Three Men In A Boat – Jerome K Jerome
Comic writing is a tricky business. Apart from a bit of slap-stick humour is not universal. What one person finds amusing, another may shake their head at in bewilderment. And humour often appears in the most surprising and unintended circumstances. For me, one of the funniest moments was the announcement by the PG Wodehouse committee that they wouldn’t be awarding their prize this year as there were none funny enough.
Of course, that poses the question; what is a humorous book? Even the most tragic of works have some moments of levity. Wall to wall jokes would be tedious in the extreme. No, it is a tone and general atmosphere that marks a book of humour. And if I was pinned up against the wall to name my favourite humorous books of all time in the English language, then Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat would be up there amongst the best. It is a book I turn to time and time again and one that does not pall on me.
Published in 1889, it was an overnight success, despite being condemned by the critics (what do they know?) because of its lowbrow language and its protagonists were seen as hopeless and neurotic, not the sort who founded and maintained an Empire. It started life out as a travelogue – vestiges of the original concept remain with the descriptions of Hampton Court, Marlow and Medmenham. But Jerome quickly spotted the comedic value of confining three chaps, not forgetting Montmorency the dog, in a small boat pottering up the Thames from the outskirts of London to Oxford. It is a trope to which desperate TV producers turn to this day.
The journey is almost by the by, a peg upon which Jerome hangs a diverse series of set pieces, exploring the absurdities and mundanities of daily life. My favourite of the many shaggy dog stories that Jerome peppers the text with has nothing to do with the journey but is a marvellous account of Uncle Podger’s attempts to hang a picture on a wall. I defy anyone not to find it funny. Following up fairly closely is the trio’s increasing desperate attempts to open a tin of pineapples without a can opener. In disgust, Harris throws the by now misshapen lump of metal into the drink. We can sympathise with how he feels.
It’s easy to see the book’s appeal. It has a timeless quality about, even though the days of travelling along the river in a boat, pulling in wherever you fancied and escaping from the grime and drudgery of life in the metropolis to a spell, however brief, enjoying the bucolic charms of the countryside have long since gone. Rather like a road trip novel, it is a book about life, comradeship, how we rub along with each other and reminiscences of times past and irrespective of the time when the story is set, these are timeless concerns which affect all of us.
True, it has a particularly English slant. We are past masters at talking about the weather, the horrors of our food and the stresses and strains of suburban life but it is written with a light comic touch that makes it accessible to most, irrespective of where in the English speaking world they reside. This is its triumph and why it will long remain amongst the best of comedic writing.