Idle Thoughts on
Jerome K. Jerome
A 150th Anniversary Celebration
Jeremy Nicholas, Editor
(The Jerome K. Jerome Society
Unit 24 The Bardfield Centre
Essex CM7 4SL, UK)Recently, we were trying to figure out the power on us, the hold of Three Men in a Boat. Here we are 120 years after the fact --- it was first published as a book in 1889 --- and it still charms the hell out of us.
It may have to do with the leisure and pacing. In a review four years ago, a contributor to this magazine wrote about a new CD of Three Men, narrated by Martin Jarvis: "The key to Jerome's style is repetition, loving exaggeration, and the slow accretion of an idea, blowing it up till it bursts, scattering it all over the page."
Three Men in a Boat has survived these many years, I believe, because of its eloquent diction, dry wit, and a commonalty of frustration that you and I are bound to have with the simple accouterments of everyday life. It also carries an underlying sweetness.
But it wasn't until we reread a few passages for this review that we came up with another thought. It has to do with the realization of the sensualist Jerome. It is as if all that Victorian sensibility, well restrained, exploded into a passion for the smell, the taste, the feel of things.
Cheese, for example:
Cheese, like oil, makes too much of itself. It wants the whole boat to itself. It goes through the hamper, and gives a cheesy flavour to everything else there. You can't tell whether you are eating apple pie, or German sausage, or strawberries and cream. It all seems cheese. There is too much odour about cheese.
Or "paraffine oil" [kerosene]. Like cheese, it has its own air: "I never saw such a thing as paraffine oil as to ooze. We kept it in the nose of the boat, and, from there, it oozed down to the rudder, impregnating the whole boat and everything in it on its way, and it oozed over the river, and saturated the scenery and spoilt the atmosphere."
Or on drinking a cup of tea, the flavor of which was enriched by a vision. Using the water of the Thames, they make tea. Then, shortly after, they spot a dead dog floating by: "George said he didn't want any tea, and emptied his cup into the water. Harris did not feel thirsty, either, and followed suit. I had drunk half mine, but I wished I had not."
And, the force here is not in what Jerome says, but what he doesn't say:
Harris and I followed his gaze, and saw, coming down towards us on the sluggish current, a dog. It was one of the quietest and peacefullest dogs I have ever seen. I never met a dog who seemed more contented --- more easy in its mind. It was floating dreamily on its back, with its four legs stuck up straight into the air. It was what I should call a full-bodied dog, with a well-developed chest. On he came, serene, dignified, and calm, until he was abreast of our boat, and there, among the rushes, he eased up, and settled down cosily for the evening.
§ § §
This new volume is a labor of love of the Jerome K. Jerome Society. It includes several biographies of the writer and his family, descriptions of his plays, and reflections on his "comic masterpieces" --- which, for the most of us, means Three Men in a Boat.
Compared to his peers --- Mark Twain, for example, or Charles Dickens --- Jerome stands alone in his peculiar and particular success. Three Men was an instant hit in England and America (over a million copies sold in the U. S. in the first twenty years), eventually translated into German, Russian, and --- as Jeremy Nicholas tells us here --- "Japanese, Pitman's Shorthand, Hebrew, Afrikaans, and Portuguese."
I call its success "peculiar" because of all Jerome K. Jerome's writings, and there were hundreds of them, it was the only one that was such a success. After a time, the author became somewhat irritated by the fact that he was known for one book, that readers and critics paid no attention to his thirty-one plays, his nine other novels, the mountain of short stories and essays he composed in his long life.
Our feeling is that his more serious writings, even his comic essays, never matched the wit and subtlety of Three Men. His other big success, a play called "The Passing of the Third Floor Back," first mounted in 1908, tells of "a charismatic Christ-like stranger [who] visits a run-down boarding house and transforms the lives of its inhabitants." Not exactly a knee-slapper.
The present volume does not address these contradictions between JKJ's early writings, his later works, and his life. There is even one chapter entitled "The Happy Family Man." But like his name, I suspect he was a bit of a doppelgänger. He always claimed to be a melancholic; the lives of his close family may reflect his other side. The photographs that appear here (there are twenty-five of them) often show him and those around him not as boisterous and merry but ---- more often --- narrowed-eyed, serious ... even chilly.
But let us cheer on (in the master's fashion) the Society that produced Idle Thoughts on Jerome K. Jerome. The book even includes six essays and a letter from his pen. We can hope that this non-profit society sells enough copies to embark on other ventures, such as The Best of Jerome K. Jerome.
If they do decide on such a venture all we ask is that they remember that some of us, now long in the tooth, would want a typeface a hair larger. So we can read it with a smile ... rather than a squint.
--- Carlos Amantea