I made a note on a three page Twain story, “My Watch – An Instructive Little Tale” (1870), that I thought could not be right: “Superb – like Kafka or Walser or Landolfi or Aira.” Has anybody who wanders by here read Tommaso Landolfi? He wrote a story where Nikolai Gogol marries a balloon woman. He had a strange imagination. So did Twain. His strangeness is not always visible, maybe rarely visible, and is always concealed behind his jokes and his voice.
I could see it in “My Watch.” Twain accidentally lets his new watch run down. He “stepped into the chief jeweller’s to set it by the exact time,” but is pulled into a minor repair.
I tried to stop him – tried to make him understand that the watch kept perfect time. But no; all this human cabbage could see was that the watch was four minutes slow, and the regulator must be pushed up a little; and so, while I danced around him in anguish and beseeched him to let the watch alone, he calmly and cruelly did the shameful deed.
So the watch runs fast, is repaired again, runs slow, is repaired, runs alternately slows and fast, etc. Each repair is more elaborate and damaging than the next. The ending is the usual Twain humor column tall tale sort of thing.
The great conceit is nowhere above, but rather in the effect the watch has on its owner. His life always moves at the pace of the watch. When it runs fast, “[i]t hurried up house-rent, bills payable, and such things”; when slow “I failed all appointments, I got to missing my dinner.” The watch becomes increasingly surreal – I mean like something in a dream sequence: “everything inside would let go all of a sudden and begin to buzz like a bee, and the hands would straightway begin to spin round and round so fast that their individuality was lost completely, and they simply seemed a delicate spider’s web over the face of the watch.” So those are the two pieces, human time matched to the watch and the watch's surreal independence, that move Twain into rarer imaginative company.
Or I am just noting a story where Twain uses technology as the source of jokes. Many of the tales that look especially strange to me have a conceit built around technology. The original 1875 Sketches, New and Old has, you will note, illustrations. In “Political Economy,” the technology is the lightning rod (see illustration). The comic conceit of the piece is entirely unrelated (see title, and also jokes about a writer interrupted by a salesman).
The idea is to push the effects of the technology too far, which is the place where some interesting imaginative effects can occur. Not always, though, as in “The Loves of Alonzo Fitz Clarence and Rosannah Ethelton,” an overly elaborate story of a romance that occurs entirely over the telephone, invented only a few years earlier, with the man in Maine and the woman in San Francisco – they even marry over the phone – and here the conceit that maybe does not work is that Twain does not mention the telephone at all for fifteen pages from the end, but rather has Alonzo set his watch for three pages to let the reader know either that he is insane or that the person he is speaking too is in a different time zone. I had to go to the Stolen White Elephant collection to find this curiosity that reaches for a parable of higher interest but keeps getting tangled in its own wires. Still pretty odd, if not odd like Tommaso Landolfi.