Sunday, 3 February 2008
As promised, I started off my Hesperus pile with Jerome K. Jerome's The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, and it did not disappoint - in fact, it's gone straight into my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About. Doesn't get much better here on Stuck-in-a-Book.
I read Three Men in a Boat last year, but deemed it too well-known to get on my list - and it came in at no.10 on reads of 2007. Actually, I'm surprised it wasn't higher - I must have been feeling in an arty mood when I compiled the list. I haven't read many authors who rival Jerome's insouciant good humour and entirely maliceless send-up of everyone around him. The send-up works because the figure of fun he most mocks is himself.
Idle Thoughts, first published in 1886 before he even considered men in boats, is arranged as a series of comic essays, each titled 'On ----', be it Babies, Being Hard Up, or Cats and Dogs. I'm going to go all out and say that he might be parodying Montaigne, but having not read any Montaigne, it's a bold claim. What I do know is that these pieces of writing are hilarious - but in the subtle way which the Victorian comics seemed to find so easy. (Cf: Grossmith, George and/or Weedon). Nothing much is said, but it is said very amusingly. Jerome wanders around the topics introduced with anecdotes, musings and wry observations. It's a bit like the higgledy-piggledy nature of Three Men in a Boat, only structured by themed chapters rather than a central thread of plot.
The best thing I can do is quote Jerome - here's his Preface:
One or two friends to whom I showed these papers in MS having observed that they were not half bad, and some of my relations having promised to buy the book if it ever came out, I feel I have no right to longer delay its issue. But for this, as one may say, public demand, I perhaps should not have ventured to offer these mere 'idle thoughts' of mine as mental food for the English-speaking peoples of the earth. What readers ask nowadays in a book is that it should improve, instruct and elevate. This book wouldn't elevate a cow. I cannot conscientiously recommend it for any useful purposes whatever. All I can suggest is that when you get tired of reading 'the best hundred books', you may take this up for half an hour. It will be a change.
Do go and buy it. I'm rather excited by the 1891 riposte, Lazy Thoughts of a Lazy Girl, by 'Jenny Wren', which will be republished in March...