I’ve nearly come to the end of my pile of must-review-before-the-end-of-2011 books (and I really should have spaced them out a bit, perhaps… oh well, we’ll have a bit of a rest after Christmas. Or an avalanche of my Books of 2011 posts. We’ll see.)
Now, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) is a curious little book, not least because the central importance of it doesn’t reveal itself right until the end – at which point the rug is pulled from under your feet, and everything you’ve read takes on something of a new dimension. Hmm… I don’t think it’ll spoil the book if I tell you the revealed theme, but in case you don’t want to know I’ll hide it in a link. The Man Who Was Thursday would make an ideal companion read to (spoiler fans click here) this. Ok, confused? Good.
The Man Who Was Thursday is subtitled ‘A Nightmare’, which I wasn’t expecting, given that I know Chesterton best as a humorist. Nor does the subtitle come into play for quite some time. We start with Gabriel Syme, a member of secret anti-anarchist police, who meets anarchist Lucian Gregory at the party of a poet. The opening scenes, where these characters debate the structure or chaos of poetry, are as amusing as anything found in this whimsical, witty decade, if a little more philosophical and theoretical than usual.
It’s all very jolly and garden-party-esque – cucumber sandwiches all round. Syme and Gregory exchange verbal quips stridently, but without intending any of their barbs to hit home. Indeed, far from being offended, Syme agrees to go with Gregory to an underground anarchist meeting, so that Gregory can prove what Syme doubts: that he is serious about anarchism.
What follows is a rather lovely piece of satirical reasoning. Gregory is a serious anarchist – and had previously asked his leader how he could blend into the world, to perpetrate his ideology:
Clever. But Syme manages to outwit Gregory, and get himself elected to the central council of anarchists, where each is assigned the name of a day of the week. Syme, as the novel’s title suggests, is Thursday. Head of them all is the mysterious Sunday.
That’s as much as I shall reveal of the plot – it becomes something of a intoxicating mix of spy novel, epigrammatical social novel, and even philosophical/theological. The subtitle ‘nightmare’ is odd, but the style certainly has a dreamlike quality – swirling from one event to another, with twists and surprises along the way. It’s a little madcap, but never to the extent that you think Chesterton’s been at the opium.
I don’t think it’s the sort of novel that would be published now – it’s too varied and unusual. Which I think is great, of course, but probably wouldn’t satisfy the demands of a marketing department. Chesterton still remains a bit of a mystery to me, and The Man Who Was Thursday is intriguing and admirable rather than lovable, but I would recommend it to readers who enjoy satire and surprises, washed down with a bon mot or two.
Others who got Stuck into it:
“Weird. Nightmare-ish. Imaginative. Chestertonian.” – Sherry, Semicolon
“Despite its philosophizing, its humor makes much of it a very light book, and some of the more “adventurous” scenes would make an awfully good film–there’s even a car chase.” – Christopher, 50 Books Project
“To say that the novel develops a nightmarish quality is not to say that it’s scary. I think perhaps most nightmares are only scary to the person who dreams them.” – Teresa, Shelf Love