A review of the 1889 non-fiction book by Jerome K. Jerome. It's going to get ugly...
|This humorous and "true" account of a boat journey along the Thames River has been reprinted thirty-one times by Penguin Books since 1957. (Not sure of the publishing history prior to the Fifties.) Obviously, the tome has been immensely popular; what isn't evident, though, is why. As a memoir, it is sorely lacking in structural consistency. As a humor book, it is spotty. It's classified as "fiction," though the preface states: "Its pages form the record of events that really happened. All that has been done is to colour them." And then this, in reference to the book: "for hopeless and incurable veracity, nothing yet discovered can surpass it." Maybe the author is indulging in satire; maybe I'm missing something. But I doubt it. In the end, I have to assume that Jerome's audience loves this admixture of humor, pathos, whimsy, and history. I find it jarring and irritating.|
While the book excels in its descriptions of the English countryside, the forays into ancient history become tiresome- due to the author's repeated trips down memory lane, even if they are included at the expense of the book's effort to sustain a comic tone. That being said, there is a good deal of comedy in the story, whether in the main narrative, or presented via flashbacks, rants and essay-like passages. The story about Uncle Podger is as funny as anything I've ever read, and the threesome's efforts to get along are as true to human nature as they can be. Jerome's sense of comic timing and dramatic build-up are superb. But his willingness to continually indulge in side trips dilutes the comedic tone irreparably.
Maybe all of the above is why the book continues to vex me. On the one hand, I love the funny bits; on the other, I've tried several times to completely read the book, but find myself skipping over all the historical and preachy parts. When I look for a book to curl up with, I rely on one of the scores of tomes on one dedicated shelf on my library. And since it's hard to come up with books that meet said criteria, I still like to try finding new books to add to the specialized collection.
In the interest of a better understanding what Jerome was up to- and because I've nothing better to do (similar to the layabouts in the book), I'm going to do some analysis of the story. So, here goes...
"J" refers to the author; "S" refers to the main story; "F" stands for flashbacks; "P" refers to a page.
After two paragraphs, in which J introduces the other three main characters- George, Harris, and Montmorency (the dog)- J indulges in his first F (he can't help himself), about his experiences as a hypochondriac, which runs from P 7 through 10. S continues from P 11 to the middle of 12,
where J goes off on a rant about the evils of sea travel until the middle of P 14, where the S lasts one paragraph, before there's an F about sea sickness that takes us to the last paragraph of P 15- where S resumes, ending the chapter on P 16. So far, only one-fifth of the chapter has been about the actual S.
S interrupted halfway through P 17 by a five-paragraph chunk of prose about the glories of camping and nature, which takes us about two-thirds of the way through P 18.
S resumes, lasting to the middle of P 19, where an essay about the hazards of setting up a tent in inclement weather carries us to the middle of P 21. After a brief two-paragraph return to S, J introduces us to Montmorency, the misanthropic fox terrier (and an occasional future source of comic relief). After four paragraphs of this, we return to S for two paragraphs, thus ending the chapter.
After one-third of a page worth of S, there follows the hilarious tale of Uncle Podger, easily the funniest section in the entire book, and alone worth the price of admission- easy for me to claim, since I only paid a couple bucks for a used copy that someone names Rosemary gave to someone else named Susan, during Xmas of 1985, "To remind you of days on board." This takes us to the top third of P 26. After half a page of S, J launches into an impassioned plea for all of us to jettison the needless things from our lives that rob it of the simple joys it has to offer. (Now I'm starting to speak like J.) Now near the bottom of P 27, the S returns, only to be shoved aside halfway through P 28 for a short rant about how much J dislikes swimming in a cold sea. The remainder of P 29 and 30 are a return to S.
S is just getting started on P 30 when it's time for an F about the evils of oil stoves. Having made it to the next page, the S resumes for two whole paragraphs before J shares a nauseating tale about smelly cheese, simultaneously taking up the next few pages and revealing J's distasteful affinity for spoiled dairy products. This mercifully ends midway through P 36, where the story continues fairly unabated to the end of the chapter, on P 40. So far, this recent five-page stretch is the longest continual passage of S in the book.
As a bonus, the S starts the chapter on P 40, runs on until the middle of P 42, where J begins a rant about the futility of weather forecasting that lasts until the top-third of P 45. Then we're back to the S until the end of the chapter, on P 48.
