Thursday, 16 May 2013

A Mind Forever Voyaging [Review: A Man Of Parts]

“It would be no more than justice to give his name to the twenty-five years between the ‘nineties and the War. For it was he who largely wove their intellectual texture.” - Odette Keun, 1934

As a writer of fiction, the subject of this quote and David Lodge's "fictional biography" created genres and concepts including alien invasion and the time machine, pushed the scientific romance firmly into the literary mainstream, helped to shape the modern novel and increased the division between popularist and artistic literature - while predicting the role of air supremacy and nuclear weapons long in advance of their development. As a writer of fact his account of the history of the world commanded international respect until it was superceded. As a politician he was present and influential in the early days of the Fabian Society, and as a celebrity and socialite his scandalous love-life and general misbehaviour was never far from the public eye. Oh, and he invented table-top wargaming too.

David Lodge's "fictional biography" of H.G.Wells is in fact a fastidiously-researched and well written account, putting Wells' fictional and non-fictional writing into context: Lodge’s evidence entirely justifies Keun’s statement, while advancing the argument that he could have achieved far more in any of his endeavours, were it not for the consequences of his scandalous personal life. The "fictional" status of the book allows the author to take two liberties: to imagine the internal dialogue as an elderly and physically frail H.G. looks back on his life, and to take the reader behind closed doors imagining the intimate relationships between H.G. and his wives and lovers. H.G. is his own sharpest critic, whether commenting on the racism that surfaces in some of his novels, or dividing between those women he loved and those he did not.

Many of the real-life characters in the novel are brought to life in a very personal way: not only familiar authors such as Henry James and E.Nesbit, but in particular Amy Catherine or "Jane", H.G.'s wife. She emerges as a complex character herself, choosing more than just to tolerate her husband's behaviour, often befriending and supporting his mistresses after he had abandoned them. At times it is possible to see H.G. as a true believer in libertine values but overall, on balance he appears to have been more of an opportunist accepting female attention as a consequence of his fame, and his attitude to women was a long way from any present-day semblance of equality.


Helena Fortissima said...

What a well-written review, SFG. The concept of a fictional biography is certainly intriguing.

Sci-Fi Gene said...

Thank you! In this case it also makes for a fairly racy read.