So runs a telegram from Innocent Smith to Arthur Inglewood, which is recounted near the beginning of G. K. Chesterton’s novel Manalive. When Innocent Smith himself arrives shortly afterwards, life at Beacon House is turned upside down.
Manalive counts as one of the most delightful and insightful novels I’ve read. I find Chesterton’s non-fiction to have flashes of brilliance, but overall to be lacking in lucidity. If reading his non-fiction is like digging for treasure, where one is rewarded to be sure, but only after the effort of digging, reading Manalive is more like being sent to a jewellery store by a rich friend who tells you he’ll buy everything you might want. The labour is minimum, but the jewels are just as real.
I’m not going to give you a detailed plot summary. I’d rather let you experience the unexpected by reading it yourself. But I’ll share a little of the story and of my own thoughts without giving the game away entirely.
If you’ve read some of my previous posts you’ll know that words fascinate me, but that I am also conscious of how poorly I often use them. Not surprisingly, Chesterton doesn’t seem to have the same problem. Just listen to the way he begins his book:
A wind sprang high in the west, like a wave of unreasonable happiness, and tore eastward across England, trailing with it the frosty scent of forests and the cold intoxication of the sea. In a million holes and corners it refreshed a man like a flagon, and astonished him like a blow. In the inmost chambers of intricate and embowered houses it woke like a domestic explosion, littering the floor with some professor’s papers till they seemed as precious as a fugitive, or blowing out the candle by which a boy read “Treasure Island” and wrapping him in roaring dark. But everywhere it bore drama into undramatic lives, and carried the trump of crisis across the world.
Add to his beautiful word paintings the humour that he liberally splashes through the book (humour that produces a statement like this from Michael Moon: “I will not be so uncivil as to suggest that Dr. Pym has no common sense; I confine myself to recoding the chronological accident that he has not shown us any so far”) and you can see what a delight it would be to read Manalive.
As for the “insightful” part, reading this novel is like reading a conglomeration of many of the ideas that pop up in Chesterton’s non-fiction–ideas such as sanity, the optimist and the pessimist, ritual, and revolution. They’re not ideas awkwardly tacked on to a story, however. They are part of the story.
Out of all the ideas that Chesterton splashes around, the central one that he baptises Manalive with is something like the idea of having a zest for and a joy in life. “He refuses to die while he is still alive,” Michael explains of Innocent Smith. Instead, Smith does his best to feel life to the full and to encourage others to do the same. The methods by which he does so are, I confess, highly unusual. Don’t let the word “encourage” fool you into thinking of a benign gentleman who gently reminds you of all the things you ought to appreciate. When Smith says, “I am going to hold a pistol to the head of the Modern Man”, he means it quite literally. It is strong medicine, but such is Modern Man’s state, so joyless, so un-wondering, so unthankful, that he needs strong medicine. One of the contrasts presented in Manalive is this: you can accept the gift of life in this world joyfully, like a little child, and live it with zest, or you can be so consumed with your own self-importance that you don’t really notice the fun and beauty, and even if you did, you wouldn’t care. You have nothing to laugh at (especially not yourself) and nothing to give thanks for.
I don’t like everything about it, but the only serious issue I have with it is that on two occasions, a character in the story takes God’s name in vain. I realise that this happens in the real world, and I don’t believe that books are obligated to present a tamed-down version of reality (it all depends, it all depends!) but I strongly feel that this is one area in which a book (especially a book written by a professing Christian) ought not to mimic the real world. The story would have been no less effective without it.
And it is an effective story. It’s enchantingly good. It is anything but dull, which considering Innocent Smith’s attitude towards life in general, is most appropriate.