PAW 5 – The Napoleon of Notting Hill (550) by G. K. Chesterton

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G. K. Chesterton; Penguin Paperback 550

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G. K. Chesterton; Penguin Paperback 550; 1946 edition

People now consider The Napoleon of Notting Hill to be a Speculative Fiction book, and it can certainly be read as such. Chesterton would definitely have thought of it as “a fantasy”. It was the first novel that Chesterton wrote to be published and he describes the moment he took the idea to his publisher as necessitating a few stiff drinks at The Cheshire Cheese near Fleet Street in London before marched over to his publisher, John Lane’s office, threw open the door and said “this is the book I want to write and this is how I’m going to write it”. The publisher liked the idea and signed him to a contract on the spot. Then Chesterton had to go away and write the thing.

Coincidentally, the story takes place “eighty years after the present date”, making it 1984. Orwell, it can be safely assumed, did not enjoy Chesterton very much and took ocassional swipes at him in his own fiction, even though Orwell did get his start writing for G. K.’s Weekly. It deals first with a very charismatic politician named Auberon Quin who thinks it would be a lot of fun to become the king of Notting Hill and cede from the nation. He manages to do this but then a second man, Adam Wayne, takes the matter much more seriously. When a highway is scheduled to be built through the suburb, he marshals a military force to prevent it. In the ensuing battle Notting Hill apparently lies in ruins and two figures speak to each other from the mist, discussing love, laughter, and seriousness — these are revealed to be the two main characters who are finally reconciled. This is he core conflict of the book, seriousness and humour, summed up in a conversation between the two protagonists halfway through the book:

Auberon turned on Wayne with violence.

“What the devil is all this? What am I saying? What are you saying? Have you hypnotized me? Curse your uncanny blue eyes! Let me go. Give me back my sense of humour. Give it me back. Give it me back, I say!”

“I solemnly assure you,” said Wayne, uneasily, with a gesture, as if feeling all over himself, “that I haven’t got it.”

The King fell back in his chair, and went into a roar of Rabelaisian laughter.

“I don’t think you have,” he cried.

It’s an odd little book, an odd little pebble that has nonetheless created significant ripples. C S Lewis must have been fond of it since he borrowed its ending for Book 2 of his Space Trilogy, Perelandra, which ends in two abstract figures having a conversation. He also took the title for a Narnia book from one of this book’s chapter title: The Last Battle. Neil Gaiman also has said that he got the idea for his first novel Neverwhere, in which a hidden London is described, from this book and even quotes this one at the beginning of his.

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PAW 4 – Three Men in a Boat (1213) by Jerome K Jerome

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome; Penguin Paperback (1213)

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome; Penguin Paperback (1213); 1957 edition; cover by Dorrit Dekk

Three Men in a Boat is easily one of the funniest books I have ever read, and I’ve reread it numerous times. It’s a very unassuming concept written by a writer who is known for very little else. Essentially, three friends decide to take a boat trip from London to Oxford and takes place (and was written) towards the end of the Victorian era.

I was very surprised to learn that it was written in 1889, because the jokes and writing style seem fairly modern (or Edwardian, at least — P. G. Wodehouse is an obvious and immediate comparison to draw). I was even more surprised to find that the book was originally intended to be a serious travelogue, with a few humourous elements thrown in for readability. Obviously the humour of the writer could not be contained. It starts in immediately at just the packing stage of the journey which is wonderfully observed if anyone has ever packed with a group before. “J” makes the comment which has become Jerome’s most famous quip: “I like work: it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.” 

The action is episodic and you don’t have to be familiar with the Thames or the places the three men (and their dog) visit in order to understand the book, but obviously there is an extra payoff if you do. Every reader will have his favourite passage. Most popular is perhaps the Hampton Court Palace maze scene, while mine will always probably be the only alluded to, but nonetheless harrowing, incident with the swans. That or Montmorency and the cat.

Three Men in a Boat is one of those books that just fly by. It never takes more than a few days to finish it and you’re always left wondering where the time went, and why more books can’t be like it. Its genius is effortless, and its charm is eternal.

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PAW 3 – The Unbearable Bassington (545) by Saki

The Unbearable Bassington by "Saki" (H. H. Munro); Penguin Paperback (545); 1947 edition

The Unbearable Bassington by “Saki” (H. H. Munro); Penguin Paperback (545); 1947 edition

I think I was expecting the wrong things from The Unbearable Bassington. I was familiar with ‘Saki’, which is the pen name for H. H. Muro, as a writer of clever short stories — a kind of dark British counterpart of O. Henry. And so I was quite excited to come across one of his novels in the Penguin editions, although it eventually turned out to be something of a disappointment.

