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Archive for the ‘Classics’ Category

Victorian humour? Is it possible? I certainly wasn’t expecting it, but Jerome K. Jerome proved in Three Men in a Boat that it was indeed possible. Despite my normal aversion to ‘funny books’ (in particular modern funny books) there were moments I actually laughed out loud whilst reading this book. It was ‘Murphy’s Law’ in prose, with delightful observations on the world which haven’t lost their relevance despite more than a century passing since the book was first published.

Jerome set out to write a river guide which soon turned into a charming story about the boating antics of the working and lower middle classes in London. The three men are himself and two of his friends as well as a fox terrier, Montmorency, to whom Jerome gives a wry humour and a personality which perfectly suits the group. After spending an evening contemplating their respective illnesses (none of which they had of course), the three friends decided to take two weeks in a boat along the Thames, with idyllic ideas of pleasure, freedom and nature. Thus decided, the journey begins…

This book isn’t fantastic because of its plot – in fact the plot is thin at the best of times. It is fantastic because of the observations made by J and his friends whilst they travel. Whether it was the fun of the three trying (and failing) to open a tin of pineapple chunks, or the observations that because Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn courted in several places, it must have been intenseley frustrating for everyone at the time because every single place they went they would have run into the two wayward lovers, or the delicious description of how they loved to hold up the steam launches by pretending they couldn’t hear them, until they were being towed by a steam launch and then they felt justified in cursing all of the selfish boaters who held up the steam launches by pretending they couldn’t bhear them, this book was constant amusement. Of course, the trip wasn’t as idyllic as they wanted, but that never seemed to dampen the spirits of the main characters. In that respect, they were truly delightful.

Three Men in a Boat paints a lovely picture of the way leisure time was spent during the 1880s. Despite the fact that leisure time was earnt through long hours and hard work, it was used as a way to transcend class and, just for a few short hours, pretend that they were men of leisure with all the time on their hands and the beauty and history of the river in their grasp. In contrast to classics such as Dickens, which paint a miserable picture of the poorer classes of London, Jerome chooses to show them up as happy, carefree and full of humour. It was a lovely contrast.

Rating: 8/10
ISBN: 978-0-14-144121-4
Publisher: Penguin (Classics)
Year: 1889
Date Finished: 16 April 2008
Pages: 178

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A Farewell To Arms

A Farewell to Arms is an unusual book. The storyline is simple enough, but the style of writing took some time getting used to. This is the first Hemingway novel I had ever read so I wasn’t prepared for it, but after reading the introduction in the edition which I own, the word ‘detachment’ stood out to me. The story began and I felt like I was outside looking in. Despite being written in the first person, you never feel like you have got into the mind of the protagonist. There is a wall there between his feelings and you as a reader which never really comes down even as the story turns into tragedy.

Because of this, I found it one of the strangest love stories I had ever read. The love between Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley plays out in an almost childlike way. This impression was heightened by the continual repetition in the dialogue, or the descent of the dialogue into a long rambling paragraph of ‘he said’, ‘I said’ not unlike a child’s journal. It was when I switched from seeing the book as a detached narrative and began seeing it as a story from the heart of a child, that it really began to move me.

Despite their trials, the relationship between Catherine and Frederic is steeped with innocence. The war goes on, but neither character is ever truly a part of it. What they are part of is a strange world filled with the mystery of an overwhelming love for one another, and the war does little more than get in the way of that. Despite danger and risk, both characters continue to talk about the ‘fine time’ they are having or the ‘grand adventure’ that it all is. Nothing sullied can touch them – neither cruelty, injustice, war or death. Because of this, Hemingway’s conclusion is all the more tragic because

[The world] kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry

I enjoyed viewing World War I from a different angle again – this time the battle in Italy against the Austrians which tends not to be the focus of most WWI novels. Henry’s experience during the retreat is poignant – you so want him to escape and return to Catherine. But Hemingway’s intention is not to build anticipation or fear that he won’t. This part of the story simply serves to place a surmountable barrier in the way of Catherine’s and Frederic’s love which makes their reunion all the more wonderful.

There was little true character development of any but the main characters, and even those two were not developed deeply. I get the sense though that characterisation was not his priority. Because this story is semi autobiographical, I get the sense that Hemingway simply needed to ‘get it out’ and in doing so, contemplate his experience, his loss and mortality. In such an exercise, the characters were incidental.

Rating: 8/10
ISSN: 1753-3120
Publisher: Vintage (promotional copy from Paperview UK Ltd)
Year: 2005
Date Finished: 20 March 2008
Pages: 252
Challenges: 4 of category 7: Books with World War I as the theme for the 888 Challenge

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