Friday, March 15, 2013

A Tale of Two Trains

     The Quaker City left New York harbor on June 10.   It stopped in the Azores, where Twain rode around on a donkey; on Gibraltar, where he bought gloves that didn't fit from a pretty salesgirl; and in Tangier, where he sneaked a glimpse inside a mosque.  The Fourth of July found the passengers celebrating in the middle of the Mediterranean with a make-shift rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner," an uninspiring reading of the Declaration of Independence, and a series of boring speeches made better by champagne toasts.  Then everyone danced at a ball on the promenade deck.  It was, Twain said, "a bright, cheerful, pleasant Fourth."
     And good thing, too, because they crossed into France the next night.  On this first trip, which marked the beginning of the end for Twain's goodwill toward the French, he apparently stayed for just over a week.  I say "apparently" because he doesn't give dates. After a couple of nights in Marseille, he and some other passengers headed to Paris by train. And here the trouble begins.  He starts to see, as he puts it, "discrepancies" between his idealized image of France and his actual experience of the country and the people who live in it. 
     Before he stepped on board,  Paris took top billing in his mind. "Everybody was going to Europe--I too was going to Europe. Everybody was going to the famous Paris Exhibition--I too was going to the Paris Exhibition," he enthuses.  Then he describes a scene with a man who becomes a fellow passenger, Mr. Blucher:
    We stepped into a store on Broadway one day, where he bought a handkerchief, and when the man
      could not make change, Mr. B. said, "Never mind, I'll hand it to you in Paris."
     "But I am not going to Paris."
     "How is--what did I understand you to say?"
     "I said I am not going to Paris."
     "Not going to Paris!  Not g--well, then, where in the nation are you going to?"
     As the French would say, le monde was headed to Paris.  And if there was anything Twain wanted, it was to be part of le monde--yet write about it a way that made light of himself and everyone else.
     So there he finally was, on his way to Paris.  He has a brief reverie looking out the train window--"What a bewitching land it is!  What a garden!...It is wonderful...There is no dirt, no decay, no rubbish...All is orderly and beautiful--everything is charming to the eye."  But then what he does do?  He announces that they are "not infatuated with these French railway cars" and launches into a nostalgic riff about a stagecoach ride he took across the American West.  Only then does he turn his attention to the French train;  if he were posting a review on TripAdvisor today, he'd probably give it a 7 out of 10.  He likes the comfortable seats and he loves the food--"a rare experience and one to be treasured forever"--but he doesn't care for the compartments where you can be locked in without heat or water and trapped with a drunk.
The inside of a French TGV, or fast speed, train today: no compartments to trap you in with drunks
     But it's when he comments on the safety record of French trains that we get a taste of the distaste to come: "They have no railroad accidents to speak of in France.  But why?  Because when one occurs, somebody has to pay for it.  Not hang maybe, but be punished at least with such vigor of emphasis as to make negligence a thing to be shuddered at."  In America, he says, "softhearted juries" don't blame the conductors, but in France "they go on the principle that it is better that one innocent man should suffer than five hundred."
     What's going on here?  Suddenly the French are vengeful meanies and we're the forgiving nice guys?  True, Twain seems to be joking about the French justice system, where a suspect is presumed guilty not innocent.  Still, his judgment is so harsh and sudden--hardly an example of the American softheartedness he describes.  And where does his information come from, anyway?  To me, it has the ring of a gripe heard from another passenger. 
     Wherever he got it, a pattern starts to form, in which Twain compares France to America and finds it lacking.  In the wake of the Civil War, as the U.S. is stepping onto the world stage with new power, he starts using the French to create an American identity by comparison.
    The French are becoming Twain's foil.

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