Friday, September 21, 2012

On the bummel

Three Men on the Bummel, Jerome K. Jerome

I had already read and loved Three Men in a Boat when I came across a Penguin edition that combined it with Three Men on the Bummel, which I hadn't.  I immediately bought it, and then it sat on the TBR pile for too many years.  I always meant to re-read Boat before Bummel, and I never got around to it.  Helen's recent review on She Reads Novels made me move it up the stacks. I was also interested to compare Jerome's account of his German travels with Elizabeth von Arnim's picture of the country and its people in her novels (particularly her account of an English holiday in The Caravanerswhose Baron von Ottringel so despises the British).

I might as well confess straight off (and with a blush) that I initially thought "the Bummel" was a river, and that this would be Harris, George and J. off on another boating expedition.  Instead of course it is about what was meant to be a cycling tour of Germany, though the three of them spend much of their time, at least in J.'s telling, on trains or wandering around cities and towns.  Jeremy Lewis, the editor, points out that when this book was published in 1900, cycling was all the rage, and women particularly were finding in it a freedom they had never had.  This made Jerome's book very topical, and his typical digressions into the different kinds of bicycles, their equipment and repairs, and even the advertisements for them, provide some interesting social history.

Like the earlier book, this one starts off with the three men sitting around, complaining that they need a change, worn out with work and worry as they are.  But now Harris and J. are married men with families, and they can't just set off on a trip.  They hatch a cunning plan to get their wives to agree to a bachelor's holiday, to which the women just as cunningly agree.  So with a tandem bike and a single in tow, the three set off for Hamburg.  At that point, J. stops his narrative to explain that

There will be no useful information in this book.  Anyone who should think that with the aid of this book he would be able to make a tour through Germany and the Black Forest would probably lose himself before he got to the Nore. . . I do not regard the conveyance of useful information as my forte.

In one of my favorite digressions, he then goes on to recount his career in journalism, working on a paper that "combined instruction with amusement," such as how to make one's fortune keeping rabbits, or how to learn dance-steps by means of diagrams.  J. also wrote the advice column, "Straight Talks to Young Men," by "Uncle Henry," and his co-workers included a shabby little woman who wrote the cooking and fashion sections.  After an unfortunate article involving experiments with hydrogen gas, the editor advised him to avoid giving useful information in the future, and J. reluctantly came to accept that advice (though not before instructing a friend "about how to marry his deceased wife's sister at Stockholm" - I'd love to hear that story).

Returning to his main story, J. travels with his friends from Hamburg to Berlin and Dresden, and then to the Black Forest.  Along the way he has fun with the accidents of travel, and with the British abroad (especially their inability to speak foreign languages).  In turn he mocks the German passion for order, which in his telling leads them to "improve" nature out of all recognition, not to mention spoiling scenic areas with restaurants.  He also has great fun with German law and social rules, which the three are constantly if innocently breaking, running up quite a tally of fines. "This is the charm of German law: misdemeanour in Germany has its fixed price."

J. spends much more time discussing the German people and their society than his travels. On the one hand, he appreciates the good order and prosperity of the country, and he finds Germans themselves "an amiable, unselfish, kindly people."  He notes their proverbial kindness to children and animals, but he contrasts that with the universal habit of duelling among university students.  I was unprepared for his detailed account of a night spent watching young men slice each other to the bone, himself falling under the spell of the "curious hot odour of blood."  Jerome was troubled by what he saw as most people's overly-regimented life, under a paternal government. "In Germany you take no responsibility upon yourself whatever. Everything is done for you, and done well."  But all will be well, unless "by any chance something goes wrong with the governing machine."  As the editor also points out, there was at this time great interest and some concern about the German Empire, staking out colonies and building its navy, and Jerome was one of many British writers trying to get a handle on the country and its people.

I enjoyed this, though it was not what I expected.  Like the first book, there is great fun in the misadventures of the Three Men, and I particularly enjoy their sometimes snappish exchanges, like the debate over who has to ride the tandem and who gets the single bike.  In Three Men in a Boat, J. sometimes pauses in his story to muse on Life and Faith and other big topics, which really took me aback the first time I read it; I kept waiting for the punchline.  Here he follows the same pattern, mixing the comic and the serious, with the more serious sections focused on Germany and its people.

I have Mark Twain's A Tramp Abroad on the top of the TBR stack, an account of a European tour that also began in Hamburg, and it will be interesting to travel some of the same ground in his irreverent company.


  1. I remember that I really enjoyed this one but I really need to read it again. What sticks in my mind is his inability to make coffee, or was that the previous book, I'll have to dig them out.

  2. These books seem to be universally well-liked. They sound like great fun and I like to read accounts of Germany before the trouble started. Strangely, I've never come across either of these books while at the second hand bookstores in my area.

  3. I downloaded this one at the same time as Three Men in a Boat, which I loved, but haven't got to yet. And I confess I thought the Bummel was region of Germany (blush)!
    Sounds another fun read which I must get to soon.

  4. Katrina, I think that was the first book - there was also a tin of pineapple that created a lot of problems - but I really need to read that one again as well.

    Anbolyn, I've found lots of fellow readers on the listservs I belong to, and also on blogs, though I've never met anyone who's read them. Like Little Women, I think they'd be perfect on a grey day.

    Cat, doesn't "Bummel" sound like it should be in Germany? So glad I wasn't the only confused one!

  5. I bought this ages ago, having loved Three Men in a Boat, and I'm intending to read it for 1900 on my Century of Books - I'm glad that it lives up to the first one!

  6. Simon, I didn't find it as hilarious as Three Men in a Boat - but still funny. It will start your Century of Books off well.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!