Since Easter and April Fools’ Day coincide this year, it’s worth honoring one author whose work embraces both holidays: G.K. Chesterton. A versatile writer of immense gusto, he was rumbustiously Christian (and eventually a Catholic convert), but also a joy to read on any subject. Again and again, in his journalism, essays, poetry and fiction, he returned to a single overarching theme: the wonder of simply being alive. In particular, his exuberant 1912 novel “Manalive” drives home the classic April Fools’ Day lesson that appearances can be deceiving.
Throughout his work Chesterton plays with paradox — “If a thing is worth doing,” he once wrote, “it is worth doing badly”— and he loves to trick or surprise his reader. The police say that a murder could have been committed only by someone who was invisible. Father Brown, Chesterton’s priest-detective, points out that we never really see the waiter at our table or the postman delivering the mail. In “The Man Who Was Thursday,” a poet turned undercover agent infiltrates a secret anarchist cell whose members are each named for a day of the week. Subtitled “A Nightmare,” this 1908 classic subverts the reader’s expectations at every turn. With justifiable enthusiasm, Kingsley Amis called it “the most thrilling book I have ever read.”
Like that earlier novel, “Manalive” similarly touches on the allegorical but emphasizes, besides misdirection and surprise, its author’s mastery of social comedy. It opens with a rush: “A wind sprang high in the west, like a wave of unreasonable happiness.” Into the garden of a dowdy rooming house this enchanted wind blows the mysterious Innocent Smith, whose youthful energy and impish charisma are well nigh irresistible. Because of him, “all next day at Beacon House there was a crazy sense that it was everybody’s birthday.”
Half provocateur, half preacher, Smith inspires people to look, to really look at the world. “Open your eyes,” he sings out, “and you’ll wake to the New Jerusalem.” In particular, he argues that routine leaches the magic out of existence. As an Irish lodger named Michael Moon recognizes, “all habits are bad habits.” He becomes Smith’s great defender and champion.
And Smith needs one. For one thing, he doesn’t seem quite sane. He impulsively proposes to a redheaded woman he has only just met — and that woman, the lady’s companion Mary Gray, inexplicably accepts. Later, Smith erupts into sudden violence, actually shooting two holes into a top hat being worn by a distinguished doctor. Worse still, Smith’s past looks quite sinister, his police record including attempted murder, burglary, desertion and, not least, polygamy. As Cyrus Pym, an American physician turned private detective, warns: “From almost every house where this great imaginative devil has been, he has taken some poor girl away with him; some say he’s got a hypnotic eye with his other queer features, and that they go like automata. What’s become of all those poor girls nobody knows. Murdered, I dare say.”
Rather than allow Smith to be hauled off to Scotland Yard or an asylum, Moon persuades the residents of Beacon House to try him for his crimes in its living room. Cyrus Pym and Moses Gould — the latter an ostensibly comic but regrettable Jewish caricature, who speaks Cockney English — argue the case for the prosecution; Moon heads the defense. This impromptu court first judges the accusation of attempted murder. At Cambridge, Smith compelled a distinguished professor of philosophy, an avowed disciple of Schopenhauer, to cling to a gargoyle outside the man’s college window and then, in front of witnesses, took potshots at him. And yet the don refused to prosecute Smith and, indeed, the pair were later glimpsed drinking beer together at the Spotted Dog. How is this possible?
The second charge against Smith is burglary. Following a violent political meeting, Smith rescued two curates and proceeded to lead one of them across the rooftops of London, eventually sliding down a chimney into a gentleman’s house. The curate followed him, seemingly mesmerized. Smith then persuaded the dazzled clergyman to discuss theology while they shared a bottle of the homeowner’s wine: “I don’t deny,” sermonizes Smith, “that there should be priests to remind men that they will one day die. I only say that at certain strange epochs it is necessary to have another kind of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet.” Breaking and entering, the curate enigmatically concludes, isn’t always a crime.
The third charge is desertion. A gardener once employed by Smith testifies that he heard him shout to Mrs. Smith: “I won’t stay here any longer. I’ve got another wife and much better children a long way from here. My other wife’s got redder hair than yours, and my other garden’s got a much finer situation, and I’m going off to them.” At which point, Smith picked up a garden rake and disappeared down the road. A series of letters — from people in France, Russia, China and America — then indicate that he traveled around the world, only to return to his own home and family in England. Why?
Last, there’s the matter of polygamy. Evidence exists that the married Smith has apparently fascinated, then run off with a dressmaker named Polly Green, a typist whose last name is Black and a schoolteacher named Miss Brown. All of them, oddly enough, had red hair and none was ever heard of again.
I should say no more about “Manalive,” except to stress that Innocent Smith “seeks to remind himself, by every electric shock to the intellect, that he is . . . a man alive, walking on two legs about the world.” That world, as Chesterton reminds us, is full of wonders if only we can trick ourselves into seeing them.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday for The Washington Post.
By G.K. Chesterton