The novels featured in today’s brief post (another for my Melville bicentennial celebration) are set on rivers. Two are classics, and the third deserves to be. I’ve read all three before, but they fit so neatly into my on-the-water theme that I couldn’t resist.
Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows (1908) and Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (1889) need little introduction. They’re spring-time books for me, despite lengthy chapters set in fall and winter in Grahame’s idyl. There’s nothing like “messing about in boats,” as the Rat says, and reading these books makes me want to hire a canoe or rowboat and load it up with camping gear.
J and his two friends, Harris and George (to say nothing of the dog, Montmorency), hire a boat to row up the Thames from Kingston to Oxford. They may have trouble both on water and ashore, but there are still long quiet days of glorying in the sounds and sights around them. From a boat on the river, churches, pubs, manor houses, hills and woods seem almost framed by water and sky, inspiring J’s musings on nature and life — only to be brought up short when he loses control of the tiller and they run into the riverbank or another boat.
In To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis, inspired by Jerome’s novel, gives us a mash-up of 1930s cozy mysteries, P G Wodehouse, and Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, all within a time-travel and chaos theory framework so complex that I’m stunned Willis could keep all her plot threads straight.
Her basic premise is this: In 2058, Coventry Cathedral (pre-WWII version) is being restored down to the tiniest detail — except for location, which in mid-21st century is a shopping center in Coventry, so the restored Cathedral is set in Oxford. Ned is trying to find out why no one can locate a certain vase, and he travels back to 1888. Missed connections, near drownings of both humans and animals, absented-minded Oxford dons, very proper butlers, shady spiritualists, and imperious gentry complicate Ned’s job, which is to correct a “parachronistic incongruity” caused by his colleague, Verity, bringing a 19th century cat into the 21st century. That is to say, Verity may have set the web of time reverberating enough to change history. Willis is clearly having fun here, name-checking some of her favorite mystery characters (Miss Marple, Poirot, and Peter Wimsey are the most frequent) — even J, Harris, George, and Montmorency make a brief appearance — but she has also given us something to consider: who, or what, makes things happen? Do the actions of individuals matter? Or is it all just a matter of chance and, as one character puts it, “natural forces acting upon populations”?
Next up, something by Melville, and two more books inspired by him, all new to me.