Someday, I shall write a grand apologia, spanning decades and daydreams, on Gilbert Keith Chesterton, and why he is, rather more than less, the greatest author of the twentieth century, if not of all time. Meanwhile, I shall expound momentarily and frivolously on my love for the author. Some girls fall for the fictional Gilbert of Anne of Green Gables; I have fallen for the nearly-as-distant yet fascinatingly larger-than-life G. K. C. His brilliance, his brains, his bombasity (bombastickness?), his Britishness — more specifically, and more significantly, his Englishness — caught my attention, gripped it, and never let it go. I have yet to read his biography (I understand Ian Ker’s is rather good? Anyone read it?), but his personality spills out and over every one of his works, overwhelming the reader with the thoughts and words and ideas and impressions that well up from his soul. Do I exaggerate? Possibly. Yes, most likely. But exaggeration is the essence of enthusiasm, is it not?
I began my Chesterton devotion with Father Brown. That bumbling, plebeian, English-as-umbrellas R. C. priest could talk about paint drying and hold his listeners spellbound; it is Chesterton, of course, who writes the words, but the good Father speaks them entirely on his own. I have always enjoyed a good murder/mystery; from the time I could read, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew paved the way for Lord Peter Wimsey and Miss Marple, who, in their turn, introduced me to Mrs. Polifax and Sherlock Holmes and … oh, all the rest. A good mystery satisfies the soul in a way that no romance could ever attempt to do: the fundamental moral outrage of the taking of a life is conclusively eradicated when a hero exacts contrapassic (contrapasso-esque?) justice from the villain, on behalf of the victim. It is the rush of adrenalin and the resounding “Yes!” that comes with aceing exams and winning rugby tournaments and finally perfecting that meringue recipe.
But I digress. Back to Chesterton.
Father Brown was probably seventh or eighth grade for me. A year or two later, I sat down with “The Everlasting Man” and a pencil. This was the first time I ever dared take ink to a book: books were sacred. Books were precious. One did not deface the golden words of genius with the shoddy penmanship (and insipid thought) of a teenager. This time, however, my mother suggested I mark it up, as a help or exercise for the paper I was supposed to write. Timidly, I took up the pencil, and I drew a fine line under the first sentence of the introduction.
Ultimately, I marked up the entire book.
From there, the “relationship” took off like a spaceship. His choice of words, his humour, his inconceivably brilliant — I mean, truly astounding paradoxes, his gleeful voice, his joie de vivre … it all added up to one enormous truth: he loved life. He loved his God, he loved his country, he loved his life. And a man with that sort of love cannot be all bad. When he speaks of God, I want to fall to my knees on a marble floor and pray for sheer joy. When he speaks of England, I want to walk Hadrian’s Wall in the pouring rain and eat nothing but mushrooms and cheese along the way. When he speaks of life, I want to grab the next person I find and dance the Virginia Reel until my feet fall off and the music becomes laughter and the stars laugh in the sky.
Words are mighty things. Chesterton knew this, and he knew how to wield that strength.
The last Chesterton work I read was “Manalive,” the best not-meant-to-be-romantic (or is it?) romance I have ever read. If you are not one for non-fiction (“Everlasting Man”), or priests-as-sleuths (Father Brown mysteries), I would cordially recommend an introduction to Chesterton via “Manalive.” You must be prepared to laugh, though, and curl your toes, and appreciate the frivolity of words, as well as their weightiness, and the meaningless things of life, as much as the meaningful. It’s Chesterton, after all.