The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (Modern Library Classics) [Paperback]

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Item Description...
A clever detective infiltrates the Council of Days, a secret organization of anarchists with seven members, each disguised and named for a day of the week.

Publishers Description
G. K. Chesterton's surreal masterpiece is a psychological thriller that centers on seven anarchists in turn-of-the-century London who call themselves by the names of the days of the week. Chesterton explores the meanings of their disguised identities in what is a fascinating mystery and, ultimately, a spellbinding allegory. As Jonathan Lethem remarks in his Introduction, The real characters are the ideas. Chesterton's nutty agenda is really quite simple: to expose moral relativism and parlor nihilism for the devils he believes them to be. This wouldn't be interesting at all, though, if he didn't also show such passion for giving the devil his due. He animates the forces of chaos and anarchy with every ounce of imaginative verve and rhetorical force in his body.
"A powerful picture of the loneliness and bewilderment which each of us encounters in his single-handed struggle with the universe."
--C. S. Lewis
Jonathan Lethem is the author of five novels, including Motherless Brooklyn, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. He lives in Brooklyn and Toronto.

1. Discuss the Council's role as a secret society. What is important about their ability to function as a group and their determination to keep their activities secret? What is the point of their conspiracy?

2. What is the meaning of the book's title? How does the title's ambiguity and mystery characterize the book as a whole? Is personal identity less important than collective identity, in Chesterton's view? Does Syme, in effect, lose his identity? What does he gain?

3. What is the significance of the book's subtitle, “A Nightmare”? What does Chesterton mean by this? Discuss the dedicatory poem that follows. What kind of tone is Chesterton trying to establish? Does he succeed?

4. Discuss the idea of anarchy as presented in the book. What kinds of activities does Gabriel Syme find himself engaged in? Are they dangerous to society, in your opinion? How do you reconcile the council members being revealed as policemen?

5. Critics have discussed the book as an allegorical work, particularly in Christian terms. Do you agree with this assessment? Who or what, in your opinion, does Sunday represent?


The Two Poets of Saffron Park

The suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset. It was built of a bright brick throughout; its skyline was fantastic, and even its ground plan was wild. It had been the outburst of a speculative builder, faintly tinged with art, who called its architecture sometimes Elizabethan and sometimes Queen Anne, apparently under the impression that the two sovereigns were identical. It was described with some justice as an artistic colony, though it never in any definable way produced any art. But although its pretensions to be an intellectual centre were a little vague, its pretensions to be a pleasant place were quite indisputable. The stranger who looked for the first time at the quaint red houses could only think how very oddly shaped the people must be who could fit in to them. Nor when he met the people was he disappointed in this respect. The place was not only pleasant, but perfect, if once he could regard it not as a deception but rather as a dream. Even if the people were not “artists,” the whole was nevertheless artistic. That young man with the long, auburn hair and the impudent face—that young man was not really a poet; but surely he was a poem. That old gentleman with the wild, white beard and the wild, white hat—that venerable humbug was not really a philosopher; but at least he was the cause of philosophy in others That scientific gentleman with the bald, egg-like head and the bare, bird-like neck had no real right to the airs of science that he assumed. He had not discovered anything new in biology; but what biological creature could he have discovered more singular than himself? Thus, and thus only, the whole place had properly to be regarded; it had to be considered not so much as a workshop for artists, but as a frail but finished work of art. A man who stepped into its social atmosphere felt as if he had stepped into a written comedy.

More especially this attractive unreality fell upon it about nightfall, when the extravagant roofs were dark against the afterglow and the whole insane village seemed as separate as a drifting cloud. This again was more strongly true of the many nights of local festivity, when the little gardens were often illuminated, and the big Chinese lanterns glowed in the dwarfish trees like some fierce and monstrous fruit. And this was strongest of all on one particular evening, still vaguely remembered in the locality, of which the auburn-haired poet was the hero. It was not by any means the only evening of which he was the hero. On many nights those passing by his little back garden might hear his high, didactic voice laying down the law to men and particularly to women. The attitude of women in such cases was indeed one of the paradoxes of the place. Most of the women were of the kind vaguely called emancipated, and professed some protest against male supremacy. Yet these new women would always pay to a man the extravagant compliment which no ordinary woman ever pays to him, that of listening while he is talking. And Mr. Lucian Gregory, the red-haired poet, was really (in some sense) a man worth listening to, even if one laughed at the end of it. He put the old cant of the lawlessness of art and the art of lawlessness with a certain impudent freshness which gave at least a momentary pleasure. He was helped in some degree by the arresting oddity of his appearance, which he worked, as the phrase goes, for all it was worth. His dark red hair parted in the middle was literally like a woman's, and curved into the slow curls of a virgin in a pre-Raphaelite picture. From within this almost saintly oval, however, his face projected suddenly broad and brutal, the chin carried forward with a look of cockney contempt. This combination at once tickled and terrified the nerves of a neurotic population. He seemed like a walking blasphemy, a blend of the angel and the ape.

