Posts Tagged ‘Three Men in a Boat’

Jerome K Jerome: Three Men on the Bummel

March 3, 2018

51Fi2+wwa4L._AC_US218_Late nineteenth-century humour seems very tame, and a good deal of it relies on gender and national stereotypes that feel very jaded or even unacceptable today. I remember laughing my head off as a child reading Three Men in a Boat, and when a work colleague introduced me to Three Men on the Bummel quite a few years ago, I remember enjoying it. This time round, having been prompted to re-read it by a newspaper article about forgotten books by well-known writers, I found it rather tiresome. Except that, reading and feeling it’s all rather jaded, one suddenly comes across a moment that does make one laugh out loud… and there were a decent few of those.

Three Victorian men, two married and one a confirmed bachelor, leave their wives behind and go for a walking and cycling holiday in Germany. It’s suitably, if mildly chaotic, and full of the usual mishaps and misunderstandings. A great deal of the humour derives from each other’s faults and failings as seen by the others, and from quick-fire conversations which seem to be the forebear of modern stand-up comedy.

There’s a lot of rambling and digressing from the main idea, which feels a bit like padding, covering a wide range of topics, gently mocking of both England and the English, and foreigners. Jerome easily finds the occasion for fun in the Germans’ perceived penchant for tidiness, neatness and order. There are long drawn-out anecdotes based on linguistic misunderstandings; overall the tone struck me as rather flat, too even, lacking variation.

When I tried to think about what had disappointed me, I think it was hindsight, in a way: in 1900 it was easy to make fun of Germans being sticklers for law and authority, with rules for everything and penalties and fines for infringements; after seeing the effect of this on a global scale twice in the twentieth century such national proclivities somehow seem rather uneasy or inappropriate sources of humour… Germans are bred to obey anything with buttons, he says at one point. Humour is a funny thing in more ways than one. And I feel minded to look up Mark Twain‘s accounts of travel in Germany to see if he makes me feel the same way.

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George and Weedon Grossmith: Diary of a Nobody

September 17, 2016

51qjywbue3l-_ac_us160_This semi-humorous Victorian work conceals quite a hefty punch behind its deliberately understated exterior. I first came across it at school and enjoyed it then; I think it’s the first time I’ve been back to it, whilst on a recent touring holiday, courtesy of the excellent Librivox website.

For a couple of years Charles Pooter keeps a diary of his life beginning from the day he and his wife Carrie move into their new rented house in Holloway; they are soon joined by their (for Victorian times) raffish son Lupin who has been ‘let go’ from his job with a bank in Oldham. Charles has a job with a broking firm of some kind in the City, and is moderately successful. They both have a group of rather dull and sometimes boorish friends and relations.

If everything so far sounds almost deliberately dull and boring, that’s because surely it’s meant to. The adjective, ‘pooterish’, has passed into the language. The family is very petty bourgeois in its tastes, lacking in wit, liveliness, interests, not wanting to offend anyone, or to be offended. No-one has an interesting or original thought in their head… The most enterteining and subversive moment of the novel comes when the Pooters somehow end up at a social occasion where the guest of honour is an American writer who deliberately challenges his hosts’ attitudes, beliefs, and everything they do and stand for – no doubt in the stereotypically rude and outspoken American fashion that people used to condemn in Victorian times – and Charles Pooter, to his horror, finds himself acknowledging the truth of what the guest is saying and agreeing with him! Fortunately, this wobble is only brief, and our anti-hero shakes off his temporary rebellion and returns to normal.

What is really challenging about The Diary of a Nobody, what makes is so very different from that other gem from those times, Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, is that the Grossmiths inevitably get their reader reflecting on her or himself: we come to realise, as we mock the Pooters for their tedious ordinariness, that there is some, if not a lot, of that ordinariness in our own lives, no matter what story we may tell ourselves and others about how interesting and exciting our lives are. For do not we live in ordinary houses, often in suburbs, where we wrestle with the daily chores of shopping, tradesmen, making the house into a nice home, whilst dealing with our awkward children? And are not our values, beliefs and attitudes replicas of those with whom we spend our time? Are we really any different from the norm, or are we kidding ourselves?

If what we seek in our lives is contentment, and surely there is nothing wrong with that as a goal, then the ending of the book is comforting, as Mr Pooter gets a promotion which means he will be financially secure for the rest of his life, and his son lands a decent job. But it’s also very scary: where is the excitement, the adventure we feel we need?

