Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Anxiety of the Biographically Inclined

For those of us prone to neurosis—whom I assume to be anyone reading this blog—writing about someone else’s life is, I now see, a particular worry.  Especially when you’re writing about the life of a dead person who can’t refute what you say.  Last night, I woke up in the pre-dawn Paris darkness, fretting about my word choice.  Did Twain really hate the French?  Or is that going too far in describing his attitude?  Is it unfair to him to say so?  Am I, as usual, being hyperbolic for effect?

But then I thought, it’s Twain, for God’s sake! The guy who devoted his own writing life to being irreverent about everyone and everything, including—and maybe even especially—himself.  Fairness, be damned!  Twain always went for equal parts veracity and humor: telling the truth in a way that made people laugh. 

Then after that I thought, just look at what Twain did have to say about the French.  There’s no denying his antipathy—okay, his hatred—there.  True, some of his most scurrilous remarks appear in his letters and journals, as if he doesn’t really want to go public with them, but his bias also shows up in his work. 

Here’s a sampling of his most hateful comments about the French:

France has neither winter nor summer nor morals—apart from these drawbacks it is a fine country.

France has usually been governed by prostitutes. 
A Frenchman's home is where another man's wife is.

In certain public indecencies the difference between a dog & a Frenchman is not perceptible.

It appears that at last census every man in France over 16 years of age & under 116, has at least 1 wife to whom he has never been married.

French novels, talk, drama & newspapers bring daily & overwhelming proofs that most of the married ladies have paramours. This makes a good deal of what we call crime, and the French call sociability. 

Trivial Americans go to Paris when they die. 
(This is perhaps a take-off on a remark by Oscar Wilde:  “When good Americans die, they go to Paris.”  The dates are hard to pin down, but Twain did meet Wilde in Germany in 1893, as described in letters by both his daughters Susy and Clara.)

An isolated & helpless young girl is perfectly safe from insult by a Frenchman, if he is dead.

And my two personal favorites when it comes to showing that Twain’s views on the French are too consistent and extreme to do anything but take them seriously:

A dead Frenchman has many good qualities.

French are the connecting link between man & the monkey.

‘Nuff said.

1 comment:

  1. "A dead Frenchman has many good qualities". Reminds me of a favorite lawyer joke.