Sunday, November 16, 2008

Book Review: The Man Who Was Thursday

To this point in my life, I've now read three works by Chesterton. I enjoyed his epic poem Ballad of the White Horse a great deal. His bio of Saint Thomas Aquinas left me somewhat befuddled. After I finished it, I felt I knew no more about the great saint than when I started. However, I had read something — a lot of something, in fact — just don't ask me to tell you what.

The Man Who Was Thursday is a completely different work from the abovementioned pair. It is subtitled "A Nightmare" and that's exactly how it reads. It starts out like a quirky spy/detective novel, but as the plot progresses, it becomes obvious that this is no typical pot-boiler. It is well to keep in mind when reading this book that Chesterton was a master of paradox. In an interview recorded in a biography by Maisie Ward, Chesterton once summarized the book by saying: "In an ordinary detective tale the investigator discovers that some amiable-looking fellow who subscribes to all the charities, and is fond of animals, has murdered his grandmother, or is a trigamist. I thought it would be fun to make the tearing away of menacing masks reveal benevolence."

To summarize the plot is to give away much of what makes this book an enjoyable read, so I will refrain. And to my mind, the plot is almost coincidental to what makes this book interesting. It is a mere plastic tree (if an oddly shaped one) upon which Chesterton hangs a myriad of literary ornaments. The book is simply littered with gems which sparkle even out of context. Here are a few of my favorites:
"We deny the snobbish English assumption that the uneducated are the dangerous criminals....We say that the most dangerous criminal is the educated criminal. We say that the most dangerous criminal is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral people."

"The modern world has retained all those parts of police work which are really oppressive and ignominious....It has given up its more dignified work, the punishment of powerful traitors the in the State and powerful heresiarchs in the Church. The moderns say we must not punish heretics. My only doubt is whether we have a right to punish anybody else.”

"The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all."
The Man Who Was Thursday can be read and appreciated on two different levels--as an entertaining bit of absurdity that, in some sections, prefigures a Monty Python routine, or as an allegory with significant theological depth. I enjoyed it a great deal on both levels.

To conclude, let me simply say that this is the kind of book that I will need to re-read at some future point, perhaps a couple times, to make sure I didn't miss anything. Fortunately, Chesterton's prose is so merry and brisk that the re-read will be a pleasure rather than a trial.

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