Sunday, March 10, 2013

`Rooted By a Blast of Magic'

In an email on Friday, Bryan Appleyard referred to “The Strange Case of John Boulnois,” one of the Father Brown stories by G.K. Chesterton. Bryan appropriates the name of the American journalist in the story, Calhoun Kidd, for use in his soon-to-be-published novel, Bedford Park. A mutual friend has already lauded Bryan’s book for its “Chestertonian brio” – high praise – so I decided to read the story before beginning the novel. I have little interest in detective fiction and have read only a few of the Father Brown stories. This one is notable for Chesterton’s linguistic exuberance – “brio,” I suppose. In the first paragraph he says of Kidd’s American newspaper:

“The Sun was full of the most solemn matter treated in a most farcical way. William James figured there as well as `Weary Willie,’ and pragmatists alternated with pugilists in the long procession of its portraits.” 

Chesterton is at his best in such asides. He uses the `Weary Willie’ reference more amusingly in a poem, “Apology”: 

“How should you guess, of these grey jests,
If mocked or mocker be more silly—
With Maeterlinck a Missing Link
And Willie Yeats a Weary Willie…” 

Midway through the story, as Kidd is searching for a man he was scheduled to interview, comes an extraordinary passage, one that lifts us out of the story and into a miraculous world – our miraculous world – then places that world squarely in a book. One appreciates why Borges so loved Chesterton: 

“More pines, more pathway slid past him, and then he stood rooted by a blast of magic. It is vain to say that he felt as if he had got into a dream; but this time he felt quite certain that he had got into a book. For we human beings are used to inappropriate things; we are accustomed to the clatter of the incongruous; it is a tune to which we can go to sleep. If one appropriate thing happens, it wakes us up like the pang of a perfect chord. Something happened such as would have happened in such a place in a forgotten tale.” 

Without showing off, without academic pretension, Chesterton tells us more about self-reflexive narratives than any paragon of postmodernism. He illustrates with holy charm the intersection of books and life. The same day I happened to be reading Through the Window (2012), a collection of mostly literary essays by Julian Barnes (previously, I had read only Flaubert’s Parrot – the only book for which Steven Millhauser has ever written a blurb). In “Preface: A Life with Books,” Barnes writes: 

“Life and reading are not separate activities. The distinction is false…When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it. There may be a superficial escape—into different countries, mores, speech patterns—but what you are essentially doing is furthering your understanding of life’s subtleties, paradoxes [that Chestertonian word], joys, pains and truths. Reading and life are not separate but symbiotic.”

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