By Serge Bramly

This readable biography of Leonardo is revealing. It doesn’t completely endorse the fifteenth century genius. If the writing stumbles it is because the subject matter, Leonardo di Vinci is imperfect. It is remarkable how few finished productions Leonardo had and have survived; count the paintings on hands and toes. The product of one of the best of those, The Last Supper, can only be guessed at. It started to deteriorate almost immediately; no one paid much attention to it. It was neglected and abused for centuries and almost bombed out of existence during World War Two. And did Leonardo ever complete the face of Judas and the countenance of Jesus Christ? It is likely an enterprising student or artist stepped into to finish those portions of the work.

A problem was Leonard did not know when a production of his was finished. There are general discussions of art in the book, but most artists know to finish, to complete, to rid the mind of effort and work. That vacancy in the mind is welcome and a relief. There are drawings of the Sforza Monument, a horseman in bronze to be placed in Milan. But Leonardo did not know how to cast a rearing horse with a rider; years passed and he never started the work. It was abandoned. Meeting Michelangelo in Florence Leonardo was confronted by his own inability to conceptualize and complete that horsey work [as well as drawings of many other incomplete works].

What Leonardo painted, he painted well, but he is one of many painters from 1480-1520 who painted well. The painting of Jesus Christ recently sold at auction is not as detailed, studied and finely finished as Albrecht Duerer’s 1500 self-portrait, the artist as Jesus Christ.

Leonardo’s work is mostly notebooks and fragments thereof, where there are drawings, sketches and imagines of things and thoughts about other things. The biographer notes there are other artists, engineers and diarists who imagined flying machines and armaments, but there is no grand discussion or comparison of those images from multiple sources. Some of Leonardo’s notations are alchemy; he visualizes plastics but does not start with petroleum. He makes scanty astronomical notations, but they may be more astrological in nature – the biography does not go into detail.

Leonardo was interested in dissecting bodies but not to produce a systematic study leading to medical advancement. He was aware of the process of human originality and creation to produce art, but imperfectly applied it to himself. He seemed unaware of human psychology.

Fellow artists saw his finished works, plus cartoons prepared for painted works and some drawings. Most artists were impressed with the drafts. But there is not a line of influence: Leonardo produced this, and ten years later Michelangelo and Raphael produced these. Too many persons influenced artists plus the egos and experiences of painters, sculptures and architects. Those individuals advanced concepts and presentations of art.

And what of Leonardo? His influence is historical. He did not share or publish many of his notebooks (codices) during his lifetime. During the 1570s visitors were invited to take what they wanted. His peers and contemporaries did not see the bulk of his work and inventiveness, and like today, as scattered as these works are, Leonardo’s influence is difficult to access.

The biography is favorable to the man, but his shortcomings are almost debilitating and incomprehensible. This biography attempts to be truthful and honest – describe the whole man and his creations without resort to much artistic mist and mystification.


Many of us remember November novel writing month. I heard about it and said, What the hell? Do it but start early. [There are a long list of cheaters, cads and horse thieves in the family.]

I began with a novel about my life. I’ve always failed when writing anything factual and completely honest about myself. This was another chance. It didn’t work. My standards were too high; I couldn’t meet them. Perhaps it’s a family limitation.

Maybe I should get religion. If movies are correct Jews talk about all sorts of things, airing feelings and telling one another what’s wrong with life and the with the lives others are living. A lot of what is discussed is true. It frequently happens in the movies that issues, problems and dilemmas are happily resolved for one or another of the actors.

I could become Catholic and confess, but that takes guts to tell a complete stranger wrong deeds and tales of woe. The worst that happens is a requirement to repeat Hail Marys. I’ve seen Hail Marys work on the football field, but a team that relies on them too much isn’t very good. Once again the movies are instructive. I’ve forgotten the title but Stephen Rea is a priest hearing confessions at a church in Ireland. Suddenly the penitent bolts from the booth, and Rea whisks out yelling, “That is disgusting…” Confession is entirely too intimidating.

