By Vikas Datta (10:32)
Many enduring human achievements are ventures which did not turn out as planned and literature is no exception. A newly-married, not very established author, spending his honeymoon boating on the Thames, started to write a serious travel guide but ended up with a comic novel due to his matchless ability for rib-tickling presentation of everyday events and people (including relatives). It may not have been the genre’s first but is the most enduring, having never gone out of print or popularity for over 125 years while flagging off a glorious parade of English authors skilled at evoking humour out of the commonplace.
Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)” (1889) is his account of a boating trip from Kingston to Oxford. The author, who appears as J. the narrator, however replaced his wife with two real-life friends “George” or George Wingrave (then a junior bank employee) and “Harris” or Carl Hentschel (who ran a printing business). Fox-terrier “Montmorency” was fictional but included on the belief that the inner consciousness of a typical Englishman of the time included a dog.
Though it has quite a bit of sentimental, even tragic, parts verging on purple prose, they are however overshadowed by the humorous set pieces which start right from the first paragraph where the three protagonists complain of their imagined medical maladies and the need for a relaxing holiday.
This over-the-top display of hypochondria, especially the morbid self-diagnosis of the author, who “never read a patent medicine advertisement without being impelled to the conclusion that I am suffering from the particular disease therein dealt with in its most virulent form” sets the stage for some of the most uproariously funny passages ever seen in English literature.
His purpose is aided by skillful and adroit employment of a whole array of literary devices including outrageous hyperbole, vivid metaphors, comic exaggeration – but in an understated, self-deprecating, deadpan way (the hallmark of what is thought as British humour).
Different readers may have their own favourites – and have a wide selection to choose from – but some that will definitely figure are the trip’s planning which leads to the recollection of an uncle famed for raising a fuss for the simplest chore (immortalised in countless anthologies as “Uncle Podger Hangs a Picture”), the inescapable aroma of ripe cheese, the unreliability of weather forecasts, Harris’ adventures in a maze, his skill (or lack thereof) in singing comic songs, the German music professor’s performance, the two drunken men who slide into the same bed in the dark, the difficulties while learning to play bagpipes, the many claims for a particular fine specimen of trout (also much anthologised as “A Fishy Tale”) and many more.
Jerome also went on to write a sequel, which sees the friends (save the still unmarried George) contrive to leave spouses and children for a relaxing cycling trip through the Black Forest in then Imperial Germany and parts of the contiguous Austro-Hungarian Empire.
“Three Men on the Bummel” (1900), though lesser-known and starting slowly, is however as good as its predecessor and maintains most of its freshness, even in the comic stereotyping of the German character (particularly their fetish for order, discipline and cleanliness) and the practice of cycling.
Its high points include George’s experiment with a book of tourist phrases – “its longest chapter being devoted to conversation in a railway carriage, among, apparently, a compartment load of quarrelsome and ill-mannered lunatics” and what happens when they are used at a bootmaker’s, at a hat shop and with a carriage driver.
Then there is the adventure of Harris and his wife on the tandem, Harris confronting the hose-pipe, the animal riot in the hill-top restaurant and the plan in Prague to wean George of the local beer. And, yes, Uncle Podger appears twice – to share his advice on packing and then among employees leaving their suburban homes for their offices.
“Three Men on the Boat” at first did not meet a favourable critical reception when it first appeared (sneered as vulgar for using slang), but it went on to sell in huge numbers – a million copies worldwide in the first 20 years – and the astonished publisher told a friend: “I cannot imagine what becomes of all the copies of that book I issue. I often think the public must eat them.” (Jerome’s afterward in a later edition). And pirated copies sold another million in the US!
Whats more, both works went on to serve as English textbooks – in Russia and Germany respectively, while some selections serve as models of prose in textbooks around the English-speaking world. As an example of English’s capability for humour, both are unsurpassed!
(01.03.2015 – Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com )