I didn't think I had one, for a long time. I guess it takes a long time before you find the one or two writers whose books you can come back to again and again, whose style makes a book worth rereading even when you can still remember the last time you read it. There are a few who achieve that standard, at least some of the time, for me: Diane Duane is one. Terry Pratchett. Theodore Sturgeon. P. G. Wodehouse. Peter Beagle. Of all the writers whose work I have encountered, though, the one who most consistently does it for me, the one whose every book is such a pleasure for me to read that even when I've just finished it I'm tempted to pick it up and start again, is Gilbert Keith Chesterton.
About the only work of his that survives, in the sense of still being available, is his body of detective stories featuring Father Brown, the Jessica Fletcher of the Catholic priesthood. Wherever he goes there seems to be a murder, and in the course of the story he usually solves it, though that isn't what the story is about. Some other remnants from his vast body of work are, I believe, still published, though you won't find them on Waterstone's shelves (I don't even mention Smith's) and we're all boycotting Amazon.com these days. The Man Who Was Thursday is a story of anarchists and policemen, though that isn't what the story is about. The Napoleon Of Notting Hill is a dystopian fantasy set in the year 1984, though that isn't what the story is about. The Flying Inn tells of a secret invasion of England...but that isn't what the story is about.
Perceptive readers may detect a trend shaping up here, and some who know a little about Chesterton may think they know what it is. He was born in 1874 and died in 1936, and somewhere between the two he was received into the Catholic Church, and the certainty he found there lies behind all the detective-story plots and contrivances of the Father Brown stories, and occasionally overshadows them. It seems very clear that Father Brown is always right because he's a priest, because his reason, unlike that of almost everyone else in the stories, is based firmly on his faith, and that these harmless-seeming detective stories are actually the most insidious of Christian propaganda: and it's very easy to assume that the same applies to all his other books. I thought for a long time that Thursday was likewise a Christian book, and seriously intended to portray a Christian view of the world: which shows what level of attention I usually give to my reading.
Thursday and Notting Hill, though, were both written well before Chesterton's conversion, when he was still trying to work out what it was that he couldn't get on with in the two prevalent attitudes of his time, scientific materialism and pick-and-mix occultism. (Some things don't change, do they?) And yet the same certainty, the same life, the same joy still breathes through the stories, and through all his poems and essays as well. It's as though Chesterton-the-writer knew where Chesterton-the-man was going long before he got there. The hero in Thursday obviously believes in God, even though his author at that point didn't. Or didn't know he did.
I think that Chesterton was in touch with something from the moment he became aware of his world. I think his struggles and doubts were struggles to put a name to that something, and doubts that the name he was seeking could be the one that had been placidly in front of him the whole time. He describes himself in Orthodoxy as a man who set off in a small boat to seek new and undiscovered countries, and landed at Brighton under the impression that it was India. I think part of him knew where he was all the time. And (though he would disagree) I don't think what he was in touch with was exclusively Christian in its origin, though his arguments are compelling, and if anyone could have made a Christian of me it would have been he.
I think what he was in touch with was life, was himself as a living being. Auberon Quin in Notting Hill talks about "having a soul in one's daily life," and I think that was Chesterton's secret. In the phrase of another writer who almost makes it into my top few, he grokked life in fullness. He wasn't without faults (who is?), and some of the charges that have been made against him are those which our age finds particularly heinous and blameworthy, such as Being In Some Ways A Man Of His Time. It's interesting, though, to read his non-fiction (especially his Autobiography) and note the things he finds wrong with his society. They're all still here, ten or a hundred or a thousand times worse. By comparison, the things we find wrong with him (Not Being Entirely Opposed To War Under Any Circumstances) pale into insignificance.
And by comparison with his virtues, as a writer, as a visionary, and as a poet, they might as well not exist.
(If any of this interests you, search for "chesterton" on the Web. I was delighted to find that several of his books are out there as etexts (though it doesn't stop me wanting to have them as books) and there's more biographical stuff as well.)
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