Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon: Mark Twain and the British Ladies

Between 1884 and his death twenty years later, Theodor Herzl wrote many light, non-political pieces of literary criticism, travelogue, and fiction or semi-fiction, of the genre known as “feuilleton.” Collecting about seventy of these in a two-volume set (published in Berlin in 1903), Herzl gave it the simple tide Feuilletons. This piece, written in 1894, is taken from the second volume, which contains several essays penned during Herd’s sojourn in Paris as the correspondent of the Neue Freie Presse.

Herzl never visited the United States, but was interested in American life and knew something about American literature, having read Washington! Irving, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edward Bellamy, and Mark Twain. In his Jugendtagebuch there is an entry dated February 3, 1882, wherein the twenty-one-year-old student of jurisprudence discusses a collection of Mark Twain’s short stories. Herzl noted that the German translation was inadequate, and he characterized the volume as representative of “English [!] humor, grotesque at times, and always dry.” Yet he regarded Mark Twain as a forceful critic of local conditions.

Twelve years later Herzl had a chance to see Mark Twain (then close to sixty) at the British embassy in Paris where the humorist gave a reading to a select group. The excerpt printed below is Herzl’s reaction to the actual reading, at which he was present. In the original essay, there is a second half, a humorous “addendum” in which he spoofs the character of an American newspaperman, a correspondent in Paris, whose public back home is waiting for his stuff to appear in the local paper, the Minneapolis Bluffs. Here Herzl—without firsthand experience—is forced to fall back on stereotypes, in contrast to his astute personal view of Mark Twain and his audience. The translation from the German original is mine.—Alfred Werner.

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Before me, down the rue Faubourg St. Honoré, runs a large old-fashioned omnibus, painted differently from the usual Paris bus. On the roof of this box is an unoccupied bench, but the interior is jammed with young English girls, recognizable at a glance. The bus has no conductor. In the corner sits an old lady with a girl on her lap. I can hear the chirping going on in that odd vehicle, and now it goes rumbling down the hill. A boarding school! I guess at once where they are bound for—to the reading that Mark Twain is giving at the British embassy. Right! From the distance I see the old box stop in front of the embassy, and by the time I arrive—I’ve walked slowly—the whole chirping company has disembarked. Now they stalk earnestly across the courtyard in pairs. From the gate to the entrance door a strip of pavement crosses the gravel. This pavement was made in England, an inconspicuous trademark explains. . . .

All is English elegance: servants with white-lacquered hair, cool salons which actually look as though they were lived in; say: lightly lived in. In the largest salon stand rows of delicate gilded chairs, upholstered in flowered red silk. A globetrotter often sees just such chairs in the salons of absent princes, and assumes they are not meant to be sat on. Here one sits upon them; not comfortably, but one sits.

The audience consists of ladies from the tenderest years to a solemn age. There are very few men, save for three or four journalists, and not one Frenchman. . . . What consolation to one’s eyes, those tender young girls, just at the point of blossoming, with their delicate faces looking out from glowing light hair, and their supple figures evoking a green lawn and flying tennis balls. One can hardly contemplate their blond beauty without being touched; it vanishes quickly like the spring itself.

One scarcely realizes there are so many people present—so quietly do they converse. It is their passionate good breeding. Imagine the same number of French ladies, of the most elegant society, in the same hall: there would be a loud rustling of garments and chit-chat, ma chère! Or if they remained silent, their glances would dash about, inquire, reply, smile, envy, suspect, greet, flirt. But here we have the nation of the fixed eye. Every Britisher has, a yard and a half off the end of his nose, an invisible point at which he gazes attentively. And a Britisher is very serious or very gay, never anything in between.

Yet whenever I see the ambassador, Lord Dufferin, it Strikes me he does not look like an Englishman. He smiles a great deal: an icy, unpleasant, cruel smile, but still a smile. His full name is Dufferin and Ava. The second name fits better—it sounds like Alba. This creased face, weatherbeaten, dark yellowish in color, with its sharp nose, thin dyed beard, a bit fuller at the chin, would sit well over a Spanish ruff. As the governor of the Netherlands he could be very much hated. But here he stands at the door and fixes his piercing eyes on the audience. He does not have his point in the air, a yard and a half away.

