I had thought that, after three volumes of short stories about that intrepid priest/detective, Father Brown, G K Chesterton would tire of his creation...moreI had thought that, after three volumes of short stories about that intrepid priest/detective, Father Brown, G K Chesterton would tire of his creation, with a resulting diminution in the quality of the stories. But, no, The Secret of Father Brown is as fresh as ever; and its author has instituted some interesting changes.
First of all, the stories are framed within a story in which an American writer comes to ask Father Brown about his "secret." The priest's answer startles him: "You see, it was I who killed all those people.... So, of course, I knew how it was done." He did not mean that he had literally committed the murders: Rather, he had looked deeply enough into the heart of man to understand how and why the crime was committed.
You see, Father Brown's interest in crime is actually an interest in sin, in the psyche and soul of the person who committed the crime. This is perhaps shown to best advantage in "The Vanishing of Vaudrey," though at least three of the other stories also develop this theme.
My favorite stories in the volume were "The Worst Crime in the World" and "The Chief Mourner of Marne," in which Brown manages to penetrate particularly resistant knots to arrive at paradoxical truths.
Although I call Father Brown a detective, he really wasn't one. In fact, he has no interest in apprehending the guilty party and seeing him or her standing in the dock to receive sentencing. Once he has determined who and why and what, he leaves the rest to the police. There is only one policeman in this volume, James Bagshaw in "The Mirror of the Magistrate," and he is no more than a secondary character who doesn't have a clue. (less)
As much as I love the works of G K Chesterton, I am forced to admit that A Short History Of England is not one of his best works. Chesterton just does...moreAs much as I love the works of G K Chesterton, I am forced to admit that A Short History Of England is not one of his best works. Chesterton just does not do well on more lengthy, sustained polemics. It is only when he can break his work down into individual essays, such as in Orthodoxy and Heretics that he shines.
Perhaps this work is best titled Some Thoughts on British Social History and Religion. He skips from Richard II to the 18th century Whigs, then zig-zags back to the Middle Ages until one's head begins to spin. I would have enjoyed this book much more if it were presented as a book of loosely connected essays.(less)
We all live in a world that threatens to make us depressed and anxious. So, too, did Chesterton. Anarchy and international socialism were at their apogee; and Germany and Britain were slowly sliding into a world war. Then, too, GKC was grossly overweight and uncertain about his own personal future. But he had a powerful weapon: He faced down the darkness and denied it the power to harm him: All the things that threatened were mere phantasms that we ourselves created to keep us down.
What better analogy was there than the great scourge of anarchism, which resulted in numerous assassinations of heads of state in the 1890s and early 1900s. A poet named Gabriel Syme is appointed to a sinister Central Anarchist Council, consisting of seven men, each of whom is named after a day of the week. In charge is Sunday. Syme gets himself elected as Thursday, and the fun begins ...
In a way, GKC gives it all away at the beginning, in a poem dedicated to his friend, the mystery writer E. C. Bentley:
This is a tale of those old fears, even of those emptied hells, And none but you shall understand the true thing that it tells -- Of what colossal gods of shame could cow men and yet crash, Of what huge devils hid the stars, yet fell at a pistol flash. The doubts that were so plain to chase, so dreadful to withstand -- Oh, who shall understand but you; yea, who shall understand?
What I remember most, however, is this quote from Syme when confronted by an anarchist named Lucian Gregory:
"All the same," replied Syme patiently, "just at present you only see the tree by the light of the lamp. I wonder when you would ever see the lamp by the light of the tree."
And that is what Chesterton is all about: By repositioning ourselves, we see the lamp by the light of the tree. (less)
It is never fun to find fault with one's favorite writers. G K Chesterton, however, is such a prolific author that one can, without too much difficult...moreIt is never fun to find fault with one's favorite writers. G K Chesterton, however, is such a prolific author that one can, without too much difficulty, find some pretty dicey volumes in the lot. The Appetite of Tyranny: Including Letters to an Old Garibaldian is one of several books that its author wrote around the beginning of World War I that represent a low point in his opus.
Granted that England was in a particularly bloody war with Germany at the time, but a book consisting of nothing but platitudes about national characteristics partakes of a particularly low form of political discourse. Sentences like the following abound: "But a German's rudeness is rooted in his never being embarrassed. He eats and makes love noisily. He never feels a speech or a song or a sermon to be what the English call 'out of place' in particular circumstances." No one is spared the broad brush strokes: GKC uses the N-word against Blacks, and "Heathen Chinee" against, you guessed it, the heathen Chinese. Germans he mostly refers to as Prussians, and treats them all as if there were no variation between individuals.
