This is an investigation of eight novels incorporating the fantastic, with a view to drawing some conclusions about the place of speculation in fiction.

Terrorism isn’t something that was invented on 11 September 2001, nor even thirty years before that in Northern Ireland. A hundred years ago, terrorism obsessed the Western world much as it does today. The bogeymen in those days were not Islamic extremists but revolutionary anarchists. Dynamite was the weapon of choice.

Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907, but set in 1886) is of course the great novel on this theme. G K Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday (1908) is a more fantastical and satirical treatment of the same.

In a backchannel response to my last post, Paul A Green writes:

  • I was raised in a Catholic family where GKC was highly regarded - my late father remembered listening to him on the wireless in the 30s, and my godfather thought he ought to be canonised, the jolly patron saint of paradoxes and warm beer.

Sharing Paul’s Catholic upbringing but lacking a literary family, I was only vaguely aware of him, though I do remember an aunt (heavily into Agatha Christie) recommending the Father Brown stories. Those, and the poem “The Rolling English Road”, which I dimly recall having to learn at school, without any understanding of it, are all I ever knew. Yes, “jolly” is the word. Or “cosy”.

Those Father Brown mysteries tend to turn on the famous “paradoxes” – bon mots wittily resolving a pair of opposing terms in unexpected, or perhaps predictably unexpected ways. “An artist is identical with an anarchist,” opines Gregory the poet in the opening pages of TMWWT. “The man who throws a bomb is an artist, because he prefers a great moment to everything.” The pre-echo here of Stockhausen’s famous comment on 9/11, that it was the greatest work of art by Lucifer, is hard to miss.

Gregory has “dark red hair parted in the middle … literally like a woman’s, and curved into the slow curls of a virgin in a pre-Raphaelite picture”. Paul reminds me that, before he became a Catholic, Chesterton was an aesthete, even a would-be decadent, of the ilk of the writer who later became his godless counterpart and epigrammatic rival, Oscar Wilde. (It would not be hard to construct a paradox involving those two writers.)

Gregory meets Syme, “a poet of law, a poet of order … a poet of respectability”. They argue. Syme asserts that Gregory’s anarchism is mere posture. Gregory determines to show him this is not so. He takes him for supper in a London pub – where, having sworn him to secrecy, the table at which they are seated begins to revolve and descend into the bowels of the earth, revealing an underground chamber stocked with “the eggs of iron birds” – bombs!

Being a poet of law and order, and having given his word, Syme cannot denounce his new friend. But there is a further twist: Syme reveals himself as a detective pretending to be a poet (though even more secretly he’s also “a poet who had become a detective”). And now, suddenly, Gregory’s anarchist friends arrive. For fear of his life, Gregory cannot reveal Syme’s real identity, even when Syme unexpectedly moves to oppose Gregory’s election as “Thursday” and to propose himself instead. He persuades the anarchists to put him forward as their representative to the council of seven who run the anarchism business in London, each of whom bears the code name of a day of the week.

So far, so absurd, but there’s more to come. The anarchist council meets, not in secret, but for breakfast on a balcony in full view of Leicester Square. Paradoxically, it is their very ostentation that protects them. They are presided over by the huge presence of “Sunday”. They plan a major political assassination in Paris over their bacon and eggs. But Sunday, the President, reveals there’s a traitor in their midst. Syme again fears for his life, but it is Tuesday who is denounced.

And so over the next few chapters there is excitement and ever so slightly tedious mirth to be had, as one by one other members of the anarchist council are revealed to be detectives. Syme ends up in France trying to prevent the President from carrying out his dastardly deed with a band of dastardly Frenchmen. At this point, the novel turns into boys’ own fantasy, with a touch of militant Christianity: Syme carries a lantern against the anarchic hordes with a cross carved on it.

With his fellow detectives, Syme returns to London to confront the President in Leicester Square. “What are you?” he demands. Sunday retorts: “You will understand the sea, and I shall still be a riddle; you shall know what the stars are, and not know what I am.” At that, the “monstrous man” swings himself over the balcony and drops down into the square. There follows a mad pursuit; the President rides an elephant escaped from London Zoo, leaving enigmatic messages behind him. The detectives engage in a metaphysical discussion about what he represents. He means something different to each one, a sort of uncertainty principle; he eludes them all.

Chesterton’s conclusion is surprisingly equivocal; it is, in fact, the ultimate paradox. There is no victory of order over anarchy, of the police over criminality, or of God over Satan, but those opposing principles are revealed as interdependent. The President is the embodiment of both Order and Anarchy. That revelation is experienced as liberation. It’s more Buddhist than Catholic, more Blake than most people’s idea of Chestertonian cosiness.

What interests me about this – and it’s at the core of what interests me about fantastical literature, regardless of the particular iconography or philosophical underpinnings – is that it’s the unknown that’s at the centre of the novel. Chesterton acknowledges this, though for him it’s an awful truth that quickly dissipates. The subtitle is, after all, “A Nightmare”. The later Chesterton at any rate hopes to wake from it. But the unknown remains behind the gentle English Catholicism; it is the ultimate enigma that won’t ever quite go away.

Next episode – Michel Houellbecq: The Possibility of an Island