Pretty familiar if you ask me

20th June 1997 at 01:00
INVENTING MARK TWAIN: THE LIVES OF SAMUEL LANGHORNE CLEMENS. By Andrew Hoffman. Weidenfeld and Nicolson Pounds 25

Mark Twain - with the help of Christopher Bigsby - reviews his latest biography

Lord, it seems like folks will never rest in telling the story of my life as if they had bought rights in it when actually they is claim jumpers if ever I see such. I dug this hole and seems like that ought to give me rights in it. Huck Finn, it turns out, is a version of me, Sam Clemens, as mark Twain is another mask I put on when it suits and not otherwise. Well, that's as maybe, but maybe is a long way from being so.

I thought I had told all there was to tell and then some but along they come, regular as boils on your backside, finding something new as they suppose, hunting out some story or another that shows me up to be something I ain't. I know I stretched the truth a little from time to time - truth being a mite like molasses and difficult to keep as steady as you might wish - but I can't exactly see how some college man out in Rhode Island (which isn't so much a state as an afterthought) could know who I was and what I done when I ain't too clear myself.

Still, along he comes and hits me with a book which says I'm this and I'm that, sometimes one thing cancelling out another. So, I'm a fancy womaniser at the same time I'm a homosexual. Lord, but times have changed. Hold up, though, this latest one is a novelist himself so how you going to believe a word he says when he belongs in the same union as me and must have took the same oath to lie his way to perdition?

I see how in one place he says that in Nevada I "played poker all night, speculated in mining stock, and sought out easy female company". What in hell's name makes him think they was easy. And what about this Andrew Hoffman? What in hell's name kind of man is he, reading my letters and journals and generally prying where he has no business? And hang on there, what is this? "For the first few months of 1862 Sam gave himself over to nearly unbroken dissipation. " How come he claims to know me and yet figures a few months was the best I could manage?

He points out how some of the newspaper reporting I did was mostly lies, not realising, it seems, that the effort required to keep lies and reporting apart is mostly wasted, the two being related by blood. And that's not all he says that might damage my reputation.

There are some strange things in this book. Why this man from Rhode Island even says that my name wasn't stole from my old friend Colonel Sellers at all but was something I used to call out when entering a bar in Virginia City, Nevada, Mark Twain meaning mark two drinks in the ledger! I been accused of a lot in my life but never of not stealing what I said I did. But, who knows, maybe he is right. The words Virginia City and drinks do seem to fit together pretty neatly in my memory. Anyway, who cares, you ask, but these biographer people got a job to do and I was never one to interfere in someone earning the price of a drink.

Hang on, though, what is this? I just reached the place where he claims I was homosexual. He says how I was "in the vanguard of homoerotic expression, " whatever that means when you've sent it to the laundry and hung it out to dry. No evidence, mind you. Hell, no. But then there wouldn't be since he lets on as how "the exact nature of sexuality in the American West will remain a mystery!" Well, it would if you lived in Rhode Island and never saw Buffalo Jo Dodge who was pretty precise about the nature of sexuality whichever point of the compass you cared to approach he from. But what is it that gives him the right to enrol me in the Brotherhood beyond the fact that, being dead, I can't bring suit against him the way I should?

This whole book is a touch too familiar if you ask me, as nobody would, of course, this only being my life we are talking about. For some reason he calls me Sam, as if I'd borrowed money off him some time and he wanted to remind me of it. Mind you, I notice his respect increases as I get older which is something I've seen before, as if respectability and senility were in a race, the evidence for which is pretty strong if you've ever visited Congress.

He accuses me of pursuing love and money. I suppose there are better objects for a quest but if you don't fancy wandering around looking for a Holy Grail, whatever the hell that is, I suspect they are as good as anything to take off after. To have been poor is to make money seem attractive; to have been without true affection is to increase its value. Do I recognise this portrait, then? In part, as a map could be said to resemble the hills, valleys and byways where you were raised. There's a deal of detail here I haven't seen on other maps but portraits were ever a poor substitute for flesh and blood and a map is only a map.

You'll find it all here, I suppose, in one way or another, though for my money there's a deal too much about the schemes I wasted my cash on and how I could tell jokes on others but never take one myself. The fact is, if I couldn't take a joke how do you think I manage to stand all these biographies that poke around in my life like a doctor on piecework? I don't hold no grudge against Mr Hoffman, nor even Rhode Island. He's probably right when he says Huck Finn is just someone Sam Clemens pushed forward when he wanted to hide for a while and that I spent a lifetime re-inventing myself. But, "in the vanguard of homoerotic expression?" Please, Mr Hoffman, is this a joke?

Christopher Bigsby's Hester, a prequel to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and Pearl, a sequel, are published by Weidenfeld

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