The one thing a person can count on, however, is that there is a wide spectrum of behavior even in a place such as Chesterton's "Prussia." Even the French realized that in Jean Renoir's great WWI film epic, The Grand Illusion, with his German characters, especially the camp commandant played by Erich von Stroheim.
Fortunately, Chesterton got better than such observations as:
Rome, at her very weakest, has always been a river that wanders and widens and that waters many fields. Berlin, at its strongest, will never be anything but a whirlpool, which seeks its own center, and is sucked down.
While The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father Brown contain more spritely stories, The Incredulity of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton i...moreWhile The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father Brown contain more spritely stories, The Incredulity of Father Brown by G.K. Chesterton is still worthy of a closer look. If one goes to the Father Brown stories expecting to find more traditional whodunits, perhaps in the style of Arthur Conan Doyle or Richard Austin Freeman, he or she will be perplexed and disappointed. To begin with, Father Brown has no particular interest in seeing the guilty party being led to judgment. There are, in fact, no trials in these stories; and one is equally likely to see Father Brown passing heavier judgment on the victims than on the murderers.
In The Incredulity of Father Brown, all the stories involve murders. We find the usual Chesterton "moral landscape" -- in which the author paints a picture of nature somehow mirroring the fact that something is very wrong. A good example is this descriptive paragraph from "The Dagger with Wings":
The rolling country round the little town was sealed and bound with frost, and the sky was as clear and cold as steel except in the north-east, where clouds with lurid haloes were beginning to climb up the sky. It was against these darker and more sinister colours that the house on the hill gleamed with a row of pale pillars, forming a short colonnade of the classical sort. A winding road led up to it across the curve of the down, and plunged into a mass of dark bushes. Just before it reached the bushes, the air seemed to grow colder and colder, as if he were approaching an icehouse or the North Pole.
By the time he solves the mystery, which he does, as is usual with him, with his lightning intuition, the priest wends his way back down the hill -- but the ominous quality is all gone, because the moral Gordian knot has been cut by the Father Brown's intellect:
When the priest went forth again and set his face homeward, the cold had grown more intense and yet was somehow intoxicating. The trees stood up like silver candelabra of some incredibly cold Candlemas of purification.
Perhaps the best and most typical story in the collection is "The Doom of the Darnaways," in which a painting with a grim prediction has cast a pall of gloom over succeeding generations of an old English family:
In the seventh heir I shall return, In the seventh hour I shall depart, None in that hour shall hold my hand, And woe to her that holds my heart.
The action is set in a half-ruined estate bordering the sea (with one of the best examples of Chesterton's moral landscapes). Fortunately, the little priest is there to unravel the skeins of gloom that are draped on this grim household.
As he wrote in 1930 in the Illustrated London News, "[t]he essence of a mystery tale is that we are suddenly confronted with a truth which we have never suspected and yet can see to be true." And that is what the Father Brown stories are all about. (less)
I would wager that some of you who are reading this do not know who G K Chesterton was, and I am virtually certain that even fewer have ever heard of...moreI would wager that some of you who are reading this do not know who G K Chesterton was, and I am virtually certain that even fewer have ever heard of the Victorian painter George Frederick Watts. Just for the record, he is the artist who painted Hope, as shown at the following website: http://www.culture24.org.uk/asset_are...
G F Watts was one of Chesterton's earliest works, being published in 1904, and it is one of his most obscure. Yet for all that it is genial and approachable like all his best work. Writing about Hope, he says:
He [the painter] would see something for which there is neither speech nor language, which has been too vast for any eye to see and too secret for any religion to utter, even as an esoteric doctrine. Standing before that picture, he finds himself in the presence of a great truth. He perceives that there is something in man which is always apparently on the verge of disappearing, but never disappears, an assurance which is always apparently saying farewell and yet illimitably lingers, a string which is forever stretched to snapping yet never snaps. He perceives that the queerest and most delicate thing in us, the most fragile, the most fantastic, is in truth the backbone and indestructible.
