A Man of Parts
A riveting novel about the remarkable life—and many loves—of author H. G. Wells
H. G. Wells, author of The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, was one of the twentieth century's most prophetic and creative writers, a man who immersed himself in socialist politics and free love, whose meteoric rise to fame brought him into contact with the most important literary, intellectual, and political figures of his time, but who in later years felt increasingly ignored and disillusioned in his own utopian visions. Novelist and critic David Lodge has taken the compelling true story of Wells's life and transformed it into a witty and deeply moving narrative about a fascinating yet flawed man.
Wells had sexual relations with innumerable women in his lifetime, but in 1944, as he finds himself dying, he returns to the memories of a select group of wives and mistresses, including the brilliant young student Amber Reeves and the gifted writer Rebecca West. As he reviews his professional, political, and romantic successes and failures, it is through his memories of these women that he comes to understand himself. Eloquent, sexy, and tender, the novel is an artfully composed portrait of Wells's astonishing life, with vivid glimpses of its turbulent historical background, by one of England's most respected and popular writers.
Left alone in the small sitting room, H.G. stares into the fire, wondering what the world will say about him when he dies. The obituaries, of course, have already been written. Given his age and distinction, they will have been on file in the newspaper offices for years, revised and brought up to date periodically, ready for publication when the time comes. The time has come rather sooner than he expected when he wrote a humorous 'auto-obituary' for a BBC radio series in 1935. It was published in the Listener and reprinted in newspapers around the world. 'The name of H.G. Wells, who died yesterday afternoon of heart failure in the Paddington Infirmary, at the age of 97, will have few associations for the younger generation,' it began. 'But those whose adult memories stretch back to the opening decades of the present century and who shared the miscellaneous reading of the period may recall a number of titles of the books he wrote and may even find in some odd attic an actual volume or so of his works. He was indeed one of the most prolific of the "literary hacks" of that time…' He pictured himself in the early 1960s as a 'bent, shabby, slovenly and latterly somewhat obese figure' hobbling round the gardens of Regent's Park with the aid of a stick, talking to himself. '"Some day," he would be heard to say, "I shall write a book, a real book."' This piece was intended, and generally received, as a jeu d'esprit, a disarming exercise in self-mockery, but it doesn't seem so absurdly wide of the mark now.
Of course the real obituaries, when they appear in due course, will be long, and respectful, paying tribute to his many achievements, his hundred-odd books, his thousands of articles, the originality of his early scientific romances like The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, the controverial impact of his treatment of sexual relations in novels like Ann Veronica (the irregularity of his own sexual life would be discreetly veiled), the warm Dickensian humour of novels like Kipps and The History of Mr Polly, the remarkable accuracy of many of his predictions (the inaccuracy of many others would be tactfully passed over), the global success of the Outline of History, his morale-boosting journalism in two world wars, his hobnobbing with leading statesmen, his presidency of the international PEN association, his tireless campaigning for science, for education, for the abolition of poverty, for peace, for human rights, for world government… Yes, there is plenty for them to write about. But there will be an inevitable dying fall to the tributes, a sense of anticlimax, a perceptibly bored perfunctoriness in the record of the last twenty-five years, and an implication that he published too many books in that period, of diminishing quality. All the emphasis will be on the first half of his life; up to, say, 1920. That was the terminal date of his influence according to George Orwell, in his Horizon article a few years ago: 'Thinking people who were born about the beginning of this century are in some sense Wells's own creation… I doubt whether anyone who was writing books between 1900 and 1920, at any rate in the English language, influenced the young so much.' He recalls the words without difficulty, having returned so often to the article, 'Wells, Hitler and the World State', fingering it like an old wound that still aches.
He had first met Orwell through the novelist Inez Holden, who was renting Mr Mumford's at the time, 1941, and a few days before the dinner party she had given him the latest issue of Horizon with the essay about himself in it, saying, 'I think you'd better read this before next Saturday, H.G., because George will assume you've seen it. Don't take it too hard; he does admire you really.' The article had upset him. It started by attacking his early journalism about the war, and admittedly he had been rash in affirming that the German army was a spent force just before it began to rampage through Russia, but what really stung was the assertion that 'much of what Wells has imagined and worked for is physically there in Nazi Germany. The order, the planning, the State encouragement of science, the steel, the concrete, the aeroplanes are all there.'
He had taken Horizon with him to dispute the article, and saw immediately that Orwell had his own copy to hand, evidently prepared for a duel.
