REVIEW: A Man of Parts by David Lodge
Reviewed by Mohsin Siddiqui
IN Experiment in Autobiography, H.G. Wells wrote of himself: “I was never a great amorist”. Given his focus on writing science-fiction, this is not much of a surprise; what is, however, is A Man of Parts by David Lodge, which presents Wells as a leading practitioner of the sexual revolution preached by his contemporary, D.H. Lawrence. Despite his tiny (and stout) frame, and less-than-winning personality (Wells was famously opinionated and domineering — the kind of man that modern therapists would encourage their female clients to abandon), Wells took on the onus of bringing ‘free love’ into his life as many times as possible.
Originally married to his cousin Isabel, Wells divorced her three years later to marry one of his students (Jane), presumably for reasons other than her willingness to let him philander. Several years — and women — later, Wells had managed to leverage his celebrity into the seduction of several women half his age, and produced four offspring. The postscript he wrote for Experiment in Autobiography included a wonderful comment in addition to his explicit instructions that the main text be held back from publication until a “decent interval” had passed (one assumes this was to ensure that he would be well beyond the bounds of any retaliatory actions). “My story of my relations with women is mainly a story of greed, foolishness and great expectation,” he noted, clearly seeing his life sans rose-tinted glasses.
In A Man of Parts, Lodge retells Wells’ life story as a 500-odd-page biography, focusing in particular on his “relations with women”. An astoundingly prolific writer, Wells was equally dedicated to his affairs, and Lodge seems to have focused this piece of ‘biofic’ (creative non-fiction? Historical fiction? This is not an easy book to categorise!) mostly on Wells’ private life. Prophetic in his writing, Wells was something of a futurist, writing variously about time travel, the atomic bomb, armoured tanks, equal rights for women and fairer distribution of private property. Highly political in his writings, Wells was renowned throughout literary London in roughly equal parts for his authorial agency and his string of affairs.
The politics, however, fall by the wayside in Lodge’s treatment. Instead, we see Wells towards the end of his life, plunged into a maelstrom of emotion, both sexual and romantic. A Man of Parts opens in Regent’s Park in 1944. Wells has been reduced to a brooding, elderly has-been who spends his days wondering about possible obituaries and having conversations with himself about his life. Lodge intersperses Wells’ mistresses and his offspring amongst this narrative of self-discovery, creating a novel that unfolds and engages readers in a cumulative manner, rather than with any particular hook. This makes for a very readable novel, one that is easy to pick up (and put down). But it also limits the depth and intensity of the text, reducing the irascible Wells to a meeker, more milksop-like version of his original self.
A Man of Parts moves from Wells reviewing his life out loud into a question and answer format that would not be out of place in one of the better literary magazines. While this breaks up the tedium and monotony of Wells’ soliloquies, its real value is in the way Lodge leverages the questions. They get progressively more complex, forcing Wells to eventually interrogate himself and his views in full point/counterpoint mode. All of Wells’ views, whether on eugenics, anti-Semitism or feminism, are brought out in painful detail, and the result is a revealing look at the guilt and defensiveness that someone in such a situation must have felt when confronted by his past.
Lodge seems to have been just as dedicated to his research as Wells was to his extramarital affairs, which is hardly a surprise, given his initial background as a literary critic and theorist. Every aspect of A Man of Parts is firmly rooted in biographical fact; as Lodge assures readers, “Nearly everything that happens… is based on factual sources.” The rigour Lodge has applied here would not be out of place in the world of academia; he is lucky that Wells had a fascinating enough life for unembroidered facts to be sufficiently entertaining. That said, there is an element of ‘coasting’ associated with this novel: it almost feels as if Lodge decided that he didn’t want to go through the effort of creating the rich, wonderful fictions that characterise his other novels (especially the Campus Trilogy of Changing Places, Small World and Nice Work).
For people who have trouble reconciling the concept of a science-fiction writer as a Casanova, A Man of Parts is worth reading for the shock value alone. Wells was a character in every sense of the word, and Lodge evokes both his best and worst traits with a light but sure touch.