Monday 15 September 2008

Permit me to pull your nose

I really have to start reading longer books. Posting book reviews every 2 days and waiting 1 day to do so because I've finished the book but don't want the content on the front page to fly by too quickly is starting to wear on me. And, no doubt, it's also wearing on you, given that I'm only finding time to write these reviews first thing in the morning when I'm still in full coma mode.

My attention span is just so bloody short lately. I'm sure we've got some great yarns hidden away here somewhere that would keep me focused for more than 200 pages in a row but I'm feeling really picky lately AND half our books are out of reach because we've had to move the three biggest bookcases away from their wall so I can paint it. (Yes, the bookcases' wall, not mine - I'm just their servant!)

See what I mean about focus? I haven't said one word yet about book 50 of blog year two, G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare. The fact that Chesterton subtitled this in such a macabre way and the fact that Kingsley Amis called this "The most thrilling book I have ever read" led me to believe I was in for a hair-raising ride.

Wrong. Wrong. There wasn't one frightening, anxiety-inducing, or even tense moment to be found in The Man Who Was Thursday. On the contrary, it was amusing overall and sometimes downright hilarious. I feel as though Kingsley and I read entirely different books and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that mine was the better one.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and thought the hilarity, which I can't believe wasn't intentional, was a great way to send up the fin de siècle anxieties it's supposedly expressing in such a chilling way. According to Wikipedia, the essence of all truthiness, The Man Who Was Thursday is a metaphysical thriller - try metaphysical giggle-fest! I really don't know why people are identifying this book as being so very serious. I don't think I'm being insensitive to differences in context (this book was published 100 years ago) - I'm the one, after all, who is able to be pleasurably frightened by the most cheese-ball Gothic fiction of the 18th century.

Here's one of my favourite scenes in the book, when Syme tries to tempt the Marquis to challenge him to a duel; I think you'll see what I mean:

“You are Mr. Syme, I think,” he said.

Syme bowed.

“And you are the Marquis de Saint Eustache,” he said gracefully. “Permit me to pull your nose.”

He leant over to do so, but the Marquis started backwards, upsetting his chair, and the two men in top hats held Syme back by the shoulders.

“This man has insulted me!” said Syme, with gestures of explanation.

“Insulted you?” cried the gentleman with the red rosette, “when?”

“Oh, just now,” said Syme recklessly. “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.”

“This seems most extraordinary,” said the gentleman who was décoré, looking doubtfully at the Marquis.

“Oh, I assure you,” said Syme earnestly, “the whole of your conversation was simply packed with sinister allusions to my aunt’s weaknesses.”

“This is nonsense!” said the second gentleman. “I for one have said nothing for half an hour except that I liked the singing of that girl with black hair.”

“Well, there you are again!” said Syme indignantly. “My aunt’s was red.” (pp. 121-22)

That's what I'm talkin' 'bout!


Anonymous said...

I'm such a fan of this book! What's your thought on the ending?


Bookphilia said...

My thoughts on the ending: I thought it was hilarious on a literal level. To be lured along this way only to be dressed up in ridiculous costumes and invited to sit around pretending to be emulating God, etc was silly and weird and kind of fun.

On a symbolic level, I can't tell if it was meant to be sad (because ridiculously inadequate parody is the closest humans can hope to get to God) or bitingly satirical (and therefore harshly comic) for the same reason.

What do you think, Terry?