Wednesday, February 24, 2010

`The Manner of the Telling'

Without trying I’ve stumbled on a theme for reading aloud this week in the high-school class where I’m working. On Monday I picked Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad Are Friends (1970) – a favorite of my sons when they were little and a book redeemed from insipidity by silliness. On Tuesday the teacher handed me a collection of Twain’s stories and I started at the beginning with “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865), the story that lent its title to Twain’s first book, in 1867. Doing justice to its rhythms and dialect took a few sentences but I read the whole thing aloud, the best way I know to appreciate the prose and humor of Twain and Joyce. Here the narrator remembers Jim Smiley:

“If there was a horse-race, you'd find him flush, or you'd find him busted at the end of it; if there was a dog-fight, he'd bet on it; if there was a cat-fight, he'd bet on it; if there was a chicken-fight, he'd bet on it; why, if there was two birds setting on a fence, he would bet you which one would fly first; or if there was a camp-meeting, he would be there reg'lar, to bet on Parson Walker, which he judged to be the best exhorter about here, and so he was, too, and a good man.”

Twain’s pacing is impeccable which is why that tacked-on “and a good man” is so funny, and I like the raffish informality of calling a preacher an “exhorter.” I did most of the laughing on Tuesday. In Twain voice is everything and none of the kids and few of the staff have an ear for it. In “How to Tell a Story” (1895) Twain asserts his art while pretending to explain it:

“The humorous story is American, the comic story is English, the witty story is French. The humorous story depends for its effect upon the manner of the telling; the comic story and the witty story upon the matter.”

Paraphrased into serviceable literal-minded English, “The Celebrated Frog of Calaveras County” would be a dreary anecdote without an “exhorter.” Here’s Twain again in his essay:

“The humorous story is strictly a work of art--high and delicate art --and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous story--understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print --was created in America, and has remained at home.”

Again, savor Twain’s sense of timing, in this case with a spurious qualifier: “understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print.” Lobel, in a story titled “The Story” in Frog and Toad Are Friends, has Toad resolve to tell Frog a story in hopes of making him feel better. Toad, however, can’t think of one so he tries various cures to stimulate his imagination – standing on his head, splashing water on his head and finally banging it against the wall. By now Frog feels better but Toad is ailing, so Frog tells the story of Toad’s unsuccessful attempt to tell his story. It concludes:

“`So the toad went to bed and the frog got up and told his a story. The end. How was that, Toad?’ said Frog.

“But Toad did not answer. He had fallen asleep.”

1 comment:

Buce said...

If you're up to the challenge, you might want to try the chapter in Roughing It, where he puzzles over the letter in the indecipherable handwriting of Horace Greeley. Or better, try "What Stumped the Bluejays," page 159 of the Bantam Complete Short Stories. And put it on YouTube; I'd love to hear you talk bird.