This particular evening, if it is remembered for nothing else, will be remembered in that place for its strange sunset. It looked like the end of the world. All the heaven seemed covered with a quite vivid and palpable plumage; you could only say that the sky was full of feathers, and of feathers that almost brushed the face. Across the great part of the dome they were grey, with the strangest tints of violet and mauve and an unnatural pink or pale green; but towards the west the whole grew past description, transparent and passionate, and the last red-hot plumes of it covered up the sun like something too good to be seen. The whole was so close about the earth as to express nothing but a violent secrecy. The very empyrean seemed to be a secret. It expressed that splendid smallness which is the soul of local patriotism. The very sky seemed small.

I say that there are some inhabitants who may remember the evening if only by that oppressive sky. There are others who may remember it because it marked the first appearance in the place of the second poet of Saffron Park. For a long time the red-haired revolutionary had reigned without a rival; it was upon the night of the sunset that his solitude suddenly ended. The new poet, who introduced himself by the name of Gabriel Syme, was a very mild-looking mortal, with a fair, pointed beard and faint, yellow hair. But an impression grew that he was less meek than he looked. He signalized his entrance by differing with the established poet, Gregory, upon the whole nature of poetry. He said that he (Syme) was a poet of law, a poet of order; nay, he said he was a poet of respectability. So all the Saffron Parkers looked at him as if he had that moment fallen out of that impossible sky.

In fact, Mr. Lucian Gregory, the anarchic poet, connected the two events.

“It may well be,” he said, in his sudden lyrical manner, “it may well be on such a night of clouds and cruel colours that there is brought forth upon the earth such a portent as a respectable poet. You say you are a poet of law; I say you are a contradiction in terms. I only wonder there were not comets and earthquakes on the night you appeared in this garden.”

The man with the meek blue eyes and the pale, pointed beard endured these thunders with a certain submissive solemnity. The third party of the group, Gregory's sister Rosamond, who had her brother's braids of red hair, but a kindlier face underneath them, laughed with such mixture of admiration and disapproval as she gave commonly to the family oracle.

Gregory resumed in high oratorical good-humour.

“An artist is identical with an anarchist,” he cried. “You might transpose the words anywhere. An anarchist is an artist. The man who throws a bomb is an artist, because he prefers a great moment to everything. He sees how much more valuable is one burst of blazing light, one peal of perfect thunder, than the mere common bodies of a few shapeless policemen. An artist disregards all governments, abolishes all conventions. The poet delights in disorder only. If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway.”

“So it is,” said Mr. Syme.

“Nonsense!” said Gregory, who was very rational when anyone else attempted paradox. “Why do all the clerks and navvies in the railway trains look so sad and tired, so very sad and tired? I will tell you. It is because they know that the train is going right. It is because they know that whatever place they have taken a ticket for, that place they will reach. It is because after they have passed Sloane Square they know that the next station must be Victoria, and nothing but Victoria. Oh, their wild rapture! oh, their eyes like stars and their souls again in Eden, if the next station were unaccountably Baker Street!”

“It is you who are unpoetical,” replied the poet Syme. “If what you say of clerks is true, they can only be as prosaic as your poetry. The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street, or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose, let me read a time-table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!”

“Must you go?” inquired Gregory sarcastically.

“I tell you,” went on Syme with passion, “that every time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that man has won a battle against chaos. You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hair-breadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word ‘Victoria,' it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed ‘Victoria'; it is the victory of Adam.”

Gregory wagged his heavy, red head with a slow and sad smile.

Item Specifications...

Pages   198
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 7.89" Width: 5.09" Height: 0.44"
Weight:   0.4 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Oct 9, 2001
Publisher   Modern Library
ISBN  0375757910  
EAN  9780375757914  

Availability  0 units.

About this Author/Artist
Jonathan Lethem is the author of five novels, including <b>Motherless Brooklyn</b>, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. He lives in Brooklyn and Toronto.

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Reviews - What do our customers think?
The perfect spy novel  Jun 6, 2008
Simply the best spy novel I ever read. Furthermore is a christian allegory of the contradictions of human nature viewed from a sinful perspective, which leads us to the marvelous mistery of the good and the evil, through the eyes of an undercover agent.
Yes, I Think It IS a Nightmare  Apr 28, 2008
I am a Chesterton fan and have read several of his books, mostly non-fiction. "The Man ...." is in my reading, definitely a nightmare and very well crafted as one. The progress of the story line has the kind of time compression and startling disconnections which are so true to a dreamm sequence. There is an exceptional, though not universally appealing, literary quality present in this book for Chesterton to be able to even pull it off, much less to hold the reader's attention through out.

