The Man Who Was Thursday
Author: G.K. Chesterton
Genre: Mystery? Not sure?
Perhaps best known to the general public as creator of the “Father Brown” detective stories, G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) was especially renowned for his wit, rhetorical brilliance and talent for ingenious and revealing paradox. Those qualities are richly brilliant in the present volume, a hilarious, fast-paced tale about a club of anarchists in turn-of-the-century London.
The story begins when Gabriel Syme, a poet and member of a special group of philosophical policemen, attends a secret meeting of anarchists, whose leaders are named for the days of the week, and all of whom are sworn to destroy the world. Their chief is the mysterious Sunday – huge, boisterous, full of vitality, a wild personage who may be a Chestertonian vision of God or nature or both. When Syme, actually an undercover detective, is unexpectedly elected to fill a vacancy on the anarchists’ Central Council, the plot takes the first of many surprising twists and turns.
Rating: Unique, Enticing, Chaotic, Emotional-on-a-primal-level
The Man Who Was Thursday is one of the books that’s hard to say much about without touching what I think are called “spoilers,” and it’s hard to know how they apply to this book: is everything a spoiler, or is nothing a spoiler? To me, spoilers are rare, and the great drama and pathos exists in the scenes themselves and the way they all hang together (that is not to say that I am saying you should read the book in order; I did not, but it is certainly confusing enough even read in order or mostly in order). But I’ll try to say what I can without the spoilers.
This is a hilarious, layered story, where nothing is what it seems – at first, and perhaps also at last – but where there are depths of meaning in every seeming. It speaks to fundamentally human emotions – of courage, of value, of confusion, of dreariness and terror, valor, and despair, of doubt, of heroism and loneliness, of trust and vows and faith, and the problem or question of evil. It provides no answer but the symbols and emotions with which it is laden. The writing is beautiful, poetic, evocative of feeling, and no small part of the story it tells.
Here’s an extract from one of several passages I find myself re-reading:
His youthful prank of being a policeman had quite faded from his mind; he did not think of himself as the representative of the corps of gentlemen turned into fancy constables, or of the eccentric who lived in the dark room. But he did feel himself as the ambassador of all these common and kindly people in the street, who every day marched into battle to the music of the barrel-organ. And this high pride in being human lifted him unaccountably to an infinite height above the monstrous men around him. For an instant, at least, he looked down upon all their sprawling eccentricities from the starry pinnacle of the commonplace.
I loved that. The starry pinnacle of the commonplace. That fundamental respect for how poetic what we call “ordinary life” is, if only you look at it. This is stained by the fact that it is found side by side in this story with the narrow-mindedness that “Order” is an expression of goodness and “Chaos” can be equated with evil, and a mindset that sees those who fight for Order as knights of goodness and truth and beauty, and those who worship Chaos as fundamentally corrupted.
But for all that, it is a beautiful, compelling exploration of human emotion, evocative and rich, shining a spotlight on a theme which I think runs very near to much human concern: what is evil? Why? Is there an answer that can satisfy? It offers something to feel and think over, to provoke consideration on a level deeper than that of the intellect: the consideration of the emotions. (Most attempts to address, or even raise, that question that I’ve found are intellectual and strike me as bland and in their way horrible, superficial, unthinking, and insulting; this is emotional, and I do not say it is an answer; rather it is something to consider with the feelings, a little of question, a little of answer, much of something else entirely.)
Another extract, one that throbs with deep emotion:
It was his last triumph over these lunatics to go into their dark room and die for something that they could not even understand. The barrel-organ seemed to give the marching tune with the energies and the mingled noises of a whole orchestra: and he could hear deep and rolling, under all the trumpets of the pride of life, the drums of the pride of death.
This is not a standard narrative mystery or plot. It is a dream, a nightmare, a poem. It passes from one feeling or instance of thought and expression to the next, and the thread that connects them is not that of a grounded plot, but that of the strange twists and turns of human feeling. The chaos, and the deep intuitive connections, of a dream. It is a story where the inside – the flight and fall of feeling, emotions passing from one state to the next – rather than the outside of experience construct the framework and the plot. Though the devices themselves sometimes exalt reason, I found this to be a story that fundamentally frames emotions, bringing them forward to be felt and to be felt about.
A story that provokes, not a rational, but an emotional question: what do you believe? What do you dream?