A Man of Parts by David Lodge represents a newish style of genre fiction – that of the fictional biography or almost in this case autobiography. This stylish and gigantic book is the biography of HG Wells, written as if from his own perspective.
To say that David Lodge’s writing has undergone a sea change is an understatement. So if you are looking for the laugh-out-loud moments, the sub text of Roman Catholic angst, the bizarre social gaffe and the weird – then leave this book alone. This is pretty serious fiction – the life of HG Wells with an exposition on his political thinking, his campaign for Free Love and his marriage(s) and if the rumpy-pumpy, so often repeated is not for the weak-hearted, it does get right to the core of the man, ostensibly at least, in his own words. Clearly HG was a man who put it about a bit – as several legitimate and illegitimate children can testify.
The passages on his relationship with The Fabians, the fabled Bernard Shaw, the Hector Blands (and their very un-bland marriage) and HG’s campaign to change the Society and its governance, these read well and are fascinating.
The intimate and detailed accounts of his marriage to Jane are delightful, puzzling and in places very painful; his seduction of young maidens and the salacious consequences would have filled columns in the newspapers of today. How HG escaped horse-whipping is unfathomable.
But it is in the exposition of his writings and his relationship with Henry James that this book becomes alive. The many illustrative quotations from the existing correspondence between these two great men of letters is marvellous, for they are filled with literate circumlocutions, under-scorings and subtle put-downs, and show the professional friction beneath all the flummery. For at the time, HG Wells was the most widely read
author and Henry James was not to know that his works would survive to be avidly read today, while almost nobody reads HG. And there is terrible pathos in the savage anti-Jamesian polemic Boon, which HG insisted was a ‘joke’ but which severed irrevocably this great literary friendship, and which at the end HG regrets.
This is a big book in every sense, 565 pages and weighing nearly a kilo, so not one for the daily commute. We start with HG Wells, living in London have survived The Blitz which he presaged years earlier in The War from the Air, and having lived long enough to have read about the atom bomb on Hiroshima – another prognostication he made even before the first splitting of the atom.
This is definitely a book to read, but my feeling is that if it arrives on the list it will be taking up a place that might be better used for a less well known author.