PAW 20 – The Man Who Was Thursday (95) by G K Chesterton

The Man Who Was Thursday by G K Chesterton; Penguin Paperback 95; 1954 edition

The Man Who Was Thursday by G K Chesterton; Penguin Paperback 95; 1954 edition

The Man Who Was Thursday is a metaphysical mystery/thriller. There aren’t many of this ilk written anymore. It’s one of Chesterton’s most accessible novels, and it’s been great to see that it’s achieved a sort of resurgence in recent years — there are many modern editions of it currently in print. The late, great Terry Pratchett sings its praises frequently, and Neil Gaiman is an avowed fan of GKC.

The Man Who Was Thursday is a sort of long parable, although Chesterton describes it as “a nightmare”. In subject matter it’s closer to the fiction works of Charles Williams than anything else, but it is cast in a spy-thriller format, making it compulsively readable. The main character, Gabriel Syme, begins in a setting that Ian Fleming might conceive, but quickly gets drawn in to a looking-glass world of inverted beliefs and alliances.

As with my other favourite Chesterton novel, The Ball and the Cross, it is a mistake to assume (as Adam Gopernik did in a New Yorker review of Chesterton) that Syme, as the main character, is always and truly in the right as he fights a world of wrong. What I find most delightful about this story is the very subtle and gradual changes that his character makes after each and every triumph, so that at the end of the book he is a very different character, with a very different outlook, and you haven’t been aware that he has gone through any change at all–but he has, and so have we.

The Man Who Was Thursday is a book I keep reading by accident. Since 2001 I have done so six times. I’ll start by looking back through it for a favourite line, then I’ll read a few more pages, and then finish the chapter, and then go back to the begin and start in earnest. It’s one of the most perfect novels I’ve read, and it won’t be many years before I’ve read it another half dozen times.


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PAW 19 – Pygmalion (300) by Bernard Shaw

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw; Penguin Paperback 300; 1946 edition

Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw; Penguin Paperback 300; 1946 edition

I knew that Pygmalion was adapted into the movie/musical My Fair Lady, but I was unaware that the characters and dialogue were all from Bernard Shaw, it was only the music and dance numbers that were added. And that was a thrill and a disappointment because although apart from the catchy (infective, really) tunes and general jolliness, it is a fundamentally misogynistic story.

First, a word needs to be said about the actual Penguin Paperback edition of the play, which, however you feel about the story itself, is certainly a joy to experience. It is a slim volume, but it has a preface and a lengthy epilogue by the author, as well as over 100 illustrations of the story, peppered on just about every page. It also contains the scenes that Bernard Shaw himself wrote for the original movie that was first adapted from his play. It was intended as a very special edition in celebration of Penguin’s Tri-Centenery of publications.

The title references the Ancient Greek story of Pygmalion, a sculptor whose skill is so great that he falls in love with a sculpture that he creates. Apart from the Bernard Shaw play, which not only spawned My Fair Lady, but also Educating Rita, She’s All That, and others, the Pygmalion story itself has inspired movies like Mannequin and Lars And The Real Woman. It is a fundamentally perverse story — a cautionary tale, more than anything. However, translated by Bernard Shaw we have a story in which a man moulds a woman into a particular shape, that is where it becomes misogyny. Where once she is coarse and ignorant, she is now elegant and graceful, and that is all thanks to him (or the other male lead, Colonel Pickering). The play ends by dwelling on the question of who she can marry, not on what she is able now to do.

Illustrations by Feliks Topolski

Illustrations by Feliks Topolski

All this said, the story itself displays ambiguity in these developments. For instance, Higgins is shown to be comically rude and awkward in society. Higgins’ mother is a strong female character, and the young Freddy can be adequately described as a bimbo.

Which would all be fine except for Shaw’s preface and epilogue in this edition. In the former he describes his admiration for (the amittedly very impressive) Professor Henry Sweet (who I am also a big fan of, for different reasons), and by describes Higgins as being a character with no flaws. And by revealing Higgins’ his social awkwardness, Shaw does not intend to display feet of clay, but rather Higgins’ personal freedom. This revelation carries over into the epilogue as well where Shaw twice, favourably, cites Nietzche and dwells for a bizarrely long amount of time on H. G. Wells (the novels and the man) for a very trivial plot point. Shaw calls this epilogue a ‘sequel’, to the story, and it is. It tells us the story of Liza Doolittle, her marriage to Freddy, her difficulty in starting a flowershop business — which, uncharacteristically, she is not able to learn the business side of in the same fairly easy way that she learnt a different way of speaking. Shaw’s expressed reason for writing this ‘sequel’ is because he was incensed at the stage productions of his work which hinted at Higgins and Doolittle falling in love and marrying each other. He wrote this to set the record straight because, in his words

Galatea [Doolittle] never does quite like Pygmalion [Higgins]: his relation to her is too godlike to be altogether agreeable.

So, in conclusion, man is the shaper, the creator; woman is the raw material to be changed and imposed on. That hardly makes me want to break into song.


