While in junior high, one of my favorite authors was P. G. Wodehouse. That was a rare case where I started reading a book after viewing the TV show based on it. The "Jeeves & Wooster" program that aired on PBS introduced me to Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, and Wodehouse, all of whom I adore to this day. It was a far cry from the speculative fiction that otherwise filled up most of my reading: set in the first decades of 20th century Britain, the stories shone a light on the bizarre world of the British aristocracy, filled with attractive, vapid young men and women with inherited income and absolutely no purpose for existence, leading them to spend their time on comically pointless social entanglements. It was an incredibly witty farce, with twisty plots, clever dialogue, and affectionately-drawn but utterly mockable protagonists.
After working my way through all of the Jeeves books, I spent time reading through some other great Wodehouse books, like the Psmith books and The Swoop! Both were great, but in retrospect, I can see why they haven't lingered in the collective conscience the way Jeeves has. Those books were written in the more innocent pre-WWII days, and dealt with subjects that at the time seemed ripe for parody, but have since accumulated somber overtones. Psmith nominally a socialist who refers to friends as "comrade"; he's a fun foil to British society in the books (even I, as an ignorant American, got a huge kick out of the cricket plot), but after Stalin and the Red Scare, it's easy to see Psmith as an overly sympathetic reference to communism. Similarly, The Swoop! was a comedy about the invasion of England by, well, practically everyone; I imagine it was a bit harder to laugh at it after the Blitz.
In the years since then, I've continued to explore every aspect of British humor I can acquire, but nothing else has provided a similar experience to Wodehouse. Modern British humor tends more towards the surreal or the ironic, which I do enjoy immensely, and is a decidedly different feel from the more innocent, goofy sensibilities of Wodehouse.
Fortunately, at long last I've found a worthy counterpart to Wodehouse. As could be expected, I'd been doing it wrong, looking for more recent authors who could reliably imitate the master. Instead, I should have been looking into the past, to Wodehouse's likely antecedents. And so, at long last, we come to the euphoniously named Jerome K. Jerome, and his lovely book "Three Men in a Boat."
I'm not precisely sure when I first became aware of the book. The subtitle of this book was borrowed as the title for a pretty good science-fiction novel I read a few years back, "To Say Nothing of the Dog," and I was vaguely aware that a scene from within that book was taken from this earlier novel. I'm pretty sure that it has been mentioned a few times since then, always in a very positive context; but, it's certainly not part of the literary canon on this side of the pond, and isn't very well-known or all that easy to acquire.
It's totally worth it, though. The book is quite old, having been written in 1880s, but holds up astonishingly well for its age: the language is clear, and the voice is extremely engaging and wry, very modern in its sensibility even if some references are a trifle dated. The book's subject matter will be fairly familiar to Wodehouse fans: three foolish unmarried young men with no useful life skills embark on an adventure, falling into one minor catastrophe after another, generally bumbling through while losing the respect of everyone they meet. That might not sound very funny, but trust me: it's hilarious.
I don't want to over-sell the Wodehouse comparisons. Wodehouse's characters tend to all be upper-class; I think that the Three Men may be middle-class, though (they definitely don't have servants, and seem a bit more cognizant of money than people like Bertie are). The book also has more observational humor and insights into the psychology of its characters, at the expense of the comparatively tight plotting of Wodehouse.
I absolutely love the book's narration. It's a bit hard to pin down exactly how self-aware Jerome is: he often goes into long digressions about disagreements he's had in the past, where it's perfectly clear that he was being ridiculous and in the wrong, so I tend to assign a self-mocking or facetious tone to those passages, even though nothing in the content will directly betray any self-awareness. It's a bit tricky, since this book, like a ton of other 19th century British (and, for that matter, many American) novels, presents itself as a work of fact, with the author presenting us with a true accounting of events. I imagine that Jerome did draw some sort of inspiration from a similar trip or the tales of his friends, but since this book doesn't have any Frankensteinian monsters or Transylvanian vampires running around, you can't write the whole thing off as fiction.