Though Chesterton does deny any ultimate meaning to the story yet I doubt that he could write anything that does not have some satirical content. The sheer originality of the book, the day sequence, the gathered feast at the end with the presiding "week" at the head table could not have sprung "whole cloth" from nothing. It is the kind of story that leaves one with a sense of connection, that a bridge does exist between the themes of the story and the reality of our human circumstance.

Perhaps in making us ponder whether or not it is so, Chesterton accomplished his goal.

Four stars because it does require a disciplined reading at some points. The sheer volume of description is a bit tiresome at times though very well done. It should be required reading in a course on modern literature simply for the uniqueness of it and the craftsman level quality of the prose.
Hardly a Nightmare, but a Dream Reflecting Reality  Apr 3, 2008
This book is simply brilliant, an enjoyable and fascinating read. Chesterton possessed such a magnificent command of the English language, of irony and description and engrossing writing, that I would highly recommend the book simply to allow a reader to marvel at Chesterton's writings.

Yet the book is so much more than simply an enjoyable read. Under the guise of a fantastic and occasionally bizarre tale, Chesterton probes the depths of the human soul and the human condition.

Some have remarked that the book is almost Kafka-esque. Such is a quite accurate appraisal, but Chesterton transcends Kafka, for Chesterton writes an apologeia and theological and epistemological treatise in the guise of a bizarre and scrupulously well-written book. Kafka wrote nightmares because he had nightmares in his head. Chesterton wrote a nightmare because he realized that while the world around us may take on the guise of a nightmare, it is really only "the back of the man," and we can only really grasp the magnificence of reality if we can get around to see his face.

A brilliant book, highly recommended for repeated reading.
Chesterton's vivid imagination and an allegory to ruin your life...  Mar 7, 2008
First I'll say that this book certainly lived up to the reputation Chesterton holds as a literary genius. His subtle wit at times had me audibly laughing out loud. The descriptions he uses paint very vivid images in your mind and all the while he manages to hold an incredible level of suspense throughout the novel.

At times a chase scene will digress into an in-depth philosophical conversation among the main characters. And yet this never feels out of place or forced. I had previously only read Chesterton's non-fiction works (which I highly recommend, especially "Orthodoxy"), and wasn't sure entirely what to expect in a fictional work of his. I was not disappointed.

That is, I was not disappointed until the very end. There is a certain literary trick which I have not infrequently seen writers use to "resolve" a storyline that has gotten itself into a lot of complexity. This is particularly used when a narrative begins in the real world and ends taking some fantastical turn for the surreal. Sadly, Chesterton resorts to this trick, which I personally consider a cheap trick. Its like the author asks the reader to emotionally invest in everything that is happening in the book and then at the end, the author gives the climactic equivalent of "just kidding!" To resolve such complexity in a satisfying way and in a way consistent with the rest of the novel certainly takes more thought, more time, more pages. Probably this is why is not an uncommon trick, but, in my estimate, still a cheap one. This novel was great even with the cheap ending, but could've been colossally great had the time been invested to resolve it satisfactorily.

*** the following paragraph contains spoilers***

Only one more point to note: THIS IS NOT AN ALLEGORY. I am unsure if this edition of the book contains the same article extract that my penguin classics edition did, but in it, Chesterton explains that this book was not meant to be a theological allegory. If it were, we would all be living in a very miserable world. Chesterton states in the article: "...then the discovery that the mysterious master both of the anarchy and the order was the same sort of elemental elf who had appeared to be rather too like a pantomime ogre. This line of logic, or lunacy, led many to infer that this equivocal being was meant for a serious description of the Deity... [The book] was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was. It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date..."

When I first read the final chapter, I was truly very perplexed as to Chesterton's theological statement. After reading the article (which was placed after the story) it became much clearer. Wherever this article is placed in your edition, I suggest reading it first (or at least before reading the last 2 chapters). DO NOT SKIP IT! You will miss the whole point (most likely). Granted, there are themes that are meant to point to a greater spiritual truth, but it is in no way an "allegory" (as, for example, "the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" was meant to portray an almost one-to-one correlation between characters/events and Christian theology.)

Despite the ending, it is still deserving of all 5 stars. A highly enjoyable read.
The Man Who Was Thursday  Feb 28, 2008
Marvelous cover to cover. It's one of those novels I like to read with pen in hand, for underlining the dialog, so meaningful, important, and quotable. It's by G.K. Chesterton, which is all anyone needs to know to know it's more than worth reading. A good mystery, unpredictable, with some humor, like all Chesterton.

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