Two or three other gentlemen stand in the doorway and look at someone whom I cannot see. My guess is that it is Mark Twain. For there is in the eyes of these gentlemen the expectant cheerfulness with which one awaits the approach of a noted merrymaker. Now he enters, the most celebrated wag of two continents. He gives his hand to an old gentleman, and at once this man laughs heartily, the laughter suffusing the entire staid, rigid old face. I am convinced that all Mark Twain said to him was, “Hello!” But can Mark Twain say anything that would not be funny?

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Well, so here he is. A short, spare man, and a bit shaky. The gray locks are a little over-artistic; a drooping, gray mustache under a strongly curved nose; a blank look; flabby cheeks; a pointed chin. This is at best Mr. Clemens (his legal name); Mark Twain I had imagined quite differently. I don’t exactly know just how, but different. Not that it is his fault, of course. The only fine thing in this face are the eyebrows: magnificent, energetic, widely separated eyebrows, which twirl upward. They are both prickly and hearty, like Mark Twain himself. His humor is immense, violent, unsettling. Veritable blocks of humorousness, intended for a people who refrain from smiling. When a man of English tongue decides to laugh, he wants to laugh thoroughly, all at once, and so that everything cracks. And this little man has just such great laughter wherever English is spoken on our globe—and that’s the largest of any area.

If one had his choice of language in which to write, one would surely choose English to win for oneself the most loyal, the widest circle of readers and thus wield intellectual power and leave one’s mark. . . .

The audience now applauds Mr. Clemens’s appearance, with enthusiasm and reverence. He is a remarkable reader; only for the little stories of Mark Twain his delivery is not suitable. He changes them into something altogether different—he ruins his gorgeous pieces by his equally gorgeous delivery: there’s some humor in that fact. An artist in his writing, a virtuoso in his delivery. . . . The little Mr. Clemens is much too quick and clever, and, strangely, he seems to want to get more effect from his elocution than from his subject. I can think of only one explanation: he must be much in demand as a reader and has taken on the manners of an actor. . . .

Yet even his blunders are fascinating—one deduces from them the taste of those he thinks to please with his mannerisms. People want something for their money, and when they pay for a reading, it must be a reading. So everything is heavily underlined, spelled out. He makes all kinds of unnecessary gestures—unless by accident he happens to put his hand in his vest pocket. To please his audience, he acts the comedian. He tumbles back when he wants to convey consternation. He really springs around! Rubs his nose, his mouth, his well-shaved cheeks—all to convey embarrassment. Finally, he scratches his head—which, I am sorry to say, causes a slight uneasiness in the predominantly English audience, Which is apt to be annoyed by these tree American gestures.

The reading has come to an end. There is much laughter. Lord Dufferin and Ava, with a condescending smile, presses the hand of the gay master—who will be happily remembered long after nothing remains of his Lordship, neither the Dufferin nor the Ava. The audience is not certain whether it is proper to leave immediately. A gentleman steps forward, and in a few solemn words thanks Mr. Clemens for the entertainment he has given, and Lord Dufferin for the use of the hall for so charitable a cause. To indicate that everything, including his own speech, has come to an end, the gentleman, with great composure, applauds. . . . All clap two or three times, to show they’ve understood the hint, and rise to go. Their faces once again serious, they take their leave, their eyes fixed on the point before them, a yard and a half away. Slowly they walk across the court, sticking to the granite pavement as though it were a bridge, and the gravel to the left and light, water.

They go out through the gate. They are in Paris again. Paris, which contains everything—the universe! How strange that even in that vast sea which is Paris the English can be distinguished so clearly and at such a great distance. Standing at the gate and staring after the audience of Mark Twain, I can follow them all the way down to the rue Royale. They do not flutter apart and mix with the stream of passers-by. It appears as if all of them knew each other—they stick together like a regiment. At this point, one understands the reason for their peculiarities, the little ones and the big ones. It is these peculiarities which serve to sustain them.

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