A Man of Parts: A Novel, by David Lodge, Harvill Secker, RRP£18.99, 576 pages
“Who would read a novel if we were permitted to write biography – all out?” asked HG Wells in 1934. Nowadays almost everything is permitted in biography – providing the subject is dead – and alongside it we have the “bio-novel”, a semifictional work filling in the gaps where evidence is lacking. Unreported conversations, momentary feelings and the intimate personal details of a past age are the staples of this form. There are no made-up characters such as we find in historical fiction. The result must be well-told and psychologically convincing but it can hardly be judged by the ordinary standards of writing a novel.
In 2004 David Lodge published Author, Author, a compelling treatment of the later Henry James focusing on his failure to conquer the London stage and his friendship with the best-selling author of Trilby, George du Maurier. A Man of Parts is devoted to HG Wells, at one time a near-protégé of James and later his cruellest critic. Wells’s father had been a professional cricketer and his mother a lady’s maid; he himself was a draper’s apprentice and then a student and teacher of biology. He became one of the “new journalists” of the fin de siècle but, as a novelist, he was a player in what was still a gentleman’s world. He opened up new vistas of science and sexual liberation, and soon his affairs with a series of remarkable women were the gossip of literary London.
A Man of Parts is full of astonishing incidents but it is also sprawling and relatively diffuse, rather like one of Wells’s own novels. One reason for this is that, where the secretive James burnt nearly all his correspondence, Wells amassed a huge archive and produced three volumes of autobiography, including a candid account of his love life written for posthumous publication. Lodge – already a distinguished literary critic of Wells – follows in the wake of this third volume and the commentaries and research it has generated.
Wells, an intensely political writer, was at the forefront of discussions of women’s equality, welfare capitalism, human rights and the future prospects of world civilisation. A Man of Parts, however, shows him plunged into a turmoil of sexual emotions which might have left him with no time to notice, let alone analyse, the world outside. Yet analyse it he did. Lodge passes rather quickly over aspects of Wells’s politics which still remain controversial, such as the conflict between liberalism and the centralised utopia in his thought.
Like Author, Author, this new novel is framed by the story of its subject’s final illness in which, exhausted and depressed, he broods over his store of often unwelcome memories. The self-interviewing technique by which he is shown to interrogate his past has some basis, at least, in Wells’s last, fragmentary writings of 1944-45; but the way Lodge stages this inquisition can sound suspiciously like a modern therapy session or, at times, a university seminar.
A Man of Parts reminds us that, while Wells was dying, his oldest son Gip and Gip’s half-brother Anthony West held opposite views about their father’s state of mind although both were close to him. Gip, a professor of zoology, refused to believe his father had given way to irrevocable despair, while for Anthony it was a long-delayed return to the apocalyptic pessimism of his early works such as The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine. Through this brotherly discord we approach the scandals caused by Wells’s “open marriage” at the turn of the century and his relationships with the novelist Rebecca West (Anthony’s mother), the brilliant Fabian Amber Reeves, and many more. Lodge’s research has been confined to published sources, so that, for example, he reveals Wells’s inability to commit himself fully to Amber without quoting from the almost daily letters to her which are now available to scholars. The novel withholds judgment on this painful affair, and in other respects Lodge is, I think rightly, cautious.
Just as in Author, Author he chose not to question Henry James’s sexual abstinence, here Lodge leaves it uncertain whether or not Wells’s last companion, Moura Budberg, was a spy foisted on him in the 1920s by the Soviet authorities – or, if she was, whether Wells ever knew about it. John Gray in The Immortalization Commission has recently given a far more biased and less nuanced account of Moura and Wells. Yet Moura’s daughter, the late Tania Alexander, never believed that her mother was a spy, and her testimony should not be lightly disregarded. As with much else, the accusation comes back to Wells’s troubled son Anthony West, who wrote an affectionate but unreliable biography of his father and also a kind of bio-novel, Heritage, which Rebecca West managed to prevent from being published in the UK during her lifetime. A Man of Parts leaves the conflict between Gip and Anthony over Wells’s legacy unresolved, and this is as it should be. Readers of this absorbing book will want to carry on the arguments for themselves.
Patrick Parrinder is a vice-president of the HG Wells Society and general editor of ‘The Oxford History of the Novel in English’ (Oxford University Press)