Charming, odd, surprising book. If you like Chesterton at all, you’ve probably already read it. If you’re just getting into him, put this on the list. If you’re wondering what the fuss is about, The Man Who Was Thursday is as good a place to start as any what is likely to become a life-long Chesterton project.
No spoilers, which means I’ll be brief. The chief feature of the book is that once every chapter or two, everything you thought was going on gets stood on its head. It starts in a newish London neighborhood, where a Mr. Gregory, a pessimistic poet, an anarchistic poet, is holding forth. A young man named Syme is also a poet, but a poet of Order, for whom nothing is more poetical than a train arriving exactly on time, and so the two naturally have at each other. Syme asserts that Gregory is not serious about his anarchism. Gregory sets out to show him that he is serious. Dead serious. Promises are extracted, for a poet, even an anarchist, may be an honorable man. These promises are put sorely to the test.
Thus the adventures begin. There is a secret anarchist council; there is a secret anti-anarchist police force. Each is lead by a secretive man, one flamboyant and larger than life and thus inscrutable; the other invisible. The clash of world views personified in the two poets allows Chesterton to expand on the nature and importance of a man’s philosophy, for lack of a better word. Philosophical digressions are often the death of a story; Chesterton very nearly makes them the life of his.
An introduction to this book I saw somewhere says that, when a bunch of spies and secret agents were asked which work of fiction best captured their world, The Man Who Was Thursday was acclaimed most life-like. Since it is a typically Chestertonian broad and almost cartoonish work, this at first seems odd. What the spooks identify as life-like is, I think, the sense of uncertainty, of not knowing who your friends and enemies are, indeed, of running the constant risk that an enemy may be a friend, or a friend an enemy; that at one moment the man you have to kill might in the next be he who saves your life. Another true to life aspect: you never know what, exactly, your superiors are up to, or even whose side they’re on. You are always acting on imperfect information, sometimes on deliberately misleading information.
Core Chestertonian canon. Read this book.