Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise

Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise

Mark Twain aka Samuel Clemens and Sir Henry Morton Stanley are the subjects of Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Oscar Hijuelos' last book. It is literally his last book since he died suddenly in 2013 of a massive heart attack on the tennis court before the book even went to the publisher. After a period of mourning, Hijuelos' wife, managed to gather herself together long enough to contact both the agent and the publisher who undertook the final steps to the publication of this remarkable novel.

Hijuelos, long an admirer of Mark Twain, discovered a reference to this American icon while undertaking the study of the intrepid British explorer, Henry Morton Stanley. When he found that they had been friends for most of their lives and that Stanley's wife, Dorothy Tennant was a well-known portraitist, with works in the National Collection, he realized that he had the makings of a terrific story. 

Henry Morton Stanley painted by Dorothy Tennant
And what a story it is! Hijuelos put in years and years -  12 altogether - of research and then filled in the blanks with his own imagined tale. He was just putting the finishing touches on it when he died so suddenly. His wife, Lori Marie Carlson-Hijuelos, a writer in her own right, explains in the afterword that, although the major events in the lives of these two men are well-documented, the parts that fill in the story are completely from the mind and imagination of Carlos Hijuelos: the diary entries, the speeches, the letters - all figments of his fertile imagination, integrated seamlessly into the actual lives of these well-known late-19th century men.

Mark Twain Image
Samuel Clemens/Mark Twain
When I first opened the pages of this semi-biographical novel, I was worried that I might find it a tad dull, laden with too many details of the sort that seem important to a biographer, but which might, to me, seem burdensome. Happily my fears did not come to fruition. I remained interested and in touch with every detail, thanks to the author's expert and luminous writing and his sensitive and compassionate treatment of the characters. No need to flip through pages of uninteresting details.

What stories these two men had: Twain, the American former Mississippi river pilot, writer and performer and Stanley, of meager origins but eventually the great explorer of Africa with tales to tell. Lives intersecting, for real, but also fictionally. And Dorothy, who loved them both? It's impossible to tell in the reading of the novel what is real and what is not, so seamlessly is it written. Knowing that it is, in part or even, mostly, fictional, the reader soon comes to understand that the opinions and sensibilities of the author are intertwined throughout. What Twain and others come to think about the American offensives in Cuba, the Philippines and elsewhere, colonialism, religion, slavery, Stanley's own forays into Africa, done in the service of the greedy King LĂ©opold of Belgium - well, we start to wonder if it is Hijuelos expressing his own opinions.  

Hijuelos' gentle treatment Dorothy, of whom very little personal detail is likely to be known, and her desire to paint Twain, her compassionate nursing of her husband who suffers throughout his life from malaria and gastritis, all surely reveal a great deal about the kind of man the author was.

One of the entertaining aspects of the novel is the way the author has Twain, Stanley and their families coming into social contact with some of the great contemporary figures of the age: Thomas Edison, Bret Harte, H.G. Wells, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, George Bernard Shaw are a few that come to mind. The author also has Dorothy Tennant introducing Mark Twain and his family to the popular 19th-century belief in spiritualism after the death of a beloved daughter.

I also enjoyed the philosophical sparring between the three main characters. The thoughtful discussions about religion and spiritualism, deism and theism, are not only entertaining but also give us a window into the depth of research done by Hijuelos, 

Some readers of this novel have not been as enthusiastic as I am. It's long and the historical details are not to everybody's liking. Other readers have been equally captivated by Twain and Stanley. I need to be careful in my recommendations and you who are reading this need to make up your own mind as to the kind of book you want to read. I'm just glad I experienced it and I hope some of you who read this will also enjoy it.