The Man who was Thursday

May 22, 2007 at 9:23 pm 4 comments

This novel by G.K. Chesterton (1908) is a very curious beast! It shifts tone several times, especially towards the end, but it seems to work. It reminds me, quite a lot, of a Jeffrey Smart painting – one of the most extraordinary things about it is the way it portrays light on landscapes and street scenes, mainly London. It’s daring, strange, glowing. I really like it. There’s a narrative trick in it, which Chesterton uses again and again, but I got taken in by it every time because the writing is so good that you just go along with it. In some ways it’s like one of C.S. Lewis’s science fiction novels, but with a much tighter structure.

The premise is a policeman trying to fight a terrifying council of anarchists, but the novel is about a lot more than this, exploring the nature of reality and the concept of God in a chaotic, brutal world. It is subtitled ‘A Nightmare’, and although its straight-forward prose makes you forget this at times, it does switch bizarrely between peaceful illuminated clarity and frightening nightmarish episodes, in a way reminiscent of dreams. Here are some of the passages that stood out for me (there were several on every page, it was hard to choose):

Under the white fog of snow high up in the heaven the whole atmosphere of the city was turned to a very queer kind of green twilight, as of men under the sea.

By this time the afternoon sun was slanting westward, and by its rays Syme could see the sturdy figure of the old innkeeper growing smaller and smaller, but still standing and looking after them quite silently, the sunshine in his silver hair.

… Syme was a type of the poet who seeks always to make the light in special shapes, to split it up into sun and star. The philosopher may sometimes love the infinite; the poet always loves the finite. For him the great moment is not the creation of light, but the creation of the sun and the moon.

And here’s something Chesterton wrote about it in 1936, published in an article the day before he died:

It was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was, even when my thoughts were considerably less settled than they are now. It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion.

What’s curious here is that it’s actually more interesting to try to describe how people feel about the world, rather than vainly seek to describe it as it really is. In any case, the way people feel about the world is how the world is for them.

On another note – there must have been conferences about London in literature – I would love to go to one! There are so many books about London, showing it in so many different lights.


Entry filed under: G. K. Chesterton.

Eight Things Not again!

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. fifi  |  May 23, 2007 at 12:12 am

    Good golly you read some amazing books, and think about them in such interesting ways.
    You have so inspired me to new books, and to remember old ones, that I have reacquainted myself with a second hand bookshop, called Desire books.
    My friend had a bookshop, where I used to hang out, and they’d always order me in obscure things and offer great chats. She sold it to a franchise, which was awful.

    So I went back to Desire, a wonderful place, and there was Randolph Stowe’s “Tourmaline”, which I had never read, so I like to think that ths little book shop led me to another. Every so often, they throw a random “this book is for free” token on the shelves. So lovely.

    I was actually going to comment on the green twilight, which is just what its like, when it is about to snow…
    I knew it was snowing yesterday, and I am 6 hours frm the nearest peak, and bucket down it did.

    Thank you for your lovely blog.

  • 2. robi-d  |  May 23, 2007 at 1:11 pm

    Makes me want to read it too. And I love the allusion to Jeffrey Smart and the inclusion of one of his paintings. It gives me a strong almost visceral impression of what the book might be like. I’ll be intrigued to check out whether it has the same effect on me.

  • 3. superfast  |  May 23, 2007 at 1:30 pm

    Great blog! I just added you to my blogroll.

    Annie at Reading is my Superpower

  • 4. Radioactive Man  |  May 23, 2007 at 2:17 pm

    “In any case, the way people feel about the world *is* how the world is for them.” – You just summarised 99% of what there’s to understand about psychology. Well done!

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