Another one off the backlog pile! Annoyingly it’s been so long since I read it that most of my very specific feelings have faded with time, but eh, we press on. Spoilers though. I deliberately didn’t read the Introduction till after I’d finished because even the publisher warns the first-time reader about revealed plot details. It was a good choice to wait, so if you want to read it, skip my thoughts.
I was expecting something a bit more Kafkaesque perhaps, based on vague half-remembered things other people had said about it, but if anything the ending particularly makes me think of something almost Narnian in how it tries to explain or depict or evoke big religious ineffabilities in quite a slim, simple way, though definitely it would be a Narnia for adults.
All that said, I had a lot more fun than I thought I would with this weird little book, gallivanting around London and France and rubbing shoulders with anarchists and double agents. The first few chapters in particular are bonkers, introducing us to Gabriel (Syme) and Lucian (Gregory), just Totally Normal Guys, who Definitely Aren’t an Archangel and Satan, having a philosophical discussion in which Gregory reveals that he’s an anarchist and offers to give Syme an entertaining evening, and Syme, once led to a huge meeting of anarchists ready to very unanarchically vote for a new regional boss (essentially), reveals that he’s a policeman. It’s a fast-paced delight, and only gets more delightful when Gregory, under Syme’s policeman’s eye, bungles his election speech so as not to seem too dangerous, and Syme gets carried away and indeed, as you know has to happen, is elected himself to the post of Thursday.
The Thursday thing – so the anarchist council consists of seven people, each symbolically named after a day of the week, presided over by the role of Sunday. Aha, you’re thinking, so that’s the trick of the title. More on that later.
So Syme meets the council, which is made up of suitably shady characters, and is generally amazed at how these bigwigs of the anarchist world can just reserve a restaurant for brunch and discuss their bomb plots. He improvises furiously to avoid being caught out as a policeman in disguise, and the story spins out madly from there.
It’s just wonderful, the increasing nonsense of each member being unveiled as another policeman (and indeed, the way that they call themselves policemen when what they mean is “was given a blue card by a Totally Mysterious Large Sunday-Shaped Man In A Dark Room Whose Face They Didn’t See” is charming). There’s this thing in comedy where repetition first makes a joke less funny, and then crosses a sort of line where the effect is reversed, and the joke is even more wildly hilarious than before (this being the classic example if it works, as the BBC have blocked it in Germany on copyright grounds, thanks lads), and I definitely crossed and recrossed that line with each new anarchist policeman reveal.
But it’s not just nonsense – Chesterton lays on the ominous detail thick as the growing gang find themselves both chasing and chased across city and country and the friends they beg favours from silently seem to turn their backs, or have been dissembling all along. Things are not always what they seem in anarchist councils, with relieved and friendly results, but the comforting background of quaint English villages and good English people isn’t always what it seems either, to frightening effect. Chesterton shows us wonder as well as dread, later, when everything gets a bit metaphysical, and I am a sucker for the strange and dreamlike, symbols just on the edge of understanding, so I enjoyed the finale very much. Honestly, just the pure amount of story Chesterton got into such a slim volume is admirable.
I read the Penguin Classics edition, which is generous with the footnotes (continuing on from the footnote debacle of June Fourth Elegies) and mostly hits the mark with them, though can be a bit pretentious: in a note for the Central Anarchist Council we are told that “the acronym CAC irresistibly evokes the Greek word kakos, meaning ‘bad’ or ‘evil’.” Well. Maybe I’m just juvenile then.
What the Penguin Classics edition also gives us is that introduction, which we may read at last, and marvel, marvel, at the whole essay devoted to the sheer unthinkable wackiness of the book’s title. A man! Who is Thursday! Thursday! And yet he is a man, and not a day of the week at all! The amount of words dedicated to this transcendental surrealist masterpiece in five words was genuinely the funniest part of the book to me.
“If the title initially causes confusion, though, it also inspires a sense of incipient excitement. The Man Who Was… Thursday. The Man isn’t simply called ‘Thursday’, Chesterton implies; he is Thursday. Why?”
I suppose The Man Who Was Anarchist Regional Branch Manager didn’t have the same ring to it.