After the length and depth of “In The First Circle”, I thought it might be nice to try something a little shorter and lighter – and this book certainly qualifies! “Diary of a Pilgrimage” is of course written by the author of “Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)”, a book which I first read many years ago and which I’ve returned to many times. 3 Men is of course hilarious and so although I hadn’t heard of DOAP, I snapped up the lovely little hardback version I found in the local Oxfam bookstore on the strength of the first page or two.
DOAP was published only two years after 3 Men (in 1891), and it tells the story of the journey of the narrator and his friend B. as they travel over Europe by train to visit the Passion Play at Oberammergau. En route they suffer a bad channel crossing, problems with language and diet, the stress of foreign trains and other assorted difficulties. Finally they reach their destination and then, having had a transcendental experience with the play, return back to earth to deal with the journey home.
Despite some passages of great humour, this book does not quite capture the magic of 3 Men and it took me a while to figure out why. I think personally it was a lack of balance – 3 Men is a beautiful mix of humour and philosophising, with its 3 Men (and dog) adventuring along the Thames and having mishaps on the way. But DOAP was perhaps a little too restricted in its focus, and the two chapters of description covering the religious element of the performance and its execution were just a bit dull. The humorous pieces were in some cases wonderful – the chapter where B. wrestles manfully with European timetables in an attempt to work out connecting trains, which goes off into an extended flight of fancy about missing trains, was hilarious and had me laughing out loud. But the work was not consistent enough to scale the heights of 3 Men and I can identify with Wikipedia’s statement: He wrote a number of plays, essays and novels, but was never able to recapture the success of Three Men in a Boat.
But there were enough lovely phrases and pieces of wit to make me glad that I did read this book:
“It is easy enough to talk about nothing, like I have been doing in this diary hitherto. It is when one is confronted with the task of writing about something, that one wishes one were a respectable well-do-do sweep – a sweep with a comfortable business of his own, and a pony – instead of an author.”
“And then you can….give your impressions concerning it. Never mind their being silly. They will be all the better for that. Silly remarks are generally more interesting than sensible ones.”
There is another hilarious sequence where our two gentlemen are eating in a beer-garden and all of their courses are eaten in time to the music, building up to bolting their cheese down to the ballet music from Carmen “after which we rolled about in agonies to all the national airs of Europe.”
So, on balance, definitely worth a read for the humorous bits!
(And incidentally, the drawings, three of which are on these book covers, are a delight!)