Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome or The Real Self-Help Book

Some books are particularly suited to certain situations. Some are perfect when you are in a Christmassy mood for ten minutes during a heat wave, some work even better than usual during a power outage. Three Men in a Boat is an excellent fit for travelling in the summer. Although it’s rather its mood and tone than the plot that make it so.

Yes, the story featuring three friends and a dog going on a boating trip on the Thames is in fact about travelling in the summer, but that’s not what makes it such a good holiday companion. The plot could be something else entirely. It wouldn’t even have to contain any kind of travelling at all, and it would still work. Because it is at its core good, lazy fun. It’s meandering here and there without urgent purpose or destination. Nothing big happens but a lot of small things. It’s about enjoying a moment of leisure.

A funny thing about Three Men in a Boat is that it was initially supposed to be a serious travel guide, making it something of an accidental comedy (so much so that the few attempts to be more serious don’t enrich the novel as a whole, but stick out as disturbances).

However, in my opinion, it’s not only that, but also an unwitting self-help book. I’m not a friend of the genre itself, but even I have to bow to such obvious expertise. Because Three Men in a Boat offers insightful and practical life advice for a variety of situations, such as:

  • how to hang a picture on the wall (Chapter 3): all you need is at least eight people (preferably related), assorted tools, picture, wall, a piano and several hours of time, and you’re all set
  • how to travel with cheese (Chapter 4)
  • how to better understand canine nature

Montmorency was in it all, of course.  Montmorency’s ambition in life, is to get in the way and be sworn at.  If he can squirm in anywhere where he particularly is not wanted, and be a perfect nuisance, and make people mad, and have things thrown at his head, then he feels his day has not been wasted.

To get somebody to stumble over him, and curse him steadily for an hour, is his highest aim and object; and, when he has succeeded in accomplishing this, his conceit becomes quite unbearable. (Chapter 4)

  • how to beat a hedge maze (Chapter 6)
  • how to deal with the German language (Chapter 8)

I don’t understand German myself.  I learned it at school, but forgot every word of it two years after I had left, and have felt much better ever since. (Chapter 8)

  • how to solve the old conundrum of money vs. morals

In the church is a memorial to Mrs. Sarah Hill, who bequeathed 1 pound annually, to be divided at Easter, between two boys and two girls who “have never been undutiful to their parents; who have never been known to swear or to tell untruths, to steal, or to break windows.”  Fancy giving up all that for five shillings a year!  It is not worth it. (Chapter 14)

  • how to be a hard worker

It always does seem to me that I am doing more work than I should do.  It is not that I object to the work, mind you; I like work: it fascinates me.  I can sit and look at it for hours.  I love to keep it by me: the idea of getting rid of it nearly breaks my heart.

You cannot give me too much work; to accumulate work has almost become a passion with me: my study is so full of it now, that there is hardly an inch of room for any more.  I shall have to throw out a wing soon.

And I am careful of my work, too.  Why, some of the work that I have by me now has been in my possession for years and years, and there isn’t a finger-mark on it.  I take a great pride in my work; I take it down now and then and dust it.  No man keeps his work in a better state of preservation than I do. (Chapter 15)

  • how to pose for a photograph while boating (Chapter 18)
  • and not to forget the important warning concerning safety issues because of the demoralizing effect of river air

I don’t know why it should be, but everybody is always so exceptionally irritable on the river.  Little mishaps, that you would hardly notice on dry land, drive you nearly frantic with rage, when they occur on the water.  When Harris or George makes an ass of himself on dry land, I smile indulgently; when they behave in a chuckle-head way on the river, I use the most blood-curdling language to them.  When another boat gets in my way, I feel I want to take an oar and kill all the people in it.

The mildest tempered people, when on land, become violent and blood-thirsty when in a boat. (Chapter 18)

It’s probably enjoyable everywhere, but I think it has a special charm somewhere nice and sun-dappled, with one leg dangling in the body of water of your choice.

You can download Three Men in a Boat from the good Samaritans at

There’s also a sequel: Three Men on the Bummel (in which they bicycle through the Black Forest).

The Vampire by Aleksey Tolstoy or Fire is Always a Good Conversation Starter

The short biographical note in my edition told me three interesting things about A.K. Tolstoy: 1.) he was a cousin of the more famous Leo Tolstoy, 2.) he wrote in Russian and French, and 3.) during a trip to Germany as a child, he was apparently really impressed with sitting on Goethe’s lap. Somehow this left me favourably inclined towards The Vampire right from the get-go.

The story starts with a blaze. The first scene – and in my opinion the strongest of the novella – is brilliant.  Runewski, the protagonist, is at a ball and sees a man who is so distracted by his surroundings that he doesn’t notice that his coat-tails are getting singed in the fireplace. Like the suave gentleman he is, Runewski judges this as a golden opportunity to engage the stranger in conversation. Of course, you can take the plain, well-trodden path and simply offer someone a light, but this has so much more fanfare.

Burning clothes are quickly forgotten, however, because the man, Rybarenko, is bemused by the fact that there are vampires at the ball. Strangely enough, Rybarenko – a simultaneously comic and tragic figure – seems to be more upset by the lack of manners of the vampires present than the whole undead, bloodsucking and murdering of innocents schtick. But really, the gall of some vampires: being at a ball among the very people who attended their funerals. That’s just tacky.

