Thursday, June 16, 2011

David Lodge's A Man of Parts & Michael Dirda on Wells

Some of us read reviews this spring of David Lodge's  A Man of Parts, a historical novel about H. G. Wells, in The Guardian and Telegraph.  Some of us prepared for the September publication in the U.S.  by reading Wells's Tono-Bungay, an overpraised novel about class, advertising, and science that has not made our Wells canon.  Some of us even tracked down an advance review copy of A Man of Parts. Yes, I am enjoying my advance copy of Lodge's novel and will give you a preview.

Although bulky historical novels are not my favorite genre, my interest in Wells exceeds my distaste.  I became a Wells groupie a few years ago, when, curious about his popularity (i.e., affairs) with some of my favorite writers, Dorothy Richardson, Elizabeth von Arnim, and Rebecca West, I read some of his charming comedies, The History of Mr. Polly, Ann Veronica, and Kipps.  

H. G. Wells
In Lodge's entertaining new novel, he vividly records the highs and lows of Wells's career and personal life.  Wells, who started life as a draper's assistant, like the heroes of his comic novels, The History of Mr. Polly and Kipps, rose from housekeeper's son to science teacher to writer of articles and reviews.  When The Time Machine was published in 1895, he became a best-selling novelist.  

Wells seems to have been a bit of a sex maniac.  Married twice to women he couldn't satisfy, or who were frigid (Wells's conclusion), he had multiple affairs.  His second wife, Jane, agreed to an open marriage because she didn't care for sex.  She insisted that he tell her about his affairs.

As a socialist, Wells attempted to influence the Fabian Society (a group of socialists who meant well but never acted, in his view).

Lodge enlivens his straightforward narrative with experimental bits and pieces.  The dying Wells looks back over his life, and answers questions of an imaginary interviewer-interlocutor only he can hear. His answers  contain biographical information and link the longer sections of chronological narrative.  This technique is oddly reminiscent of Wells's own combination of radical ideas and stodgy style,.   You can't hope for much with Wells's style--he's all about story and ideas--but Lodge doesn't have to use pyrotechnics to create a believable Wells.

A Man of Parts begins in 1944 at Hanover Terrace in London, where Wells has bravely remained throughout the war.  Other houses in the area are boarded up.

"Only one house, number 13, has been permanently occupied throughout the war by its owner, Mr. H. G. Wells.  During the London Blitz of 1940-41 he was frequently teased with the suggestion that this might prove an unlucky number, to which he responded, consistent with a lifetime's contempt for superstition by having a bigger "13" painted on the wall beside his front door.  He stubbornly refused to move to the country, saying 'Hitler (or in male company, 'that shit Hitler') is not going to get me on the run,' and stayed put in Hanover Terrace as, one by one, his neighbors slunk off to safe rural havens and their houses were occupied by sub-tenants or left empty."

He knew all the fascinating people of his time:  Bernard Shaw, Frank Harris, Henry James, the Webbs of the Fabian many people.  Lodge's characterization of E. Nesbit, the author of children's classics, is brilliant.  A founder and fellow member of the Fabian Society, she lived an unconventional life with her husband Hubert Bland, also a writer, and Alice Hoatson, their housekeeper who gave birth to two of Hubert's children (raised by E. Nesbit with her own two children).  When Wells, a shit to his wife, went to stay at Nesbit's house two weeks before Jane gave birth because he couldn't face the pregnancy scenes, he wrote in the morning in a separate part of the garden where Nesbit wrote, discussed their intimate lives, and played charades with the family.

Of Nesbit Lodge writes:

"She reminded you of Rossetti's languorously pensive maidens....On occasion she would smoke a cigar.  But she was also energetic and athletic... He felt that in many ways they were kindred spirits.  Edith was as prolific and work-driven as himself, and she too liked to writer her quota of words in the early part of the day in intense solitary concentration, and then be free to exercise and amuse herself for the rest of it in company, the more the merrier.  Like him she was impulsive, restless, easily bored, and subject to sudden changes of mood."
I'm very much enjoying this.

Michael Dirda's Reviews 2 of H. G. Wells's Novels.  Michael Dirda, a reviewer for The Washington Post and a columnist for the Barnes and Noble Review,  has recently reviewed The History of Mr. Polly in The Washington Post and Tono-Bungay in The Barnes and Noble Review.  New editions of Wells's books have been published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 


Tony S. said...

I've enjoyed several of David Lodge's novels over the years, but didn't much care for his previous, 'Deaf Sentence'. Sounds like 'A Man of Parts' might be a return to form.

Frisbee said...

Tony, the only other one I know is Deaf Sentence. Lodge has been on the TBR list forever, and I'd like to read some of his satires.