had perished through a surfeit of mussels and the remaining couple had been slain in a duel and had died of a fever.  Arriving at the City of Disease, they enter an inn where Scrape, a money-lender, offers them whatever cash they think they might need on the journey.  Scrape, in life, was a merciless persecutor of borrowers, such that in death he was condemned to see his profits disappear one shilling at a time, day by day, but regardless of how much he lent the total amount in his care was always the same.  His fate was to be eventually reincarnated, after seventy years, as a hog, and then to be given a second chance as a human.  Other interesting figures dwelled in the City, but the coach rushed on the next day to the Palace of Death, a Gothic structure made entirely of black marble and decorated inside with implements and tools of war.  Pictures of famous leaders, Caligula, Alexander, Charles XII, and others lined the walls.  Most of the inhabitants lived in the City of Disease.

The coach stopped at the Cocytus river (tributary of the Acheron, across which lies the vast kingdom of Hades) and the travelers were rowed across.  On the other side, progress was on foot.  The company soon reached a fork in the road, one route leading to Fame and the other to Goodness.  The first road was crowded and featured bands and parades celebrating the new arrivals, and the second path, sparsely populated, went uphill and was paved with rocks and gravel.  After more adventures, the narrator reaches the Gate of Elysium, guarded by Minos, the arbiter and weeder-out of those whose moral excellence would allow them entrance to the Fields of Elysium.  The rejects were cast down to Earth to be reincarnated in different roles, hopefully to improve their ethical and moral status for another go-round. The truly hopeless were cast into the Bottomless Pit, leading to you-know-where.

The narrator strikes up a conversation with Minos and watches the process for a while.  A judge and playwright (resembling Fielding himself, astonishingly) is passed through the Gate because he once saved a friend from starvation.  A former jailbird who’d been hanged for stealing 18 cents was admitted, a band of soldiers was rejected for obeying bad orders, a patriot was cast into the Pit, and so forth…   Being admitted himself, the narrator converses with several residents:  Leonidas, Vergil, Homer, Orpheus and Sappho, Addison and Steele, and Tom Thumb, who according to a friend, had died from being eaten by a cow.

A conversation with Julian the Apostate (a famous Roman leader who rejected Christianity in favor of paganism) led to a long peroration describing his being rejected and reincarnated 23 times before  being admitted at the Gate.  He had been a money-lender, a General, his own grandson, a monk, a violinist, a fool and many others.  As an alderman, his hypocritical and brainless ambition had caused him to flee through the streets, dodging awful offal cast in his direction by an irate rabble before experiencing his ultimate demise and consequent rebirth.

The last incarnation Julian underwent was as Anne Boleyn, the wife of Henry VIII.  She was a blithe spirit when young, enjoying freedom and happiness in her childhood until she entered the Queen’s service as a handmaiden.  She fell in love but lost her inamorato because of another lady which turned her into a stony rigid sort of person.  But Henry was attracted, and although she regarded him as a “stinking nauseous animal”, she married him hoping that being Queen would improve her life.  But she was accused of infidelity and…

The long tale ends at this point, the author predicting that it will vanish because of being used for pie plates and cigar wrappings.

This was a lot of fun to read.  Fielding becomes more approachable in this book, i thought, because his background as author and judge gave him a unique stance from which to study his society and culture.  He saw the bad side of the human race in his capacity as judge, but he was able to temper that with his insightful observation of the underlying motivational forces for good in many of the victims of his time.  He was also the founder of Scotland Yard, in its nascent beginnings as the Bow Street Runners.  My impression was that he was a good man, but in constant battle with depression because of the moral and ethical injustice he saw around him every day.  He died young after a struggle with gout, asthma and cirrhosis of the liver.



Frederic Gros is a professor in philosophy at the University of Paris.  He was an editor of some of the lectures of Michel Foucault, the principal proponent of structuralism in literature and historical studies.  This book examines the act of walking from a number of different perspectives, describing how it effected the lives and thinking of Thoreau, Kant, Gandhi, Nerval, and others.

