G K Chesterton: a Half Century of Views, Edited by D J Conlon (Oxford University Press, £15.00).
"IF A thing is worth doing" proclaimed Gilbert Keith Chesterton, "it is worth doing badly." 1986 was the year of the GKC; a poorly received biography, the reissuing of his auto-biography, a major international conference and a plethora of papers and programmes.
The reason? The large man and larger talent died 50 years ago and is hence out of copyright, and no publisher worth his dust jacket will forget that point. The problem is that most of what has appeared on Chesterton has been done badly, and is barely worth doing at all.
D J Conlon--isP-r-ofessor English Literature at the University of Antwerp, and after some ten years of struggles with publishers apd contributors he has produced a selection of over 50 essays on Chesterton
and his works, from some of the most likely and unlikely of people. At no point does Professor Conlon explain the selection included in this book, and at times his choice is somewhat baffling, and annoyingly conservative.
Richard Ingrams, who also provided the introduction to the re-issuing of Chesterton's memoirs, gives a discussion of "The Mystic Beneath the Sombrero", a full and intelligently researched account of the meat of Chesterton behind the thin, sometimes silly facade. The problem with anything from Mr Ingrams and his circle on Chesterton is that it reassures those who claim that Chesterton was nothing more than an early version of the hurtful, childish writers who circulate around Private Eye.
The book covers the early period, shortly after 'Chesterton's death in 1936, with an admirable thoroughness. Marshall McLuhan writes on "G K Chesterton: A Practical Mystic" to begin the volume, and there follows essays from Frank Swinnerton, Hilaire (Chesterton always referred to him as Hilary) Belloc, Ronald Knox and Graham Greene.
The Great C S Lewis is given an entry for a piece he wrote in 1946, and it is a good example of the unusual format of the book. Lewis, who wrote so much and so wisely on Chesterton, has one less than remarkable contribution. Benny Green, an authority on Wells and the Edwardians but not a Chestertonian expert, has two essays; Kingsley Amis three, Bernard Lewis two.
All of these are acceptable, but why so much from famous names when the likes of Ian Boyd — author of the definitive book on Chesterton and the Chesterton Society and much of the great GKC revival — is given space for only one meagre chapter?
P J Kavanagh, author of a splendid Chesterton anthology, writes on "Chesterton Reappraised", and does it very well indeed. Writing on Chesterton and the Jews, the one subject which rightly concerns all who find Chesterton unsavoury, he says "He early detected the threat of Hitler, and warned against him when hardly anyone else had noticed. He continued to do so when the Government began to parley with the Nazis.
"To say that some of Chesterton's best friends were Jews will only raise a sad smile, but it was true; however, financiers, and above all nonChristian financiers, clearly worried him to distraction." Fair enough, but no serious work on Chesterton's life can now exist when it does not discuss with proper respect the
Jews. This book does not do that.
The archaic solution has been to ignore the problems and hope that it will mysteriously disappear. Hardly the case. The evil spirit has to be exorcised, and a great deal of recent research has done that. No mention here of the base remarks made by Chesterton; equally, no mention of his revelations about Nazi concentration camps when many on the left still wanted to give Hitler a chance, and of the empathetic and warm statements made during the latter years of his life. A screaming vacuum.
It is also annoying that Professor Conlon hasn't given potted biographies of the contributors, many of them need it. And it clearly shows that few, if any, of the pieces were written specifically for this book. I cannot think why Roy Hattersley has been given the honour of concluding the book with a facile section on more serious reviewer with more knowledge of Chesterton could have been found to leave the reader with a flavour of the future of Chesterton.
A perennial difficulty with Chesterton is that people of every political and philosophical ilk will produce him as a supporter. Chesterton the warmonger, Chesterton the pacifist; GKC the Tory, GKC the radical liberal. The dilemma doesn't receive adequate treatment here, though the symptons are often apparent. The editorial touch is missihg.
David Lodge, Christopher Hollis and John Wain give some of the highlights of the volume. Anthony Burgess says little that is new or of note. Chesterton once said that he would like to die by going over a bridge in the last horse-drawn cab in London. Perhaps being crushed by the weight of anthologies would have been a more suitable end. Possibly a labour of love from Professor Conlon, certainly a
Michael Coren is preparing a biography of G K Chesterton, to be published shortly by Jonathan Cape.