Book Review: Our Famous Guest, by Carl Dolmetsch

The 100th anniversary of Samuel Clemens’ death was celebrated with stories, laughs and hopes

Jeff Sturgeon acts out a short story by Mark Twain at the Presseclub Concordia, a venue of the centennial | Photo: David Reali

Vienna’s Love Affair With Mark Twain

The chandeliers grew dim and the murmur of the crowd dulled to quiet whispers at the Presseclub Concordia on Apr. 21. It was the 100th anniversary of Samuel Clemens’ death, the man better known as Mark Twain, who had come to Vienna in 1897, coincidentally the same year as the opening of the Riesenrad. He came to study the ways of the Austrians as new material for his books, but mainly he came to acquire top-of-the-line piano instruction for his daughter Clara. He was a welcome guest for the Austrians, and his life (and death) continue to be cause for celebration here.

The great room was completely packed with Twain enthusiasts, both the young and the middle-aged, academics and retirees. It seemed to be mostly Viennese with only a few American faces. Only one empty seat was left in the entire space, but that too was snatched up by late stragglers, most of whom resorted to lining up against the wall or sitting on the wooden desks toward the back. As the murmurs grew fainter and the guests started to fidget in their seats, Austrian actor and director Karlheinz Hackl appeared at the front, the closest chandelier lit a bit brighter so as to show the animated expression in his face.

He sat down and began to read.

He began with a memoire by Eduard Pötzl that appeared on Oct. 2, 1987 in the Neues Wiener Tagblatt called “Der stille Beobachter”. As Hackl read, his distinct voice and traditional, rich accents of the language of a century ago resounded through the room, evoking somehow across time and language the speech of Mark Twain’s extravagant characters.

Mark Twain is an important figure for the Viennese. After all, this was the foreign city he had lived the longest. Newspaper reporters wrote articles, too many to count, speaking affectionately about him as “Our Famous Guest”.  Even before Twain arrived in 1897, bookstores were scrambling to replace the copies of his books that had sold out. So Vienna celebrates Twain’s life; his two years here were among his happiest, as he told the Emperor Franz Josef on his last day, and that says a lot about the city.

Following a greeting by both Dr. Ilse Brandner-Radinger of Presseclub Concordia and U.S. Ambassador Robert Hugins, Jeff Sturgeon, an actor with the International Theatre here, approached the podium.

“I was feeling blithe, almost jocund,” he said, a shy smile creeping across his face. “I put a match to my cigar, and just then the morning’s mail was handed in.” He was reading from The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut, a short story by Twain about a man who is anything but pleasant.

The story begins as the narrator gets a letter from his Aunt Mary reporting that she is on her way to visit. This news overwhelms him with happiness, and he settles in to wait for her arrival. Sturgeon mimicked puffing on his cigar and flipping the pages of a newspaper, drawing the audience at the Presseclub irresistibly into the scene.

The tale goes on to describe a middle-aged dwarf who shows up, claiming to be the narrator’s conscience. What followed proved hilarious, with an animated Sturgeon acting out both the parts of the dwarf and the narrator as they bickered and snarled about the bad deeds that needed redeeming. Sturgeon jumped around the podium, throwing his arms in the air, raising his voice when the irritated narrator spoke, and squeaking in a taunting cackle when it was the dwarf’s turn. It was a wonderful and comically accurate depiction of Mark Twain’s work, leaving the audience laughing and gasping for breath, leaning forward in their chairs to hear more – the surest proof of why Twain is still so loved, and why the Viennese get together in celebration, timeless stories that still bring joy to all who hear them.

The performances (sadly) over, Dr. Candy Fresacher, a Mark Twain scholar and lecturer at the University of Vienna Institute for English and American Studies, who gave an informative and revealing presentation about the author’s life in Vienna. Fresacher, an American and long time Vienna resident who has previously written two articles about Mark Twain for The Vienna Review, went into great detail about how Twain ended up here (a world tour to pay off his debt), his friendships, activities, his family and even how he came up with his renowned pen-name. (Apparently he used to say “Mark ‘twain” to the barkeeper when he went out drinking in order to add two coins to his tab).

Fresacher’s latest article, “Mark Twain in Wien – Now in Bronze” [see April 2010 TVR] celebrated the recent installation of a plaque in honor of the author’s time in Vienna. She now has a new wish to commemorate his life, his books and his contributions to the city.

“Mark Twain wrote three to four thousand articles and drew many sketches that weren’t even published,” Fresacher told us. “If we stacked them all up, they would be nine feet high!” Above all else, she said, she would love to see a bench installed with a statue of Mark Twain comfortably sitting, a smile on his face and his arm resting on the back – perhaps like the statue of Peter Altenberg in the Café Central –  so that every Twain lover to visit Vienna could snap a photo with the famous author and humorist. As long as the Viennese continue to love and honor Twain as they do today, her dream just might become reality.

 

Our Famous Guest
by Carl Dolmetsch
University of Georgia Press, 1992

Mark Twain’s Other Woman: The Hidden Story of His Final Years
by Laura Skandera-Trombley
Knopf Publishers, 2010
Shakespeare & Company Booksellers
1., Sterngasse 2
(01) 535 50 53
www.shakespeare.co.at

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