'Twain & Stanely Enter Paradise' Immortalizes Hijuelos' Gift for Sympathy
Oscar Hijuelos' posthumous novel about the friendship between Mark Twain and Henry Morton Stanley cements his legacy as a penetrating writer on identity, ambition and family life.
Twain & Stanley Enter ParadisePublisher: Grand Central
Length: 480 pages
Author: Oscar Hijuelos
Publication date: 2015-11
For those readers saddened by the untimely passing of Oscar Hijuelos, a posthumous novel depicting the friendship between Mark Twain and British explorer Henry Morton Stanley might not seem like the greatest possible epitaph to the Cuban-American writer. His most beloved works — including his debut Our House in the Last World and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love — were bittersweet love letters to the experiences of Cuban immigrants in the United States, tender odes that drew heavily from his own life and times as an American of Cuban descent.
Given their sympathetic focus on people of ostensibly little significance who struggled against circumstance to forge new identities for themselves in strange new places, it might be somewhat difficult to swallow the notion that the legacy of his writing and the themes close to his heart will be reinforced by a tale about one of the greatest symbols of Victorian imperialism to have ever lived.
However, even with the storied reputation of Stanley as a ruthless servant of colonialism and empire, and even with the involvement of a Samuel Clemens, whose towering fame as one of the Great American Novelists seemingly distances him from the less mythical Hijuelos, Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise succeeds in continuing and expanding upon the preoccupations that had described the Cuban-American's career up until his premature death in 2013. Not only does this book manage to humanize and demystify the two literary legends, but in the process it also manages to illuminate the common ground these two figures share with the writer who brings them back to life over the course of over 400 studiously wrought pages. It paints the various worlds Stanley and Twain inhabited in fine, multicolored detail, and in the end, after tours through New Orleans, Cuba, Africa and London, it illustrates how a lofty reputation can be as much a fetter as a source of freedom.
Of course, the novel begins at a time when neither figure bore such reputations, and it's precisely here where the affinities between Hijuelos and his subjects reside. This is especially true for the Welsh-born Stanley, whose father died three years after he was born and whose mother disowned him soon after, forcing him into an unstable existence as an orphan. Having little to his name in his hometown of Denbigh, or in Liverpool where Hijuelos pens him as having worked as a butcher, he sets sail for New Orleans in 1859, enticed as an 18-year-old by the "promise of adventure" in much the same way that Hijuelo's parents must have been enticed by the promise of a better life in New York.
Known then by his birth-name of John Rowlands, his travails amid the grimy warehouses and slave-populated streets of the Big Easy are envisaged by Hijuelo in the first-person, unfolding under uncertainty and displaying the existential insecurity so characteristic of the protagonists in the American novelist's earlier works. For example, at one point during the novel's beginnings the not-yet Stanley dines with his employer and his employer's wife, who questions him on the subject of his origins:
"And of your mother and father, what can you say?"
"I have none, ma'am." I looked away.
It's on the basis of such blankness as to who he is that he's eventually adopted by this same employer: a Henry Hope Stanley whose name John Rowlands assumes in a bid to reinvent himself. With this rebirth, Hijuelo portrays the apprenticeship in identity, which then results with considerable patience and care, imagining the hierarchical ins-and-outs of an unjust slave society with insistent fidelity and later reconstructing the moment when the new Stanley first met the then-steamship pilot Samuel Clemens. As with Stanley, Clemens is still on the cusp of discovering himself and becoming the Mark Twain of Huckleberry Finn, yet from their first encounter the novel commences its central themes, exploring how two friends can mutually galvanize each other as they both strive to create and maintain their respective selves.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise paints these two friends as having contrasting and complementary personalities, with Clemens being a gregarious raconteur often "in a lively mood" and Stanley being a timid albeit prodigiously hardworking introvert. It's very tempting to speculate that both men, taken together, represent the two sides of Hijuelo-the-writer: the "outward traveler" who "loved beauty in all its manifestations" and the "introspective, keenly sensitive man" (as his widow, Lori, writes in the afterword). Yet what's interesting about the novel is that, by sketching the divergent backgrounds of the two men and yet their convergent interests in literature, travel and adventure, it gradually takes up a position of biographical redundancy or degeneracy, if you will, in that it underscores how the same destination can be reached by markedly different walks of life.
As for this destination, the novel later examines how, for Twain and Stanley, the celebrity they both acquired became a straitjacket that impeded their respective searches for authentic identities. It draws both of them as feeling the constraints of persona, yet it's Stanley who feels them the strongest. Elevated into Victorian high society by dint of his fabled rescue of missionary Dr David Livingstone, he soon drowns in "the air of a man who had been bitterly disappointed." On the one hand, he suffers from an inferiority complex that renders him incapable of being wholly comfortable around even his own mother-in-law, with him remarking in one of his many letters to Clemens, "In my my gut, I believe her mother thinks I am not good enough for her."
On the other, he's equally uncomfortable around any less-aristocratic "strangers [who] would press him to hold forth about his past journeys — "as if I were an intimate friend." An indication of the hobbling pressures of his own star is given by Hijuelos when, in conversation with the poet and journalist Edwin Arnold, Stanley asks, "What does [fame] matter if you are never invited openly into someone's home as a true friend, not as an attraction?" It's also given when, in another letter to Twain, he explains that, because "the eyes of my peers were upon me", he accepted yet another mission to Africa, one the ugliness and harmfulness of which Hijuelos doesn't flinch away from envisioning.
As often as his transatlantic friend makes cameos and momentarily salves these worries, the novel remains Stanley's more than Twain's. Moreover, as faithfully as Hijuelos recreates the explorer's mindset, courtship with Dorothy Tennant, and then ailing health, this lopsidedness is perhaps the novel's one weakness. The exuberance and earthy intelligence of Clemens almost always lights up the page when it appears, so the continued presence of Stanley — with all his worries, tragedies, solemnities, hangups and health issues — could potentially make the work hard work for readers of a more sensitive disposition. Also, his dominance of Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise means that the novel gradually becomes less about friendship as mutual companionship and closeness, and more about friendship as the mutual reminder of youth and its promise.
We witness this reduction with the numerous reunions Clemens and Stanley enjoy, meetings which see them, for instance, staying up "until nearly four in Stanley's suite, reminiscing about the past." In that same (imagined) notebook entry, Clemens writes, "the old Stanley I knew turned up again that night, pleasant and very interesting", as if the presence of this "old Stanley" enabled him to resuscitate his own older self.
Not only that, but it's in such passages that Hijuelos provides a clue as to why Stanley, despite his fragility and recurring bouts of malaria, continues to delve into various wildernesses. Namely, they provide a release from the harshness of his past and present life, in much the same way that the recollection of youthful expectations provides a release. In an aforementioned missive to Clemens, he observes that, when buried in "endless miles and miles of forest", "the small emotional troubles that come to man in the discharge of ordinary life seemed hardly of consequence".
In other words, Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise can be read as documenting a series of attempts to enter paradise, or rather to escape such wounds as the deaths of daughters and a mother who "never cared too much for me, which I blamed on some very great faults of my own." Whether or not it actually achieves this ambitious goal will vary according to the reader, who may on occasion find its severity a tad unforgiving and bleak.
However, one thing is certain, which is that the novel immortalizes Hijuelos' gift for sympathizing completely with his characters, for reanimating the worlds they inhabited and enabling his audience to enter their minds as they struggle to build better lives for themselves. Even if his protagonists may not have all managed such an onerous feat, Twain & Stanley Enter Paradise is one final demonstration that he's done as much as any writer to help make our lives better.