Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Vol. VI
A few weeks ago, I finished up Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, Vol. VI, which includes The Club of Queer Trades, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, an early and unfinished manuscript of The Ball and the Cross, and The Man Who Was Thursday.
The four novels could hardly be more different in terms of content, but they each bear the distinctly Chestertonian stamps of wit, social commentary, and religious reflection. But more on that after an overview of the wild variations this collection contains.
The first, The Club of Queer Trades, is a collection of short stories, really, centered on various “mysteries,” each coming down to a person who had invented some entirely original way of supporting himself financially: that is, a new trade, and in every case an odd one (“queer” in the original sense). Nothing too profound here, though Chesterton’s descriptions alternately awed me and sent me into bouts of laughter. (I hadn’t read any of his fiction before, and his way with words is brilliant.) The mysteries are short and not particularly complicated, but never predictable. This was just fun.
The second, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, is of a thoroughly different character. It is a farcical story of an imagined “future” of England in 1984 (Orwell, it turns out, had read and appreciated Chesterton) – a future in which all the ills of modernity had climaxed in a horrific blandness. Adventure, of course, cannot be contained forever, and it spills forth in a gush of war. Chesterton’s view of war is interesting, to say the least. He finds his (and our) culture’s professed pacifism a farce itself, and highlights the farce with the way war may ennoble a culture buried in its own studied disinterest. Of the costs of war – of the horrific brutalities – he makes light and little. But this is farce, and the point is not that war is good but that though it is not, still there are things worth fighting for – even things so small as that idea itself.
The Ball and the Cross tells of a young man passionate in his faith stumbling across an old man passionate in his atheism – men who challenge each other to a duel and find themselves allies against a creeping relativism. Both, Chesterton more than suggests, know the truth that so many others would forget: it matters whether God is, or God isn’t. The idea that it’s not such a serious thing and we’d all just better get along is simply nonsense, and theist and atheist alike know it, know that it’s worth fighting for – even if society thinks it has “progressed” beyond such “backwards” notions. Unfinished, the book simply tails off, but was interesting reading nonetheless.
Finally, The Man Who Was Thursday tells the story of a police detective set on a task to stop an anarchist revolution. It is perhaps the most singular of the novels in the set, its final twist changing the entire conceit in a surprising way. It is also the novel with the most social commentary, and the sharpest writing, the one I enjoyed the most along the way, and the one that left me thinking about the book as a piece of fiction the most when I was done.
Chesterton was still an Anglican at the time he wrote these stories (it would be decades before he converted to Catholicism), and one who had only relatively recently returned to orthodoxy after a years-long and very dark struggle with nihilism. He was also in regular conversation (debate, really) with people espousing a wide variety of distinctly unorthodox views. He was also, put simply, brilliant. Each of these makes an appearance, but thankfully (and rather unlike most modern Christian fiction), he’s not particularly preachy.
Even when he’s attacking a view he disagrees with, it usually makes sense in the plot and it is always delivered with considerable wit; the jabs come off as jokes between friends in a long-running debate, rather than obligatory references to satisfy a publisher or to remind readers loudly that “This. Is. A. Christian. Novel!” Even where religion is in the forefront, as in The Ball and the Cross, it is clear that Chesterton understands and sympathizes with the convinced atheist. He even understands the deadening relativism of the culture, but there he has no sympathy at all, and uses his wit like a rapier to puncture all its foibles. Suffice it to say: this was a refreshing change from most fiction by Christians I encounter today – so much so that I rarely read modern Christian fiction.
This was a fun read. I intend to spend a good deal more time with Chesterton’s fiction in the future. I wish more Christian authors would make a point to become such skillful writers, and to simply tell interesting stories about interesting people in interesting circumstances – interesting atheists as well as interesting Christians. And if I found a modern author with half the skill in painting beautiful word pictures, I’d shout until all my friends were reading him or her. Beauty, truth, and the adventure of life itself are writ large across these pages. We’d do well to pay attention.