Jerome K. Jerome: Writing and Resurrection

23Apr14

I have mixed feelings about e-books. Generally speaking, they’re among the things helping bleed out independent bookstores. Imperfect as it is, my own solution is to continue to buy so-called real books as gifts, or if it’s a favourite author I want to sit as a tangible object in my hands, or if it’s simply a well-designed book. This year I’ve picked up Stoner (my favourite novel of the year so far) The Summer Book, Chess Story and other attractive New York Review Books. Getting an e-reader as a gift is a little like being body-snatched: you remember the person you were, but it’s also recognizably easier to have David Copperfield in your bag on a slim device. So, only certain books on an e-reader then, as an imperfect solution.

At the same time, one of the pleasant side-effects of these devices is a resurrection (or at least much wider distribution) of older titles, now public domain and widely produced as e-books to be read and discussed again. I recently enjoyed The Beetle, published at the same time as Dracula and initially outselling it. It’s loaded with paranoia about foreigners jerome(“This is London, not a dog-hole in the desert.”) but putting that aside as part of its era (and glaringly obvious), it’s quite an entertaining story, written in an often-elegant 19th century voice: “I’ve never seen a man more in need of the good offices of soap and water.” It’s also interesting, historically speaking, to read a book set at a time in England the characters can wire ahead to have “the Arab” stopped at a train station. Because, naturally, there’s only one in England.

But for me, the best of these resurrections so far is Jerome K. Jerome, who is somewhat misrepresented as a humour author. His essays are certainly amusing (“He listened to me in rapt ecstasy. I might have been music.”) but he’s often capable of deeply perceptive comments about our habits, far-sighted: “Will it matter to the ages whether, once upon a time, the Union Jack or the Tricolour floated over the battlements of Badajoz? Yet we poured our blood into its ditches to decide the question.” Or this, for example: “Why, if the universe be ordered by a Creator to whom all things are possible, the protoplasmic cell? Why not the man that is to be? Shall all generations be so much human waste that he may live? Am I but another layer of the soil preparing for him?” And finally: “Looking back the little distance that our dim eyes can penetrate the past, what do we find? Civilizations, built up with infinite care, swept aside and lost.”

Current whatever-crossed-my-mind essay collections owe something to writers like Jerome, who’s still as relevant and perceptive as any of them. He often sounds flippant and trivial before closing in on something more significant. “On the Nobility of Ourselves” has these thoughts: “History notes the wrong; but the patient suffering, the heroic endeavour, that, slowly and silently, as the soft processes of Nature re-clothing with verdure the passion-wasted land, obliterate that wrong, she has no eyes for. In the days of cruelty and oppression — not altogether yet of the past, one fears — must have lived, gentle-hearted men and women, healing with their help and sympathy the wounds that else the world had died of. After the thief, riding with jingle of sword and spur, comes, mounted on his ass, the good Samaritan. The pyramid of the world’s evil — God help us! Its rises high, shutting out almost the sun. But the record of man’s good deeds, it lies written in the laughter of the children, in the light of lovers’ eyes, in the dreams of the young men; it shall not be forgotten… Hate and Anger shriek to one another across the ages, but the voices of Love and Comfort are none the less existent that they speak in whispers, ear to ear.”

And, yes, it’s necessary to mentally note that “man” isn’t the term that would be appropriate today. And one of his essays begins with a long, tedious, entirely dated description of how flighty women can be before he settles into something else. But again, these are books from a completely different era, and don’t deserve to be swept into the dustbin because of it. His two collections (Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, and Second Thoughts of an Idle Fellow) weave together an easygoing intelligence, humour and impressive observations, making him as thoroughly enjoyable as he is worthy of your time. At one point a “put out the stars” reference seemed to me to be the inspiration for the famous W.H Auden poem, Funeral Blues. Based on these collections, I’m looking forward to another non-fiction title of his, Diary of a Pilgrimage and I’ll look at his fiction too. All these titles are available from The Floating Press (recommended as an e-book publisher).

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