Author: G. K. Chesterton was a devoutly Catholic journalist, poet and novelist of the early 20th century. His most apt nickname is “The Prince of Paradox.”
Genre: Novel, detective fiction.
Manalive (1912), like Chesterton’s other early novels, revolves around an antihero. Innocent Smith appears to all the supporting characters to be a lunatic, but some show sympathy for his bombastic and unconventional ways. Early in the book, he becomes embroiled in controversy over his ethically confusing behavior. (Note the obvious irony of his name.) A large part of the book is framed by courtroom dialogue, in which the defense and prosecution produce numerous testimonies and anecdotes about Smith’s strange behavior in relation to his friends, family, and home.
Because a number of crimes are integral to the plot of the book, Manalive could be construed loosely as a detective novel.
Manalive is one of Chesterton’s better novels, and expresses his philosophy of life in a way not expressed elsewhere. Like The Man Who Was Thursday, it is episodic and has a strong unified theme, often expressed with poetic description and clever dialogue. The theme of the novel relates to finding contentment where you are; but it is much more appropriate to offer a sample of the author’s words:
“Going right round the world is the shortest way to where you are already.”
Contentment is thus framed as a paradox: we long to be where we are. This also leads to some wonderful insight into marriage in this novel, much of the plot revolving around Innocent Smith’s (un?)faithfulness to his wife. Ultimately, we can see in Smith much of the author’s jovial love of paradox, his concept of love, as well as his sense of local patriotism—a main theme in The Napoleon of Notting Hill.
I found the courtroom setting to be an uninteresting distraction. Once I understood the purpose of the novel, I realized that the testimonies were all tied together by a common thread; until then, I thought the book was dull and slow. Perhaps the frame was not tightly bound enough, because I kept getting confused about who was speaking, since the courtroom testimonies were given as very long letters or monologues.
“God bade me love one spot and serve it, and do all things however wild in praise of it, so that this one spot might be a witness against all the infinities and the sophistries, that Paradise is somewhere and not anywhere, is something and not anything.”