Foreign from centre to circumference

Can-cans, Cats and Cities of Ash
by Mark Twain

This is in the Penguin Great Journeys series, so it’s an abridged version of a longer travelogue, in this case The Innocents Abroad, Twain’s 1869 account of a cruise across the Atlantic and around the Mediterranean.

I love Twain’s writing style – it’s simple language but excitable. He’s super enthusiastic to learn about the places he visits and to see in person places he has elevated to legendary status. His reactions seem to be genuine and honest. Which unfortunately includes some negative thoughts that are kinda racist.

“Elsewhere we have found foreign-looking things and foreign-looking people, but always with things and people intermixed that we were familiar with before, and so the novelty of the situation lost a deal of its force. We wanted something thoroughly and uncompromisingly foreign – foreign from top to bottom – foreign from centre to circumference – foreign inside and outside and all around – nothing any where about it to dilute its foreignness – nothing to remind us of any other people or any other land under the sun. And lo! in Tangier we have found it.”

This is especially true of the first chapter, about the stop at the Azores, at the small town of Horta on the island of Fayal. It was not the planned stop; the people are poor and Twain is not kind about the state of their clothes and hygiene. It grates, reading not just sweeping generalisations about the Portuguese (“slow, poor, shiftless, sleepy and lazy”) but also outright meanness (“little better than the donkeys they eat and sleep with”).

Once the journey reaches Europe it gets less racist and the narrative tends to a sense of wonder that was truly captivating. Twain turns his humour to the escapades of his shipmates and there is a lot of fun, from a disapproving evening watching the can-can danced in Paris to an illicit tour of Athens while the ship is under quarantine.

There are beautiful descriptions of Tangier’s 3000-year-old streets, of Genoa’s hundred palaces, of Rome’s ruins. There’s an especially moving chapter about Pompeii, where Twain was clearly deeply moved by the history. But he is also moved by the beauty of nature.

“The sun came out and made it a beautiful picture – a mass of green farms and meadows that swelled up to a height of fifteen hundred feet, and mingled its upper outlines with the clouds. It was ribbed with sharp, steep ridges, and cloven with narrow canyons, and here and there on the heights, rocky upheavals shaped themselves into mimic battlements and castles; and out of rifted clouds came broad shafts of sunlight, that painted summit, and slope, and glen, with bands of fire, and left belts of sombre shade between.”

So I closed the book torn between loving it and hating it. In the end, I guess I have to separate the opinions from the writing. Which is easier said than done.

The Innocents Abroad published 1869 by the American Publishing Company.

This collection published 2003 by Penguin Classics.

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