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The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare

Synopsis:  This novel really defies summary, but I will do my best.  Beware:  possible spoilers abound! Gabriel Syme is a poet-turned-detective hired by Scotland Yard to infiltrate a group of anarchists in England.  He falls into a nest of anarchists when he is surprisingly taken under the wing of a fellow-poet and anarchist, Lucien Gregory, who takes him to the meeting place of the High Council of Anarchists.  Through his quick thinking and verbal maneuvering, Syme outsmarts Gregory and manages to get himself elected to the newly-vacated seat of “Thursday.”  (The High Council Anarchists are each given a name of the week.)  Syme (a.k.a. Thursday) then has what he perceives as the unique opportunity to strike right at the heart of this organization:  its president, Sunday.  However, what ensues is a series of revelations and unmaskings in which Syme discovers that perhaps there are no anarchists at all.  Or are there?

My Thoughts:  I can’t say I understand it, even after finishing it, but I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it.  This is one of those books that caused me to laugh out loud quite a few times.  This was quite unexpected.  Somehow I didn’t expect to enjoy and find that kind of humor in a book about anarchy.  This is attributable solely to Chesterton’s wit and prowess with words.  The action in this book reminds me of playing the board game Othello (at least what my fuzzy memory recollects about it, anyway); no sooner had I, the reader, learned that an anarchist is NOT an anarchist at all, but rather, a police detective like Syme, then another similar revelation would occur.  In other words, the color of the board changes with great rapidity until a board that was once all black has become almost all white.

While I was reading, I kept envisioning this story as a movie.  I could see a zany, madcap movie replete with all the strange and funny chases (i.e. once Sunday rides an elephant to escape from the pursuing detectives) in the book.  I could picture an old screen actor like Cary Grant playing one of the detectives.  I even did a little bit of research to see if a movie had ever been made of this book, and while I couldn’t find anything, I did find what looks like a reference to a movie that is slated to be made in 2010.  Has anyone heard anything about this?

I do not feel qualified to assign meaning to this novel in any way.  That it is full of Biblical allusions is obvious, and I know that Chesterton was a Christian.  I have read that this story is more like the Old Testament book of Job than the more obvious Revelation of John, and so this quote from Chesterton seems entirely appropriate to me as commentary on this novel:  “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man” (Introduction to the Book of Job, 1907).

My appetite for Chesterton has been whetted by this novel.  I am glad that I decided to participate in the A Reader’s Group over at The Well Trained Mind forums.  I look forward to participating in the discussion about The Man Who Was Thursday in February, and I will try to post a follow up blog entry if I come to any new conclusions (or any conclusions at all, for that matter) about this book.

The following are quotes from the novel that I like just because:

He felt like a man who had dreamed all night of falling over precipices, and had woke up on the morning when he was to be hanged.  (Syme, just before his duel with the Marquis, 169)

His soul swayed in a vertigo of moral indecision.  He had only to snap the thread of a rash vow made to a villainous society, and all his life could be as open and sunny as the square beneath him.  He had, on the other hand, only to keep his antiquated  honour, and be delivered inch by inch into the power of this great enemy of mankind, whose very intellect was torture-chamber.  (86)

Syme had for a flash the sensation that the cosmos had turned exactly upside down, that all trees were growing downwards and that all stars were under his feet.  Then came slowly the opposite conviction.  For the last twenty-four hours the cosmos had really been upside down, but now the capsized universe had come right side up again.  (116)

Highly recommended!


5 Responses

  1. Sounds fascinating! I like books like this…I will have to put it on my to read list (which is growing longer by the second, since I haven’t had time to read in a while!).

  2. Great review! I’ll definitely have to add this to my list. On a slightly different note, I always find it interesting that many of Chesterton’s stories were shaped not just by Christianity but by Catholicism (since he was a practicing Catholic and was particularly opposed to certain forms of Protestantism in general, and Calvinism in particular). I’ll be curious to see if that tone is in this book.

  3. I read this one last year. Here are my thoughts on it. I’m not sure I understood it either, but it was thought-provoking.

  4. This is one of those books I’ve tried to read several times, but haven’t made it all the way through. I enjoyed your review. It makes me want to try again.

  5. I just finished this a few days ago and Janet commented on my review with a link to her review, which links to your review. 🙂 So I had to come check it out. I had not known going in that it was an allegory, and I had forgotten the nightmare in the subtitle, so I was thoroughly confused by the second half until I picked up that it was allegorical. But then trying to figure out the allegory was another factor. 🙂 My biggest take-way was when Syme observed that we only see the “backs” of things – we don’t have the “big picture” of what’s going on with our fellow human beings, much less what God’s doing behind the scenes. Some time I’d like to read it again with the understanding I’ve gleaned from reading other’s reviews of it. This was my first read of Chesterton besides occasional quotes, but his quotes were so witty that I wanted to read him further. I had some laugh-out-loud moments, too.

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