Book Review: Autobiography by G.K. Chesterton

Autobiography – G.K. Chesterton (Hamish Hamilton, 1986)

I’ve previously read Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday (review here), Orthodoxy, and some of his Father Brown mysteries and generally enjoyed Chesterton’s writing. So I thought it might be interesting to read his autobiography, first published in 1936.

Autobiography is, perhaps, a misleading title. What this book really is is a series of essays, loosely formulated around the timeline of Chesterton’s life. While he starts with his childhood and a few details about his life, that’s really not what the book is about. Chesterton does acknowledge this, telling the reader that he’s not one to keep track of dates and that if this is what you’re looking for, this isn’t the book for you. (Granted, this discussion takes place approximately two-thirds of the way through the book so the reader has likely already figured this out.) The book is not very personal – I’m not sure Chesterton even tells us his wife’s name. The closest he gets to personal revelation is when he talks about his brother who was killed in World War One.

What Chesterton tells us a lot about is British parliament and politics in the early 20th century. He mentions a few names I’d heard of before and a lot I hadn’t. While his insights into certain situations may have been fascinating to a contemporary reader – or a modern day reader with a yen for pre-war politics – I’m afraid much of it was lost on this 21st century Canadian. Those chapters dragged on and I came close to giving up on the book. I pushed through, waiting for the literary tales of Chesterton’s fellow authors. These had a cast of characters I was more familiar with.

Chesterton shares some entertaining tales of his close friend Hilaire Beloc, among others, and shares his background in newspapers and essay writing. These stories belie the stereotype of the stodgy Englishman and Chesterton’s writing is best when telling these hilarious tales.

I had hoped for more about his religious conversion and although there are glimmers throughout the book, Chesterton never tells the story in a straightforward manner. Perhaps he felt like he had written about it enough elsewhere. In the end, unless you’re a hardcore fan of Chesterton or immersed in British politics, I think you can give his Autobiography a pass. I do recommend Orthodoxy for readers wanting an introduction to Chesterton and his philosophies, particularly when it comes to Christianity.

What I Read – September 2015

Here’s what I read this month. Reviews are up or coming.

1. Beijing Confidential – Jan Wong (Doubleday Canada, 2007)

My review is here.

2. The Curse of the Viking Grave – Farley Mowat (McClelland & Stewart, 1966)

Read my review here.

3. What’s So Amazing About Grace? – Philip Yancey (Zondervan Publishing House, 1997)

4. The Navigator of New York – Wayne Johnston (Vintage Canada, 2002)

5. Death Benefits – Sarah N. Harvey (Orca Book Publishers, 2010)

6. My Secret Sister – Helen Edwards & Jenny Lee Smith (Pan Books, 2013)

7. Roverandom – J.R.R. Tolkien (HarperCollinsPublishers, 2002)

8. The Lotus Eaters – Tatjana Soli (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2011)

9. The Sorrow of War – Bao Ninh (Riverhead Books, 1993)

10. Going After CacciatoTim O’Brien (Broadway Books, 1999)

11. Crazy Love – Francis Chan (Gale Cengage Learning, 2007)

Currently Reading:

The Tenderness of WolvesStef Penney

Love Wins – Rob Bell

Didn’t Finish:

The Everlasting Man – G.K. Chesterton

I told myself I would keep reading it until the end of September and then let it go. I’m pretty close to the end but I’m leaving it be. As close as I am, I’m still not entirely sure what the books about and I don’t agree with much of it. I’d recommend reading Orthodoxy instead.

Book Review – The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

Primarily, when I think of G. K. Chesterton, I think of Orthodoxy. Then I remember that he also wrote the Father Brown mystery stories. After reading The Man Who Was Thursday I find myself in the unusual position of agreeing with Chesterton in the non-fiction world far more than I do in the fictive. This is unusual for me because I can love the writings of authors like Ernest Hemingway and Ezra Pound while not agreeing with their real lives in the least.

I loved Orthodoxy. So I suppose I expected The Man Who Was Thursday to be a fiction that expressed similar sentiments. It is not.

It’s an old-fashioned story, from the style of writing to the action that occurs to the morality represented by various characters (particularly when it comes to the matter of keeping one’s “word”). This shouldn’t come as a surprise, of course, given its publication date of 1908.

Chesterton is a strong writer and, like all of his work I’ve read so far, The Man Who Was Thursday, contains some brilliant lines. Take this description, for example, of when a character discovers that he is not as alone as he thought he was:

“But two is not twice one; two is two thousand times one. That is why, in spite of a hundred disadvantages, the world will always return to monogamy.”

This is a surreal novel. It’s set in London (and a little bit in France) and yet at the same time not set in our world at all. It becomes increasingly strange as the plot moves along. Many of the developments seem obvious, which surprised me coming from a decent mystery writer like Chesterton. I honestly couldn’t say whether or not that was intentional on his part.

Ultimately though, it was the ending that left a bad taste in my mouth. The primary action of the novel revolves around the mysterious authority of a man known as Sunday, the president of the Council of Anarchists. Sunday is described in vastly differing ways by the men who follow and chase him, each of whom holds him in a kind of horror. He is almost the exact definition of a “larger than life” character.

The conclusion doesn’t provide all the answers (nor would I ask it to because, in fact, the book is perhaps better as a philosophical exploration than an actual novel) but the answers it does give as to Sunday’s identity were repugnant to me. And surprising coming from the author of Orthodoxy. I found it less surprising that Chesterton said, of The Man Who Was Thursday,

“The book was called The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare*. It was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was, even when my thoughts were considerably less settled than they are now. It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion.”

(*My copy of the book did not have this subtitle.)

I enjoyed the steady rate of revelation in the novel and the description action, as well as the individual characters, the members of the Anarchists’ Council. From early on I wanted to know the conclusion that might solve the presnted mystery and I found the book easy to read for that reason.

I’m not sure of the wisdom of writing a book with a moral conclusion on the world (and on theology too) that the author himself doesn’t seem to quite agree with but if that it was what Chesterton aimed to do, then he made a decent job of it.