The other wonderfully subversive thing about the book is its indirect challenge to the realist fallacy, that idea that fiction or cinema or television can ever portray our existence in a ‘true to life’ or realist fashion, rather than cut and edit for the sake of plot and excitement: The Diary of a Nobody really does consist of all that tedious stuff that has to be left out of so-called realist works to make them bearable: no-one in War and Peace argues with the butcher’s boy, moves a boot-scraper, paints the stairs, gets lost in a cab, or any of a host of other unbelievably dull and tedious things; here they do. God, it’s boring, and the scary thing is, it could be us…

Laughter and literature

March 30, 2016

My friends would tell you I can laugh loudly and heartily, and that I laugh easily and at lots of things. Something provoked me to start thinking about those books which have made me laugh the most…

I have to go back to my childhood, and Norman Hunter‘s amazing Professor Branestawm books (a couple of stories have recently been televised by the BBC quite successfully, I think) – silly stories about a mad professor and his crazy adventures: I remember friends at sleepovers when I was a kid, trying to read the stories aloud to each other, and it being impossible to keep a straight face much of the time.

Jerome K Jerome‘s masterpiece Three Men in A Boat had a similar effect on me as a teenager when I discovered him, and then, a little later on, I first came across Jaroslav Hasek‘s wonderful Good Soldier Svejk! The brilliance of his idea – sending a congenital idiot off to be a soldier in the Great War, and in the incredibly bureaucratic Austro-Hungarian army, too – allowed him to write by the yard (he never finished the novel, but there are a good 800 pages to keep you smiling) and have his hero in a great number of scrapes. My favourite pages are probably those where he is batman, first to a chaplain, and then to the amorous Captain Lukas. And the stories are always enhanced by Josef Lada’s great in-line illustrations.

Later on in life I came across John Kennedy Toole. His was a tragic story, in that he committed suicide thinking himself a failure, before The Confederacy of Dunces was published and was acclaimed a masterpiece. It will soon be time to read this minor classic again, and each time I’ve read it in the past, it has reduced me to helpless laughter. There is a second book, not as good – The Neon Bible – which I remember as being rather darker.

I’m conscious of the fact that all these are boys’ books, ie written by men and enjoyed – most probably – by male readers (although I know of one former female student who has enjoyed Svejk) and there’s a conundrum here. Firstly, I’ve racked my brain for any novels or stories by women writers who have had a similar effect on me and can’t think of any; this may, of course, be my own limited acquaintance with female humour, and I will be grateful for any suggestions any of my readers have to offer. And secondly, there’s the question of what makes us laugh. I can vaguely recall exploration of the nature of humour whilst at university and the mention of the name of Henri Bergson; the idea that we are laughing at a fellow human either being ridiculous or being made ridiculous; the idea that we are laughing at the misfortune of someone else. And I haven’t ever found these explanations completely convincing. For me, there’s something about the pure absurdity of situations involved, rather than the people. I’ve always been attracted to the Theatre of the Absurd, ever since I was introduced to it. And, as far as people are concerned, for me it seems to be something about them being allowed to act, react and interact in absurd ways, and the incongruous consequences of such actions. Whatever it is, I have always enjoyed laughing heartily.

On humour

July 25, 2015

I love anything that will make me smile or laugh; that means I’ve read a good deal of humorous writing in my time, and I have come to appreciate how hard it is to do well, and also how what people find funny has changed and developed over time. It’s hard to describe and classify humour, and it’s also clear that to be humorous can, at times, be dangerous for the humorist. Increasingly I’ve also noticed that there are considerable differences between what women and men find funny. This post is inevitably written from a male perspective.

I studied Francois Rabelais at university: in Gargantua and Pantagruel he satirised the religious and intellectual abuses of his time and was inevitably obscenely humorous while he was about it; you realise that scatology has always been part of humour as you read of the experiments to find what is the best thing to wipe your backside with, how the prostitutes of Paris defended their city, or the astonishing lists of books in various (imaginary) libraries. The far-fetched and the absurd are important aspects of the humorous. Whatever people laugh at today has been used before…

I’ve loved Sterne’s Tristram Shandy – the longest shaggy dog story in the world – ever since I had to read it, again as a student. It’s full of funny characters, humorous incidents, witty observations.

I’ve laughed loud and long at what must be the relatively mild Victorian humour of writers like Jerome K JeromeThree Men in a Boat – and George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody.

Some of my former students will be aware of my love of Jaroslav Hasek, anarchist author of The Good Soldier Svejk (and his adventures in the Great War). Satire again, on the bureaucracy of the Austro-Hungarian army through the adventures of a congenital idiot and the chaos he causes as he strives to do his duty: none of this can possibly be as insane or absurd as the war itself… and the illustrations are marvellous, too.

