Thursday is a strange, liminal day. The back of the week has been broken you might say but the weekend not begun. For some it is the last hard working day before the wind down to the weekend, for others just a long tick in another box marked: life’s daily grey. It is perhaps the most commonplace of all the days except Tuesday, sitting comfortably as it does between the weekend and the major landmark of the passing week which is Wednesday.
In G K Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday it is precisely the positioning of commonplace against commonplace that creates the absurd. The novel opens with a debate in Saffron Park. A policeman called Gabriel Syme seeking to infiltrate an anarchist gang disguises himself as a philosopher to engage with a poet, who is in fact an anarchist, and to infiltrate the anarchist cell. The beauty of poetry, proclaims the poet, is that you can take the tube to Baker Street and find yourself in Baghdad. No, cries the policeman disguised as a philosopher, “man is a magician and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria” as he builds a crescendo on the exactitude of mankind which culminates in the wonderful and seemingly absurd line, “no, take your poetry and your prose, show me a train timetable and I will weep with tears of joy.”
But Chesterton does not ironise Gabriel Syme, quite the opposite, Gabriel Syme is the hero of this novel “who walked by instinct down one white road”. An upright Englishman of the early twentieth century facing absurdity with a wry smile and a straight back. The great chase that ensues between Syme the policeman and Sunday the anarchist is not a police thriller, it is not a detective novel and it is not a comedy. It is the absurdity of modern art, of a man named Thursday, chased through his own subterranean non-world and back to reality. It is the revolt of the real against the unreal, the reader against the academic, against the poetic. It is not the words that are on the page that are absurd, says Chesterton, it is our desire to interpret them, to give things meanings that they do not attain, to read too deep, to be indulgently academic: “to Syme’s exaggerative mind the bright, bleak houses and terraces by the Thames looked as empty as the mountains of the moon.”
Though written against the backdrop of anarchism at the turn of the twentieth century this is a book about the liberation of reading, reclaiming reading for the reader, for everyone. What is the difference between a train timetable and a poem? Both have structure. Both have rules. Both create meaning and emotion when they deviate from that structure but one we say is poetry, the other bureaucracy.
In The Man Who Was Thursday Chesterton, always with a smile, rescues us from our liminality, caught as we are between academia and understanding, between order and anarchy: “who are these people who provide cold pheasant and Burgundy, and green clothes and Bibles? Do they provide everything?”, asks Syme. As readers we may wish to be transported away from life, into a beautiful and mesmerising non-world, merely that is to escape. But Chesterton leads us dextrously back and shows us that in order, in bravery, in a wry smile and a straight back we can find as much happiness as seeking out only absurdity will bring to us in a month full of Thursdays.