Monday, September 9, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“THE NAPOLEON OF NOTTING HILL” by G.K.Chesterton (first published 1904) and “THE MAN WHO WAS THURSDAY” by G.K.Chesterton (first published 1908)

Here is the proof that you can read some books as a child without the faintest inkling of what they’re really about.

I must have been thirteen or fourteen years old when I first read G.K.Chesterton’s two fantasies The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Man Who Was Thursday, both of them written in the first decade of the twentieth century. As a child, I understood the basic plot of each well enough. But I completely missed the tone in which they were written. Hence, when I re-read them both about three years ago, I realized that I had completely missed the point of each.

Consider the first one. The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) is set eighty years in the future – that is, in 1984. England now has an elective and bureaucratic monarchy, and war has been abolished. The population is dull, colourless and apathetic. If bright colours are seen on the street they cause a stir.

The paradoxical humourist Auberon Quin is made king. He is a dwarf of a man physically, but he has grandiose dreams and longs for colour and pageantry. He decrees that all the boroughs and suburbs of London must become independent city-states, with their own city walls, livery etc. Medieval pageantry and display will be revived. Most of the affected bureaucrats do not take this seriously and see it as mere mummery. But the idea is adopted enthusiastically by Adam Wayne, the Provost of Notting Hill, who, strutting about with sword and shield, takes local patriotism very seriously indeed. When a street in Notting Hill is threatened with commercial development, Wayne goes to war with the neighbouring borough – and wins! He does this through such strategies as obtaining a cavalry by commandeering all the hansom-cab horses; switching off all the gas-mains so that their enemies are left floundering about in the darkness when all the street lamps go out; and finally by threatening to drown the invading army by opening the valves on the water tank that overlooks the borough.

Notting Hill acquires its own little urban empire.

But twenty years later, Wayne’s Notting Hill empire is overthrown. The novel ends with a conversation between Auberon Quin and Adam Wayne. It was a joke by Auberon Quin that triggered the revival of little city-states within London in the first place. It was the fanatic romantic Adam Wayne who put the joke into practice. The moral of the story, such as it is, appears to be that a romantic imagination is necessary for anything creative to happen; but that romanticism needs to be tempered by humour if it isn’t to become fanaticism. Wayne saw the pageantry and romance of old warfare. Quin saw the joke. They represent two complementary types of humanity, or two necessary sides of the healthy psyche.

When I read this as a child, inasmuch as I understood it at all, I read it as a straight adventure story. I was seriously worried at how inaccurate Chesterton’s 1904 vision of the future was (hansom cabs? gas lighting?). My puzzlement was increased by the woodcut illustrations in the early hardback edition I was reading, which showed people in a mixture of Victorian costumes (top hats etc.) and medieval robes. What sort of world was this author seriously envisaging?

Now I can read it only as a series of jokes – a long whimsy on favourite Chestertonian themes. Chesterton is essentially reminding us that the old city-states (of Greece or Renaissance Italy) were about the same size as a modern city borough. He is imagining how “local patriotism” could be revived in a world in which people are alienated by the sheer size of cities. I thought of Chesterton’s concept recently while reading and reviewing Danyl McLauchlan’s Wellington fantasy novel Unspeakable Secrets of the Aro Valley – in which a small locality becomes a whole world [look it up on the index at right].

Again, Chesterton is telling us that mundane cityscapes can be transformed by imagination. There are scenes where Adam Wayne walks into a grocer’s shop and senses all the exotic commerce that has produced humble and mundane household articles. There is another where he enters a chemist’s shop and feels all the dreams that the drugs kept there can produce. But untrammelled imagination can be dangerous. From the perspective of a century later, there is something vaguely repugnant in the novel’s implicit glorification of chivalrous warfare: it seems more an evasion of the realities of modern warfare (even as they existed in 1904) than anything else. The characters are walking personifications of Chesterton’s ideas, and therefore rather bloodless. But The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a fine urbane joke if read as such.

There is, incidentally, a well-attested story about this novel, which features in all the biographies of Chesterton. The Napoleon of Notting Hill was his first novel. He wrote it when he was newly married, about thirty, and broke. He went to a publisher’s and promised them the novel if they would give him an advance. Off the top of his head, he improvised the story – having been inspired by the sight of a water-tower on top of a suburban hill, which led him to think of how it could be misused to flood the locality. They gave him the twenty-pound advance and he and his wife were able to live off it for a number of months.

When I read it as a kid, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) puzzled me far more than Chesterton’s first novel did. Again it is proof that 13- or 14-year olds can follow a plot but completely miss the tone.

The Man Who Was Thursday is a frolic, a lark, an intellectual game, a theological thriller – but the subtitle gets it best. It is “A Nightmare”. Things happen with the furious logic of a dream, and a brief coda suggests it is literally a dream. As a child, I thought it was meant to be a straightforward adventure, so its nightmarish-ness made me furious. As an adult, I’m a little more receptive.

