Words that woo: the smooth-writing H.G. Wells
Thin partitions divide fact and fiction, biography (or history) and the novel. Fiction is made from imagination, observation, experience and memory, but all these play a role in the writing of biography and history too. Books are made from life, but also from other books, the reading of which is of course part of life and of the author's experience. For a long time novelists were reluctant, or perhaps disdained, to acknowledge their sources, though Scott was an exception, frequently providing footnotes to bolster the authenticity of his fiction. His practice was however rarely followed by writers of self-consciously literary novels. Recently the fashion has changed: novelists now buttress their work with acknowledgements of their debts to the books which have contributed to the making.
So it comes as no surprise to find David Lodge listing more than sixty books and articles on which he has drawn in writing A Man of Parts, his lightly fictionalised account of the life and importance of H.G. Wells. It is a sort of hybrid. Lodge employs the techniques of the novel: dialogue, free indirect style, and dramatic scenes, for instance. Yet he has invented very little — a few letters, some of the conversations, though these too are almost always derived from what has been recorded elsewhere. So one might call it a non-fiction novel. Just how it should be described will probably bother few readers, for the book is consistently absorbing and enjoyable. I doubt whether a better way could have been found to bring the phenomenon that was H.G. Wells to life.
"Back to life" might be the way to put it. The star which shone so brightly for half a century has long been dim. Most of his books are out of print, many deservedly. This would not have surprised, though it might have dismayed, him. He was a writer for his own time. The scientific romances are still read, the Edwardian comic novels also perhaps, but little else. He was a back-number before he died, despairing of the foolishness of humanity, in 1946. His last work was Mind at the End of its Tether, which was where he found himself. "Read my early works, you shit" was his response to Orwell's essay Hitler, Wells and the World State. He believed in reason and survived into a world where reason slept and monsters ruled.
Lodge begins with Wells in old age, a question-and-answer debate with voices in his head. Orwell had written: "I doubt whether anyone who was writing books between 1900 and 1920, at any rate in the English language, influenced the young so much." This was a fair judgment. Wells did seem "an inspired prophet" then. He challenged orthodoxies, opened windows which disclosed possibilities of a new freedom and a rational organisation of society. The intelligent application of science would transform the world, eradicating poverty and bringing an end to war. He envisaged the disinterested government of a world ruled by scientifically-trained experts.
Meanwhile he joined the Fabian Society and was soon seeking to broaden its base and impart new energy to its somewhat complacent discussions. The society took its name from the Roman general, Fabius Maximus Cunctator, whose strategy of avoiding pitched battles in the Second Punic War was held to have worn down Hannibal and paved the way for Rome's eventual victory. Yet, as Lodge has Wells remarking, Fabius hadn't himself won anything; it was Scipio who did not shrink from battle and defeated Hannibal at Zama. But the Fabians, marshalled with characteristically feline ambiguity by Shaw, saw Wells off. This was his first notable failure, a discovery that good arguments don't necessarily convince doubters.