Sunday, April 29, 2007

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

From the favourer: "In truth, I don't remember the story all that well...all I knew at 12 was that I wanted that raft for my own, but alas, all I had was a skateboard..."

I don't think I'd read any Mark Twain since I was about 14 (at which point I committed to memory once and for all that it was "Tom Sawyer" by Mark Twain and not "Mark Twain" by Tom Sawyer). I'd forgotten about the effect his writing has on your non-reading moments. When you're not physically reading it, you think about the book so much - it's as if you're missing out on something, somehow when you're not reading they must be having adventures without you.

Huck is my kind of boy. When informed by his aunt that one of the central tenets of Christianity is the 'do as you would be done by' thing, Tom interprets it as: "I must help other people, and do everything I could for other people, and look out for them all the time, and never think about myself." He ponders this notion; "I went out in the woods and turned it over in my mind a long time," but concludes; "I couldn't see no advantage about it - except for the other people".

When we meet him, Huck is in the process of being "sivilized" by his adoptive aunt, and he's beginning to get used to the washing and the lack of cussing. But at this point his drunken, violent father, who everyone had thought (and hoped) was dead, shows up in town and steals Huck away to a log cabin in the woods. He locks Huck up alone for days at a time, then comes home toasted, yells at the demons that his DTs produce, and beats Huck mercilessly. One particularly bad night, his (significantly uncapitalised) "pap" thinks Huck is the Angel of Death and tries to stab him to death. Huck sits up all night with a rifle pointed at his unconscious father, ready to shoot him if he should wake and try to finish the job. Always the master of understatement, Twain usually has Huck respond to his regular beatings with such lines as "I was used to being where I was, and I liked it, all but the cowhide part." So when Twain has Huck say, very simply, "I was scared", the weight of these stark words is enormous.

After this sleepless night (of which his father remembers nothing), Huck fakes his own death with the help of a pig carcass and escapes to the river, teaming up with the runaway slave Jim.

And the adventures begin.

As you might have gathered, they're not quite adventures in the light-hearted Famous Five style - there's rotting bodies in half-submerged brothels, execution plots, unwanted unshakeable passengers, drownings, family feud shoot-outs where young boys pay the ultimate price, and the ever-present threat of Jim being caught and sold, or lynched. Even the initially humorous story depicting a group of men's fear of a "haunted barrel" (it floats in the same place in the river, despite the swift current) suddenly changes tone when the barrel is cut open and the dead baby inside is revealed. All of this is laid out for us in Huck's matter-of-fact colloquial voice.

Despite being way more violent than I expected (and it's understated violence that has the most effect on me), it's also a very funny book as well. It's a laid-back, laconic type of humour that I really enjoy - the encounter where Huck lies to a doctor in order to get help with Tom Sawyer's gunshot wound is a prime example:

"The Doctor was an old man; a very nice, kind-looking old man, when I got him up. I told him me and my brother was over on Spanish Island hunting, yesterday afternoon, and camped on a piece of raft we found, and about midnight he must a kicked his gun in his dreams, for it went off and shot him in the leg, and we wanted him to go over there and fix it and not say nothing about it, nor let anybody know, because we wanted to come home this evening, and surprise the folks.
'Who is your folks?' he says.
'The Phelpses, down yonder.'
'Oh,' he says. And after a minute, he says: 'How'd you say he got shot?'
'He had a dream,' I says, 'and it shot him.'
'Singular dream,' he says."

Heh heh. Singular dream.

To be honest, I think a lot of the satirical matter that this book is famous for may have gone over my head - some of it slid so close to farce that it just annoyed me. Some others parts are so in line with modern-day cynicism that they just seem to be more statements of fact (one character observes the further away from their doorstep a 'good cause' is, the more money 'good people' will donate).

The nature of racism that is examined in the book seemed less shocking to me than it is probably supposed to be (given that the book is still banned today in some schools). The casual ugliness of the attitudes towards slavery that Twain depicts get so tangled up with the high farce descriptions of events that they seem more trivialising than satirising or derisive. The only times where I didn't feel this were in the descriptions of Huck's inner struggles with Jim's runaway status. Huck 'knows' that to do right by God and go to heaven he must turn Jim in - after all, he is 'stolen property'. Several times he is on the brink of betraying Jim, but he can never quite manage to obey what he thinks is his 'conscience'. Finally, in an amazingly mature act of courage (considering that he really does believe he is committing a mortal sin), he gives in to his natural humanistic instincts and commits fully to his friendship with Jim. He reasons that if he's going to Hell anyway, he may as well not do it by halves.

You've probably heard this book lauded as a masterpiece of tonal consistency and it's warranted - the voices of the characters never hit a wrong note, and while humour comes naturally to a colloquial tone, I was most impressed by Twain's ability to create a highly evocative descriptive scenario without any faltering of the character's voice. It's such a hard thing to achieve - I'm useless at it myself. Take the description of a thunderstorm, as told to us by Huck:

"It was one of these regular summer storms. It would get so dark that it looked all blue-black outside, and lovely; and the rain would thrash along by so thick that the trees off a little ways looked dim and spider-webby; and here would come a blast of wind that would bend the trees down and turn up the pale underside of the leaves; and then a perfect ripper of a gust would follow along and set the branches to tossing their arms as if they was just wild; and next, when it was just about the bluest and blackest - fst! it was as bright as glory and you'd have a little glimpse of tree-tops a-plunging about, away off yonder in the storm, hundreds of yards further than you could see before; dark as sin again in a second, and now you'd hear the thunder let go with an awful crash and then go rumbling, grumbling, tumbling down the sky towards the under side of the world, like rolling empty barrels down stairs, where it's long stairs and they bounce a good deal, you know."

How's that for a very long yet somehow not over-long sentence? The best bit is where the lightning strikes, I went "Yeah" on the train. No wonder Twain's writing follows you around like the morning after a particularly vivid dream.

It's the rare kind of book where I can't help thinking that any 'flaws' I find are probably flaws in me, rather than the book.

And the shadow of Huck's father finding him that hangs over the whole adventure? Well, let me just advise you not to peek at the last page until you get there (and yes, for once I didn't either).


ak-c said...

I like the sound of this one anna, rambling adventures, social observations, evocative descriptions... but i'm a bit worried if the satire went over your head. Would you recommend it for the lazy reader?

Jude said...

Oh no! Now even readers are categorized... I might even be a 'lazy reader'...
I suspect this book would keep me awake, though.