Tuesday, 14 February 2012
Messing about on the water
It is undeniably very funny, there are some wonderful laugh out loud moments as J, along with his friends Harris, George, and Montmorency, the fox terrier, spend a fortnight boating down the Thames. I loved some of the set pieces, most notably the attack of the killer swans, and the trout that wasn't. Everyone will have their different favourite moment, and there's something in here to entertain the hardest of hearts. It's also very obvious when reading it how influential Jerome was on other writers: Wind in the willows clearly owes a lot to Three men in a boat, as do comic writers such as James Thurber, and even heavy-weight authors like Evelyn Waugh. Jerome also writes often beautifully about the English countryside, and as an evocation of a world that in many ways would have vanished within a century of his writing, it can also be read as a paean of praise to the rural idyll of England.
And that's really where I have a problem with it - the comic writing is undeniably brilliant - there are odd dashes of sombre moments, as when the body of a suicide drifts past the pleasure seekers in an eerie foreshadowing of the final moments of Virginia Woolf, and this works brilliantly contrasting the lighter moments with the reality of life as it is normally lived. But the long descriptive purple passages just left me cold. It began to feel like an English Tourist Board guide for overseas visitors, with the odd bit of humour thrown in; and ultimately I found that the turgid prose got in the way of my enjoyment of so much that was good about the book.
I'm glad that I read it, I don't know that I would read it again, but I would like to read the sequel Three men on the Bummel, about the trio's (sans dog) adventures in Germany to see how that compares (it has been said that the sequel is better than the original, even though it is now largely forgotten). I read the novel in the Penguin Classics edition, and I would urge you to do the same if only for the well-written preface, which includes an extensive and fascinating biography of the author. My Yorkshire-Terrier-cross, Dylan, incidentally would have given Three men in a boat 5 stars for an early literary mention of Yorkshire terriers, certainly the first one that I have come across.