Sunday, 3 May 2015

Book of the Month: A Man of Parts (David Lodge)

Herbert George— H.G.— Wells, best known these days for his science fiction classics, was an astoundingly prolific British novelist, who published more than hundred books in a career spanning five decades. Wells began his writing career in the Victorian era. When his last book (a work of non-fiction, the relentlessly bleak A Mind at the End of its Tether) was published in 1945, a few months before his death, Victoria’s great grandson George VI was the monarch.
Wells made his early reputation with science fiction novels such as The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and The Invisible Man, all of which, more than hundred years after they were first published, are still widely read. In the Edwardian era Wells turned his attention to social themes and wrote novels such as The History of Mr Polly (one of his most successful novels) and Tono-Bungay (which he considered to be his best novel, although it failed to sell well). Another novel from this period is KIpps, remarkable for its Dickensian humour.

In 1899 Wells published When the Sleeper Awakes (re-written and republished in 1910 under the title Sleeper Awakes) which (I think) is the first English language novel that imagined a dystopian future.
Wells was once described as a man who ‘invented tomorrow’. An apposite description:  this was a man who, as early as 1914 (in a novel entitled A World Set Free), predicted that areal warfare would come to dominate wars, and imagined atomic bombs being dropped on great cities from aeroplanes killing thousands of civilians. He also imagined, in a novel in 1908, a World War which would pitch Britain against Germany (War in the Air).

The apogee of Well’s writing career is thought to have reached in 1920 with the publication of Outline of History. After this, although he continued to publish prolifically (between 1920 and 1944, Wells published 22 novels most of which have not stood the test of time), his influence waned, and he came to be regarded increasingly as an irascible old fogey, a relic of Edwardian Britain that was overshadowed by modernist novelists such as Virginia Woolf; however even in this phase Wells published a novel in 1933 (The Shape of Things to Come) in which he predicted another world war, which he said would start when Germany invaded Poland. He thought the war would begin in early 1940.
Wells was not just a novelist. He was an outspoken Socialist and a feminist. He was a member of the Fabian Society, many of whose members went on to form the Labour Party. (Wells resigned from the Fabian Society as it was not radical enough for his taste, and his attempts to modernize the society were thwarted by the old Fabians, George Bernard Shaw amongst them).

Wells, a tubby little man (at 5’ 5” he was shorter than average Englishman of his generation; in later life he blamed his impoverished childhood and poor nutrition for his lack of height) with a ‘squeaky voice’,  was also a highly sexed man, who slept with more than 100 women in his life. He had had affairs with female novelists (Violet Hunt, Dorothy Richardson, Elizabeth von Armin, and of course Rebecca West with whom he had a son, the novelist Anthony West), daughters of novelists (Rosamund Bland, the daughter of Edith Nesbit, who wrote Railway Children, the perennial children’s classic), and daughters of his friends and fellow-members of Fabian Society (Amber Reeves). He also had a long standing affair with Nick Clegg’s great-great aunt Moura who may or may not have been a Bolshevik spy.
It is little wonder that H.G. Wells has been the subject of several biographies over the years. (He himself left behind two volumes An Experiment in Autobiography, to which he added a postscript, leaving instructions that it be published only after all the women with whom he had had sexual liaisons were dead. The postscript was finally published in 1984, a year after Rebecca West died—Amber Reeves had died 3 years earlier—edited by Wells’s son George—‘Gyp’— Wells, under the title H.G. Wells in Love ).

What has been lacking so far was a novel on the life of one of the most remarkable novelists in the twentieth century.
That gap is filled by A Man of Parts a biographical novel by David Lodge, a formidable novelist of his generation.

The year is 1944. The Second World War is nearing its bloody end, although the sporadic German bombing of London continues. An ailing H.G. Wells is marooned his London flat in which he has stayed put through the war. Wells is dying—he has been diagnosed with liver cancer— and he knows it. He is looking back upon his long life which, it would be fair to say, was not short of excitement.

A Man of Parts focuses on that period of Well’s life which is generally considered to be Wells’s peak—between 1895 (when he published his first novel) and 1920 (when he published Outline of History).

The novel—mostly a third person narrative—gives a panoramic view of Well’s life and how the tubercular son in a lower middle class household, the third son of a cricketer (the novel informs that Well’s father, Joe Wells, while he was never selected to play for England holds the first class cricket record of clean bowling batsmen with four consecutive deliveries) and a housemaid (whose ambition for her son was he work in the drapery business) broke free of his impoverished background and became one of the most influential thinkers of his generation.

The reader learns of the novels Wells wrote during this period, the reckless affairs he conducted with women, some of them half his age (which almost cost his public standing and reputation), the intellectual rigour of his arguments with other members of Fabian society, and his feud with Henry James—whose approach to novel couldn’t have been more different from that of Wells—which the American novelist took to his grave.
Interspersed with the third person narrative is the inner voice of the old H.G. Wells—his conscience if you will—that poses him questions more aggressive than those of Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, which the aging Wells answers with patience, good will and equanimity.

The tone of the novel is biographical (Lodge warns the reader at the outset: ‘Nearly everything that happens in this novel is based on factual sources’). There are long passages in the novel where it reads more like a biography and less like a novel. Lodge quotes liberally from Well’s novels, his personal letters, and published reviews of his works.  Not a page goes by without some or the other ‘borrowed material’. At times it works, for example Wells’s battle with other members of Fabian society in his (ultimately doomed) effort to modernise it, as much of the information, one assumes, is in the public domain.  The novel thus inundates with historical and biographical information. The flip side of the coin is the inner life of H.G. Wells does not light up. The ambiguities, the contradictions, the nuances of emotional life of Wells are not dramatized, as Lodge rarely ventures beyond the archival material (to which he helps himself liberally). Almost all of Well’s famous sexual liaisons are described in a quasi-reportage format: the young admirers (Rosamund Bland, Amber Reeves, and young Rebecca West) or novelists (Dorothy Richardson, Elizabeth von Arnim) want to sleep with Wells (who, in real life was a proponent of free love so long as he practised it; he would have been mightily uncomfortable if his long-suffering wife had also begun practising it) and Wells goes on to have clandestine sexual liaisons with them, the arrangements of which are described at length. (Almost all of Well’s affairs in A Man of Parts are initiated by women who greatly admire him. Wells sleeps with them because he wants to initiate them—at their own requests—to the pleasures of sex (very helpful) or does not want to disappoint them (how gallant) or, as in the case of Amber Reeves— because he has fallen in love with them (why?)). It is a bit like attempting a watercolour with fabric roller. Catherine or ‘Jane’, Well’s second wife (with whom Wells had two sons and) to whom he remained married for more than 30 years, until her death from cancer in 1927, remains an enigmatic figure. Jane of A Man in Parts is (as no doubt the real life Jane was) totally forgiving of and untroubled by Well’s sexual shenanigans. The novel makes no attempt to elucidate Jane’s inner life, the atmosphere in the Wells household as the great man is absent from home for weeks, canoodling with his latest paramour. When Wells runs away to France with Amber Reeves, the only action (the dutiful) Jane takes is to forward all his correspondence to France. It is a curious failure of imagination from a writer of the calibre of David Lodge.

A Man of Parts is an exquisitely written 500-page long WikiPedia entry on the life of H.G. Wells.  It is an absorbing read (you expect nothing less from David Lodge).  For someone like me who has an interest in H.G. wells but lacks the patience (and intellectual rigour) to trawl through weighty biographies, it works.  (It also helps that David Lodge is my favourite author). Does it work as a novel? Just about.