The Russian writer Vladimir Voinovich managed a similar kind of satire in rather more dangerous times with The Life and Adventures of Ivan Chonkin, with his eponymous hero’s adventures taking place during the Great Patriotic War, and causing just as much amusement and anarchy among the Soviets.

For sheer rolling around on the floor laughter, it’s hard to better John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, uproarious and obscene in equal measure. Much milder is Garrison Keillor’s laconic Lake Wobegon Days and other related titles (and the accompanying radio series The Prairie Home Companion). And then there’s the total bonkers-ness of PG Wodehouse’s Blandings stories, some of which have been wonderfully televised.

As a child I loved funny books, too, and probably my most treasured memories are of the Professor Branestawm stories by Norman Hunter: at sleepovers we would drive each other into hysterics as we tried to read these stories aloud to each other…

I’m aware that I haven’t, despite racking my brains, mentioned a single female writer or character above, and would dearly like a nudge, prompt or hint if anyone can offer any. And when it comes to trying to explain what makes me laugh, or what exactly is funny about any of the books I’ve mentioned above, I’m hard-pressed. Absurdity makes me laugh, taking the normal and ordinary over the edge into the realms of the ridiculous, anything which brings chaos to what should be a tidy and boring and ordered world. I have also found myself wondering how much humour is a trait of our younger days, and whether, as I grow inevitably older, I laugh less and find less to laugh at or about….

Laughter and Literature

October 9, 2014

What makes us laugh, and why? I started thinking about this when I realised how long it was since a book I’d read had had me laughing out loud…

I decided that I laughed much more readily as a child. The Molesworth books by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle had me in stitches when I was at school, with their crazy spelling, eccentric teachers and mad antics. I have recollections of sleepovers (not that we used the term back in those days) at a friend’s where we reduced each other to tears reading aloud to each other from Norman Hunter’s Professor Branestawm stories – I don’t think anyone would get away with giving a character such a name nowadays. Again, it was the eccentricity of the character, and his actions that set us off. I still smile at the thought of anyone filling an envelope with mashed potato and sending it off to the gas or electricity board. Perhaps a tactic to be recommended in these times? Sellars and Yeatman’s 1066 and All That is still in print and still funny; here, I think it was the idea of twisting and warping the real events, and making up mock tests (do not write on both sides of the paper at once) that made me laugh.

I remember vaguely from my university days something of the theory of humour, the idea of human beings acting in non-human ways. As I reflected, I realised that there is falling about laughing – which I was very prone to as a child – and there is the more adult version where we snigger, chuckle, smile to ourselves in a more restrained way: we control and restrict ourselves, because falling about is non-human? We must not appear absurd. Very early in my teaching career, as we read aloud The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, I realised that I could not restrain myself during the chapter where Huck, in a totally deadpan style, describes the house of the feuding Grangerford family: I had to get someone else to read…

Books like the Grossmiths’ Diary of  a Nobody, and Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat ranged from the mildly amusing to the occasionally hilarious, but were pretty restrained, really. A challenge came at university, where we had to read Tristram Shandy. Now this is a book which I found difficult, and yet I loved, and have come back to several times in my life. In some ways it’s stunningly modern in its premise; it’s certainly absurd in its structure and the games the author plays with his readers; the characters are eccentric, and the situations are often insane. It has been described as the longest shaggy dog story ever written, and I tend to agree.

Two books discovered and loved in my adult days have had the power to reduce me to helpless laughter, and I love them for it: Jaroslav Hasek’s The Good Soldier Svejk, and John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. The former, the only comic novel I know about the First World War, puts a congenital idiot into the Austro-Hungarian army and catalogues a series of utterly barking adventures; his innocence drives everyone to total distraction. And I don’t know what to say about Toole’s novel – time for a re-read, certainly – except that the blundering Aloysius’ adventures match Svejk’s in many ways.

Which brings me briefly on to black humour, the sort where you smile, or laugh, but guiltily, as if ashamed of laughing, feeling that the subject is too serious: an adult kind of humour, perhaps? For me, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is the supreme example: the utter absurdity of so many of the situations and characters he imagines, which then are perhaps not quite as absurd as we first thought, inter-cut with scenes of graphic horror just to remind us that we shouldn’t be laughing…maybe.

I love laughing, falling about, and always have; I know it does me good: I’m also wondering why I seem to laugh less as I grow older…

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