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By Mark Twain
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1969
ISBN: 0-520-04544-0 187 pages

Bob Corbett
May 2016

I am reading this Twain novel because Kurt Vonnegut recommended it in his last published novel A MAN WITHOUT A COUNTRY. In that work he talked about this work of Mark Twain and so celebrated it that I hurried to get a copy to read.

When I began the novel I wanted to find out exactly when he wrote this and was surprised that the date I had begun my reading, April 21st, happened to be Mark Twain’s death date!

While I came away from the novel, perhaps not quite as excited about it as Kurt Vonnegut, nonetheless, I enjoyed it a great deal, had many a great laugh along with Twain, and was especially delighted by his drool and rather nasty take on human beings!

The story opens in 1490 in Austria. The domineering priest in the village, Fr. Adolf is described as:

“. . . he was dissolute and profane and malicious, but otherwise a good enough man…

I do love Twain’s marvelous understatement!

Fr. Peter was much more loved by all and he was alleged to have said God would ultimately save everyone. The local bishop punished him even though he denied having said that. However, the bishop believed Fr. Adolf who “said” he had heard Fr. Peter speak that claim.

The narrator is August Feldner, just 16 and an apprentice printer. His master was a printer himself. This was a very new art and the church was opposed to printing since the masses were seen as incapable of reading and making judgments on their own.

Heinrich Stein, the narrator’s boss ran the printing business. He was a learned scholar and a dreamer. Frau Stein was money hungry and “churchy.” She was hunting an alleged treasure in the old castle where they lived.

Their daughter, Maria Vogel, was quite bitchy and Margaret Regen, who like Maria, was 17 was beautiful and sweet. Their cook and housekeeper, Old Katrina was 60.

A stranger shows up and his name is Number 44, New Series 864,962. For real, that’s his name, but is called 44 for short. When Ernest, one of the local boys wanted to attack 44 August decides to fight for him but the stranger holds his fists and he can’t move. Ernest backs off, yet promises to harm 44 at a later time. Old Katrina promised to be his friend. August wanted to do the same but was cowed by the others.

44 has incredible powers to do magical things. However he gives credit for all the magical things he can to the live-in magician at the castle who says nothing but decides to take all the credit for things that 44 can do. 44 tames the house’s vicious dog as his first strange act and the magician does take the credit.

August goes to see 44 who already knows his thoughts, and is kind to him, even giving him a delicious warm wine. He now realizes that 44 can and does know his thoughts

The printer and lord of the manor is up against a difficult situation when he is supposed to deliver a printing job in just a few days, but there is no possible way to get it done. His workers even strike and his situation seems hopeless. However 44 causes “the miracle of the presses to happen,” but no one knows how this printing was done.

44 claims it was the magician who caused the printing miracle and he describes himself as the magician’s tool. The magician has no idea what’s going on, but seems quite happy to have been given the credit for the miracle of the printing job being done.

It turns out that August, who is the narrator of this whole tale, discovers that 44 is indifferent to religion and the young August is very troubled by this.

44 wants nothing to do with religion and makes that clear: August tells 44 that he so wishes he’d become a Christian, but 44 makes it quite clear that he has absolutely no interest in religion and actually is vehemently opposed to it.

In the meantime the magician has actually come to believe that he does “control” 44, a mistake that causes him lots of problems later on.

After 44 has “solved” the printing problem with a miracle printing the workers put pressure on the magician to destroy 44 and, out of fear, he pronounces the sentence and 44 lets it happen. He is (apparently) destroyed in a fire at the printing press room and 44 appears to have died and simply burned up in the first. Everyone is distraught, but most of all Katrina.

They cremate the body of 44 but when August returns to his room there is 44. Of his death he says:

“It wasn’t an illusion, I did die. It is nothing, I have done it many a time.”

The workers are extraordinarily upset that 44 was able to take over their jobs and do this emergency printing job a by himself and by-pass them altogether. They go on strike and chaos ensures.

However, a group of their own duplicates appear on the scene and these duplicates continue to work and even make love to the women of the printers and in general cause havoc.

44 arranges for his friend (and the narrator) August to be able to make himself invisible as does 44 when he wishes, but the printers, now out of work by the “duplicates” are around watching and listening to all.

Fr. Adolf tries to burn the duplicates but they would immediately come back so he was making a fool of himself and stopped. But he was looking for the magician to burn him!

44 finally lets August see something of who he really is – and he’s not a human.

“… you are also now aware that the difference between a human being and me is as the difference between a drop of water and the sea, a rushlight and the sun, the difference between the infinitely trivial, and the infinitely sublime.”

It’s not fully clear why 44 wants to advance the cause of the magician since he has been willing to take lots of the credit for what 44 does. Yet the magician doesn’t seem to care for 44 at all.

When 44 created the duplicate printers even August has a duplicate doing all his duties, so his time is completely free, but he is deeply troubled and confused by all that 44 has said to him and shown him.

August is secretly in love with Marget, the daughter of the master and confused about what she thinks of him.

He makes himself invisible (this is a gift which 44 has given him) and he sees her in order to better study her. He thinks that Marget is who he’s seeing, but it turns out to be Lisabet von Armin, and she kisses him, but she then calls him “Martin” (von Giesbach). He discovers that there is a distinction between her and Marget.

Her day self – Marget Regen
Her dream self – Lisabet von Armin

Thus at this point 44 has introduced August in this world where reality and dreaming are two separate but existing worlds.

These two selves don’t even know each other. Actually, each person has THREE selves:
Waking self
Dreams self

August’s other self is Emil Schwarz.

This all causes him great confusion because his dreams of Marget are getting him into trouble.

44 suspects that:

“Being human accounts for a good many insanities . . . upwards of a thousand a day was his estimate.” (I believe that’s PER PERSON! :) )

His alter-self wants free of August’s petty life.

“Plead for me with that malicious magic-monger – he has been here – I saw him issue from this door – he will come again – say you will be my friend, as well as brother! For brothers indeed we are; the same womb was mother to us both, I live by you, I perish when you die – brother, be my friend! Plead with him to take away this rotting flesh and set my spirit free! Oh, this human life, this earthly life, this weary life! It is so groveling and so mean; its ambitions are so paltry, its prides so trivial, it vanities so childish; and the glories that it values and applauds – lord, how empty! Oh, here I am a servant – I who never served before; here I am a slave – slave among little mean kings and emperors made of clothes, the kings and emperors slaves themselves, to mud-built carrion that are their slaves!

That is his alter self, from the more dream world or perhaps “real” world speaking.

The workers are setting out to kill the doubles and trouble is coming. August adopts his invisibility and then sets out to see what happens.

In the chaos a bright light flattens them all, and in place of the Magician, 44 appears in blazing glory. A blast of bright light flattens all, and 44 is gone.

His exit: “… best of Barnum and Bailey.”

44 is still there playing at being the Magician. He explains there is not “other” world. “life itself is only a vision, a dream.” This entire story is only August’s dream.

The story, of course, is wildly creative, imaginative and utterly bizarre, but lots and lots of fun. The reader just has to sort of make a deal with Mark Twain: “I’ll read your crazy story and just take it at face value, entering into this world you are creating and letting it flow. Once one does this, the novel is a delightful read.

Actually this is “the” novel so to speak. This is one version of it, seemingly the most complete, but Mark Twain actually seems to have written about 7 different versions of the story, of which this one is the most complete. I just came across it since Vonnegut, in his work had talked about the book as very important to him, and that’s what led me to read it.

I’d recommend it to all who can read a quite weird story, but yet be comfortable enough to suspend disbelief and just let the story flow. It’s lots of crazy fun.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett