When it comes to novels about famous people, two roads diverge in a yellow wood. Writers of historical fiction tend to stick to the more traveled road paved with facts, a route that leads to novelized or dramatized biographies; sometimes they choose to focus on a specific period or event in a person’s life, which was Colm Toibin’s approach in “The Master,” about Henry James’ last years. Taking the less familiar fork — Tom Stoppard’s specialty in drama — involves imagining sometimes outlandish scenarios or clearly fictitious what-might-have-beens that feature real people or a mix of actual and made-up characters. Cynthia Ozick’s “Dictation,” which invents freighted interchanges not just between Henry James and Joseph Conrad, but between their secretaries, is a recent journey down this path.
David Lodge informs us upfront in “A Man of Parts,” his novel based on the life of H.G. Wells, that “Nearly everything that happens in this narrative is based on factual sources.” While this makes his book an excellent introduction to Wells’ life and work, it’s evident that this staunchly faithful approach poses some daunting artistic constraints on a novelist.
It’s not hard to see what attracted Lodge to Wells, who was the author of more than 100 books (including “The Time Machine,” “War of the Worlds,” and “Tono-Bungay”) and lover of more than 100 women (including Rebecca West and Moura Budberg, a probable Russian spy). Beyond character study, Lodge’s mission is to make this brilliant, controversial writer, who, comet-like, “appeared suddenly out of obscurity at the end of the 19th century and blazed in the literary firmament for decades, evoking astonishment and awe and alarm — glow in the firmament once again.”
Wells’ rapidly written novels reflected a kaleidoscopic mix of his political concerns about the effects of science and capitalism run rampant and his extremely complicated personal life. At his best, including his World War I novel “Mr Britling Sees It Through,” (“The last one anybody would want to read twice”), his fiction contained “many recognizable fragments of his life, shaken up with some invented ones to make a new pattern.” He was decades ahead of his time not only as a proponent of Free Love, but in foreseeing the “destructive application of new advances in science and technology,” including tank warfare, nuclear fission and atomic bombs, and in proposing world government as a safeguard to mankind’s well-being.
Lodge, a literary critic and author of 13 novels, including “Changing Places,” “Therapy” and “Author, Author,” often writes with humor about affairs among academics. His last novel, “Deaf Sentence” (2008), concerned a man with hearing loss who gets into a sticky situation with a younger, manipulative woman — a perfect warmup for writing about Wells, who had an amazing capacity for getting himself into — and out of — godawful messes with women half his age.
“A Man of Parts” opens in blitzed London in the spring of 1944, when Wells, nearly 78, diagnosed with liver cancer and eclipsed by modernists like Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, retreats into his own head to review his life. Lodge writes, “The mind is a time machine that travels backwards in memory and forwards in prophecy, but he has done with prophecy now. His mind is at the end of its tether, he cannot bear to look forward into the chaos ahead. He looks back, at his life: has it, taken all in all, been a success or failure?” Lodge has Wells realize that “In trying to answer this question it is useful to have a second voice. He can, for instance, interview himself about his past, lobbing easy questions and answering them expansively, as he used to do in the days when journalists were still interested.” This leads to a somewhat clunky setup in which ersatz interviews are interspersed with more general reminiscences written in a tight but somewhat awkward third-person point of view.
“A Man of Parts” is as readable as it is in large part because Lodge has structured it around the most prominent of Wells’ string of sexual entanglements. In his posthumously published postscript to his 1934 two-volume “Experiment in Autobiography” — one of Lodge’s primary sources — Wells asserted that his “passages” often had nothing to do with love but were about giving and receiving pleasure. Lodge writes, “Sex for him was ideally a form of recreation, like tennis or badminton, something you did when you had completed a satisfactory bit of work, to let off steam and exercise the body instead of the mind for a while.” Physically incompatible with his unbelievably tolerant second wife, Jane, they reached an agreement early in their marriage that she would be his helpmeet and run his home while allowing him his dalliances, as long as he was open about them. He, in turn, vowed never to leave her. She was “an absolute brick” even during the scandals that arose after he slept with the virgin daughters of friends, impregnating several of them: “He thought of it as completing a young girl’s education at her request.” A novel written from Jane’s point of view is one I’d love to read.
As Lodge makes clear in his epigraph, his title alludes to both senses of the noun “parts” — his subject’s many abilities and his privates. Lodge attempts to do justice to all aspects of Wells, but it’s the sexual shenanigans more than the tussling with fellow members of the socialist Fabian Society that hold sway. Blocks of quotes from Wells’ novels and from prickly correspondence with George Bernard Shaw and Henry James, however welcome in a biography, interrupt the novel’s narrative flow. Yet despite some unwieldy patches, readers who stick with “A Man of Parts” will be rewarded with an insightful portrait of a flawed but magnetic man who tried to change the world through both his behavior and his writing, between bedcovers and bookcovers.