Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

It's classics time! I love old books--particularly now that I've got my Kindle and can download them free or for $1 apiece. I can't believe I'd never gotten round to reading The Man Who Was Thursday before, as it's very well known. So we can call this a Fill In The Gaps book, huh?

When The Man Who Was Thursday was first published, in 1907, the big terrorist threat came from anarchists, who threw bombs and assassinated people for a variety of complicated reasons. They turn up quite regularly in the literature of the time, quite often as vague caricatures representing some kind of destructive force or forces of evil. This is the case in The Man Who Was Thursday, where Chesterton uses the anarchists to represent all that is negative in the world, and doesn't tie them in to any particular political movement.

The book's an allegory, so no character can be taken at its face value--and to complicate matters, within the novel every character is revealed to be quite different from what he seems. (This is almost exclusively a male tale, born of a society where the men of the English ruling class were expected to move in men-only circles from an early age, through boarding school to clubs to Parliament.)

The plot is relatively straightforward: the poet Sykes infiltrates a group of anarchists nicknamed according to the days of the week (Sykes is Thursday). He is co-opted into the anti-anarchist police by a mysterious personage whom he meets in a completely dark room. The anarchists are led by a larger-than-life, terrifying character called Sunday.

The book has a repeating pattern of wild chases and moments of revelation that build on one another to become funnier as the plot thickens. For this is a comedy, although a subtle and disturbing one. I'd hate to spoil the book for you by explaining exactly what's going on, but I can say that terror alternates with relief and a sense of the ridiculous. The climax of the book is quite thrilling and profound. The novel's subtitle, A Nightmare, may give you a hint about the plot's strange shifts and reverses.

If you ever liked the Narnia books, you'll like Thursday, which in some ways is the adult counterpart to C.S. Lewis's books. One day I will go through my bookshelves and make a special section for books that deserve to be re-read at intervals during my life; this book will make the cut.

There are many different editions of Thursday: the one I read (which is not the one linked to on Amazon, but the one in the picture) was published by Ignatius Press, edited by Martin Gardner. I did not particularly like the edition, which was idiosyncratic and self-serving. There must be a better one out there.


stacy said...

Why did you feel the edition you read was self-serving, Jane?

stacy said...

Mine was Penguin Classics, and that edition was very good. Love this book!

Jane Steen said...

The editor had a tendency to talk about HIS books, comments HE had made elsewhere, and so on. And talk about things that he thought interesting rather than the things that were relevant to the text.

Penguin Classics always does good editions. I only bought this one because it was on sale!

JES said...

Love this book, although I haven't re-read it in many years. Time to fix that!

I'm disappointed to hear that Martin Gardner -- assuming he's THE Martin Gardner -- did a bad job as editor. He is (was?) a very clever guy, who wrote a popular column on mathematical games for Scientific American and did a very successful job with an annotated version of the Alice books. At first thought, I'd have guessed him to be a delightfully quirky choice to edit a story like this. Another icon bites the dust!