Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Tono-Bungay by H. G. Wells

I recently read H. G. Wells's Kipps and was astonished by how good it is.  I'm not interested in Wells's science fiction, but in the first decade of the 20th century he also wrote very good comic realistic novels about lower-middle-class heroes.  The characters' experiences with work, and his observations on class, are still pertinent to modern life.  Kipps is a masterpiece.  Henry James also loved it:  in 1909 he called it "the best novel in the last forty years."  Think David Copperfield crossed with fairy tales and socialism. 

I'm halfway through Tono-Bungay, another of his comic novels, and am loving the experience.  Like Kipps, it is part bildungsroman, but it is also a satire of advertising.  Wells was one of the most influential English writers at the beginning of the 20th century, and Tono-Bungay, though much less subtle than Kipps, is equally political, and some parts are remarkably well-written.  It is very easy to see his influence on D. H. Lawrence, W. Somerset Maugham, and even James Joyce.

The novel gets off to a slow start.  The life of the narrator, George Ponderevo, has been determined by his effervescent, ingenuous, impulsive uncle, the inventor of Tono-Bungay, a harmless concoction sold as a sort of pep drink through brilliant ads. At 45, George reviews his life and considers his rise and fall and the variety of people he met through his uncle's business. 

"I was my uncle's nephew, and my uncle was no less a person than Edwar Ponderevo...
"I was his nephew, his peculiar and intimate nephew.  I was hanging on to his coat-tails all the way through.  I made pills with him in the chemist's shop at Wimbleburst before he began.  I was, you might say, the stick of his rocket; and after our tremendous soar, after he had played with millions...after my bird's-eye view of the modern world, I fell again..."

George is a rebel.  The son of a housekeeper at a house called Bladesover, he showed his "social insubordination" at 14 when he refused to apologize for "pounding" an aristocratic boy.  Banished from the house, he is sent first to his mother's cousin, Frapp, an insipid baker who spends most of his time praying.  When that doesn't work out, he goes to Uncle Edward, owner of a chemist's shop.  Edward moves to London after he loses his and George's money through speculation.

What will happen to George?  His life of unrewarding, limited work is mapped out for him.  George, a science student, attempts to escape his through a scholarship in London, where he quickly loses interest in his studies and narrow career options and begins to think about socialism and love.  His best friend, Ewart, a sculptor whom he knew at school, soliloquizes about socialism, individualism, and even a utopia where women are not put on pedestals but are allowed to live in their own city and pursue their own interests, visited by men they choose. I very much like Ewart's originality, and his occasional flippancy about his ideal of socialism, which he admits will never work, but sometimes Wells tries too hard to educate us: these are mini-essays.

Money becomes important when George's girlfriend, Miriam, refuses to marry him.  Miriam, a sexless woman who is a rabid conformist, has the same fascination for George as Maugham's green-skinned, sickly, moronic waitress Mildred in Of Human Bondage has for Philip.  

George goes to work for his uncle's Tono-Bungay factory.  And that is the beginning of the social conventions and misery of Georgge's  unhappy marriage.

I'm not done yet, but am enjoying it.

And here is Wells's sketch of some of Uncle Edward's ads for Tono-Bungay, included in the text.  Sorry, a paw got in the way when I was photographing it.


Buried In Print said...

I suspect the critter on the other end of said paw would phrase it something like "assisted with presentation" rather than "got in the way". ::winks:: Either way, I love the visual! Nudges me that much closer to Wells, though I've only read the famous sci-fi and Ann Veronica.

Frisbee said...

Indeed,the paw can even type!