Thursday, May 24, 2007

Others on Chesterton - Costain

After the fashion of Eric's occasional quick hits, wherein he posts something someone famous has said about Chesterton or matters related to him, comes the following. Writing something more substantial is difficult for me, at the moment, as I have to spend a good portion of my time now thinking about office supplies to the exclusion of all else. Not that they aren't interesting (there are only disinterested people, remember), of course - and I say this sincerely - but they don't quite grab me the way other things do, or inspire me to write about literature or theory.

Anyway, what follows comes from Thomas B. Costain's Read With Me, a nice, meaty collection of his favourite short stories, as chosen and introduced by the man himself. Costain, who I've mentioned here before, was a man of tremendous literary talent and quite pleasing historical perceptiveness. The general facts, as I wrote earlier:
Born in Brantford, Ontario in 1885, Costain would eventually become one of Canada's most delightful novelists and historians, producing dozens of excellent books. He was the editor of the city of Guelph's newspaper at the age of 23, and the editor of Maclean's magazine at the age of 30. He only began his career as a literary writer, however, after moving to the United States to become the editor of the Saturday Evening Post. His first book, For My Great Folly, was published in 1942; he was 57. He died in 1965, and is, like our beloved Gilbert, largely forgotten today. In addition to his novels, which could conceivably be "ignored" on the grounds of merely being fiction, he also produced invaluable popular histories on all manner of subjects, such as William the Conqueror and a well-received series about the Plantagenets.
I've since discovered a volume of his about Attila the Hun, and it seems quite promising indeed. His treatment of the defiance of Pope Leo I will no doubt be exquisite, assuming the book covers that episode (it's not a biography of Attila, but is rather a story about other characters set in the context of Attila's court).

Now, the text that follows comes, as I've said, from his personal anthology of favourite short fiction, which includes Chesterton's Father Brown story, "The Queer Feet" (as well as material from P.G. Wodehouse, Rudyard Kipling, Stephen Leacock and Geoffrey Household, whose novel Rogue Male was such an inspiration to me in my youth). This, then, is his introduction to the story...
Clubs are trumps the world over. Men are curiously gregarious and have a great desire to join clubs where women are not admitted and the members meet others of kindred interests and experiences. There are so many clubs in existence that I thought once of writing a book about them. I got far enough into the subject to count all those listed in the New York directory and to find that there were more than five hundred. This set me wondering how many there might be where an extra degree of eccentricity led them to use an unlisted telephone number. I considered also the clubs of London where there are more than in New York and where they are, I suspect, of wider variety. I concluded, wisely, that there would be altogether too much work in getting the material for such a book and abandoned the idea.

Some of the strangest clubs, of course, are those we encounter in fiction. There are, for instance, the Suicide Club (Stevenson), the Master Crooks (Oppenheim), the Renegates (Buchan), the Liars (Dunsany), the Drones (Wodehouse), the Flying Aces (Brand), and the Footmen (Dickens).

My favourite among them all is the Twelve True Fishermen, of which G.K. Chesterton tells in this splendid story, "The Queer Feet."
I've always liked the idea behind these personal anthologies that occasionally appear, if often only for their convenience and the personal commentary that usually attends them. Most authors (or, at least, most of those I enjoy) are garrulous about their favourites and influences, so finding that sort of thing out is not very difficult. Chesterton never put together such an anthology, that I know of, but my other two favourites, Jorge Luis Borges and H.P. Lovecraft, certainly did. The latter's work in this regard is particularly appreciated, for, while it's difficult enough these days to find good editions of his own work (apart from the reliable Penguin editions, of course), it's even more difficult still to find good editions of those who contributed so heavily to his formation, like Lord Dunsany or Arthur Machen.

So, this, at least, is something. If you ever find some Costains in a used book store (they tend to crop up), try them out.

1 comment:

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