As I noted before, the sense of humor translates extremely well to modern audiences. (Well, at least this modern man.) I generally shy away from quoting, but I really can't do justice to his humor otherwise. Here are a few of the shorter passages I particularly enjoyed.
The selfishness of the riparian proprietor grows with every year. They drive posts into the bed of the stream, and draw chains across from bank to bank, and nail huge notice-boards on every tree. The sight of those notice-boards rouses every evil instinct in my nature. I feel I want to tear each one down, and hammer it over the head of the man who put it up, until I have killed him, and then I would bury him, and put the board up over the grave as a tombstone.
Fox-terriers are born with about four times as much original sin in them as other dogs are, and it will take years and years of patient effort on the part of us Christians to bring about any appreciable reformation in the rowdiness of the fox-terrier nature.
The hotels at Shiplake and Henley would be crammed; and we could not go round, knocking up cottagers and householders in the middle of the night, to know if they let apartments! George suggested walking back to Henley and assaulting a policeman, and so getting a night's lodging in the station-house. But then there was the thought, "Suppose he only hits us back and refuses to lock us up!" We could not pass the whole night fighting policemen. Besides, we did not want to overdo the thing and get six months.
In later years, Reading seems to have been regarded as a handy place to run down to, when matters were becoming unpleasant in London. Parliament generally rushed off to Reading whenever there was a plague on at Westminster; and in 1625, the Law followed suit, and all the courts were held at Reading. It must have been worth while having a mere ordinary plague now and then in London to get rid of both the lawyers and the Parliament.
Little mishaps, that you would hardly notice on dry land, drive you nearly frantic with rage, when they occur on the water. When Harris or George makes an ass of himself on dry land, I smile indulgently; when they behave in a chuckle-head way on the river, I use the most blood-curdling language to them. When another boat gets in my way, I feel I want to take an oar and kill all the people in it.
That should give at least a taste, though it's not truly representative - the funniest parts in the novel tend to be when he goes off on a tangent for several pages, digging deeper and deeper into some absurd situation. That does seem to be a particular gift for British comedians through the ages, whether Wodehouse was showing Bertie accidentally accepting more and more marriage proposals, or John Cleese digging himself ever deeper into a hole at Fawlty Towers. I definitely don't know enough to say that Jerome was the first author to write in this style, but I'm pretty sure he's the oldest one I've read.
Some aspects of the book still seem odd. While much of it is comic, or at least wry, there are one or two passages that seem sombre or sentimental. I mean, it's possible that I'm missing a reference that would have been hilarious to 1880's readers, but a late section that describes them discovering the corpse of a tragically downed young lady shows a more serious side of Jerome that is otherwise missing from the novel. It's certainly not bad, but seems a bit out of place given the rest of the book.
The book also has some passages that, while not laugh-out-loud funny, are wry and thought-provoking. Early on he writes an extended riff on how one generation's junk become a later generation's treasures. He writes about the Georgian knick-knacks and crockery that any family would have had in the 1700s, and how those same objects are today (that is, in 1889) valuable and venerated. He then extends that thought to the present day, wondering whether the "blue porcelain" that can be so cheaply had in London will be fawned over by his grandchildren. It's an amusing thought, but with more than a century's perspective, we can actually answer his rhetorical question: yes, in fact, those tea cups that to you seen so workaday will, to future generations, be treasured heirlooms. And, of course, that makes me think about today (that is, in 2013), and wonder which of my charmless, practical accoutrements will somehow acquire meaning to people still further in the future.
All in all, Three Men in a Boat is one of the funniest books I've read, and a fantastic example of how some humor can be truly timeless. It's not just a collection of jokes, though; over the course of the book you gradually come to know and love George, Harris, and most of all Montmorency, and I'll continue to treasure their memory for years to come. The next time I'm struggling to put up a tent, I'll remember their trials at doing the same; the next time I return from a long and rainy backpacking trip, I'll recall their blissful final meal. It's a great book, and I can certainly see why people continue to hold it up as an example of terrific comic writing.