My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Some things never change.
In Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat,” the author rails against travelers who pack for a brief voyage with a month’s worth of clothes and belongings. He talks about how he’d love to get up early for a refreshing dip, only to wake up in the dark and decide it’s better to stay asleep. He fights with a tent. He receives a series of ever-more-unlikely fish stories from a series of locals, only to find out they’re ALL lying.
This book was published in 1889, but there are passages you could have sworn were written yesterday. And, despite the passage of more than a century, it’s still laugh-out-loud funny.
The work is straightforward enough in theory: Jerome and his friends George and Harris, along with his dog Montmorency, decide to take a leisurely boat trip on the Thames. But, like the Thames itself, the anecdotes and stories ebb and flow and go off on tangents.
One of the men sits on the butter. Their boat gets caught in the mud. They play sophomoric tricks on one another. They’re little more than three clods in a boat. The overall tale is something along the lines of Mark Twain crossed with Bill Bryson.
In between their misadventures, Jerome shares a few digressions. Perhaps my favorite involves the time he attended a party with, among others, two students recently returned from Germany. The students suggested they have another guest, a German professor, sing “the funniest song ever written.” Well, Jerome and the other guests say, of course.
The students fetch the German, who launches into some tragic lied. The students stand behind him and laugh, which prompts the others to laugh as well.
I’ll let Jerome pick up the story:
“At first, when we began to laugh, the expression of his face was one of intense surprise, as if laughter were the very last thing he had expected to be greeted with. We thought this very funny: we said his earnest manner was half the humour. The slightest hint on his part that he knew how funny he was would have completely ruined it all. As we continued to laugh, his surprise gave way to an air of annoyance and indignation, and he scowled fiercely round upon us all (except upon the two young men who, being behind him, he could not see). That sent us into convulsions. … He finished amid a perfect shriek of laughter. We said it was the funniest thing we had ever heard in all our lives. …
“Then Herr Slossenn Boschen got up, and went on awful. He swore at us in German (which I should judge to be a singularly effective language for that purpose), and he danced, and shook his fists, and called us all the English he knew. He said he had never been so insulted in all his life.”
Naturally, the two students had quietly slipped out at some point, no doubt congratulating themselves on their joke.
“Three Men in a Boat” is slight. Not much happens; Jerome and his friends make their trip upriver from London to Oxford without mishap and manage to get back home in the end. It’s pleasant and funny and not really dated. There IS one abrupt passage about finding a woman’s body in the river that, though it changes the mood for a few pages, ALSO feels very contemporary in Jerome’s sympathetic reaction.
Surprisingly (I learn from Wikipedia), though “Three Men in a Boat” was a popular success when it came out, it was ripped by critics for being vulgar. Obviously well-bred men like Jerome and his friends (one of whom was a City banker, the other a businessman) didn’t reveal such behavior in those days.
Too bad for the critics. I wonder whatever became of them?