Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Book 4 of 15: Manalive by G. K. Chesterton

The first time I picked up this book, I was working in a library. I flipped it open and found this conversation:

". . . But the cold fact remains: imprudent marriages do lead to long unhappiness and disappointment - you've got used to your drinks and things - I shan't be pretty much longer-"

"Imprudent marriages!" roared Michael. "And pray where in earth or heaven are there any prudent marriages? Might as well talk about prudent suicides ... Unhappy! of course you'll be unhappy. Who the devil are you that you shouldn't be unhappy, like the mother that bore you? Disappointed! of course we'll be disappointed. I, for one, don't expect till I die to be so good a man as I am at this minute - a tower with all the trumpets shouting."

"You see all this," said Rosamund, with a grand sincerety in her solid face, "and do you really want to marry me?"

"My darling, what else is there to do?" reasoned the Irishman. "What other occupation is there for an active man on this earth, except to marry you?"

I was drawn in, and convinced my soon-to-be-husband to read the rest of the book aloud to me for a birthday present. That was, oh, eight or nine years ago? We finally got our own copy last year, and it's been sitting on my TBR shelf ever since - but no more!

I gobbled this up yesterday. Reading Chesterton is always a wild ride, and you're never sure which way is up when you're done. This novel's hero, Innocent Smith, might come the closest to being an incarnation of Chesterton's general philosophy of life of any of his characters - maybe even more than Fr. Brown.

The book starts in a London boarding house the day a wind kicks up, and with that wind comes a man named Innocent Brown, who first energizes everyone, then appears to do something criminally insane. The criminality is investigated, and it turns out that rather than being mad, Innocent Brown is in fact the sanest man that ever lived.  He breaks into his own house because he wishes to learn how to covet his own goods. He threatens suicide-fancying men with death so that they can see that they really prefer life. He pretends to meet his own wife for the first time over and over so that he can see her as he knows she ought to be seen. And, as one character says, he did it all "in order to feel the same interest in his own affairs that he always felt in other people's."

I like this passage, where Smith is arguing with a Russian man about Ibsen:

""The Doll's House"?" he cried vehemently; "why, that is just where Ibsen was so wrong! Why, the whole aim of a house is to be a doll's house. Don't you remember, when you were a child, how those little windows WERE windows, while all the big windows weren't. A child has a doll's house, and shrieks when a front door opens inwards. A banker has a real house, yet how numerous are the bankers who fail to emit the faintest shriek when their real front doors open inwards

". . . I have found out how to make a big thing small. I have found out how to turn a house into a doll's house. Get a long way off it: God lets us turn all things into toys by his great gift of distance."

This book is a romp, and the great giant Innocent Brown jumps and jolts and thunders all through it like a baby elephant. The best part is reading the dialogue that occurs around him, as onlookers try to figure him out. Michael, the man from the first dialogue I quoted, finally comes to the conclusion that Innocent "has distinguished between custom and creed. He has broken the conventions, but he has kept the commandments." He says that it is this complete goodness that makes Innocent so happy.

Michael's friend, Gould, then disagrees with him, saying gravely, "I do not believe that being perfectly good in all respects would make a man merry," to which Michael replies, quietly, "Well, will you tell me one thing? Which of us has ever tried it?"

Loved this book, and love it still.

peace of Christ to you,

Jessica Snell

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