Book of a lifetime: Three Men in a Boat, By Jerome K Jerome
Friday 26 July 2013
Three Men in a Boat is the book I've read more times than any other. I keep returning to it, but not out of choice. It's more of a compulsion, a sudden urge whenever I'm in need of a dose of humanity and laugh-out-loud humour.
First published in 1889, Jerome K Jerome's unassuming tale of three friends who decide to row up the River Thames from London to Oxford was massacred by the critics. They damned it for its lowbrow language and its triumvirate of hopeless, neurotic protagonists (not forgetting the dog, Montmorency). I can see their point. Who during the twilight years of the British Empire wanted a narrator who declared: "I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours"? The answer was everybody. The book sold in its millions, and continues to sell in huge numbers.
The timeless appeal isn't so hard to appreciate. Like the very best picaresque tales – Don Quixote springs most readily to mind – the journey itself, the quest, is little more than a convenient peg on which to hang a series of observations and discursive asides about life, in all its minute, baffling and absurd complexities. Jerome wrings the most improbable humour from the most mundane situations. The digression about his Uncle Podger's efforts to hang a picture is so delicately crafted that it beats the best of Laurel and Hardy. It's like listening to Michael McIntyre riffing about the "man drawer" in most homes, the one full of arcane rubbish whose purpose is known only to the male of the species.
There's a tired old phrase in the film business: character is action. Jerome grasped this concept in spades. It's not enough to observe three men who have forgotten to pack a can-opener trying to break into a tin of pineapple. What matters is that once they have beaten it into every shape known to man (and a few more besides) with a rock and an oar, it is Harris, bruised and bleeding by now, who imagines he sees the leering face of the Devil himself in the twisted lump of metal and flings it far out into the river.
The fondness we feel for Harris is the same deep fondness Harris, George and J (not forgetting Montmorency, the wise old fox-terrier) feel for each other by the time they reach Oxford, in spite of the many arguments along the way. Ultimately, Three Men in a Boat is a study of friendship, human foibles and forgiveness. Returning to the book is like settling in for a fireside chat with an eccentric great-uncle who has seen it all, done it all, but who's still more ready to mock himself than others.
'The Long Shadow' by Mark Mills is published by Headline Review
tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods
tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas
comedy Erm...he seems to be back
tvReview: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa
tv Gymnast Louis Smith triumphed in the Christmas special
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Exclusive: Abusers using spyware apps to monitor partners reaches 'epidemic proportions'
- 2 Margaret Thatcher 'expressed fears of Asian rising' at Anglo-Irish summit in 1984
- 3 The 'Black Museum': After 150 years, public set to see exhibits from police’s grisly crime museum
- 4 The Unluckiest People of the Year 2014 (and one very unlucky giraffe)
- 5 Magna Carta will be 800 years old next year – the perfect reminder of the rights and freedoms we must hold dear
Downton Abbey Christmas special 2014, review: Love is everywhere, actually
The Boy in the Dress, TV review: David Walliams' Boxing Day treat is a celebration of being different
Vagina canoe artist defends herself over ‘obscenity’ charges
The Interview film review: Controversial gross-out satire is broad, bawdy and bad - but undeniably entertaining
Doctor Who Christmas special, review: No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa
British actor Idris Elba cannot star as James Bond because he is black, says shock jock Rush Limbaugh
Rozanne Duncan: Ukip expels councillor for 'jaw-dropping' comments made in BBC TV interview
Germany anti-Islam protests: 17,000 march on Dresden against 'Islamification of the West'
Ukip member gets into Christmas spirit with Union Flag plea to Santa 'for our country back'
Immigrants make UK racist, says Ukip councillor Trevor Shonk
BBC director Danny Cohen: Rising UK antisemitism makes me feel more uncomfortable than ever