America’s greatest humorist – and, according to Garrison Keillor, a lousy autobiographer – Mark Twain.
“Rambling”… “excruciating”… “tedious”… “a wonderful fraud”; such descriptions sound like quotes from a publishing house turning down a young author’s first draft of a novel.
But in this instance the author is Mark Twain, the book is the first volume of his long-awaited autobiography, and the reviewer is Garrison Keillor. Keillor, in a piece for the New York Times which will be printed this Sunday, pulls no punches.
The reader hikes across the hard, dusty ground of a famous man’s reminiscences and is delighted to come across the occasional water hole…Here, sandwiched between a 58-page barrage of an introduction and 180 pages of footnotes, is a ragbag of scraps, some of interest, most of them not: travel notes, the dictated reminiscences of an old man in a dithery voice… various false starts, anecdotes that must have been amusing at one time …you have to wade through 18 pages of mind-numbing inventory of the Countess Massiglia’s Villa di Quarto, which he leased in Florence (“I shall go into the details of this house, not because I imagine it differs much from any other old-time palace or new-time palace on the continent of Europe, but because every one of its crazy details interests me, and therefore may be expected to interest others of the human race, particularly women”), the only point of which is that the man can afford to rent a palace that is fancier than anything you’d find in Missouri. His wife is dying, and he compiles an inventory of furniture.
I wonder if this will have any impact on Keillor’s chances of winning the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.