The story starts out well. The titular Bassington is Comus Bassington, a young upper middleclass gentleman who has presumably fallen on hard times. His aunt Francessca is desperate to preserve the Bassington line and restore their fortune by finding a woman of good social standing and wealth for her nephew so that they can both live their lives in the manner that they are accustomed. However, Bassington himself unknowingly thwarts his aunt’s every attempt almost instantly, and also cannot prevent himself from making every misstep possible in dealing with his eligible paramours.

It’s a good set up and the first chapters play out delightfully, little episodes that are almost vignettes of Edwardian irony and hypocrisy. And if the book continued on in this vein, it would have been a joy from start to finish. However, as clever as Saki’s prose is, his main characters never display any likable traits, or even charm. Really, we should be rooting for Bassington and groaning at his missteps and follies, if not as a dupe then as something of an antihero. But he isn’t unbearable so much as just unpleasant. But really, we never really care that he wins — quite the opposite in fact: he quite plainly does not deserve the life that he is pursuing. And in the last half of the novel the situations even stop being clever. The plot itself degenerates and the final tone of the novel is one of snide nihilism.

It may be a clever read, but it’s not an enjoyable one.

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Je Suis Charlie

Je Suis Charlie

Right now, just days after the event, “Je Suis Charlie” has become a rallying cry for ordinary people to show solidarity against terrorism — and that’s important, we need these banners to raise and gather around. But it’s important to remember what that phrase actually means, and how it started, which was a message from cartoonists to cartoonists.

I was only a professional cartoonist for a few months, until I found that people enjoyed my fiction more than my illustration, but I still identify enough with those in the industry to understand a different levels of meaning to “Je Suis Charlie” written in that context.

Understand: no one enters the comic or cartooning industry to make money. Almost nobody can make a living wage in it any more, and those that are often have to support themselves by doing other work. Likewise, no one is in it for fame, for women, or the extravagant lifestyle it attracts. Those who are cartoonists are cartoonists because they have so strong a passion for it that it overrides rationality and makes you stay up into the early hours of the morning on nights that you’re already tired and you have to work the next day. Being a cartoonist is more than something that you are, it’s something that you can’t stop being, far more than a pose you strike, or a prank you play.

And that’s what the terrorists tried to destroy last week — people who were expressing their creative voice for few other reasons than that they spoke in pictures. It was those people and the people who stood with them, the editors and publishers who helped them be heard, that these intolerant sociopaths silenced. And even though I didn’t know their names before five days ago, and even if I disagree with what they may have said, I too want to stand up and be counted with them, who used a pen and a printing press rather than a gun and a getaway car.

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PAW 2 – The End of the Affair (1785) by Graham Greene

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene; Penguin Paperback (1785); 1962 edition; cover by Paul Hogarth

The End of the Affair by Graham Greene; Penguin Paperback (1785); 1962 edition; cover by Paul Hogarth

The End of the Affair is a unique fusion of genres… a religious mystery romance thriller. Greene was already renowned at the time for writing in all of those genres, but this is a particularly heady distillation. As a “way in” to Greene, I heartily recommend this book.

The plot is laid out in what would easily translate into a classic film noir storyline — a man is investigating a sudden change of mood in his adulterous lover. Shades of The Third Man already. But in the course of his investigation, he is brought face-to-ineffable-face with God and His love and grace. It should be trite and twee, and in anyone’s hands but Greene’s it would be. He writes with the perfect amount of cynicism and superciliousness to stop the story from turning into a Sunday school lesson once it concludes. The narrator is agnostic, and Greene is such an intelligent Catholic mind that comfortable holds the conflicts and paradoxes of life neatly in perfect tension.

Graham Greene was the author that first brought me to the classic Penguin Paperbacks. A very good friend of mine once gave me a stack of his books in the orange spine editions for Christmas a few years back. Due to an early run-in with Greene in High School in which I completely undervalued and misunderstood his short story ‘The Destructors’, I avoided Greene, dismissing him as an embittered and angry soul. But growing up and learning to doubt religion and life, I found a compatriot and mentor in Greene who was able to doubt even more audaciously than I was, showing a brokenness to humanity that indicated larger universal truths. My Penguin Classics Graham Greene collection is now vast, fueled also by my love for his decades-long dedicated cover artist Paul Hogarth.

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