Three Men In A Boat and the art of cutaways!

I recently picked up Three Men In A Boat (To Say Nothing Of The Dog) for a re-reading, as a way to kick-start my 52 weeks project in 2019.
It had been a while since I first read the book, and I had vague memories of the plot, settings etc. What I did remember pretty vividly were the fits of laughter I had to endure at different time when reading it for the first time. So I was more than happy to give it a second go, and I have not been disappointed at all.

But that’s not why we’re here. The book is well recognized as one of the most humorous accounts ever written, and I have nothing much to add there besides my wholehearted agreement and endorsement. I wanted to talk a little bit about how the author uses cutaways in his narration to great effect. This isn’t something I remember noticing the first time around, and I was surprised to realize how much more I enjoyed the book because of this narrative style.

A note about the word ‘cutaways’ (see 3 below) - I’ve only ever seen it used in context of motion pictures, but I don’t know the best word to describe this aspect in books so I’m going to stick to it. 

The book is is a humorous account by the writer Jerome K. Jerome of a two-week boating holiday on the Thames (from Kingston upon Thames to Oxford and back to Kingston). Quite suitably, the narration is as meandering as Thames itself. Every episode that he recounts tends to fall back on older encounters for providing a frame of reference and (invariably) a dose of laughter. One of my favourites occurs pretty early on in the book - “How the elderly, family-man puts up a picture” that he uses to describe the helping nature of his friend Harris who is “so ready to take on the burden of everything himself, and put it on the backs of other people”. The book is well appreciated for aging very well, and I think this narrative style plays a huge role in that. Each of these cutaways is mostly self-contained, allowing readers to take their time to laugh at the funny ones, or spend some time brooding over the ones with deeper meaning. The actual journey is more like a travel journal but we are never bored as it feels fresh every time we come back from the cutaway.

I’ve often seen TV shows put this technique to great use, the most recent examples I can think of are ’Scrubs’, ‘How I Met Your Mother’, and to some extent ‘Family Guy’. However, I haven’t seen this technique being used in many books. One reason might be that you need to keep great cutaways coming, and it’s difficult enough to get a good book going without the added pressure. Just goes to show again how great this book is, go read!

I leave you with this passage musing on the domination of our digestive organs over our intellect (all male pronouns, something that hasn’t aged well!).

How good one feels when one is full -- how satisfied with ourselves and with the world! People who have tried it, tell me that a clear conscience makes you very happy and contented; but a full stomach does the business quite as well, and is cheaper, and more easily obtained.
It is very strange, this domination of our intellect by our digestive organs. We cannot work, we cannot think, unless our stomach wills so. It dictates to us our emotions, our passions.
After eggs and bacon it says, "Work!" After beefsteak and porter, it says, "Sleep!" After a cup of tea (two spoonfuls for each cup, and don't let it stand for more than three minutes), it says to the brain, "Now rise, and show your strength. Be eloquent, and deep, and tender; see, with a clear eye, into Nature, and into life: spread your white wings of quivering thought, and soar, a god-like spirit, over the whirling world beneath you, up through long lanes of flaming stars to the gates of eternity!
After hot muffins, it says, “Be dull and soulless, like a beast of the field—a brainless animal, with listless eye, unlit by any ray of fancy, or of hope, or fear, or love, or life.”  And after brandy, taken in sufficient quantity, it says, “Now, come, fool, grin and tumble, that your fellow-men may laugh—drivel in folly, and splutter in senseless sounds, and show what a helpless ninny is poor man whose wit and will are drowned, like kittens, side by side, in half an inch of alcohol.” We are but the veriest, sorriest slaves of our stomach.  Reach not after morality and righteousness, my friends; watch vigilantly your stomach, and diet it with care and judgment.  Then virtue and contentment will come and reign within your heart, unsought by any effort of your own; and you will be a good citizen, a loving husband, and a tender father—a noble, pious man.