BOOKS JANUARY 10, 2012
by David Lodge
Viking, 448 pp., $26.95
DAVID LODGE’S NOVEL opens just after World War II in England, when the seventy-nine-year-old H.G. Wells has just learned that he is dying of cancer. Seeing himself in the shadow of modernist writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, he feels “old hat,” “a lone voice, crying in the wilderness.” The story then flashes back, as Wells comes to terms with his books and mistakes and extramarital affairs (with Rebecca West, among others) and children that he fathered out of wedlock. In Lodge’s hands, Wells is so fully fleshed out that A Man of Parts is one of the best biographical novels in quite some time.
Although the biographical novel has not experienced the popularity enjoyed by the historical novel—which generally focuses on events rather than a single character—in the past two decades the genre has experienced a veritable boom. During the 1990s and 2000s, there appeared lives of Rudolf Nureyev, Marilyn Monroe, Egon Schiele, and Frank Lloyd Wright. Irving Stone, perhaps the founding father of the biographical novel in America, and the man who fictionalized Van Gogh, Michelangelo, Eugene V. Debs, Freud, and Darwin, defined his work as a combination of history, biography, and “intuition.”
In this, the biographical novel differs from its filmic equivalent: the biopic. Such films rely on visual representation and thrive on likeness, particularly an actor’s ability to imitate a cultural icon or historical figure—Johnny Depp as Ed Wood, Russell Crowe as John Nash. If the biographical novel is 98 percent fact and 2 percent inference, then the biopic is 98 percent optical verisimilitude and 2 percent fact. In a movie such as Sylvia, it matters little whether Gwyneth Paltrow plays Sylvia Plath as a psychotically-jealous-nutcase or as a genius-poet who suffered from chronic depression, so long as Paltrow’s hair has that unmistakable Plathian curl.
The biographical novel aims to color the emotional nuances and ambiguous episodes that make a life. It attempts to relate the thoughts and feelings that prompted a particular figure to act, engage, or withdraw. In A Man of Parts, Lodge portrays Wells’s internal life beyond that which the archival material—speeches, letters, books—might suggest. As Lodge explains in an author’s note at the beginning of the novel, “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.’” Dialogue or text that originally appeared in letters written to or by Wells is printed in italics. Lodge frames his characterization of Wells using primary sources, but he depends on implication and likelihood to show what Wells may have believed or considered.
Lodge focuses, above all else, on how Wells’s celebrity was fueled by his controversial sexual practices and social mores. The novel catalogues his views on sex, beginning with his early experiments in masturbation, his first frigid marriage to his cousin Isabel, and his liaison with and eventual marriage to one of his students, Amy Catherine Robbins, whom he renamed Jane. Despite Wells’s average looks and short stature, women solicited his affections throughout his life. His first affair was with Jane’s secretary and was conducted with Jane’s knowledge, and Wells fathered several children out of wedlock, including one with West. In Lodge’s view, Wells was a playful lover who would not subscribe to the Victorian notion that sex is something a husband must have and a wife must suffer through. One mistress, Amber Reeves, referred to him as “Master,” and he patiently initiated a number of women into their first carnal act. He liked to explore his animal nature, which is exemplified by the way he and West went by the pet names Panther and Jaguar.
Although Wells was a popular writer, novels such as In the Days of the Comet (in which he portrayed a ménage á quatre), Tono-Bungay (which harped on what Wells called “the sex problem” in an English society too dependent on marriage), and Ann Veronica (a thinly veiled novel about Amber Reeves) all failed to sell well, and damaged Wells’s reputation. He was criticized for the jingoistic articles he wrote for the Daily Chronicle, in which he supported World War I. The final sections of the novel explore Wells’s use of what he called “the Christian voice” to communicate his utopian vision in God the Invisible King and in A Mind at the End of Its Tether, his final book.