"This novel is as scintillating, engaging, and multidimensional as the man whose life and character it faithfully animates . . . Lodge neatly shifts between narrative and probing interview, to reveal the intersections of writer, thinker, and man . . . Ultimately, this novel's sensitive and lively examination of its protagonist's relationships with women is what really fleshes out (so to speak) his attractive character." — Christina Schwarz, The Atlantic
"A terrifically enjoyable novel . . . A Man of Parts explores, with great verve, Wells's lifelong attempt to honor his own complexity, to be true to himself as a sexual being, a loving family man, a creative artist and an ambitious social thinker . . . Even if you're up on Wells's life and writings, Lodge makes his novel-cum-biography mesmerizing." — Michael Dirda, The Washington Post
"[A] smart, engaging novel . . . Lodge has made something of a specialty of intellectuals behaving badly in bed." — Christopher Benfey, The New York Times Book Review
"Entertaining and persuasive . . . A Man of Parts allows Lodge to concentrate on comedy and character . . . [his] interest is in the private rather than the public Wells." — Claire Tomalin, The New York Review of Books
Q. What drew you to write about H. G. Wells?
Preparing to write an introduction to his novel Kipps, I came across the story of his involvement with the family of Edith Nesbit, the classic children’s author, and her husband, Hubert Bland, senior members of the Fabian Society, which Wells joined in 1903 in the hope of using it to promote his own idiosyncratic brand of socialism. The relationship combined politics, literary life, and sensational sexual intrigue in a way which made it seem ripe for imaginative exploration, and the novel broadened out from that point to embrace Wells’s whole life.
Q. The novel ends with an acknowledgment that the light of Wells’s star has dimmed but also the hope that “perhaps one day he will glow in the firmament once again” (p. 432). Were you motivated in part by a desire to generate new interest in Wells’s work?
That wasn’t a motive initially, but as I researched his life and work, I was more and more impressed by his versatility, energy, and originality as a writer and thinker, and this comes across in the book. He was a genius, if a flawed one, and a key figure in twentieth–century cultural history. If my novel helps to make more people see him that way, I shall be happy.
Q. What were the most surprising discoveries you made about Wells’s life and work in doing the research for A Man of Parts?
I was astonished by the extent of his amours, the risks he was prepared to take in pursuit of women, his oscillation between purely recreational sex and great romantic love affairs, and his ability to combine these activities with so much literary and political work. I was also impressed by his uncanny ability to predict future developments in science, technology, and social life.
Q. Wells seems to have anticipated the World Wide Web in his vision of a continually updated international encyclopedia, which he wrote about in World Brain. Could you talk more about Wells’s thoughts on this subject?
Wells, who was himself largely self–educated through reading, was a great believer in the dissemination of knowledge to further human progress. His idea of something he called the “World Brain,” a vast free library of knowledge recorded on microfilm, needed only the invention of the microchip to resemble the Internet. He had imagined something like television as early as The Sleeper Awakes (1910).
Q. Wells and Henry James were at opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum. Where would you place your own work in relation to James’s and Wells’s?
As regards the art of fiction, I’m a Jamesian; that is, I’m very self–conscious about narrative technique, and I like to think I’m a perfectionist. I revise and rewrite a great deal. Wells wrote very rapidly and at times carelessly, and he consciously rejected the Jamesian obsession with elegance of style and form. On the other hand, the content of my fiction has more in common with Wells’s in that I deal often with middle– and lower–middle–class people, including the work they do and their sexual lives, and there is a good deal of comedy in most of my books. James is in fact an unconscious source of comedy in A Man of Parts.
Q. How would you compare the experience of writing a novel about James, as you did in Author, Author, with writing about Wells?
I see them as very much companion novels, with Wells a minor character in Author, Author, and James a minor character in A Man of Parts. Each novel has a frame story about the writers’ last few years of life. Both use novelistic methods to evoke the experience of these men that is not recuperable by the methods of evidence–based biography. But whereas the ironies of Henry James’s career as a playwright, intertwined with his relationship with George Du Maurier, gave me a perfect structure for my main story, Wells’s life–story was much more sprawling and many stranded, and it took me longer to find a satisfactory way of telling it.
Q. How do you think Wells would respond to A Man of Parts? Did you meet with any resistance from his estate?
I like to think he would recognize it as being honest but sympathetic, and I hope the estate feels the same way. The estate was very helpful about giving me the necessary permissions without asking to read the manuscript of the novel. I believe they saw, correctly, that it would help to keep Wells’s work in print.
Q. Some critics have regarded Wells’s womanizing as predatory. How do you view this aspect of his life, personally and as a novelist?
I think it is unfair. In all the relationships I examined and described, the woman, at least initially, was
the pursuer rather than the pursued. It could be argued that with the very young women he should have restrained himself from responding. But I was able to quote letters from two of them, Rosamund and Amber, which shows that they did not regret their relationships with him.
Q. Wells insists that the unified self is a delusion, but as a novelist did you feel compelled to create a unified character from his many parts?
I hope that the narrative discourse of the novel has a cohesion which convinces the reader that all these diverse and contradictory behaviors, characteristics, and principles could coexist in one person.
Q. Do you plan to write more novels about writers?
I have no such plan at the moment. The main disincentive is the fear that someone else may choose the same subject and publish their book before yours-as happened to me in the case of Author, Author, which was eclipsed by Colm Tóibín’s The Master. I actually put off writing A Man of Parts, and wrote Deaf Sentence instead, because I couldn’t bear the thought of the same thing happening twice in succession. But I couldn’t resist the lure of H. G. indefinitely.
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