Monday, 26 November 2012

On reading Tom Sawyer

One of the great joys of parenting is the opportunity to revisit books that you vaguely remember.  Or think you remember.  But now you get the chance to read them again.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer fall into this category.   One of Asha and Enoch's 'aunties' gave them a generous gift to buy books with - and books we did buy.  Tom Sawyer was one of the bounty and we have just finished reading through it.

I actually found myself strangely ambivalent about Tom.  Two or three chapters into the book I wondered if I even wanted to continue reading.  Tom seemed so over-the-top, so venial.

But by then Samuel Clemens had me hooked.  The rawness of the language, the wicked sarcasm of anything upright, and the sheer plunge of the story got the better of me.

This is the 'Midnight's Children' of American literature.  Instead of trying to gentrify the experience of living in still newly colonized Missourie, Mark Twain gives us a raw, guts hanging out picture of a small stuffy village at the edge of the frontier.  His Tom is an outlaw and misfit - but one who craves the fame and glory and notoriety of being the village's favourite son - on his own terms.  But Twain's genius is to give us the broken schoolboy / ruffian slang that runs like a song throughout the book.  The man obviously had an ear for what was spoken.  Like Rushdie, Twain is unapologetic about his chutnified English (American as many would call it) - allowing the cut and thrust of words of Tom and Huck Finn's conversations to pull you along deliciously.

And then there is the sheer glory of the story.  From comic set-pieces, to an out-and-out adventure (all the while poking gentle fun at the story-book romances that Tom has), to biting satire of a small-minded place, Twain has it all.  The man does tell his tales well.  The book may not be polished - but we polished it off with gusto.

Despite disclaimers that he was up to nothing serious with the story (also similar to Rushdie), it is clear that Twain has a number of axes to grind.  The first and foremost being with anything to do with religious faith.  The second is with authority in general.  Reading this in an age where sincere faith is often ridiculed a priori, it seems like Twain lived in a different era.  And so he did.  He was railing against a time when holding to a faith was considered normal if not normative, though various forms were busily competing with each other.  Similarly, his take on authority has him lampooning all forms of with the same brush.  He offers a romantic rebel as an alternative - but stops short of going all the way.  His Tom is too domesticated to live the life of Huck Finn.  Its always easier to poke fun at ordered nature of things, and then come home to a good solid meal, and the security of home.

So at the end of reading the book with Enoch (Asha had already read it on her own and sat in for some of the chapters - especially towards the end), what did I take away?

One a sheer marvel at the freshness of Twain's language.  Here is a master listener at work.  One who hears the rhythms of speech and brings the conversations alive with zest.

Secondly, I take away the picture of a society that was far from perfect, but did have various levels of social bonding.  Twain not only paints a picture of Tom and the other principal characters - but we get a picture of the whole village - complete with their religion in the church, their swarming behaviour in times of trouble, the vignettes of what life in mid 1800s America was like.  Books are such efficient time-travelling-machines.  What bliss to be transported back in time.

My third take-home is a that strangely, I also felt a shade of sadness.  Under the frivolity and gaiety Twain makes out, there is a core of humanity and dare I say it, a spiritual longing that I don't see fulfilled in the book.  Tom's bravado leaves you hungry for something deeper.

1 comment:

  1. True, I just re-read Huckleberry Finn last summer after a long time, and it left me feeling the same.