Chesterton's writing reminds us that he studied at the Slade School of Art, that he was a noted illustrator in his own right. (See, especially, The Coloured Lands.)
Comparing Watts to Gladstone, Chesterton notes that "they knew that not only life, but every detail of life, is most a pleasure when it is studied with the gloomiest intensity." This is no mere idle paradox: the painter's Hope is, from one point of view, gloomy; from another, it is incredibly optimistic. But then, Chesterton is like that. I regard him as a great teacher -- one who always leads me by strangely diverse paths to realization and contentment.(less)
This volume contains two collections of stories -- The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father brown -- and the story "The Donnington Affai...moreThis volume contains two collections of stories -- The Innocence of Father Brown and The Wisdom of Father brown -- and the story "The Donnington Affair." I had read The Innocence of Father Brown separately and reviewed it here. This review is of The Wisdom of Father Brown and "The Donnington Affair."
What is so brilliant about Chesterton's Father Brown stories is that, on one hand, its detective is totally nondescript, even dumpy, and, on the other, that no one is better able to think outside the box. In some of the stories, there is no crime at all, or suspects are not at all what or who they seem to be, or the crime is so odd as to almost beggar description. And yet, through logic or even through incredible accident, Father Brown is able to zero in on the facts of the case long before anyone else, including the reader. Along the way he delivers himself of gnomic comments like, "What we all dread most ... is a maze with no center. That is why atheism is only a nightmare."
Another time, in the story entitled "The Purple Wig," he says:
"I know the Unknown God," said the little priest, with an unconscious grandeur of certitude that stood up like a granite tower. "I know his name; it is Satan. The true God was made flesh and dwelt among us. And I say to you, wherever you find men ruled merely by mystery, it is the mystery of iniquity. If the devil tells you something is too fearful to look at, look at it. If he says something is too terrible to hear, hear it. If you think some truth unbearable, bear it...."
Chesterton carries his love of paradox into these wonderful little tales. And he also carries his gift for what I call moral landscapes, in which even his descriptions of houses and trees reflect the innate wrongness of whatever has happened or is threatened to happen. It reminds me of s scene in Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie (1964) in which a distraught Tippi Hedren visits her mother in a scene where the end of the street is a painted backdrop of docked freighter with children singing a depressing song while skipping rope. When she has confronted her demons, Hitchcock replaces the backdrop with a real shot of freighters on a sunny day with birds chirping in the background.
"The Donnington Affair" is not quite up to the level of the other stories in this volume, mostly because it was written in two parts, the first by Mex Pemberton in which he poses a mystery, and the second by G. K. Chesterton in which he sets Father Brown to solve it. Unfortunately, there is too much of a difference between the two minds for the two halves of the story to come together. Chesterton did a lot of this sort of jeu during his career, but none of the results are memorable.
For over thirty years, G. K. Chesterton has been one of my favorite authors, but this month has made me question my evaluation to some extent. First I...moreFor over thirty years, G. K. Chesterton has been one of my favorite authors, but this month has made me question my evaluation to some extent. First I read Lord Kitchener, which had the virtue of being short and crisp; but The Utopia of Usurers and Other Essays displayed the author as a fish out of water. He begins by describing a nebulous plot by rich capitalists to sap the rights of the common man. He tries to follow a closely reasoned approach -- which is exactly what this author should not do. Chesterton is a man of wit, wit that is coruscating and penetrating. But as a paragon of logic, he is seriously lacking.
Part of the problem, I believe, is that GKC was at this time (the early stages of World War I) trying to arrive at his later passion for distributism. Unfortunately, the War kept interfering, much like the head of King Charles I kept finding its way into Mr. Dick's head in David Copperfield. Curiously, I find he is better when discussing religion, perhaps because he could not write about religion without passion. But where politics and economics are concerned, the earnestness is there; but the wit is off to Brighton on holiday.
This is the first Chesterton book I have read that lacked any memorable quotes. Fortunately, I think that G.K. realized he had produced a clinker, because he was to return soon to much better efforts. There does, however, seem to be a five year period beginning with 1916 that saw Chesterton being too serious for his special talents.(less)
A hundred years after his death in the early days of World War I -- his transport ship to Russia was sunk by a German mine -- Lord Herbert Horatio Kit...moreA hundred years after his death in the early days of World War I -- his transport ship to Russia was sunk by a German mine -- Lord Herbert Horatio Kitchener is seen as a representative of the fusty Colonel Blimp British officer. Writing shortly after Kitchener's death, G. K. Chesterton attempted to evaluate the military leader's career more as a succession of triumphs, from the defeat of the Mahdi at Omdurman to the defusing of a potential war with France at Fashoda to victories in South Africa's Boer War, to diplomatic and military leadership in India.
