Wednesday, 23 June 2010
On the Art of Making Up One’s Mind by Jerome K. Jerome
"It is in our faults and failings, not in our virtues, that we touch each other, and find sympathy. It is in our follies that we are one."
This slim book is elegant both in appearance and content, a pleasure to look at and to read. The witty, beautifully-crafted essays, taken from Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow are similar in tone to that of his autobiography, My Life and Times, recognisable from the more famous Three Men in a Boat, but not as frothy. Despite the darker tone, this collection of five essays made me laugh out loud: it’s full of wonderful vignettes of Edwardian life: the runaway horse, for instance, who turns out to be going home alone because his master has been too long in the Rose and Crown, or the practical recycling of egg boxes: “with a sufficient supply of egg boxes…no young couple need hesitate to face the furnishing problem”. In my youth it was packing cases.
It might be considered that Jerome is unfair to women, since here they are often the target of his observations, but we have only to remember Three Men in a Boat to see that he is as gently scathing of masculine foibles. Human nature is his subject, and I must admit that the conversation between the two women getting ready to go out (“On the time wasted in looking before one leaps”) reminds me too much of my mother and myself, but the man in this essay has been dismissed in a short paragraph at the outset, making an inconsiderately brisk exit when he knows that if he announces his intention beforehand, he will be detained while his wife decides what errands she wants him to run. His writing is characterised by opposition in both sentence – “let us play the game of life as sportsmen, pocketing our winnings with a smile, leaving our losings with a shrug” – and idea – his all-too human Cinderella, dissatisfied with her new life, contrasts with the fairytale idyll. His humour depends on contraryness.
Jerome flouted convention by writing in colloquial English, and that is what makes his style so accessible today. He is chatty, matter-of-fact, energetic and forceful, he takes off on divagations and his taste for farce foreshadows the later writing of P.G. Wodehouse, but in miniature – where Wodehouse creates a canvas of improbability, Jerome paints the detail in the corner. This he combines with delicious (and very British) understatement and self-deprecation. This is just the sort of book that I like to leave by the bedside for guests to pick up and dip into, and I’m delighted that LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers sent it my way. Since I finished it I’ve picked up the autobiography again, because Jerome is an excellent companion.