I’m a G. K. Chesterton fan.  For those of you who don’t know, Chesterton was an English journalist born towards the end of the 19th century who wrote reams and reams in a variety of genres: essays, novels, poetry, Christian apologetics, short stories, plays.  Never afraid of an argument, he crossed swords, both in print and in public, with the likes of George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, and even Clarence Darrow, the famous Scopes Trial attorney, though sadly no record of the debate remains, as far as I know.  And yet he managed to maintain close friendships with men like Shaw, much though he disagreed with their ideas.

I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Chesterton’s novels in the past, and so I decided to pick up one I hadn’t read yet, Manalive.  The plot is typically outlandish and Chestertonian, and, alas, too complicated to summarize.  Instead, I’ll reflect on some of the themes that stuck out to me.

As I was thinking about the novel this afternoon, it struck me that it actually serves as a fitting riposte to the first book I read for this project, even though it was written several decades before Camus’ novel.  Whereas Camus sees the world as absurd and meaningless, Chesterton uses the seemingly absurd to highlight the wonder and beauty of the world.  The novel brings to life some of Chesterton’s characteristic themes.  Indeed, in some ways the book struck me as a narrative version of his classic Orthodoxy.  The main character, Innocent Smith, embodies Chesterton’s embrace of taking a child-like perspective on the world.  He achieves joy because he is good, and he sees the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary.  By not taking things too seriously he recognizes their true seriousness and worth.

Manalive thus relies on Chesterton’s love of paradox.  It also evinces his penchant for puzzles and riddles.  The novel resembles the Father Brown mysteries in that the significance of odd details in the story depends on the perspective from which one interprets them.  Is Smith a murderer, a burglar, a polygamist?  It all depends on how one puts the details together.  Smith is an “allegorical practical joker,” a man who seems mad or stupid, and yet the sanest and wisest character in the story.

I know all of this sounds hazy and abstract, but the book is anything but abstract.  On the contrary, it is filled with beautiful and elaborate descriptions, and it emphasizes in good Chestertonian fashion the priority of the local and particular over the global and universal.  While not laugh-out-loud funny, the book is certainly whimsical, and it left me smiling much more than did Camus.  If you’re looking for a lighthearted and yet profound read that will remind you of the joys of the ordinary things in life, then I highly recommend Manalive.

Three down, (at least) forty-nine to go.

Ta,
J

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