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PAW 18 – Grand Babylon Hotel (176) By Arnold Bennett

Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett; Penguin Paperback 176; 1938 edition

Grand Babylon Hotel by Arnold Bennett; Penguin Paperback 176; 1938 edition

Grand Babylon Hotel gave me a a couple surprises. Maybe it was off of reading Crome Yellow last week that I was expecting something a little more detached and erudite — I wasn’t expecting an adventure mystery thriller with the main protagonists being an American millionaire and his very capable daughter.

I got another surprise when I checked on when the book was published: 1902, which make it contemporary with Sherlock Holmes. However, the prose is as loose and accessible as something written much later. I think it could very rightly be seen not just as a precursor of the pulp fiction genre — especially reminiscent of Raymond Chandler in which nearly every chapter contains some sort of plot reversal — but also the type of book that Agatha Christie inspired.

The millionaire-as-detective angle was very effective. After all, where can’t a man with unlimited money go, and who can’t he speak to and get information from? Throw in an American penchant for revolvers and he makes a formidable adversary for any criminal crossing his path. And taking into consideration the fact that it was written over 100 years ago, it is very prescient. At one point one of the characters, a prince of the fictional Germanic country of Posen, remarks:

‘…These rich men have no secrets from each other. They form a coterie, closer than any coterie of ours. Eugen, and far more powerful. They talk, and in talking they rule the world, these millionaires. They are the real monarchs.’

‘Curse them!’ said Eugen.

This proves to be true since it is the monarchs themselves that find themselves needing the help of the American oligarch, and at the end it is shown that money answers all things, breaches of the law and suicide attempts alike. For all of that, however, it is an easy, quick, and enjoyable read and the multi-stranded plot is juggled with an easy deftness. This is a book that should definitely be more well known.


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PAW 17 – Crome Yellow (41) by Aldous Huxley

Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley; Penguin Paperback 41; 1936 edition

Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley; Penguin Paperback 41; 1936 edition

Crome Yellow was Aldous Huxley’s first novel, written when he was about 28. I didn’t have very high expectations for it — I’m not exactly sure why — but I was pleasantly surprised.

The story is of a house party and a group of free-thinkers who have congregated there. Ostensibly, Crome Yellow is based on Huxley’s own experiences with the Bloomsbury Set, and it’s easy to see the young writer himself in Denis Stone, for the most part the aspect character. The story is very wise with mature and knowing touches in the fact that these visionary artists’ work is not so masterful, and the modern, amoral lifestyle is actually far from decadent. To the characters in the book, words are cheap, actions are emotionally costly (perhaps the only running theme of the book, culminating in the termination of Stone’s participation in the group). Mary, for instance, never gets to have a casual affair with any of the young men in the house, a running joke in which a good deal of humour is drawn.

The chapters are short and give the feeling of a sort of portmanteau of stories, a collection of vignettes along with a couple gothic tales about the previous tenants of Crome House.

There are also three moments that are striking for anyone that is a fan of Brave New World, which Huxley was to write eleven years later. In one chapter a character talks about children being born in bottles and raised by society, in another there is a prophecy about American Indians revolting on their reservations, and later on a character talks about how society could be arranged into tiered castes.

There is also unintentional humour to be found in Huxley’s odd narrative fixations, first with the word ‘supererogatory’, and the description of girls in swimsuits being ‘sleek and seal-like’.

All in all, Crome Yellow is a surprising and rewarding read.


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PAW 16 – Night Flight (182) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; Penguin Paperback 182; 1940 edition

Night Flight by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry; Penguin Paperback 182; 1940 edition

Night Flight was a smash hit when it was released, but it has since been almost forgotten (at least in English literature), and rightly so. The story is of a group of men, some aviators, engineers, and a controller, whose job it is to deliver the mail along way-stations in South America. Simple enough, but the task is complicated by the fact that this is being done in the days before radar, before very precise instrumentation, and also, in this case, at night.

It needs to be remembered that Night Flight was written in 1931, a good twenty or thirty years before commercial flights became feasible to the general public. That explains most of the book’s early appeal — it was a way to experience something second-hand that would be completely impossible first-hand. For modern readers, we are able to gain an insight into what it was like for the first pioneers of the early aviation industry…

Kind of. Because this is where Night Flight really falls down. It is far too brief a book, and far too self-consciously written to give a real sense of what it’s like to fly. Descriptions are terse and abstract, so you never really get a full sense of what is being described. Characters are thinly developed and the thoughts that they have that the readers are made privy to are not really thoughts that people have. The writing tries to be philosophical, but fails; to wit:

“I tell you, Robineau, in life there are no solutions. There are only motive forces , and our task is to set them acting — and then the solutions follow.”

Well, are there solutions or aren’t there? It’s possible that a bad translator may be obfuscating the pure expression of the original, which would be a shame, but none of the elements really seem to connect emotionally. Everything seems to be being held at an arm’s distance. You feel that what the writer is trying to convey is that this heroism is an everyday heroism, one that isn’t trumpeted. But we want it to be trumpeted, and are disappointed when the author won’t. There is fear, love, hate, wonder, and joy to be found in the events of this story, but we aren’t allowed every to really feel them with the author who must have either been cynical about these qualities or, as I feel he was, too touched by all of them to feel safe in expressing them fully. Ultimately, even the fact that this is a fiction serves to distance the author even further from the subject. Since Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a pilot exactly of the type described in the book, Night Flight should have been a memoir or article; not a brief, impersonal story.


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