Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G. K. Chesterton

So ends of the Empire of Notting Hill. As it began in blood, so it ended in blood, and all things are always the same.

Chesterton begins The Napoleon of Notting Hill with some remarks on the art of prophecy. He states that there are always people who try to predict what will happen in the future. Their standard practice is to take some facet of the era that they live in and extrapolate it into the future. Chesterton writes, "There were Mr. H. G. Wells and others, who thought that science would take charge of the future; and just as the motor-car was quicker than the coach, so some lovely thing would be quicker than the motor-car, and so on forever." Chesterton does not put much stock in these 20th century soothsayers, saying that people seem dead set on proving the prophets wrong. No matter how much "progress" the world has experienced, people resist change, seemingly determined to repeat history's mistakes. In the last line of this opening section, Chesterton states, "When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now." So after Chesterton spends fifteen pages describing why these prophecies never come true, he turns around and writes his own little prophecy. Chesterton loves a good paradox.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill was published in 1904 and was Chesterton's first novel. While he set his story eighty years in the future, Chesterton's 1984 is not a society in which are held under the thumb of government, rather it is a society in which people simply don't care. As Chesterton puts it, "The people had absolutely lost faith in revolutions." Kings are indiscriminately selected from the populace. They are surrounded by others and wield very little power. However, when Auberon Quinn is selected as the next King of England he starts implementing bizarre rules and regulations that change the face of England. He drafts the Charter of the Cities, which not only respects, but also bolsters the autonomy of each city, returning England to a more romantic time. Auberon creates all sorts of pomp and circumstance to make his days more enjoyable. Indeed, the purpose behind nearly all of these decrees is merely to amuse the king.

Ten years of this "lark" go by and the various provost have grown accustomed to all the strange rituals and customs they have to observe in order to get things accomplished. However, they still find them -- and the king -- absolutely ridiculous. All the provosts, that is, except one: Adam Wayne. A young man who has grown up under this ridiculous rule and has completely bought into it. Chesterton describes him thusly: "Out of the long procession of the silent poets, who have been passing since the beginning of the world, this one man found himself in the midst of an heraldic vision, in which he could act and speak and live lyrically."

There is to be a new road run through Pump Street in Notting Hill. According to the provosts from the communities it was to run through, it would benefit everyone greatly. They are all in support of it, save one. Wayne, armed with the power that the Charter of the Cities gave him, takes a stand against the construction of this new road, stating, "That which is large enough for the rich to covet, is large enough for the poor to defend."

Wayne's rigid stance on the issue of the road leads to the rest of the provosts mustering troops and marching them into Notting Hill to force the rogue provost to comply. But in a hilarious turn of events, Wayne crushes their forces, which are much larger in number and turns them out of Notting Hill. Eventually, Wayne is at war with the rest of England. As the fighting continues, the plot gets more and more abstract -- just as the plot of The Man Who Was Thursday did -- it also gets all the more intriguing and funny.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill ends with a truly epic battle in which much of Notting Hill is destroyed. Although Wayne is right in the thick of the fighting, and his forces are defeated, he somehow manages to survive. The last few pages of the book find him and Auberon, who is still king, trading deep philosophical statement's in the dark. Initially, each man is not sure who he is talking to -- it is not made clear to the reader either -- and it is hinted that each of the men may think they are speaking directly with God. Upon realizing whom he is speaking with, Auberon admits that the Charter of the Cities was simply a lark, that Wayne had devoted his life to a big joke. The king states, "Suppose I am God, and having made things, laugh at them." Wayne responds, "But suppose, standing up straight under the sky, with every power of my being, I thank you for the fools' paradise you have made." The book ends with these two men walking off together into the night, one man laughing at the world that surrounds him, the other adoring it.

As with the other works of Chesterton that I have read, this relatively short book packs a mean philosophical/literary "one two" punch. There are many things that I took away from this book, but the two main points as I see them are: a single strong-willed person can have a profound -- and often unexpected -- effect on the world around him; and that while people are prone to repeat the same mistakes that they have made all throughout history they are simply trying to live in a world that they had no part in creating.


Nihil Novum said...

This sounds really good, and this is a really good review.

Jon Avery said...

Excellent review.