Top critical review
The alternative Baedecker
on 18 May 2014
Published in 1880, 'A Tramp Abroad' is a mix of autobiography and fiction covering the author's travels in Southern Germany, the Swiss Alps and Italy.
The title sets the tone for the book in that "tramp" - in either sense of the word - is a deliberate misnomer, as Mr Twain/Clemens rarely travels by foot, taking advantage of the transport available at the time - trains, rafts, carriages, steamers, mules - and the services of that all-important courier.
This is a very long book and one that I found extremely mixed in its entertainment value. When it's good it's very very good, but when it's bad it's just dull. Although I read it diligently all the way through, I would advise skipping whole sections or chapters if they don't take your fancy in the first couple of pages. For example, I found the chapter 'Harris climbs Mountains for me' - a skit on travel writing of the time, where foreign words are hurled indiscriminately into the narrative - a clever idea at the start, but it dragged on and on, labouring the point ad infinitum.
As a contrast, a chapter such as that in which the narrator attempts the ascent of the Riffleberg in evening dress with half a mile of men and mules tied together, or that in which he attempts to descend a mountain via glacier are brilliant - absurd and hilarious. The essay 'The Awful German Language' in the Appendix is also not to be missed - this is a classic with such marvellous observations as 'In Germany a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has.'
A small point on the Kindle version - unfortunately the pictures don't work that well - most of these need to be zoomed in-on to appreciate them, which disturbs the flow of reading.
Although the book feels a little 'stuck together' as a work, I would recommend it to anyone travelling to Germany or the Alps - so much of the observation on the Germans remains true nearly 150 years later, and it's definitely one that you'll dip into again from time to time.