Wednesday 21 December 2011

The Man Who Was Thursday - G.K. Chesterton

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.
"The poet delights in disorder only.  If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway."
"So it is," said Mr. Syme.

"Nonsense!" said Gregory, who was very rational when anyone else attempted paradox.
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:
I said to him "What disguise will hide me from the world?  What can I find more respectable than bishops and majors?"  He looked at me with his large but indecipherable face.  "You want a safe disguise, do you?  You want a dress which will guarantee you harmless; a dress in which no one would ever look for a bomb?"  I nodded.  He suddenly lifted his lion's voice.  "Why, then, dress up as an anarchist, you fool!"  he roared so that the room shook.  "Nobody will ever expect you to do anything dangerous then."  And he turned his broad back on me without another word.  I took his advice, and have never regretted it.  I preached blood and murder to these women day and night, and - by God! - they would let me wheel their perambulators.
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


  1. Oooh, a potential first decade of the 20th century booK! Sounds mysterious, all my exposure to GK Chesterton so far has been the Father Brown books, which I loved.

  2. This is one of those books that I knew as soon as I finished it that I'd need to reread it to have any hope of wrapping my head around it. But I enjoyed it, despite my confusion! Parts of it were so very funny, and the ideas seemed interesting and worthy of revisiting.

  3. It's a strange one isn't it? I read it a few years ago and remember thinking, now what was all that about when I'd finished it. I was reading 'anarchist' type literature at the time and thought it went well with Conrad's 'The Secret Agent', makes a good contrast!

  4. Wow, this sounds like a great book! Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    Megan @ Storybook Love Affair

  5. This has been in my TBR pile for so long. I didn't realise it was very diff to Father Brown. Maybe I'll read it soon (during my 3 months of the TBR Double Dare).

  6. A book I read a while back and still remember getting to the end and thinking....Well, can't say much without giving it all away. :)

    As you say, Simon, not a book to love, but a book to admire. A clever book, I think.

    And yes, it would make a great movie.

    Agatha Christie did a take on it in her pastiche, THE SEVEN DIALS MYSTERY.

    Oops, have I said too much?

  7. I am definitely going to read this book in 2012 and when I do, I will come back and read all of this post!

  8. Cat - I did think of you! This feels surprisingly modern (well, not modern, but more 1940s than 1900s) and so would be an easy way into that decade.

    Teresa - it's all a bit mad, isn't it! But I agree, it's one to revisit sometime.

    Barbara - I'm not sure I could ever make myself read more Conrad, nor did I realise that there was a whole subset of anarchist literature, how interesting! I thought it a very clever way of writing about theology, although holding the balance between theology and spy thriller is tricky.

    Megan - you're very welcome!

    Annabel - I should add that I haven't read any Father Brown stories, so I don't know how different the tone is - but the plot is certainly different!

    Yvette - ooo, I haven't read Seven Dials Mystery, but I've just asked my brother about it, and it seems like she used it in an interesting way (tricky having a conversation about the similarity of two novels when each of us has only read one of 'em!)


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