Friday, October 30, 2015

An enduring friendship: Oscar Hijuelos' final novel, Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise

Chronicling the friendship between Welsh-born explorer Henry Morton Stanley and beloved American raconteur Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), Hijuelos’ deeply researched final novel was completed just before he died, in 2013. Although this expansive look at the connection between two eminent nineteenth-century men may be a departure from his examinations of the immigrant experience, his gift for evoking his protagonists’ rich interior lives is on full display.

The novel shows a remarkable fidelity to historical voice. It’s told through a combination of formats, including straight narrative, letters, memoir, and diary entries—all invented, and convincingly so. Even Stanley’s “cabinet manuscript” about his and Samuel’s excursion to Cuba fits with the real man’s tendency to blur or exaggerate the truth.

From their initial meeting, aboard a Mississippi steamship, then moving through their stints on the lecture circuit, Stanley’s relationship with vivacious artist Dorothy Tennant, and their beautifully moving ruminations on mortality in their twilight years, their rapport survives several differences of opinion. Both come to loathe slavery but disagree about religion and the value of imperialism, particularly in Africa.

By observing them at many moments of vulnerability, readers gain insights into their makeup. Although the book feels unbalanced in places due to its unusual cobbled-together structure, it’s an extraordinary feat of imaginative historical re-creation.

Twain and Stanley Enter Paradise is published in November by Grand Central ($28 hb, $14.99 ebook, 480pp).  This starred review first appeared in Booklist's 9/15 issue.

Some other notes:

After working on it for more than a decade, Hijuelos had completed the manuscript and was in the process of revisions when he died suddenly.  His widow, author Lori Marie Carlson, worked with his editor to get the manuscript into its final version.  Read more at the New York Times: Hijuelos Novel to be Published Posthumously.

This book is one example of how a character doesn't necessarily have to be likable in order to be interesting to read about.  Samuel Clemens was the more appealing of the two, personally.  Although he was a fascinating character, I found many of Stanley's actions less than admirable.  That said, Stanley isn't depicted as willingly complicit in King Leopold's of Belgium's crimes against the Congolese people, as was claimed during his lifetime, and afterward.  Hijuelos takes a similar viewpoint to Tim Jeal in his award-winning reappraisal of the man, Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer.  

Regarding Clemens, I'm looking forward to reading Lynn Cullen's Twain's End, which looks at the twilight years of his life, and his relationship with his secretary Isabel Lyon. 

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