Friday, December 14, 2007

The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

(I guess it's the time of year for reading Chesterton)
The suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged
as a cloud of sunset. It was built of a bright brick throughout, its
sky-line was fantastic, and even its ground plan was wild. It had been the
outburst of a builder, faintly tinged with art, who called its architecture
sometimes Elizabethan and sometimes Queen Anne. (Chesteron, G.K., The
Man Who Was Thursday
(1908; repr., New York: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1935)
How can one not immediately be drawn into a book that begins so deliciously? I’ve rarely encountered an author who can expertly plop me right down in the middle of his setting and make me so want to find out what’s going to happen in this interesting little spot. As a matter of fact, I’m not one who is typically all that conscious of setting, often annoyed if an author goes on and on trying to paint every little line of a place for me. The subtitle of this book is “A Nightmare,” and from the very first, Chesterton’s book enchants and surprises with its dream-like imagery. (I just love that “sunset side of London,” so much more dreamy than “the west side.”)

This is a difficult book to discuss without including any spoilers, but I’m going to attempt to do so. First, I’ll give you a string of adjectives that would have my twelfth-grade creative writing teacher cringing, red pen poised to write “be more specific.” Funny, delightful, nightmarish, philosophical, in other words, “un-put-downable” for someone like me. But, let’s be “more specific.”

I didn’t know what to expect from this book except that I’ve been told for some time by people who know me that I'd like it. It’s funny that it should be the first book for which I chose to do something I’ve never done, both downloading the audio version from Librivox.org and pulling the print version from the shelf. My thought had been to read the book in print form, and when I had other stuff to do (walking, cooking, unpacking, folding laundry…), I’d listen to it. Librivox recordings are especially good for this sort of plan, because they’re downloaded chapter-by-chapter.

Here’s the testament to this book’s “un-put-downable-ness.” I was out walking one evening with my iPod when I finished The Turn of the Screw. The Turn of the Screw is a favorite fall read of mine, and it’s difficult to find something good enough to follow that. However, I still had quite a way to go on my walk, and I wasn’t in the mood to listen to music, so I decided to start listening to this one. For three consecutive days, it became my walking companion. I loved the voice of the guy reading it (he can come over and read to me anytime), loved the walking companion (especially when I started my walk a bit late one evening and had to walk around the cemetery to stay off the roads where it was too dark. It’s a great book for cemetery listening), but ultimately had to pick up the book and finish it after that third evening, because the audiobook was too slow, and I could no longer wait to find out what was going to happen.

By funny, I don’t necessarily mean it’s laugh-out-loud-Nick-Hornby funny (although the scene with the chase and the elephant was). It’s more, “think-about-it-in-retrospect-and-smile-in-amusement-and-admiration funny. It’s funny, because in true parody fashion, the reader just doesn’t know what to expect. As Stefanie noted when she read it, nobody is what he seems to be, and the characters wind up in the oddest of places, doing the oddest of things, like dueling in France to keep someone from catching a train or being an imposter who is voted more realistic than the person he’s pretending to be.

It’s nightmarish and delightful for exactly the same reasons it’s funny and surprising. What’s funny in retrospect is certainly nightmarish for those who are experiencing it. Imagine no one you encounter being whom or what you think he is. Imagine people pretending to be anarchists who aren’t and how dangerous and scary that could be. Imagine pursuing someone and thinking you’ve been led into some wild jungle or something full of roaring, howling, and screeching beasts when you haven’t been.

The book is philosophical from the very beginning when the two “poets” are arguing over who is the real poet. It goes on to present characters who discuss such matters as “truth,” “belief,” “morality,” etc. One of the final chapters is called “The Six Philosophers.” I have to admit I was tempted to do a little research on this book before writing this post, so I could learn more about the philosophy behind the book, as well as Chesterton’s own philosophical leanings, but I didn’t. (It’s obvious by the end of the book that Chesterton was a religious man, something I already knew before I started it.) I was trying to identify each man with his particular philosophy but couldn’t really and came to think that was Chesterton’s whole philosophical point: that reason, ultimately, falls short. If so, it’s a philosophy to which I can very readily relate.

One last thing I will say about this book: it’s probably better in print rather than audiobook form. Some of the writing is so subtle, it really must be read in order to be appreciated. I noticed skimming through the parts I’d listened to that I’d managed to miss quite a lot. (Then again, that may just be due to the fact that I’m more a visual than an auditory learner.) Regardless of format, though, this one definitely gets two very enthusiastic thumbs-up from me. I’m now looking forward to Father Brown.

Cross-posted: Telecommuter Talk

2 comments:

GeraniumCat said...

Some of the conversations are pure joy, aren't they? I liked your point about things that seem funny now may not have done at the time they were happening - I can imagine some of the others people involved regaling their friends with the events. Not the Days, though, because of the ending...

Amanda said...

Did you notice the poem in the beginning... A prof in college had me read this and he explained that Chesterton had gone through this bout of extreme solipsism... suffice to say he took "I think, therefore, I am." to its limit. The result is feeling utterly alone because you aren't sure anything else exists. Thus, The Man Who Was Thursday is the nightmare of being utterly alone even though, in reality, you are surrounded by those who are in the exact same position as you are.