G K Chesterton: The Absurd Made Sacred

G. K. Chesterton. The Napoleon of Notting Hill. 1904. Tragicomic fantasy.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G. K. ChestertonIn 1904, G. K. Chesterton published the most underrated novel of the twentieth century—one that would inspire Neil Gaiman and Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins alike.

Concise but richly written, this magnificent novel abounds with holy fools, starting with Auberon Quinn, who never takes anything seriously. So when made king of a Victorian England set in 1984 (that’s right, Chesterton inspired George Orwell too), Auberon, as a joke, issues heraldic arms and colors to each London neighborhood. Only a short-sighted draper’s assistant, Adam Wayne, the High Provost of Notting Hill, takes this return to medieval-style urban patriotism seriously, and with awe-inspiring, fanatical charisma he rallies Notting Hillers to defend Pump Street against hostile takeover by Bayswater- and Kensington-based business interests.

Street battles with swords, horses, and halberds fill much of the novel, and the absurdity of the premise makes for delightful satirical overtones, but Chesterton is truly serious about societal regeneration through faith—not a staid Christian faith but a zealous faith in something other than ourselves—in the power of the spirit to overcome mere odds and remake the world. The Notting Hillers demonstrate this faith and this power, to the wonder and ultimate joy of cynics like Auberon, who comes to recognize Adam’s romantic and heroic mode of being as sane and natural, whereas “he himself, with his rationality and his detachment and his black frock-coat, he was the exception and the accident—a blot of black upon a world of crimson and gold.”

Both comic satire and epic tragedy, this novel possesses in abundance the gravely comic and surreally grand Chestertonian eloquence so suitable for conveying that writer’s wisdom.

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4 thoughts on “G K Chesterton: The Absurd Made Sacred

  1. Shelver, your reviews continue to inspire me in my reading. I am in my retirement years and books are the center of my life. As a cradle Catholic I was raised to appreciate Chesterton, but alas I have found the going to be tough with him. I don’t know why I feel a disconnect with him. Too often I feel like I am walking through thick mud while reading Chesterton. Sparked by this review I will give him another chance. I wonder why I have this disconnect.

    • Chesterton’s writing is rich ground for cultivating ideas, as your mud metaphor perhaps implies. But “Notting Hill” is probably Chesterton’s most comic and comprehensible piece, a great way to ease back into the man’s oeuvre. My best friend is a Terry Pratchett fan, and she adores “Notting Hill.” Perhaps your disconnect arises from a thirst for just a tad more clarity of style and vision. I would be interested to learn the names of your favorite authors.

  2. I was led to Chesterton–or led back to him, because I had read some of the Father Brown stories in my yoot–by a quote from Notting Hill used by Neil Gaiman: “there is good wine poured in the inn at the end of the world.” So the connection with Terry Pratchett is not far-fetched, and in trying to recall the quote I found that Gaiman acknowledged Chesterton as a great influence on him (and gave him a role in the Sandman stories too, though it took me a while to realize it wasn’t Theodore Roosevelt).

    It would be difficult to explain, rationally, what charms me so about Chesterton. There is his obvious delight in language and paradox, of course, his endlessly fertile imagination, the deep and wide generosity that underlies his orthodoxy. Beyond that I am left saying with Whitman, “who touches this book touches a man.” There are a very few writers with whom I feel less that I am reading a book than that I am sharing an hour with a friend. Emerson is one such; late in life I have discovered that Chesterton is another.

    • I once observed of Steinbeck that he takes in the whole breadth of human experience with clarity and good cheer, that he was the ultimate humanist. With Thoreau and Steinbeck, I feel a warmth of companionship whenever I settle down to read their writings. Your comment inspires me add Chesterton to this fraternity of “humanist” writers–and, as you observed, friends.

      Also, your information on Gaiman’s creation of the Chestertonian character “Gilbert” (the name’s forefather is patent in hindsight) intrigues me, as the friend I mentioned above is also exceptionally fond of Neil Gaiman’s work. Connections, connections…

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