Apparently believing that he has spent too much time sharing the actual S with us, J spends the first six pages of the new chapter going on about staircases of the past and merry old England and an odd boy from J's grade school days. The S is back for the first half of P 55 before J goes on an emotional tear about the glories of the river geography juxtaposed with the occasionally depressing loneliness of the outdoors. This thankfully ends halfway through the following page, after which J shares a funny two-and-a-half page F about getting lost in a maze at Hampton Court, thus ending the latest chapter.
On P 59, following one paragraph of story, J makes some tiresome comments on a gentlemen's proper attire required for boating; it comes off as petty and narcissistic, but thankfully ends on P 60, when the S returns for half a page. An F about how unsuited young ladies are for boating is next, which runs to the top-third of P 63. After a return to the S for a few lines, off we go on an essay about ancient British tombs, which takes us though P 65. The S returns on P 66, thus ending the chapter a P later.
The author devotes the next couple of pages to the S at hand, but in the middle of P 69, J goes on an extended tear about comic singing that lingers on until the end of P 75. S resumes on the following P for a couple paragraphs before J starts in on a detailed geographical summary of the river area. S resumes for what's left of P 78, ending this chapter.
Half a P of S is elbowed out of the way by a rant on tow lines that drags on until the end of P 85. The S lasts two paragraphs before a F about getting lost on the river, thus taking us to the end of another chapter.
The S that begins on P 89 continues on until halfway through P 92, where comments about food- as well as some sermonizing- get us to the middle of P 93. S begins again and then is replaced on P 94 by a quick flashback about mistaken identities that is replaced on the next page by another snippet of the S. But no story lasts forever- especially in the hands of Jerome K. Jerome- evidenced by J sharing a short fairy tale about a medieval knight and a stately maiden in a dark, forbidding forest. What the hell this has to do with anything- let alone the present story- is a mystery, but at least it kills off the chapter, ending on P 98.
We don't get far with the S, for after one paragraph, J has traveling companion George share an F about losing track of time due to a stopped watch. This tale goes on for three pages, the S starting up again on P 101 until it is pushed out of the way, on P 105, by the reimagining of an event in June 1215, involving King John, a group of knights and squires, and some business about the founding of Magna Charta Island.
Two paragraphs into the new chapter, beginning on P 108, the S steps aside, giving way to a rant about the inconvenience of sharing a house with a couple deep in the throes of romance, which, after one page moves on to the topic of Henry VIII's courting days. Content to continue reveling in the past, J heads down memory lane for the umpteenth time, starting on P 111, with a story about trying to find an inn late at night, from which we return to the present S in the middle of P 115, and continue on with the adventure until chapter's end at the top of P 120.
For two pages, J speaks glowingly of two places called Marlow and Bisham Abbey, then sings the praises of the Medmenham Monks before returning to the story- but only long enough to talk about that irascible terrier, Montmorency, after which J shares a quite funny story about the havoc another fox-terrier caused at a local market, one day. On P 124 the story resumes, taking us along until P 129, the following page mostly an F, after which the S continues on to the end of the chapter, on P 132.
After one paragraph, J indulges in a few more descriptions of ancient history before returning to the S on P 134, only reverting to his old ways four pages later with a story from the past about a fellow struggling to learn how to play the bagpipes. From P 140-144 we are treated to the S again, as well as the chapter's end.
The S continues from P 144 through half of P 146, when J takes off to other parts with an essay about "old river men," and rowing and punting and sailing, which goes on and on and on to the chapter's finish, on P 157.
This chapter alternates between the S and ancient history, but includes a section about the protagonists discovering a dead body, an event jarring in tone, and one that gives J an excuse to sermonize once again.
What begins as a continuation of the S morphs into an essay about the lies fisherman tell, then returns to the S for a generous three pages before the chapter ends.
After one sentence of S, J spends four pages sharing his thoughts on the hazards of locks, as well as more descriptions of river geography and its attendant history, before going into an alternating series of snippets from the S and ancient history, before ending the chapter with a rant about grouchy boating enthusiasts.
And so we come to the final chapter. After one paragraph of S, J spends two-and-a-half pages explaining the challenges of boat rental, then returns to the current S for one tiny paragraph before sharing one page of flowery prose about the river. And finally, J abandons further efforts at reflection, leaving the last six pages for the end of the S.
As for an estimation of how many pages of the book are taken up with the actual story, I'll leave that to the reader, for I am sick of looking at the book anymore. All I'll say is that there are a lot of funny episodes in the book, which makes it worth digging thought it to find them. Just don't ask me to help you.