The flamingly red-haired poet Lucian Gregory is an anarchist. The more sober poet Gabriel Syme is a police detective, who has been mysteriously recruited. But, though on opposite sides of the law, the two poets swear not to unmask each other.
Gabriel Syme manages to infiltrate the anarchist group and be elected onto the central anarchist committee, presided over by the enigmatic Sunday. Every member of the committee is named after a day of the week, so Gabriel Syme becomes Thursday. Apparently the anarchists are planning an assassination, which must be thwarted. But as the infiltrated detective goes about his business, he discovers that in fact every single member of the committee is really a police detective like himself.

This is the mechanism of the romping plot, which eventually leaves the six detectives to confront and unmask Sunday himself. In a pageant-like finale, all the days of the week confront Sunday - who turns out to be the Peace of God, testing the souls of those who seek him by trial and adventure. And the red-haired Lucian Gregory, who reappears in the novel only at this point, is the true anarchist, the spirit that would deny and destroy. Lucian is Lucifer just as Gabriel is the angel of domestic order. Again, there is the Chestertonian paradox. What appears to be order is chaos. What appears to be chaos is order.

I think I am right in saying that this has always been Chesterton’s most popular and most-often-reprinted novel. Certainly it is more robust and jolly than The Napoleon of Notting Hill. It has the advantage of the thriller format, chase and eventual confrontation, and colourful scenes like the unmasking of a policeman at the anarchists’ meeting; Syme being chased across London by anarchists whom he does not yet know are fellow policemen; a frenzied duel and chase in France where the whole world seems to have gone anarchist (though in truth they are only honest French peasants trying to thwart anarchists); and the wonderful, cartoonish, nightmarish chase of Sunday himself, who rides a stolen elephant from the zoo and then a hot-air balloon.

But does it hold together as a story?

Not really.

There is a sudden change of tone when we get to that solemn, explicitly-allegorical concluding pageant (all six detectives are the six days of creation and therefore represent all of creation). The gears crunch. The Christian message of redemption through suffering is hammered home in Sunday’s final self-revelation. I have read angry comments from readers who expected a conventional spy novel and were confronted instead with a metaphysical argument. And yet there are some neat insights en route. Chesterton is right to see anarchism as an intellectual game for the well-to-do who do not think through its consequences. Also (like Poe in “The Purloined Letter”) his plot often invokes the idea that the best way to hide is to stay in plain sight where everyone can see you.

As I reconsider both these novels now, I inevitably think of the whole reputation of Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936), the gigantic, witty purveyor of paradox, Catholic convert, Christian apologist and inventor of Father Brown, whose books once filled the shelves of every Catholic school library and seminary. Seen in these terms, he is a back number. Yet it is surprising how much resonance these two pieces of whimsy, which I have been discussing, really have.

As I have noted before on this blog [check out my review of Donald Rumbelow’s The Houndsditch Murders and the Siege of Sidney Street on the index at right], Chesterton’s exorcism of anarchism was something that other writers of his era were trying to do seriously. Look up any Chesterton website on line and you will be told of the diverse and eminent people who were impressed by these two books - George Orwell, Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock among them. They were said to be the favourite novels of the Irish rebel leader Michael Collins (first commander of the IRA) who took some tips from The Napoleon of Notting Hill on how to wage urban guerrilla warfare and who, strutting undisguised through Dublin when British security were hunting him, took to heart the message of The Man Who Was Thursday that the best way to hide was not to hide. It amazes me that such whimsies were taken so literally, but there it is.

I certainly didn’t read any of this serious intent into The Napoleon of Notting Hill or The Man Who Was Thursday that when I was a kid. I was puzzled, and thought how odd it was that adventure stories could be written in this way.

Interesting but almost totally irrelevant footnote: G.K.Chesterton wrote a book of detective stories, which was published in 1922 under the title The Man Who Knew Too Much. Alfred Hitchcock got the rights to the book and was going to make a film from one of the stories. But it didn’t work out. Nothing daunted, in 1934 Hitchcock took the title to which he had the rights and made a film called The Man Who Knew Too Much anyway (he re-made it in 1956). Its plot had nothing to do with any of Chesterton’s stories. Nevertheless, as an admirer of Chesterton, Hitchcock was really intrigued by the essential conceit of The Man Who Was Thursday, in which all members of an anarchist group prove to be other than they seem. Disguise, usually with malign intent, is one of the keys not only to Hitchcock’s films, but to the whole spy-thriller genre. All those movies you’ve seen in which an agent turns out to be a counter-agent or vice versa owe at least something to The Man Who Was Thursday.

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