I don’t believe religion would work for me, due to family limitations.

I did continue to write in November, but not about myself but about my activities: writing. There’s lots of fraud and dishonesty written about writing; I advanced in a very disorderly way. Excelling was a family strength.

The writing was a mess. The longest coherent segment was 500 words. Some were a line: “I’ve never solved a Soduko puzzle.” That is a qualification for proclaiming myself a writer. Part of my approach was reading and researching while writing, and my impressions couldn’t be put anywhere. I wrote about the same subjects the other writers wrote about writing. I had 41,000 words and stopped with days to go in November.

I began cobbling things together in January. I took a break. February, I had productive days. Almost half of it was revised, but what remained needed work and thinking. I glowered at the manuscript for three weeks until Spring 2014, when getting it done was the only job I would do: 35 pages, 12 pages, 20 pages and this morning 2 pages.

From the 41,000 November words, I have 54,000 words, most of which make sense. Part of all the text can be better organized.The amount of work no longer involves the whole manuscript, only chapters. I can’t say what the genre is. There are signs of my life in it, and my impressions of writing. I call it a How-to Memoir. Time and the subconscious will write now. I’ll take another shot at the manuscript in June, when revising won’t take two months.


Autobiography of Mark Twain, vol. 2, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2013.

Passages in this volume of the Autobiography will be found in no other book. Twain himself doubts whether any human being can be original, but this volume belies his claim. Twain is. Incidents of first impression and first expression exist therein.

While in Europe in 1896, Twain’s first daughter died in Connecticut. By the summer of 1902 his wife was in bad health. Later that year his youngest daughter had a life threatening illness (104 degree temperature; doctor sleeping in next room). The fear in Twain’s household wa wife would learn of daughter’s illness, and she would be carried off. 

Twain had a third daughter, Clara, who primarily took care of the wife. Twain himself riles wife too much; his daily time with her is limited. Clara makes up a wonderful, social, engaging social life for the daughter near death. Wife’s spirits rise. These fabrications are carried on for three months. Twain writes two letters which are included in the text. [There must be more letters.]

Twain details the life of lies to stating the sick daughter’s happy life, and that they are relayed to everyone in the household – anyone who might come within earshot of wife – must know and speak the lies. Presumably wife remembers all the lies, and so must everyone else. There are near misses. There are mistakes, quickly retorted and corrected or excused, including the schedule of a local train.

Twain observed the whole scenario could be viewed as absurd and humorous except it is real, and it involves his family. The reader can infer what Mark Twain, writer, is doing: To protect himself, Samuel Langhorne Clemens, writes a full, complete and honest account of the activities in the house and about the sick daughter’s social life. Once on paper the events are removed, in a medium where Twain is a master. It is his only defense against two more deaths in his immediate family.

More astounding was the visit of William Dean Howells during the summer 1902 prior to the grave illnesses. Howells adumbrates a story about an ill mother and then her daughter gets sick. Both were cared for by two aunts. The aunts don’t want to lie; it is a sin. But they sin every day to keep the mother’s spirits up, even after the daughter has died: The mother believes the daughter is having a wonderful social life for the first time in her life. The mother also dies. Although the aunts regret sinning, they realize it was necessary.

Mark Twain wrote that story, Was it Heaven? Or Hell? It was published by Harper’s Monthly, when Twain’s wife and daughter were gravely ill. Both of them recovered.

The Autobiography has gems about writing. Spelling: “Majestically lawless.” Twain writes about “style,” “a mysterious thing,” including involuntary “indiscretions,” ofttimes an unwanted, “trademark.” And proofreading – the message is sometimes the editor must do everything himself: Twain tells an anecdote of Bret Harte’s trying to correct “chastity” for “charity.”

An observation about human beings came out which pertains to writing. The sort of human being one is will result in the type of writer one becomes. Bret Harte is used as the example, and Twain does not like him. Harte is capable, but is also acerbic, witless, disloyal, unemotional and selfish. Flickers of brilliance come from Harte’s writings, but mostly Harte is pushing the pen. 

