In a review on Waterstone's.com, my esteemed former colleague Henry Coningsby (writing what is probably the best sentence I have read on that site) claims that “the mind of G.K. Chesterton is perhaps best compared to an ocean of champagne: there is vastness, there is effervescence - and, if you're not used to it, the effect can be quite overpowering.” I am delighted to report that after only one chapter of this glorious book I was thoroughly, inexplicably, wonderfully, light-headedly, drunk.
The Man Who Was Thursday plots the adventures of Gabriel Syme, a poet and policeman who goes undercover in the Central European Council of Anarchists. But once he has taken up the role of Thursday on that secret council, he begins to discover that he is not, as he first imagined himself to be, alone amongst enemies. It is all rather more complicated than that. And, in the course of a wild, time bending journey across London and northern France to prevent an anarchistic bombing, the black and white forces of order and disorder come together in battle, with the result that those opposing, black and white forces become a whole lot more grey.
Chesterton has made much of the fact that he subtitled this novel A Nightmare. He likes to play the jester, to support the notion that this book is something like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, a weird and wacky journey through a masked world of uncertainty, whose culmination is waking up once more to a world of nature, and of hope, and peace. He wrote it at a time when he suffered depression and it is almost as though he is writing himself happy again.
But there is too much here to sum it up simply as a nightmare. The Man Who Was Thursday is one of the most all-encompassing novels I have read. If it is a nightmare, then at the same time it is a blissful daydream and a deep, restful sleep. And probably all the levels of wakefulness as well. It is a riotously funny and enthralling, farcical adventure and at the same time a book with more ideas bristling about than hairs protruding from an old English Gentleman’s ears. The real characters in this book are not Syme and his fellow council members, but the ideas they debate. Moral anarchy, nihilism, the moral ambiguity of force and many others are thoroughly turned over, and all in only 200 pages. And the ideas are not only intelligent, they are hilarious. There are even reports that reading this book is prescribed by psychiatrists for the treatment of depression! I can see why; it certainly made me laugh out loud, and could, I suspect, have renewed my faith in mankind amidst even the roughest of times. Take this dialogue from the first chapter:
“’Yes, the poet will be discontented even in the streets of heaven. The poet is always in revolt.’
‘There again,’ said Syme irritably, ‘what is there poetical about being in revolt? You might as well say that it is poetical to be seasick...Revolt in the abstract is — revolting. It's mere vomiting...It is things going right...that is poetical!’”
And so much of it is like this: quick witted, inteligent, thought provoking. I thought I had worked out the plot from about half-way, and in one sense I had. But then it went on and on, the ideas are mind boggling, and all taken to a level further than any other book I have ever read. With every page the plot twists and turns; from secret underground lairs, and seafront battles, to elephant chases across London and hot air balloons over the shires. With all the ideas bubbling around in my brain I was light-headed, amazed, enchanted. I sat there nodding along with Gabriel Syme’s witty repost, his very British Gentlemanly style, and eccentricities, and concerns.
And the result of all this? I am disorientated, still trying to work through everything in my mind. I am overpowered by Chesterton’s wit, his love of ideas, his thick satirical pen. Like an English turn-of-the-century Castch-22 this is a riotous novel I cannot wait to re-read. And I am not sure if one is meant to agree so completely with Syme’s world-view – perhaps Chesterton is laughing at me from wherever he now is – but I have not felt my own thoughts represented on paper so clearly for an awfully long time.
It is almost impossible to write a review of this book. It is too good to pin down with normal words. You must read it yourself to see what I mean. It is as Jonathan Lethem writes in the Modern Library Classics edition introduction, “How do you autopsy a somersault? G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is one of the great stunts ever performed in literary space, one still unfurling anytime you glance at it”.
It has been said that Chesterton is “the master who left no masterpiece.” I cannot comment on any of his other work, but if this is not a masterpiece, then I don’t know what is.
9.5 out of 10