1908; 121 pages. Full Title: The Man Who Was Thursday - A Nightmare. New Author? : Yes. Genre : Satire; Philosophical Conjecture; Middlebrow Literature; Surreal Fantasy. Overall Rating : 5½*/10.
Lucian Gregory and Gabriel Syme are poets. They are also self-styled philosophers which means they love to have debates just for the fun of it. Right now (in Edwardian-era London) they’re discussing the philosophy of the anarchist movement, a subject which they are pleased to have opposing views about.
Gregory feels that anarchy is the highest form of poetry. Bombs going kerboom! and revolting peasants are the ultimate expression of any of the arts. Syme disagrees. The embodiment of poetry is the Law, not Revolution; and his fellow poet deceives himself when he thinks he’s a serious anarchist.
This upsets Gregory, and he feels compelled to prove his point. He takes Syme to a secret anarchist meeting, but first makes him swear by everything sacred not to reveal what he is about to witness to anyone else. Syme complies but in turn requires Gregory to swear not to tell anyone else a secret Syme’s about to tell him.
Syme is an undercover detective for Scotland Yard, working in their anti-anarchy department.
What’s To Like...
The Man Who Was Thursday is a bizarre piece of classic literature, first published in 1908, which defies being pigeonholed into any single genre. I initially thought it was going to focus on the honor of keeping one’s word, no matter what. Later I thought that it would give me a good idea of what the turn-of-the-20th-century world thought about anarchists. Alas, neither of these expectations panned out.
The story is filled with G.K. Chesterton’s wit, which was my main motivation for reading this book. He might not offer any deep insights into the anarchist movement, but I enjoyed his sardonic views on revolutionaries, law enforcement agencies, honor, and putting on airs. The settings are minimal – the greater London area and a brief excursion to the coast of France - but I have visited, and thoroughly enjoy, both of those places..
I liked the “feel” of life back then. Skyscrapers were a new phenomenon, motor-cars were around but much less common than horse-drawn carriages, and you went by ship to get from London to France because, well, commercial flights didn’t exist. The philosophical debate in chapter one was fun to listen in on, and I always enjoy learning a new French phrase, in this case: “Pagens ont tort et Chretiens ont droit.”
The book is written in English, so you see navvies at work, find yourself disorganised yet cosy, push a perambulator (and only now did I realise that’s the longer form of “pram”), study at Board Schools, and entertain guests in your parlour. I never did figure out what a man described as “somewhat of the type of Mr. Tim Healy” was like, nor why the phrase “what about Martin Tupper now?” was uttered.
The pacing felt uneven. The philosophy debate went by fast, but the recruitment section seemed to drag. The first chase (the good guys running from the bad guys) zipped along just fine, but it was immediately followed by a second chase (the bad guys running from the good guys), and by then I was ready for the storyline to get going again.
The book is short – only 121 pages – which barely qualifies as a novel. There is a poem at the beginning which, although well done, didn’t seem to contribute to the story at all. The ending is positively surreal, which I liked, and there's an offbeat “Row, row, row your boat” twist in the epilogue. I’d attribute these to the ingestion of LSD by Chesterton, but acid wouldn’t be discovered for another 20 years.
Kewlest New Word ...
Bally (adj.) : a euphemism for bloody; a Britishism used as an intensive, as in “a bally stupid idea.”
Others : Falneur (n.); Cicerone (n.); Badinage (n.).
You can get the e-book version of The Man Who Was Thursday for anything from free to $7.99 at Amazon. Needless to say, I opted for the cheapest option. Quite a few of G.K. Chesterton’s e-books at Amazon go for $0.99, and you can even get a 50-book collection of his works, which includes The Man Who Was Thursday, for a mere $1.99. These things happen when the copyright protection has expired.
Through all this ordeal his root horror had been isolation, and there are no words to express the abyss between isolation and having one ally. It may be conceded to the mathematicians that four is twice two. But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one. That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy. (loc. 1293)
“He insulted my mother.”
“Insulted your mother!” exclaimed the gentleman incredulously.
“Well, anyhow,” said Syme, conceding a point, “my aunt.”
“But how can the Marquis have insulted your aunt just now?” said the second gentleman with some legitimate wonder. “He has been sitting here all the time.”
“Ah, it was what he said!” said Syme darkly.
“I said nothing at all,” said the Marquis, “except something about the band. I only said that I liked Wagner played well.”
“It was an allusion to my family,” said Syme firmly. “My aunt played Wagner badly. It was a painful subject. We are always being insulted about it.” (loc. 1662)
“If you’d take your head home and boil it for a turnip it might be useful.” (loc. 1038)
The main problem with The Man Who Was Thursday is its incoherent storyline. It starts off as a Philosophical treatise (what is anarchy?), then switches to a tale of Intrigue (who’s a cop, who’s not?), then does the Chase trope, not once but twice, and finishes up with a Surreal get-together that would’ve made Salvador Dali get all misty-eyed.
There are some plot twists but they all seemed either telegraphed or forced. Finally, one of the protagonists, Lucian Gregory, goes MIA after a few chapters, and doesn’t reappear until the very end.
I sort of got the feeling G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936) had some fascinating and adventurous ideas for our two philosopher-poets to experience in the world of anarchists, but tried to jam them all into a single hundred-page story. Personally, I think it would've been better to spread them out into a series.
5½ Stars. I found The Man Who Was Thursday to be witty, but oftentimes confusing and incoherent. If I had to describe it in one sentence, it would be: “How Monty Python’s The Holy Grail would sound like if it had been written in 1908”. That may sound fantastic, and the book certainly has its moments, but in the end it just doesn’t hold together well.