Sunday, May 06, 2012

What they thought, felt and said

David Lodge’s A Man of Parts is a novel about the life of HG Wells, particularly his sex life. It’s a fascinating, lively read, vividly capturing Wells and the literary and social worlds he moved in. I’ve found it hard to put down, despite a continuing frustration with the book’s two authors – Wells himself and the way Lodge tells the story.

Generally, it’s excellent, such as when detailing Wells’ argument with the Fabians – here a bunch of well-meaning middle-class liberals who want to bring about socialism in Britain, but not so soon as to affect their own cosy standard of living. Wells is much more impatient to bring about social revolution and welfare, what with the practical experience of his youth.
“It wasn’t real poverty. We never starved, but we had a poor diet, which stunted my growth, and made me susceptible to illness. We never went barefoot – but we wore ill-fitting boots and shoes. It was a kind of genteel poverty. I was never allowed to bring my friends home to play because they would see that we couldn't afford a servant, not even the humblest skivvy, and word would get around the neighbourhood. My parents scrimped and saved so they could send me to the cheapest kind of private school, and avoid the shame of a board school, where I might have had better-trained teachers.”
David Lodge, A Man of Parts, p. 45. 
It’s a revealing portrait of a lower middle-class existence, all too aware of and aspiring towards a better social standing. But the real skill is in how this description echoes later. Without making a direct link to this earlier passage, Lodge describes Wells – as an established author – wooing the socialist Fabian Society with his essay, The Misery of Boots (1908). There, he uses a working man's ill-fitting boots – the pain and discomfort caused, the effect on the man's posture – to show how poverty defines a person's outlook and ambition, going on to deplore the preventable misery of social injustice and call for the end of private property.

Later still, the dying Wells concludes that the Labour party of 1945 is a creation of these same Fabians, still – despite their campaign for a welfare state – in no rush to deprive themselves of comfort. Even if that was what Wells thought at the time, it sits oddly given that the Labour government brought in such radical social change and nationalisation in the post-war years. They did the things Wells complains they will not do.

I suspect that Wells' remarks are aimed less at his own time as the (New) Labour party of today. Lodge is keen to underline Wells' continuing relevance to us, and the book ends with a rather clumsy metaphor about this common man prophet. On learning of Wells' death, Rebecca West remarks (through Lodge) that Wells was not a meteor who burned brightly once but a comet in a long orbit, whose time will come again. 

There's plenty of evidence that Wells was ahead of his time. He lived to see the reality of things he predicted decades before – aerial bombardment of cities and the atomic bomb. But the book credits him with more than he can really have claim to, such as in this clunky bit of wordplay:
“I imagined an international Encyclopaedia Organisation that would store and continuously update every item of verifiable human knowledge on microfilm and make it universally available – a world wide web of information.”
Ibid., p. 485. 
That’s not really a web so much as a centrally controlled giant library. And that word “verifiable” doesn’t exactly describe much of the internet as we know it. I’m wary, anyway, of a writer's worth being judged by how much he guessed correctly. Wells also dreamt up a time-travelling bicycle and invaders from Mars, and those novels are no poorer because they did not happen in reality.

For a writer of books ‘of ideas’, Wells’ story is full of human drama which Lodge has mined for psychological detail. We really get under Wells' skin. One highlight is when Wells – himself causing a stir for promoting and living ‘free love’ – discovers that the pious, conservative Hubert Bland (husband of children's author E Nesbit) who opposes him is a serial womaniser whose household includes two children born out of wedlock to his maid. We, too, have come to love the Nesbits and their home, and we, too, feel the vicious betrayal of this hypocrisy.

Yet having followed Wells’ life in detail up to the 1920s, we then rather skip on to the end. The death of his loyal wife Jane is little more than an aside, which is an extraordinary and glaring omission. It's remarked on merely when Wells fears going through his late wife's things and finding evidence that she have had a lover of her own. That's especially strange given how much she's supported him – in his work and his affairs. There's little on what he thought or felt in her final days, or how her illness affected him or made him rethink what he'd done.

Perhaps that would detract from Lodge's sympathetic portrait of Wells, or perhaps Lodge loses interest in Wells once he's peaked as a writer. It seems odd to brush over a decade of the man's life then attempt to sum the whole of him up.

Lodge's Wells is defined by his frustrations – sexual, political and artistic. There's a telling admission in the closing pages:
“I was outwardly successful – ‘the most famous writer in the world’ – but inwardly dissatisfied. The praise I got was not the kind I wanted or from people I wanted to get it from. It made me arrogant and irritable – I was aware of that, but I couldn’t control myself at times.” 
Ibid., p. 499. 
But I think the most telling statement is Lodge's own, before the novel begins:
“Nearly everything that happens in this narrative is based on factual sources – 'based on' in the elastic sense that includes 'inferable from' and 'consistent with'. All the characters are portrayals of real people, and the relationships between them were as described in these pages. Quotations from their books and other publications, speeches, and (with very few exceptions) letters, are their own words. But I have used a novelist's licence in representing what they thought, felt and said to each other, and I have imagined many circumstantial details which history omitted to record.”
David Lodge, preface to A Man of Parts.
There's something deceptive about these words. It's as if what these people thought, felt and said is just a slight embroidery on the solid, historical facts. But invented motives don't just frame what happened, they shape our whole perception of the man and his world. This is not simply a literary biography but a novel with Wells a character of Lodge's own invention, thinking and feeling what Lodge wants him to feel.

The book is a fascinating, compelling story full of great anecdotes and insights. But I couldn't shake the sense that it's more about Lodge than it is Wells.

1 comment:

Debbie said...

A. S. Byatt's The Children's Book covers much of the same ground about the Nesbitts and the literary and political intelligentsia of the time, but seems to be less about her own prowess as a writer as Lodge's erudite glimpses of Wells.