I get a little disappointed when I think about G.K. Chesterton.
I’m disappointed because the man was a force of sheer genius in almost every approach to the written word. Sadly, he is remembered for a very small portion of his prolific work, and what’s worse is he is often thought of simply as some guy who inspired some other guys people still really like. I do not intend to demean his most reputed works, but to reveal him as a far more expansive and influential catalist in British literature. Lets take a look at what some other people had to say about him.
Chesterton was “a man of colossal genius.” – George Bernard Shaw
“I cannot think of a single comic poem by Chesterton that is not a triumphant success.”
“When he is really enthrall we with a subject he is brilliant, without any doubt one of the finest aphorists in English Literature.” – W. H. Auden
“There is no better critic of Dickens living than Chesterton.” – T. S. Eliot
“[Chesterton] had a genius simply for having original ideas. . . It is hardly possible to read a page of Chesterton without finding an unexpected idea, at best wise, at worst fiendishly ingenious” – Wilfred Sheed, concerning the author’s essays.
“He was spontaneously witty, but he could also be carefully epigrammatic. He thought of words not as neutral rational counters, but as confetti, bonbons, artillery.” -Anthony Burgess
“The man is exuberant, so disrespectful to the learned, so deadsure, so comic where most serious.” – Maisie Ward
“Chesterton was a brilliant philosophical journalist. . .The range of talent was almost alarming. . .[He] was simply what the word ‘genius’ meant” – Wilfrid Sheed
But I’m afraid I’ve lost the plot. Back to the book.
All of these great statements about Chesterton do serve well to help illustrate the qualities found in The Man Who Was Thursday. While the book is less than 200 pages long, it is by no means a light read. It is dense with constant wit and aphorisms and is, according to the author’s subtitle, a nightmare. It is an extremely dense nightmare.
The book can best be split into three sections. Like a dream, however, the fluidity with which these segments flow together makes it impossible to recognize where the transitions take place until after they have happened. The book starts out as a very logical, philosophical and political debate between a poet of chaos/anarchy/nihilism and a poet of order/law/God. This is set within the realm of artistic community and at the pace of a detective novel. Things are reassuringly lucid at this point. The story becomes somewhat comic in sequence from the get-go, then at some point near the middle of the novel the reader pauses, looks wonderingly at the large portion of completed text in his left hand, and wonders when the story changed so drastically into a bizarre, Kafka nightmare. Everything has gone from a jaunty, shocking little narrative to to a heavy and incomprehensible nightmare world. Just as the reader begins to mentally threaten to drop the book for sheer emotional exhaustion, the story turn more whimsical and philosophically complex that ever before and suddenly all of the original questions of politicking and law-and-order are turned on their heads to be the real questions at the center of both the universe and ever individual’s struggle against it. In the end, questions are compounded and ideas of answers are hinted at, then all is left behind like a bad (or wonderful) dream.
Throughout all this the novel is decidedly Chesterton as described further above. The more serious the subject matter at hand, the more whimsical his writing. He has all the witty epigrammatic skills attributed to the Benjamin Franklins and the Winston Churchills of the world. He seems always to be poking fun at everyone, so that his opponent may be made the more furious even as he mocks his own inconsistencies. His main character Syme is distinctly like he himself as the narrator. While the other characters may be optimists or pessimists or anarchists or madmen, both narrator and protagonist take a light and poetic view that seems always to look at the bigger picture and remain almost in the third person for their seeming lack of personal pride at their own conclusions.
The book, among other Chesterton, has been compared to Kafka. He himself has even been called the anti-Kafka. Kafka read The Man Who Was Thursday and remarked “He is so gay, one might almost believe he has found God.” This is a great insight, because Kafka and Chesterton view the world from much the same standing, coming to drastically differing conclusions. Both men view the universe as a terrible and isolating empty space full to the brim with suffocating questions, yet their opposite tones display a response that could not be more drastically different. Kafka refused to be comforted or to believe in community. His comfort is in being honest about the horrors he feels, even in embracing them. The Man Who Was Thursday shows us clearly that Chesterton believed that isolation is an illusion and the source of a large majority of our unfounded fears. His characters are always realizing, comically, that their assumed enemies are actually their disguised advocates. The Man Who Was Thursday is in no way Chesterton’s attempt to simplify or resolve the complications of the unanswered overflow, but it is a reassurance that we can remain joyfully human and rest in faith.
For Fans Of: The Castle by Franz Kafka, That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis, The Stranger by Albert Camus
Hi Landers, thank you for this post.
in highschool i read all the Kafka novels i could, but found them making me more introverted and pessimistic. well a few years ago found Chesterton and he was healing to my bones. Kafka felt so heavy, Chesterton writes about heavy things but somehow makes one feel light. I had always wondered what Chesterton would of said about Kafka, had no idea Kafka read G.K.
now, seeing that you have a love for Wendell Berry (rightly so) i encourage you to read Chesterton’s essay “Cheese”, it surprises me of how much Wendell and G.K. say the same thing but in very different ways. They both have that which is now uncommon: common sense.
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Wow! Thanks so much for your story and the recommendation! I’ll definitely try to get my hands on that essay!