Welcome to the first ever Three Men in Various Places SMACKDOWN!
In this corner, written seven years before our current champion but lacking a dog…it’s Three in Norway (By Two of Them)!
And in this corner, still laugh-out-loud funny over a hundred years after its publication and holding a very special place in your announcer’s heart; it’s the book that’s so good, its author was named twice…it’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)!
Okay, we all know how this is going to end, but when I saw that this Three in Norway (By Two of Them) was the inspiration for my favorite book in the history of the ever-ever, I figured I should give it a read. And, actually, I’m glad I did because it makes me appreciate Jerome K. Jerome’s writing ability even more. Not that Three in Norway is bad, it’s just…different. While they’re both ostensibly travelogues, I think only Three in Norway really is and I’m afraid I think that’s what makes it less enjoyable.
The authors’ voice takes a little getting used to as its written in a strange mix of third person and first person (no one ever refers to themselves as “I” but they do say “we”), but mostly it’s just quite…dry. I never really felt like I cared about the three characters and the three of them all seemed fairly interchangeable – unlike George, Harris and J. who are both charming and memorable.
Also, there’s a lot of fishing. I mean, a LOT of fishing. And reindeer hunting. Neither of which are really my thing and I don’t think it’s possible to make fishing seem exciting, so there are quite long stretches of story where I was just bored. One person I lent Three Men in a Boat to gave it back to me after they’d finished it and said “I didn’t really get it – nothing happened.” Needless to say, that relationship didn’t last much longer. Turns out all those asides and tangents that Jerome incorporates keeps things lively and interesting – otherwise it would just be three dudes in a boat on the Thames. Three in Norway, on the other hand, never ventures out of the present moment (or hardly ever does).
To be fair, I think the Two of Them were not going for the same comic effect that Jerome was – and if you’re wanting to go hunting and fishing in the wilds of Norway with Three in Norway as your guide, you’d probably be glad of that. But, really, apart from there being three men and the fact that they’re going somewhere, I would say there are actually very few similarities between the two (yes, I know Jerome originally did intend his book to be a genuine travelogue – thank goodness that didn’t work out!).
I dogeared a couple of Jerome-esque pages to show you that there are glimpses of a similar wit here and there:
Lighting a fire for breakfast was a toilsome busines, but at last we found some wood dry enough to burn. It continued raining in a nice keep-at-it-all-day-if-you-like kind of manner, so we resided in the tent, and read, and indulged in whisky and water for lunch to counteract any ill effects of the reading–for some of it was poetry. (p. 38)
They also get into one or two situations that would do George, Harris, and J. proud:
Soon the cauldron was heated and brought into the tent, and the eager crowd drew near with cups and spoons, and one lifted the lid, while another plunged his cup into the steaming savoury mess. And then arose a great cry of horror and desolation, and the sleeping valley rang with the wail of men in despair, for John had put the wrong pot on the fire, and we had been presented with boiling, dirty water in which the dinner-things had been washed up; while all the time the soup pot was quiet, untouched and cold in the corner of the tent where it is kept.
And speaking of their tent, these guys have a pretty sweet setup going! I mean, an actual camp with a stove they built themselves and everything – and they bake bread in it!
The one place where these three outshine George, Harris, and J. is in their actual woodsmen skills – George, Harris, and J. would have starved to death on the first day if they’d relied on fishing and hunting for their sustenance.
And I do have to give them credit for recognizing genius when they see it:
We all think Mark Twain the best writer for camp life that has yet been discovered, and we have three or four of his books here. Besides our library of light literature consists of Shakespeare, Longfellow, Dr. Johnson’s Table-talk, and novels by Whyte Melville, Walford, and Thackeray. But Mark and William get more work than all the rest. (p. 173)
Let’s be honest, we all knew this was never going to be a fair fight, but I think Three in Norway does an admirable job at the attempt even though it doesn’t quite make it. But if I ever go fishing in Norway, it’ll be the first book I turn to.