But it was the war in Europe that saw Kitchener at his best. He was able to raise and train a large army from England's civilian-minded population, and he was able to come to terms with British trade unionists at a time when most general officers were more intent on opposing them.
This short biography in the form of a long eulogy makes for interesting reading, though it is not GKC at his best. One section I liked was the author's view of Islam, which struck me as still being applicable in our world:
There is in Islam a paradox which is perhaps a permanent menace. The great creed born in the desert creates a kind of ecstasy out of the very emptiness of its own land, and even, one may say, out of the emptiness of its own theology. It affirms, with no little sublimity, something that is not merely the singleness but rather the solitude of God. There is the same extreme simplification in the solitary figure of the Prophet; and yet this isolation perpetually reacts into its own opposite. A void is made in the heart of Islam which has to be filled up again and again by a mere repetition of the revolution that founded it. There are no sacraments; the only thing that can happen is a sort of apocalypse, as unique as the end of the world; so the apocalypse can only be repeated and the world end again and again. There are no priests; and yet this equality can only breed a multitude of lawless prophets almost as numerous as priests. The very dogma that there is only one Mahomet produces an endless procession of Mahomets.
Because the first G.K. Chesterton story I had ever read -- many years ago -- was "The Blue Cross," the story that opens The Innocence of Father Brown,...moreBecause the first G.K. Chesterton story I had ever read -- many years ago -- was "The Blue Cross," the story that opens The Innocence of Father Brown, I have been consciously avoiding the Father brown stories and reading just about everything else by GKC that I could lay my hands on. Was it that I didn't like the story? Not at all! It was just that I was saving it for another occasion. Well, that occasion arose this week.
There is a strange disconnect between the characters in the Father Brown mysteries and the landscape that they move around in. The stories center around a group of singularly flawed individuals, and the strange oddly repellent landscape they inhabit reflects on their moral turpitude or odd beliefs or other factors limiting their personality.
The detective Catholic priest seems to draw energy from this singular disjunction and succeed every time in exposing what flaw had led to the crime being investigated. The technique is simple and flawless; and the stories are all among Chesterton's best.(less)
This is the third time I have read Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, and I hope it will not be the last. Written near the beginning of his career, it is b...moreThis is the third time I have read Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton, and I hope it will not be the last. Written near the beginning of his career, it is by far his best book on the subject of religion. Although he was to return a number of times to the same well, the water was fresher in 1908, some fourteen years before he made his decision to convert to Catholicism. Afterwards, there was an institutional tinge to his writing that vitiated many of his later efforts.
As a lapsed Catholic, I was surprised to have forgotten that he was still an Anglican when Orthodoxy was published: As I followed his arguments, I thought they were equally relevant to Catholic belief:
Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them. He has always cared more for truth than for consistency.
There are few writers as quotable as Chesterton. He deserves to be read slowly, one chapter at a time. It is so easy to lose his train of thought in the succession of paradoxes that is so characteristic of his writing.
And now the Catholic Church has begun the process toward canonizing Chesterton as a saint. Are we ever going to be ready for Saint Gilbert? I already am, as I have always regarded his work as keeping me within hailing distance of my own past of Catholicism (along with Thomas Merton, Francois Mauriac, and a few others).
All the towering materialism which dominates the modern mind rests ultimately upon one assumption; a false assumption. It is supposed that if a thing goes on repeating itself it is probably dead; a piece of clockwork. People feel that if the universe was personal it would vary; if the sun were alive it would dance. This is a fallacy even in relation to known fact.
It was the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges who pointed the way to Chesterton. Originally, I read his fiction, then his essays; and now I am reading his religious works.
When I first started reading Chesterton, I was dismayed to find that so few of his works were in print. Now, most of his work is available; and more is becoming available every year. The Ignatius Press in San Francisco has slowly been putting out a set of The Collected Works, of which I currently have all the volumes. It is a mammoth task, because Chesterton was a wildly prolific writer and journalist who appeared in dozens of publications throughout the English-speaking world. (less)