An almost-forgotten classic of early 20th century fiction, The Man Who Was Thursday captures the frenzy and fears of fin de siècle Europe. It is also a funny, thought-provoking read. To enjoy it, though, you will need to suspend all your judgments of what makes for a good detective novel, a good literary novel, a good comedic novel, or a good historical novel--this novel plays with all these categories and more as it gallops along to its completely unexpected climax.
After listening to this recording I felt that it's also a book that really SHOULD be heard, instead of read silently. Chesterton's delightful use of alliterative language is a joy to listen to, and the voices of the novel's many characters (and they are all, believe me, 'characters') are superbly rendered in this recording by Simon Vance.
I couldn't quite shake the idea, as I listened, that Salman Rushdie worked with an open copy of The Tin Drum by his side. But where Tin Drum felt to me like rich and moving reading experience, Midnight's Children felt clownish and empty. Reading it was like listening to the author shout LOOK AT ME LOOK AT ME for hundreds of pages...and then it was over. I can fully admit the writing itself is masterful, but I found myself wondering with almost every sentence: How can great writing be so empty of purpose and meaning? And also: How can such a skilled writer make the topic of Indian independence, and the resulting partition of India, such a dull bludgeon of a reading experience?
Let me say more about this nagging Tin Drum echo that I heard throughout Midnight's Children--and why Midnight's children could mimic, but totally fail to capture the mastery of Tin Drum. Each book has countless minor characters who appear, play their part, and go away again. But in Tin Drum the characters are deeply felt, no matter how unrealistically portrayed, and in Midnight's Children the characters feel like windup toys. I think of Sigismund Markus in Tin Drum, a very minor character, the Jewish shopkeeper who commits suicide during Kristalnacht, versus Ilse Luben, who drowns herself in a lake before she makes any impression on the reader whatsoever, or Tai, a boatman who takes up many pages of narrative and who suffers an equally meaningless death. The death of Sigismund still moves me when I think about it, and the deaths of Ilse and Tai left nothing more than a great, boring, ho-hum, glad-they-are-gone-so-we-can-get-on-with-the-story feeling. Worse is the death of Vanita in childbirth--again my only feeling was that I had none.
Then I tried to frame the book as post-modern so of course it would use distancing effects as a way to call attention to its own fictions...but again the book compares so poorly with other postmodern novels, like those of Nabokov or Barthelme, which manage to use the same distancing effects to somehow bring a reader closer to all the beauty and tragedy of the human condition. This book in contrast just distances the reader.
So I'm left with a great wonderment that this is the book that wins the Booker of Bookers. The other book that Midnight's Children compares poorly to is A Passage to India by E.M. Forster--each book has a Dr. Aziz who is central to the story, with Rushdie's Aziz comparing very poorly to Forster's in any sort of valuation I can imagine for fiction.
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