Wednesday, 7 December 2011

A Man of Parts – David Lodge (2011)

A Man of Parts is a biographical novel. A much maligned blend of fact and fictional possibility that historians have generally criticized for leaving readers with a false idea of history. Fair enough, but if you start reading with an understanding that it’s not meant to be a reliable historical text then I believe that all should be fine. Lodge has undertaken a huge amount of research for A Man of Parts, consulting works written by H.G.Wells himself, including Experiment in Autobiography (1934), correspondence and also biographies of the principle characters and scholarly essays. This gives the reader some confidence in the case of H.G.Wells and his life-long appetite for the joys and resultant dysfunctions of ‘free love.’ Oh yes, and his writing.

Before reading this book I knew nothing about the life of H.G.Wells and I still haven’t read any of his novels. I guess I’m like many people who know of Wells because of his enduring impact on western culture via his early influential science fiction novels The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), The Time Machine (1895) and The War of the Worlds. (1898). The 1960 movie adaptation of The Time Machine is one of those classic Sunday afternoon films of childhood that I watched on more than one occasion. I was also exposed to Wells via the million seller concept album Jeff Wayne's Musical Version of The War of the Worlds (1978) Narrated by Richard Burton, it was disturbing stuff for a nine year old in the relatively innocent days of the late 70’s.

So, what of Wells and his sexual/romantic escapades? You’ll need some endurance, something like Wells had, in order to read this 559-page depiction of Wells’s life. Once you get through his early life then it’s onto the serious stuff of his adherence to the notions of ‘free love’. Sex before marriage, multiple partners and open relationships, all of which flew in the hypertensive face of Victorian and Edwardian morals. Wells’s amorous adventures may upset some readers though, but personally I believe it is a mistake to judge the past, in this case anyway, from the vantage point of more than a century into the future. Wells’s gift for scientific prediction is also, in some ways, reflected in his prescient private life. Wells and his lifestyle would have been right at home in modern permissive western society.

There is, of course, the small matter of Wells’s literary career. In-between relationships with the likes of Rebecca West and Edith Nesbit’s daughter, Rosamund Bland, and literally dozens of other women, you do get insights into his thinking and the many prescient ideas that ended up in his books. He had a prolific career, with more than 100 books published in his lifetime - with essays, science fiction, social realism, a best selling short history of the world (and you thought that Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything was an original idea?) and nearly everything in-between. A Man of Parts is, however, balanced in favour of his predilection for what he referred to as “recreation.” The amount of young woman that treated him like a literary rock star and threw themselves at his well-shod feet certainly helped his cause.

Heady stuff you would think, but the problem with A Man of Parts is that it has a tendency to become tedious. The narrative thrust lies in what Wells did next, who he was sleeping with, where he traveled to and how he dealt with the many problems associated with his radical lifestyle. There are also his dealings with the Fabian Society, through which he attempted to actualize his socialist ideals. These sections suffer from a distinct lack of colour. The letters scattered throughout the text become almost unbearable to read due to the era’s prose style being unbelievably florid. There is some experimentation at hand with Lodge having Wells looking inward and questioning himself with one voice and answering with another, as if he is interviewing himself. Although clumsy at first I eventually warmed to this technique and it helped that it was not overused, mainly appearing in the first section and towards the end. Lastly, Lodge’s writing style borders on the banal, although somehow he gets away with it. Perhaps he wanted the story of H.G.Wells life to speak for itself.

A Man of Parts polarized my book club members – a few detested it, whilst the others were either under-whelmed or enjoyed it but with reservations. I fall into the latter category. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this book and it hasn’t made me want to read other Lodge novels, although a few people I know who enjoy his writing have told me that this is not a good representation of his prose. What it has done is made me want to go back to the source and, as a science fiction fan, read the early works of H.G.Wells (I don’t think I’ll be reading his later work - The Bulpington of Blup though).

One endearing memory that will stay with me concerning this book is that during one of the book club sessions somehow all the men sat together on one side of the table and all the women gathered together on the other side, seemingly ready for a debate regarding Wells and his ‘legitimized’ philandering. As it turned out most of women did not judge him too harshly, preferring instead to talk about what an interesting man H.G.Wells was. I tend to agree and as Lodge defines at the onset of the novel, Wells was a man of parts: Def – 1. Personal abilities or talents. 2. Short for private parts.

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