Kant walked every day until he was eighty.  The same route, at the same time, an unending circle stimulating his thought processes and maintaining his health.  Toward the end of his life, he attributed his declining energies to having breathed in an airborne “electric fluid” that drained his vitality.

Nerval, on the other hand, walked all over Europe and the Middle East.  He was a melancholy sort of person who spent his life in a kind of dream state, disregarding the real world and fantasizing about the” imminence of the end of time”.  His own imminence came when he hanged himself at 47, his hat still on his head, according to Dumas.

Gandhi’s walking was the expression of peaceful civil disobedience.  He was convinced the brutal British would leave India if faced with a nation of non-violent demonstrators.  His mass walks protesting the salt tax brought him fame and the attention of the world and largely produced the effect he was striving toward, but also resulted in the great partition and religious struggle between the Hindus and the Moslems.

Thoreau was Gandhi’s predecessor and the inspiration for his theory of social change.  Thoreau himself, however,  was more interested in covering ground, treading the sands of Cape Cod, the White Mountains and the surrounds of Concord, than in proselytization of his theses.  His writings celebrate the simple life, describing the gains to be attained by living in and with nature.

Pilgrims to Mt. Kailash, having performed the long trek from India to Tibet, are convinced their efforts help to prolong the Earth’s existence, the mountain being the center of life as we know it.  Some walk, or crawl, around the mountain numerous times, seeking revelation or enlightenment.

Rimbaud got into the walking habit at the early age of fifteen when he left home to walk to Paris.  He was excited by the idea of being a poet.  He hopped a train without paying the fare and landed in jail.  Georges Izambard, a Parisian tutor, bailed him out.  Rimbaud had itchy feet.  He walked all over Germany and France multitudinous times and wrote his poems in the brief interludes.  “A Season in Hell” and Illuminations” were written before he was twenty.  At that age he quit writing and moved to Africa, where he walked prodigiously until his right leg gave out.  He suffered greatly from cancer until his demise in Marseilles at the age of 37.

Rousseau claimed to have written all his books while walking;  that he couldn’t think while standing still.  He also was a European strider, visiting Italy several times on foot.  As his philosophy about the ideal human arose and became finalized as regarding man in his best incarnation as a “noble savage”, his social repute disintegrated into popular rejection.  He was basically anathematized by European literary and social classes.  His walks after the age of sixty, as an outcast of sorts, taught him the values of detachment and enhanced his perception of reality.

Gros’s chapter on Nietzsche perhaps reflected his interest in walking the most, probably because of their mutual professions in philosophy.  Nietzsche suffered most of his life from extremely painful migraine headaches that could be relieved most of the time by long walks, especially ones that went up mountains.  But later even walking failed to alleviate the pain, and, possibly through a series of transient ischemic attacks, Nietzsche lost most of his mental acuity and spent the remnant of his life under the care of nurses and doctors.

There are 25 chapters in the book and not all of them deal with characters.  They have titles such as “Serenity”, “Gravity”, “Elemental”, and “Repetition”.  But Gros’s overall understanding of walking can be more or less condensed into a few simpler concepts:  detachment and identification with nature, mainly.  His contention is that walking can clear thought processes and contribute not only to overall physical health, but mental well-being also.  After walking for several hours, he describes the feeling of lightness and effortless motion that results from repetitive activity:  presumably a sort of self-hypnosis.  (I’ve experienced this myself while walking in the Columbia River gorge.)  And sometimes, rarely, a person can understand a kind of unity with the universe:  that we are not only ourselves, but integral parts of everything we perceive around us and beyond.  It’s a Zen-like idea that can make a lot of sense to those who are seriously interested in the mystery of being.  This book covered familiar ground for me, but still was interesting as an alternative point of view as regards some of the ideas i’ve found to be authentic in my own experiences.  Recommended.