First of all, my apologies for the lack of a post on Friday. Suffice it to say that the day was busy. Second, well…
Yes, yes, I know this is called “The Children’s Bookroom” and here I have a post titled “G. K. Chesterton,” and Chesterton wasn’t known for his children’s literature, as it were, and what the hell am I doing?
Writing about G. K. Chesterton because this is my blog and I want to, that’s what I’m doing.
The thing is, I get obsessed sometimes. Sometimes obsession is awful. I can fixate for ages on why I’m lazy and no-good and then I spiral into depression and it’s no fun. That is not good obsession. But sometimes, oh sometimes… sometimes I read something. Something like a reference to Chesterton in a book called Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. And then I fixate. “These are two good authors,” I think, “and they both seem to really like this Chesterton.” “But,” I argue, “isn’t there a risk here? What if he writes something sort of depressing and I’m not in the best frame of mind and…” “CHESTERTON,” I reply. “I cannot be an educated person without reading Chesterton. I must read Chesterton.” “But… I’m scared,” I admit to myself. “Says here that he wrote funny things,” I soothe myself. “And anyway, I’m at the library and have picked up everything they’ve got by him and put holds on everything else, so, frankly, you’d better get on board.” “So be it,” I respond, and then the introductory phase of obsessive musings is over, and the full-on obsession begins.
So it goes. I get obsessive, as I said. And that’s why I just spent the past two days nicking time in between playing with the Changeling and doing, you know, my actual work to read The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond, which Wikipedia tells me was Chesterton’s final collection of detective stories. Well. If they want to call them detective stories then I suppose no one need stop them. I’m no Chesterton expert (yet… this bout of obsession has just begun), but I get the impression that Chesterton would prefer to have them called “anything but detective stories.” He consciously teases detective stories, and he never, ever brings up a straight “detective story” in this collection. In fact, Mr. Pond (who is given no first name) is not even a detective. He is a “minor government official.” Hm.
Yes, there’s the undoubted impression that Mr. Pond’s powers of deductive reasoning are respected by people in key positions, including his superior, Sir Hubert Wotton, but he’s no Sherlock Holmes. Remember that Sherlock Holmes is marked by a few characteristics: a) People approach him to solve their problems; b) He’s conscious of his own powers as a problem-solver; c) He almost always solves the problem. (I say “problem” because it’s not always a matter of deducing who the criminal was, although that’s usually the case somewhere along the line.) In this case: a) Mr. Pond is not always being approached to solve a problem– in fact, the problem usually reaches him in a more roundabout way; b) It’s not altogether clear how aware Mr. Pond is of his own powers of deduction, since he’s a more humble and discreet sort of gentlemanly character; c) He doesn’t always solve the problem, definitely not in a timely fashion. In fact, sometimes he resolves or explains the issue after it’s already over and done with.
So, what are we left with? A collection of stories about a Mr. Pond, in which said Mr. Pond features heavily as the “problem-solver,” but in which he’s not always a key to solving the problem. That’s a huge muddle if we’re expecting detective stories. Fortunately, we’re not. The title tells us what we’re expecting: Paradoxes.
And that’s what we get. We get stories about paradoxes.
“That’s sort of odd,” you remark. “How can you get stories about paradoxes?” The same way, I would tell you, that you can get stories about golf. I don’t know whether this is, perhaps, unfair to both of them, but then it can’t be more unfair than calling these stories detective stories, so– all right. I’ve been dancing around this comparison long enough. Wodehouse. P. G. Wodehouse’s stories about the Oldest Member at the golf club. He always features in his own stories, he’s considered slightly boring by his interlocutors, but is intensely amusing to the reader, and he always revolves around his point before coming to it. A much better comparison, if I may say so, for our Mr. Pond than anyone out of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie.
I can see you, now, grinding your teeth. “Just tell us about the damned paradoxes and stories, already!” Patience, grasshopper. I was in one room while the book was in another. I had to get it without disturbing the new, exceedingly shy, cat in the house. But here we are, consider the following paradoxes: “I did know two men who came to agree so completely that one of them naturally murdered the other…”; “The whole thing went wrong because the discipline was too good.”; “The government had to consider the deporting of a desirable alien and it found that the difficulties were really quite insurmountable.”
And, yes, of course there’s an explanation to each of those statements. And I’m not going to tell you what the explanation is. You need to let Mr. Pond tell you. But I’ll explain this much to you: The stories are both reasonable and fantastic– reasonableness taken to the verge of absurdity, if you like– in that peculiarly English way which, yes, brings Wodehouse to mind. And which also explains Gaiman and Pratchett’s penchant for Chesterton. A clue like a bent poker solves the crime in the most “detective” story of the collection– and yes, Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle would love it. But would they include a clown on his way to entertain at a children’s Christmas party? What about a character like Peter Gahagan, who tells a story of seeing six sea serpents, each larger than the last? And then involve the company in an analysis of why such a lie proves Gahagan’s ultimate truthfulness?
Absurdity and seriousness topple over each other in a paradox of its own kind in this collection, and it’s no wonder that, enmeshed in this type of paradox, I got obsessed. Now, excuse me, I have a date with The Man Who Was Thursday. Nothing need stand between me and Chesterton right now.