Rybarenko’s delicate sensibilities aside, he has some useful advice for Runewski, namely how to identify a vampire. According to Tolstoy’s story it’s not the lack of a mirror image (supremely useful in a ball room) or the inability to enjoy a sunbath, but rather a particular noise like the clicking of one’s tongue that the vampires use to greet one another. Or to be more precise, something resembling the sound of lips sucking an orange.

This peculiar but lovely beginning gives a taste of the absurd and sets the tone of the whole novella. Without going into further detail, Runewski has a busy night, after learning about the vampires: he falls in love with a girl after one dance; meets her aunt, cousin and allegedly vampiric grandmother;  gets invited to visit them all at their country house; and finds out that Rybarenko is supposedly insane. And that’s only the first part.

The Vampire jumps back and forth between the fantastical and the mundane, playing at gaslighting both characters and readers. Tolstoy presents the natural as well as the supernatural explanations for the occurring events as equally viable options, and lets the reader decide, whether to take up with vampires, satanic rituals, an old family curse, suspicious scars and odd behaviour, or stick to drug and fever induced hallucinations, dreams and mental illness.

The deliberate non-explicitness and ambivalence, while rather uncommon for gothic tales, is actually the charm of the story. Although Tolstoy takes the dream sequences a bit too far, which curbs the overall pacing, especially when the story delves into Rybarenko’s experiences, it’s still forgivable in a novella with less than 90 pages.

For something I picked up ages ago in a second-hand bookshop because of its campy cover, I was delighted to find a mischievous and fun take on vampire lore in at times surprisingly poetic language.

The Hare of Inaba or 80 out of 81 Princes Suck

Sometimes the reminder why I don’t want to read only contemporary fiction comes from unexpected places. And I decidedly don’t want to limit this notion to the so-called ‘classics’ – a term that can range between ambiguous and arbitrary – but also include all those stories which are perhaps not as widely known. Because the good ones have something to say to us, even centuries later.

The Hare of Inaba is a story about a sneaky hare, gullible crocodiles and cruel human princes that breaks the mould in the way it deals with transgressions. A lot of fairy tales, at least in their original forms, tend to be places where layers, nuance and complexity are rarely found. Heroes are universally good, villains are universally bad, and the unkindness the villain receives for his or her own previous unkindness is just punishment.

A fairy tale I grew up with is somewhat similar. In Mother Hulda two sisters handle the same obstacles differently and are rewarded or punished accordingly. The always good, kind and diligent (and of course pretty) sister accidentally enter’s Hulda’s realm, where she completes the tasks she is given without question, and is later directly rewarded by Hulda. The always bad, unkind and lazy sister enters Hulda’s world on purpose after witnessing her sister’s success. She, on the other hand, performs her duties only half-heartedly or not all, which leads to Hulda punishing her with being covered in pitch for life. End of story.

Duality of the Hare

The Hare of Inaba takes a different road. The titular hare is both perpetrator and victim; he deceives the crocodiles to cross the sea and is later deceived himself, when he follows the malicious advice of those eighty bad princes. The interesting part is that his previous transgression doesn’t exclude him from being seen as a victim of unjust cruelty. He is neither perfectly innocent nor perfectly good. Thus his status as a previous transgressor doesn’t affect his ability to be recognised as a victim at a later point in time.

The usual fairy tale or fable would only contain the first part of the hare’s story. The hare tricks the crocodiles and is punished with losing his fur, because he gets carried away and mocks them while he is still within reach. But The Hare of Inaba goes on, because it’s really a story about the hero and his eighty brothers and how they deal with the hare’s situation.

The hare also portrays an intriguing approach to trust and learning from past experiences. He begins the story as an untrustworthy trickster. But despite his own nature and experiences, he doesn’t regard his subsequent encounters with suspicion. On the contrary, he follows the advice of the first eighty princes he meets without hesitation, and is, as a result, worse off than before. Yet even then, he is not only willing to forward his trust to the eighty-first brother, but furthermore reveals how his own actions got him in trouble in the first place.

The Hero and his Reward

This disclosure does something interesting to the hero. He judges the loss of fur as just punishment, but that doesn’t affect his compassion for the hare’s current state. His kindness has little to do with blind obedience. Rather, it’s an informed choice. Even though his past experiences with his brothers, who hated him and treated him like a servant, should have taught him to expect at least ingratitude for his efforts, he is fully aware of the hare’s previous transgression and still chooses to help. And so much that the hare was “quite cured and his fur grew thicker than ever”. This kind of trust, or conviction if you will, mirrors that of the hare.

Furthermore, the hero doesn’t prevail because of his bravery or battle prowess, but because of his empathy and kindness. He doesn’t ‘win’ the princess and lifelong happiness (according to the last sentence) through fighting, but by simply being a nice person. Which is another interesting point.

Unlike Mother Hulda, there is no magical fix in this tale. The hare has neither the (magical) power nor the authority to actually provide the reward. He can neither make the princess chose the eighty-first prince by whatever means, nor can he order her to do so. When he tells the one good brother that the princess will choose him and he will be king, it is mere reassurance. It is once more trust that, considering the actions of all the princes, the princess will realise that the last brother is the good one and therefore choose him. (There are different versions of the story. In one of them the hare is revealed to be a god after the cure, but that doesn’t happen in this translation.)

For such a teensy, tiny book that only has a few pages and tells a pretty simple story, it offers a surprising degree of complexity and raises some fascinating questions about trust and betrayal, justice, weakness and strength.

You can read and/or download a nicely illustrated copy of The Hare of Inaba at The Public Domain Review.