Prospect recommends: books

November 16, 2010

Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume One, University of California Press, £24.95

Having fretted for years about how to write his autobiography, Mark Twain came up with his characteristically inventive—and immodest—solution in 1906. In the presence of a stenographer, he would “freely” describe his life, wandering about chronologically as the fancy took him. The result, when published a century after his death, would be not only “read and admired” but would “become a model for all future autobiographies.”

The first of these predictions was wholly accurate: this first volume (of three) is impossible not to admire, so fluent and entertaining a picture does it provide of Twain’s life. Once the rather boring preliminaries are out of the way—some 200 pages of additional writings before you reach the memoir proper—the text becomes a picaresque adventure story, full of brilliant characters and scarcely believable anecdotes, balancing the mordant wit so prominent in Twain’s fiction with affectionate portraits of those close to him, most movingly his dead wife Olivia.

What of the second prediction? Will this become a model for future autobiographies? Funnily enough, it has already, given that today’s celebrities prefer to “talk” rather than “write” their memoirs. But the gulf between Twain and them is immense, as every sentence of this book reminds us.