Friday, June 28, 2013

Bad Pool and Dull Wine

Loves cats and pool: Twain at the billiard table with a cute kitten

       Twain is well-known not only as a great writer but also as a great lover of pool.   He had a whole room set up just to play it on the third floor of the mansion he and Livy built in the Nook Farm neighborhood of Hartford--a man-attic if not a man-cave.  There he and his friends would hang out till the wee hours smoking tobacco, drinking scotch, and shooting pool.  According to Paine, Twain could play all night, until everybody else fell asleep.  He also liked to write and edit there, spreading pages of his manuscripts out on the pool table. 
     So I guess it's not surprising that the other thing Twain did his first night in Paris was to play billiards--or at least try to.  But here too what he found in France disappointed him.  When he and his friends came upon a place with billiards, they headed right in but found nothing but frustration:
     At eleven o'clock we alighted upon a sign which manifestly referred to billiards. Joy!...We expected to fare better here [than when they had played in Gilbraltar], but we were mistaken.  The cushions were a good deal higher than the balls, and as the balls had a fashion of always stopping under the cushions, we accomplished very little in the way of caroms.  The cushions were hard and unelastic, and the cues were so crooked that in making a shot you had to allow for the curve or you would infallibly put the "English" on the wrong side of the ball.  Dan was to mark while the doctor and I played.  At the end of an hour neither of us had made a count, and Dan was tired of keeping a tally with nothing to tally, and we were heated and angry and disgusted.  We paid the heavy bill--about six cents--and said we would call around sometime when we had a week to spend, and finish the game.
     Now, I know nothing about playing pool.  So his description of cushions and caroms means about as much to me as the Egyptian hieroglyphs I saw last week at the Louvre.  As far as I can remember, I've only tried to play twice, twenty years apart.  When I was in college, my brother tried to teach me in a friend's basement near Boston.  He's a patient soul, but after several attempts he got that look on his face that says, Can I really be related to this woman? So I let him off the hook, or should it be pool stick?  The second time, a friend from London gave it a go at an English pub in Bordeaux.  I performed equally badly if not worse.  Luckily, we soon got distracted by the good, cheap wine and she too was free to give up on me. 
     But even though I'm an ignoramus about pool, I hope I've learned something about Twain's tricky use of tone, especially when it comes to himself and the French .  The pattern I see is that he sets up an expectation--"Joy!"--only to have it dashed, quickly and quirkily, in a way that manages to make likeable fun of himself even while he's putting down the French.  The trains are wonderful but free of accidents because of the Draconian consequences for conductors.  The hotel is lovely but lacks soap and gaslight.  The cafes are frisky and Frenchy but somehow sound too cutesy.  And the shave, well, that's just an unmitigated desastre, based on a foolish fantasy.
     Yet, through it all, Twain, or should I say his persona, makes us like him, even when he admits to taunting the French with their own language, just "for the pleasure of being cruel."  How does he pull it off?  Well, for starters, he presents himself and his sidekicks from The Quaker City, as just regular folks, people his readers can relate to.  He doesn't pretend to know much about Paris or France (in fact, he knew quite a bit more French language and history than he let on).  He admits to arriving in Paris with the typical romanticized notions about the city of Americans of his day (many of which still persist).  As a result, his readers like him because we can follow him around Paris with eyes that seem to have a similar gaze as our own.  In that way, he's the definitive reporter and travel writer.  Because the character of "Twain" that he creates, starting with The Innocents Abroad, and continuing throughout his long career as a writer, speech-maker, and public figure, is neither better nor worse than ourselves.  "Twain" is the average American let loose in the world, like some kind of cultural scout, with no airs or pretensions.  Even by the Quaker City trip, though, what with the fame of his "Jumping Frog" story, Twain himself is no longer that guy. And he'll become even less so as time goes onBut it is that "Twain" persona--and his careful cultivation of it--that allows him, ironically, to take a superior attitude toward the French.  Hey, he's just sayin'.  Can he help it if France and the French aren't all they were cracked up to be?
      But there's a bigger force starting to come into play, too.  Through "Twain," Twain is creating a new American identity, one different from earlier extremes of either the Brahmin or the frontiersman: from Emerson on the one hand or Wild Bill Hickok on the other.  He's forging an American character who, yes, is still rough around the edges, but who is also competent to comment on the most refined capital of the world, the place that symbolizes culture itself.  And who is willing to do so.  It takes quite a bit of cultural self-confidence to do that.  When I say Twain builds an American identity in contradistinction to the French, that's what I'm talking about.
     So, back to pool as an example.  According to histories of the game, it was a French (and English) pursuit long before it was an American one.  In fact, it's generally agreed that it started in medieval times in France or England as an indoor version of a lawn game like croquetAs far back as 1470, French kings were playing it, as evidenced by the fact that Louis XI bought a billiard table that year.  Many pool terms even come from the French: billiards itself, for example, and cue, which derives from the French queue, or line.  And what was one of Marie Antoinette's and Louis XVI's favorite ways to pass the time in the waning days of the monarchy before the French Revolution?  Shooting pool.  You can still see a pool table at Versailles today.
The pool table in Versailles today
     What's more, there are evidently many places to shoot pool in Paris these days, though I personally haven't tried any of them out, of course. But for those of you who may be so inclined, here's a list. Maybe one of you will go and have a better experience than Twain--then write an updated review and post it as a comment on this blog.
     But I'm not quite done with Twain's first night in Paris.  Between the bad pool and dark, soapless hotel, he stops by "one of those pretty cafes," where they ate and "tested the wines of the country, as we had been instructed to do."  And how does he--and I mean "Twain"--find them?"  Harmless and unexciting." 
Mais, bien sur!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Paula, I'm heading for Hartford this week--going to take in that third-floor man-cave and all the rest of the Nook Farm house. Literary tourism rocks! I'll let you know if I notice anything overtly French ... :-)