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The Mysterious Stranger Paperback – February 4, 2013
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From the Back Cover
In his last years Mark Twain had become a respected literary figure whose opinions were widely sought by the press. He had also suffered a series of painful physical, economic, and emotional losses. The Mysterious Stranger, published posthumously in 1916 and belonging to Twain's "dark" period, belies the popular image of the affable American humorist. In this antireligious tale, Twain denies the existence of a benign Providence, a soul, an afterlife, and even reality itself. As the Stranger in the story asserts, "nothing exists; all is a dream". --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.
About the Author
Samuel Langhorne Clemens (November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910), better known by his pen name Mark Twain, was an American author and humorist. He is most noted for his novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), the latter often called "the Great American Novel."
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This was the last book Twain wrote before he died; he never saw it published, yet it was clearly taken seriously, and cared about. It was in the works for a long time before it was finished--there were two "versions" of the idea that came before the book "No. 44" which were themselves full-fledged stories ("The Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts"), but it is this final version I believe I like the best. The story strikes one as very post-modern for Mark Twain; almost as if Kafka, Calvino and Twain decided to put their heads together and talk collaboration.
The action takes place in Austria, shortly after printing has first been invented. The print shop has been set up discreetly in a giant, labyrinthine, moldering castle full of disused passages and dusty, lofty chambers. The ordinary routine of the Master and apprentices is disturbed by the appearance of a Mysterious Stranger, a young boy who comes to the castle seeking food and shelter one snowy evening in Austrian winter. He is taken in by the master and given work in exchange for food and shelter. Immediately, for no firm reason, the entire printing crew takes a vehement, violent dislike to the boy, who proves himself to be absolutely inexhaustible, to be superhumanly strong and clever. Each person in the castle is against him, save the master and the story's narrator, a printing assistant named August, who becomes friend to and protege of 44.
Gradually, as the story unfolds, the mysteries around 44 deepen, getting pulled into the realm of strange and oneiric upheaval. Thematically, the novel has much in common with "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," in which, as in "No. 44," an essentially modern influence combats a corrupt, tyrannical religion in a medieval setting. Hank Morgan has his Industrial Age facility with various machinery and his stubborn freedom of thought, just as 44 has his mysterious, omnipotent magic. Unlike in "The Connecticut Yankee," however, is the acknowledgement in "The Mysterious Stranger" that magic does indeed succeed in human endeavors, and that the life of the mind is the only true life, instead of a life dedicated to and fearful of God. While Hank Morgan is confounded in the end by magic, August is eventually released by it; where Moran is driven by his conviction of the essential freedom of the human will, 44 repeatedly explains to August that he is unable to intervene, or to change anything, for all is predestined, written in stone.
"No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger" is a short, gorgeous and wildly intense tale of oneiric trips through time and of cognitive and emotional realization, of love affairs of the soul without the flesh, and of the ultimate triumph of the human mind over its own fears and limitations. It is exuberant and vast, hilarious, tragic, and touching. It leaves the reader shivering and smiling and (above all) thinking and dreaming as No. 44.
The publishers of The Mark Twain Library series would have us believe that "No. 44" was Twain's own preferred version based primarily on chronology. Twain, however, had a habit of suppressing his own work -- particularly some of his most biting satires (See DeVoto's edition of Twain's "Letters from the Earth.") believing it, perhaps, too controversial for its time.
The story of the evolution of "The Mysterious Stranger" and all three manuscripts as Twain left them can be found in William Gibson's "Mark Twain's Mysterious Stranger Manuscripts."
This story, "No. 44," is a pleasant enough boy's adventure along the Tom Sawyer line, but -- being an unfinished manuscript and having never seen the hand of a good editor-- it rambles around and takes wild unexplained changes in tone and storyline and never really leads anywhere. The grand dark satire of the better known story is missing, or, at best, severely watered down in this version. To add insult to injury, the television film of "The Mysterious Stranger" was based on "no. 44".
I originally wrote this review for a previous edition of "No. 44", but I see that it has been appended to all editions of "The Mysterious Stranger". So let me be clear: I am referring to The Mark Twain Library edition which is entitled "No. 44, The Mysterious Stranger".
"The Mysterious Stranger" is a marvelous work. "No. 44" is a curiosity at best.
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