Born in 1866, deceased, 1946, prolific British author, H. G. Wells’ life spanned a period of radical social and cultural change in England and the world in general, and few lives were more in tune with those changes both publically and privately than Wells. He was able to achieve intellectual and political influence in spite of his lower class beginnings. He was a popularizer and disseminator of scientific knowledge. He was a socialist and pacifist. He wrote popular and serious fiction, journalism and criticism, history and political tracts. He supported women’s rights, and with all of his intellectual pursuits, he still had time to pursue a sybaritic sexual private life with the gusto of a randy satyr. A firm believer and practitioner of free love and open marriage, the story of his life is the story of his hopping from one bed to another during and between hours set aside for writing, thinking, and conversation. His is a life made for a novel.
David Lodge, not quite as prolific as Wells, but prolific enough in his own right, knows a good subject when he sees one. His new novel, A Man of Parts, is his attempt to capitalize on that good subject. It is a fictional representation of the life of Wells, and since Lodge is a literary scholar of some note, it is based on a good deal of solid research, and that may be a problem for many readers.
This is a novel that reads like a biography. The author protests right at the beginning that he has taken the novelist’s license to invent in things like character’s thoughts and feelings, and that he has even taken the liberty of portraying events that should have happened. This may be true, but most of what has been invented is presented exactly as it would have been in an academic biography. The voice of the writer is the voice of a scholar. His methods are the methods of a researcher: the book is filled with quotations (undocumented it’s true, but documentable). There are few conversations. There are few dramatized scenes. Little is shown, much told.
Perhaps realizing this, Lodge creates a self questioning internal voice which appears at times in the course of the novel to question Wells —something like what Matthew Arnold, one of the great Victorian writers, called “the dialogue of the mind with itself.” It is a probing voice that challenges Wells’ interpretations of events and relationships, a voice that questions his motivations and explanations. It is a way to add some dramatic tension to the narrative, and is an effective way to remind the reader that this is fiction not fact.
Still the book contains a lot of material that could pass for, if not fact, at least for non-fiction. There is a good deal of explanation and critical interpretation of Well’s ideas as expressed in his work, not only the famous pieces, but from almost everything he wrote. Moreover, there is also a good bit of criticism of the work of many of the other literary figures that pass through the book’s pages: Henry James, Arnold Bennett, George Bernard Shaw, Rebecca West, as well as a number of lesser lights. This shouldn’t be unexpected; literature was one of the central elements of Wells’ life and he was surrounded by literary lions, and Lodge, after all, is a literary critic of some note. But it is not the average novel reader that will be enthralled with a discussion of Well’s criticism of Fabianism in “The Misery of Boots.”
On the other hand what may well be of greater interest to that average reader of novels could be the other central element of Well’s life, the man’s sexual adventures. As prolific as he was a writer, he was equally prolific in the bedroom—his various studies, hideaway cottages, hotel rooms, and even al fresco—if the gossip is to be believed. Suffice it to say, the women in his life were legion. There were long term relationships; there were one night stands. There were young infatuated virgins; there were celebrity seekers. There is enough of the titillating in this man’s life for an epic to compete with Frank Harris, but this book isn’t it. It’s not that the lovers aren’t there; they are. It’s not that we don’t follow them into bed; we do. It is simply that the descriptions of sex and the discussions of sexuality are G-rated. In this age of rampant pornography, A Man of Parts contains some of the least sexual descriptions of sex one could imagine. Whether that’s a good thing or not, I leave to the individual reader’s moral convictions; I am only interested in pointing it out.
At the end of the day, this is not a book for every reader. There are many who will be fascinated by the life of Wells and Lodge’s literate portrayal of him and his contemporaries. He is dealing with sensational material, but he eschews sensationalism. He is more interested in ideas and psychology than he is exciting the reader. Lodge writes with wit and insight. If you’re looking for adult ideas written in stylish prose, this is a book you want to read. If you’re looking for something more sensual, you may want to look elsewhere.