Today’s prescription is GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday: a novel that defies genrefication. Part thriller, part satire, part farce, part fairy tale, and part comedy: its author subtitled it merely A Nightmare, which captures well the disturbing undercurrent in the lurching and surreal narrative.
In times like these, poised—to hear the headlines tell it—on a knife edge between anarchy and fascism, Thursday is a rollicking good read.
You should be warned, in case you are in peril of actually taking advice from the Literary Help Desk, that GK Chesterton is not a ‘respectable’ author, and never truly has been. His prose generally eschews structured argument or relevant citation in favour of blisteringly clever rhetoric. It is packed with wrongthink (most merely unfashionable, but a small percentage genuinely objectionable), laughs at things that should be treated with the utmost seriousness, and, despite all the ills it describes, is naively romantic and unsinkably optimist.
Cynics everywhere recoil.
To add to this, the doubleness of Mr Chesterton’s writing can be dizzying. He is a master ironist who may not exactly mean all the outlandish things he says, but means very much the bigger ideas that make them necessarily true. (For a fascinating and accessible account of paradox in Chesterton’s writing, pick up Alison Milbank’s book Chesterton and Lewis as Theologians, Bloomsbury 2009)
There’s a certain mismatch between Chesterton’s exquisitely accomplished use of the English language and his slapdash treatment of argument. He doesn’t so much cut out the heart of his opposition with a surgically precise syllogism as tickle him into submission, exploiting non-fatal weaknesses in unexpected ways, until the adversary is robbed of his gravitas and writhing on the ground as surely as if he had been truly eviscerated.
When reading his stories, it helps to see what Chesterton is actually doing: he doesn’t intend an argument in the classical sense. He is essentially an artist, and he is painting a picture. A good political cartoonist draws you one good image that is, in itself, incidental: he wants to get an idea into your head.
Chesterton does the reverse: he spills words and ideas all over the place, not for their own sake, but to get a picture into your head. TS Eliot rather snidely summed up this style when he wrote in his 1918 essay on Henry James, “Mr Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence it thinks.”
For those who would hang Eliot for these words, and indeed for those who would cheer him on: Eliot substantially revised his opinion of both the man and his work.
Upon Chesterton’s death in June, 1936, Eliot wrote an obituary in the Tablet that spoke of the ‘personal sense of loss and isolation’ Gilbert’s death must surely bring even to those who did not know him, and went on to comment: “Even if Chesterton’s social and economic ideas appear to be totally without effect, even if they should be demonstrated to be wrong–which would perhaps only mean that men have not the good will to carry them out–they were the ideas for his time that were fundamentally Christian and Catholic.” In essence, whatever arguments Chesterton might lose, his ideas came from a very particular way of seeing the world, which was unavoidably, and in all ways optimistically, Christian. Critics have scorned his rose-tinted glasses, but coloured glass is not actually a bad metaphor for his style. Chesterton’s writing is wrapped in fantasy: he gets at the truth he’s after by offering a picture to look through, like stained glass, the tracings of which are tied into the solid edifice of a medieval cathedral.
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The Man Who Was Thursday is generally acknowledged to be Chesterton’s best fiction. (Kingsley Amis called it “the most thrilling book I ever read” and claimed to reread it every year; make of that what you will.) The story is wild: by deceiving the anarchist poet, Lucien Gregory, the protagonist, Gabriel Syme, an undercover policeman with a unique, poetic anti-terrorism unit in Scotland Yard, contrives to get himself elected to a pan-European anarchist governing body, the Council of Days. Each member of the council has for his code-name a day of the week. Syme is, of course, Thursday. The council is presided over by the enormous and grotesque chairman, Sunday. Of course, nothing is at it seems: the council is not the council, the anarchists are not anarchists, Sunday defies coherent description, never mind explanation (indeed, one might say he could only be spoken of by analogy…), and none of the characters is truly revealed for who he is until they all don elaborate costumes for the concluding masquerade.
There is some thought, unproven, that Chesterton wrote Thursday as a response to Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent, which was published a year earlier (1907). Certainly the themes of terrorism and double-agency are shared between the two novels, as well as the London setting. It would actually be quite a Chestertonian turn to connect the character of Gabriel Syme to Verloc’s fateful bombing in The Secret Agent, considering the description of Syme’s radicalization: “It happened that he was walking in a side street at the instant of a dynamite outrage. He had been blind and deaf for a moment and then seen, the smoke clearing, the broken windows and the bleeding faces. After that he went about as usual–quiet, courteous, rather gentle; but there was a spot on his mind that was not sane.”
Thursday is 112 years old, but there is something very modern about its themes, and something sympathetic in a protagonist who is deeply unsettled by what he has seen and experienced in revolution. The images of recent weeks’ events have left a not-sane spot on many minds. The turn Chesterton takes in Thursday that breaks the mold of this sort of political novel is to ask the question “Where is God in all of this?” As the farcical plot races to it’s surreal climax, collecting biblical allegory with speed, it becomes an unconventional meditation on divine hiddenness. The paradox of the conclusion is as Chestertonian as they come.
Here another reference to Conrad may serve us well. The most famous words that ever issued from Joseph Conrad’s pen are the final words of Kurtz in Heart of Darkness: “The Horror! The Horror!” Conrad never tells us what Kurt sees in his last moments, but in some sense he is looking into the void, and what he sees, be it everything or absolutely nothing, terrifies him.
At the climax of Thursday Chesterton creates a moment where Syme is looking into the face of God, which as he looks grows too large to see all at once, too large and strange for human senses or intellect to grasp. That which is everything expands into nothingness, but when Syme is staring into blackness the words that ring in his head are not “The Horror!” but the ultimate moral and theological question: “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?” Chesterton brings redemption to the void.
Because of the way in which Chesterton argues—or doesn’t—it can be risky to pluck philosophical or theological axioms from his stories. But in this case, there are more nearly-last words that can explain what Chesterton was doing in The Man Who Was Thursday: his own.
The day before he died he offered the following explanation of his greatest novel in Illustrated London News: “It was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was… It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion.”
Facing a new wave of pessimism and nihilism, it is worth going back to Chesterton to find that gleam of hope, especially as his ticklish prose will always bring laughter and his paradoxes leave behind a pleasant sort of dizziness.
Victoria Seed is a writer and editor; she works in publishing.
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