My favorite novels by David Lodge combine the comedy and suffering that ambitions, greed and life in general surprise people with in telling and entertaining ways. Books like Nice Work, Small World and Deaf Sentence are quick and entertaining reads that leave you with very memorable characters that experienced situations that cut a little too close to home. In A Man of Parts, like his novel about Henry James, Author, Author, Lodge fictionalizes the life of seminal novelist whose work straddled different eras. A Man of Parts the more (much more) successful of these two fictionalized biographies is about H.G. Wells.
Wells was born in 1866 and died in 1946. Could he had lived that long in any other time period and seen as many changes as occurred between 1866 and 1946? I do not think so. Some changes Welles predicted in his fiction: tanks, aerial warfare, the atom bomb, television and even a sort of primitive internet/library of worldwide knowledge banks with door to door airplane service delivering information to the public. In private Welles was way ahead of the curve on one change in particular what was called in more repressed times Free Love.Wells was born into a struggling family. His ascent was like that of some of his characters, a Horatio Algier story. He was born the son of a housekeeper, as a young man he was a draper’s assistant, then a science teacher and soon after a bestselling novelist.
Given the vast number of things H.G. published in his lifetime, the one hundred novels and thousands of essays and articles, you might think that his Free Love was somewhat curtailed. You would be wrong. Apparently when H.G. wasn’t writing he was indefatigable in collecting wives, mistresses and lovers. Smart women, celebrity hounds, political allies, daughters of friends, Wells seductions and seducers ran the gamut. That might be business as usual today but in the 80 years that he was alive this was a no-no and many times he came close to scandalous ruin.
At the start of A Man of Parts it is 1944 and Lodge has his Wells looking back on his life. Wells is responding to an interviewer only he can hear. His careers as a novelist, an aggressive member of the Fabian Society, his acquaintance with virtually every public figure of his day and especially his tangled relationships with women are the main topics of recollection. The encounters with the good and the great that Lodge details are numerous and interesting as in Wells butting heads with fellow Fabians George Bernard Shaw and E. Nesbit and sometimes funny as in his awkward friendship with Henry James but it is the many and wide ranging love affairs in Wells life that dominate the novel. Knowing next to nothing about Wells I have no idea how much of what Lodge tells is true and how much is cut from whole cloth but instinct can be a good guide.
My favorite passages in A Man of Parts are about Wells writing. It is worth remembering how influential Wells was and is. Lodge conscientiously addresses Wells many, and justly famous books but unfortunately in A Man of Parts H.G.’s creativity with a pen takes a back seat to his more salacious endeavors. This perspective might have been more engaging if the novel contained more historical background or if at this point revealing a Victorian as a sex maniac was surprising. The shopping list of events, conquests and titles that Lodge details are interesting but Lodge does not provide any insight into Wells the man, the writer, to explain why he was such catnip to all of these women or put each of those things in the context of the incredibly changing times in which Wells lived.
P.S. LOVE THE COVER! One of the best I have seen this year.