Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome


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The book's description from the publisher's website:

Martyrs to hypochondria and general seediness, J. and his friends George and Harris decide that a jaunt up the Thames would suit them to a T'. But when they set off, they can hardly predict the troubles that lie ahead with tow-ropes, unreliable weather-forecasts and tins of pineapple chunks not to mention the devastation left in the wake of J.'s small fox-terrier Montmorency.  

Three Men in a Boat was an instant success when it appeared in 1889, and, with its benign escapism, authorial discursions and wonderful evocation of the late-Victorian clerking classes', it hilariously captured the spirit of its age.
I forgot just how funny Three Men in a Boat was (I had read it once before but remembered nothing). It's a kind of a travelogue, with three friends rowing down the Thames but really, it contains historical commentary that's clever and hilarious (the courting of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn) and anecdotes from the lives of all three men (and some from the dog, Momntmorency).

Three Men in a Boat is a staple of wit, cleverness and sarcastic humor. That's more or less widely known. But Jerome K. Jerome wrote a classic that holds quite a few surprises. Besides it being a book filled with hilarity, Three Men in a Boat is a tale that contains surprising insight into the nature of man and the insight's timelessness. Many a comment applies to the society of the 21st century just as much as it did to the 19th century, when the book was written, and it will apply to societies centuries to come.

How they [people] pile the poor little craft mast-high with fine clothes and big houses; with useless servants, and a host of swell friends that do not care twopence for them, and that they do not care three ha'pence for; with expensive entertainment that nobody enjoys. with formalities and fashions, with pretence and ostentation, and with - oh, heaviest, maddest lumber of all! - the dread of what will my neighbour think, with luxuries that only cloy, with pleasures that bore (...) It is lumber, man - all lumber! Throw it overboard. It makes the boat so heavy to pull, you nearly faint at the oars." (p.29-30)

Another surprising thing was how beautifully Mr. Jerome could write. I was shocked a few times when after some comical adventure or two, the narrator would say some really wonderful bits. It was completely unexpected and made me appreciate the whole novel even more.

It [sailing] comes as near to flying as man has got to yet (...) The wings of the rushing wind seem to be bearing you onward, you know not where. You are no longer the slow, plodding, puny thing of clay, creeping tortuously upon the ground; you are a part of Nature! Your heart is throbbing against hers! her glorious arms are around you, raising you up against her heart! Your spirit is at one with hers; your limbs grow light (p.140)

There is one thing that I didn't appreciate so much. It's the subject of rowing, towing and sailing that described the technical side of it all. I simply didn't care for it and it made the story drag a little at places. But of course, there was always something funny or even profound (yes, profound) following that made reading the slightly boring parts worth it.

FTC: I bought a copy of Three Men in a Boat.