But in his representation of Wells, Lodge also takes into account the reception of his subject’s work over time. When the novel opens in the spring of 1945, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has made reality look as strange and horrific of many of the events in Wells’s fictions. Lodge acknowledges that at the time of Wells’s death, the novelist was not embraced as one of the modernist in-crowd and that he died without disciples. But Lodge focuses on Wells’s reputation as “the father of science fiction,” a quasi-prophet, and the prescient author of the first world encyclopedia The Outline of History, a history of mankind. Lodge writes that
H.G. was like a comet. He appeared suddenly out of obscurity at the end of the nineteenth century and blazed in the literary firmament for decades, evoking astonishment and awe and alarm, like the comet of In the Days of the Comet which threatened to destroy the earth, but in fact transformed it by the beneficial effect of its gaseous tail.
Despite the afterglow of these and other paragraphs, however, A Man of Parts is not a mere hagiography. Lodge learned from the mistakes he made in his previous biographical novel, Author! Author!, which was an approving look at Henry James’s prolific literary career. Lodge painted James as a deeply introverted and inaccessible figure whose lifelong virginity was symptomatic of his obsessive devotion to art. Although it is a nicely etched portrait that reveals much about James, the use of the limited third-person point of view makes the novel seem excessively sympathetic to James.
In the first and final sections of this five-section novel, Lodge gives us the thoughts and feelings of Wells’s sons, Anthony West and George Phillip (who went by the nickname Gip). When Rebecca West comes to visit, we enter her mind and see the other side of Wells’s sexual antics. We also get to experience Wells’s illness and impending death through the eyes of his children and glimpse the author as an inconsistent albeit well-intentioned father.
To further ensure that A Man of Parts would not simply attempt to explain or exalt Wells, Lodge uses an interrogative voice—a voice of conscience—throughout the novel. This voice occasionally interrupts the narrative the way an interviewer might to question Wells about the “circumstantial details” of his life.
[Wells] looks back, at his life: has it, taken all in all, been a story of success or failure? In trying to answer this question it is useful to have a second voice. He can, for instance, interview himself about his past, lobbing easy questions and answering them expansively, as he used to do in the days when journalists were still interested.
These sections read like the Paris Review interview with Wells that never happened. The voice asks simple biographical questions, such as when and where Wells was born; it also pushes him to discuss his boyhood, his decision to become a teacher instead of a draper’s apprentice like his father, his religion, his relationship to the Fabian Society, and his wealth and success as a writer. Immediately after Wells’s forays into utopianism and free love have been described, the interviewer interrupts to question him about his relationship with Jane. The interviewer presses him to see Jane’s side by reading Wells a letter that she wrote to him after the birth of their first child. The interviewer eventually turns into an interrogator, pointedly questioning Wells about his belief in eugenics, the real reason he fell out with the Fabians, and his selfish treatment of his wives and mistresses. At one point, the voice quizzes Wells about his decision to embark on yet another affair with a “young virgin.”
A Man of Parts is a wonderful book, but there is something peculiar about its genre. In recent decades we have had biographical novels about Jack London, William Shakespeare, and Pearl Buck, to name just a few. These books took hold of the chilling dullness of many successful writers’ lives and transformed them into riveting stories of creativity, glamour, and mystique. Somehow the prosaic nature of a writer’s life merely adds to his or her aura. As Roland Barthes observed in his parody of Le Figaro’s portraits of writers on holiday in the 1950s, we delight in the discovery that writers are people, too: they eat cheese, they oversleep, they take vacations—just like you and me! Although the cult of the writer, for Barthes (who would later call for “the death of the author”), is just another example of the tyranny of the bourgeoisie, he points to the way that a glimpse of a writer’s mundane existence is a “cunning mystification” that only increases the writer’s “mythical singularity.”
And indeed, no matter what the state of reading has become in the digital age, the popularity of book tours, writers’ conferences, and the recently defunct Oprah’s Book Club demonstrate the allure of authorial celebrity. This attraction may be because we are all writers. Most of us send emails, tweet, or blog on a daily basis and this gives the impression that anyone—under different circumstances and perhaps with a faster computer—could write a best-selling novel or memoir or cookbook. But the impression is facile. Serious writing is a different order of activity than our digital scribbling. And not just anyone could write books that presaged the advent of microwave radiation, the cell phone, moving walkways, biological warfare, genetic engineering, Wikipedia, and automatic doors. There was something singular about H.G. Wells.
Sarah Fay is an editorial associate at The Paris Review. Her literature reviews appear regularly in The New York Times Book Review.