Friday’s Forgotten Books: Three Men in a Boat

This might be an odd choice for “forgotten”: after all it’s a classic, at least as acknowledged by humorists. But I find that the “in print” edition listed on Amazon (that gauge of what’s available) is actually a CreateSpace edition, though there’s a Tor edition from 2001. I am pleased to see that the version illustrated by comedian Vic Reeves has been scheduled for release here in May.

 Jerome asserts that the strength of this narrative is its root in the truth. “There were four of us,” he begins, “George, and William Samuel Harris and myself, and Montmorency. We were sitting in my room, smoling, and talking about how bad we were — bad from a medical point of view I mean, of course.” After discussing various symptoms and ailments (like the Beowulf poet, Jerome’s digressions from the stated purpose prove infinitely entertaining), they hit upon the idea of a a trip up the river as a perfect solution.

It hardly seems the sort of genius stroke it proves to be. The novel follows that meandering path of the Thames with a gentle but persistent humor that sneaks up on the reader. You find yourself laughing out loud at the oddest things. And between the comic moments, Jerome slips in moments of poignancy and even history with painless deftness. Sometimes they all combine at once, as when he describes the effect of a hearty meal on the cranky boaters.

It is very strange, this domination of our intellect by our digestive organs. We cannot work, we cannot think, unless our stomach wills so. It dictates our emotions, our passions. After eggs and bacon, it says: ‘Work!’ After beefsteak and porter, it says: ‘Sleep!’ After a cup of tea (two spoonfuls for each cup, and don’t let it stand for more than three minutes), it says to the brain: ‘Now, rise, and show your strength. Be eloquent, and deep,  and tender; see with a clear eye, into Nature and into life; spread your white wings of quivering thought, and soar, a godlike spirit, over the whirling world beneath you, up through the long lanes of flaming stars to the gates of eternity!’

The book has been a favourite of many. It spawned Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog (the subtitle of Jerome’s tome). Not gut-busting humor, but an inviting story you would be glad to encounter at any time. Like the friend you’re glad to see, especially when you don’t have time, but gladly neglect your duties to idle away the afternoon. When you find someone who’s read it, you need only smile and say “the cheese!” and the two of you will be old friends.

Perhaps the best film version is the one that has a script by Tom Stoppard: Michael Palin has said he counts it among the finest work he has done and remains quite proud of having been in it with Tim Curry (as J) and Stephen Moore (George). Stoppard’s script captures the heart of the book, but the biggest laughs end up falling in different places due to the switch from verbal to visual. It only makes sense, after all.

You can find the complete list of FFBs at Patti Abbott’s blog.

I have more reviews to write: Fela! the National Theatre broadcast from this week and Mike Leigh’s Another Year which I saw yesterday afternoon when I ought to have been working. To say nothing of the hot chocolate I drank while lounging in the café after the film…