The Autobiography does not analyze the heart of writers generally. It raises the issue by example, the personality and the abilities and capabilities of a writer [or any artist]. Those traits and in life, circumstances, realizations, choices and adjustments, bring very individual reflections and come after one consciously mulls, considers, weighs and judges. When those forces and the results arrive unannounced, the writer is in trouble.

“Circumstance” raises another short significant issue. Twain notes, like a diary entry, attending a banquet where Elihu Root, Secretary of State, addressed circumstances as changing the way Americans viewed government and their own freedoms. [This is my summary, not part of the Autobiography.] In many ways the more Americans are brought together as one people in one nation and are supposed to think the same way – whether by innovation, culture, society or law – the more Americans will lose the distinction of being a nation of individuals. 

Twain alights on celebrity, by commenting on an article about Olive Logan. She was a female lecturer in the lyceum days. Olive had nothing to say and couldn’t have said it if she did. She was on the platform “to show off her clothes,” a “living fashion plate.” She manufactured a reputation, writing “innate, affected valueless stuff,” and marrying “a penny-liner,” a man who was paid a penny a line to get small items, true or untrue, in newspapers.

The newspapers would appear, and next came the revelation: Readers who “had not been quite aware of [the celebrity] before,” now knew. There were no explanations, just recounting daily or weekly activities, like a Facebook page or a Twitter feed: “Her name was familiar to everybody…and there wasn’t a human being in the entire United States who could answer if you asked him, ‘What is her fame based on?’ ‘What has she done?’ You would paralyze a person by asking that question.”

[The primary difference between Olive Logan then and “celebrities” today is, today Americans can now say the woman took off her clothes, or did explicit acts, and published them.]

Sadly, the life of Olive Logan wound down like the lives today. She is near deaf. Her current husband, a generation younger than she,  always drank and neglected her. She “could no longer write.” The couple was impoverished.

Twain mentions other fallibilities of the American system. He complains that the United States of America is an Unpolite Nation without remembering or mentioning that he lives in and about New York City. He notes the pace of America, “come step lively,” differs from the pace elsewhere. He mentions American diplomats and counsels, “chuckleheads,” sent “to some part of this planet because [they were] not needed in this country.”

Many passages are devoted to copyright issues and some (purported) Congressional testimony. In Twain’s day the copyright laws were antiquated and woefully inadequate. Readers other than historians, legal historians, Twain devotees and intellectual property fiends will find these parts laborious. But Twain was prominent in the push to change the laws. 

Speaking from the grave, Twain likewise discourses on religion. His views are well presented. His is not an attack on faith itself, but largely on the practice of religion and man’s distortion of faith. That is always the grind. There are distilled, more perceptive presentations of these arguments in Twain’s literature: Huckleberry Finn, The War Prayer, The Mysterious Stranger, and elsewhere.

During the last decade of life Twain did not write much – short stories, essays and articles. He explained that he no longer wanted to pick up a pen and write a novel. The Autobiography was dictated. These is a difference in quality and complete excellence between Twain’s best books and this Autobiography. Many entries are literary, but Twain’s purpose was not literature: He wanted a conversation from himself, a one-way conversation to readers. Readers gets that. The difference between his literary efforts and the Autobiography remain, and have a lesson for today’s writers: Typing at 100 plus words per minute, printing out pages of beautiful words, trying to proofread and write something literary. Unlike Twain, most of today’s word processing entrants have never lectured to audiences, have never delivered humor, do not understand the basic simplicity of a joke, yet they are trying to work at the speed of the spoken word, like they are running their mouths to monopolize conversations with friends. 

One gift this volume of the Autobiography gives to writers is Twain’s impressions and methods of lecturing and speaking, a task he could do on an impromptu basis. This volume has also left me in an uncomfortable state of humiliation: Mark Twain could lecture better than I can write.