42: Three Men in a Boat

You know how some things – books, films, foods, countries – fail to, as it were, “live up to the hype”, as the expression goes? Yes. Well. This isn’t one of them. Jerome’s (should I be unambiguous and say Mr Jerome’s?) masterpiece is just that.

Above all, Jerome (any “Mr” would, on reflection, be tiresome) is a master of the tangent, the undisputed doyen of the diversion. After Three Men in a Boat, there is nowhere left for the digression, qua artistic technique, to go. It has accomplished its perfection. Its apotheosis is complete. He meanders with passing thoughts, and chews the cud of incidental local history. At one point, five pages are given up to an anecdote about cheese which ought to leave any right-thinking member of the community in stitches.

The plot is absurdly simple: three hypochondriacs (and a dog) go on a boating trip up the Thames. That’s it. But “J”, our narrator, has an astoundingly astute eye and a wonderful gift for phrasing the humorous. He goes on in a way that is never wearing, judging his under- and overstatements to perfection. At one point, he spends several pages engaging in the most overblown prose, as extended set-up for a deflating joke; in the hands of a lesser writer, such a gambit would fall flat; the prolixity, however ironically meant, would become stodgy, and we would criticise the foolish author who had ruined the idea of a good joke by an over-enthusiastic assault on it. Like performing an acrobatic manoeuvre at the last possible moment, the joke is either ruined or raised to a new height by being stuck to so long. It is Jerome’s knack always to land on the right side of that line (literarily, that is; I say nothing of his gymnastic abilities).

Some passages to round the thing off – although, after such a billing, I must be wary; I do not promise that these are the best, but they are those I made a note of.

How good one feels when one is full – how satisfied with ourselves and with the world! People who have tried it, tell me that a clear conscience makes you very happy and contented; but a full stomach does the business quite as well, and is cheaper, and more easily obtained. One feels so forgiving and generous after a substantial and well-digested meal – so noble-minded, so kindly-hearted. […] Reach not after morality and rightness, my friends; watch vigilantly your stomach, and diet it with care and judgement. Then virtue and contentment will come and reign in your heart, unsought by any effort of your own; and you will be a good citizen, a loving husband, and a tender father – a noble, pious man.

Have you ever been in a house where there are a couple courting? It is most trying. You think you will go and sit in the drawing room, and you march off there. As you open the door, you hear a noise as if somebody had suddenly recollected something, and, when you get in, Emily is over by the window, full of interest in the other side of the road, and your friend, John Edward, is at the other end of the room with his whole soul held in thrall by photographs of other people’s relatives.

It should be noticed that this last, and about twice as much again, is really a sub-digression, in aid of the major or predominating digression in re. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

In the church is a memorial to Mrs Sarah Hill, who bequeathed £1 annually, to be divided at Easter, between two boys and two girls who “have never been undutiful to their parents; who have never been known to swear or to tell untruths, to steal, or to break windows.” Fancy giving all that up for five shillings a year!

You cannot give me too much work; to accumulate work has become almost a passion with me; my study is so full of it now that there is hardly an inch of room for any more. I shall have to throw out a wing soon.

And I am careful of my work, too. Why, some of the work that I have by me now has been in my possession for years and years, and there isn’t a finger-mark on it. I take it down now and then and dust it. No man keeps his work in a better state of preservation than I do.

And I think I should probably leave it there.

Three Men in a Boat
Author Jerome K Jerome
Published 1889
Pages 245
Best character Harris, who “always does know a place round the corner where you can get something brilliant in the drinking line.”


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