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A NOVEL LIFE,
This review is from: A Man of Parts (Hardcover)
David Lodge's "Man of Parts" is a lightly fictionalized biography of H.G. Wells focused principally on his very active sex life. It is an odd hybrid: so close to being an actual biography that Lodge might as well have written it as such. Nonetheless, as can almost be guaranteed from Lodge, it is a satisfying read. It is as close to being unputdownable as a 560-page tome could hope to be.
"A Man of Parts" begins with Wells approaching the end of his life during the final days of World War II. He is witness to the realization of some of his scientific forecasts: aerial warfare and the atomic bomb. Some of his utopian predictions - world government or at least the new United Nations Organization, and the beginnings of the Welfare State - are also being fulfilled. But these are all disappointments. To the dismay of friends and family, his final work is the bitter "A Mind at the End of its Tether."
Lodge then takes us back through Wells' rags to riches life story. He does this through a combination of straight narrative and a periodic series of interviews of Wells by himself. This latter technique seems too much like a cheap prop. It reminds me of Dennis O'Driscoll's's not-quite-satisfying email interviews of Seamus Heaney in "Stepping Stones" or of some of Peter Ackroyd's more fanciful experiments at the edge of biography.
As Lodge signals in his prefatory quotation from the Collins English Dictionary: "parts: short for private parts," his interest here is mainly in Well's sexual development. He tells us that Wells experienced over one hundred women. We are introduced to a broad sample during the course of this book. Wells married twice. Through misfortune and then carelessness he chose two women who had considerably less sexual appetite than himself. Thus, while his marriage to "Jane" lasted until her death in 1927, she had to accept his nonstop pursuit of extramarital sex. This sex came in both long-lasting relationships (as with Rebecca West, with whom he had a son, and Moura Budberg, who was rumored to be a Soviet spy and was actually Nick Clegg's great great aunt) and numerous "passades" with both acquaintances and prostitutes.
Many of Wells' affairs were with much younger women in circumstances than many corporate codes would today classify as sexual harassment. Wells justified his behavior on the basis of his philosophy of Free Love and his generosity in instructing these young women in the art of love ("Is that your ....?" Amber whispered. "That is my erect penis," he said). As Lodge makes clear, however, his lust antedated his philosophy; he was consumed with jealousy if there was even a hint that the shoe might be on the other foot; and he was not slow to condemn others in unconventional relationships such as Hubert Bland who sired his daughter, Rosamund, with the governess. Bland to be fair was also quick to rally to the double standard when he attacked Wells for seducing his daughter.
Lodge does touch on other matters - Wells' writing, his relationship with Henry James, his efforts to take over the Fabian, his worldly success - but most of his focus is on sex. He writes of this quite explicitly, but not pornographically. Wells' life story, we are quickly convinced, is about sex.
Lodge writes to a large degree in the voice of biography. His comprehensive bibliography of sources and his extensive quotations from Wells' and others' works and letters reinforce this impression. In "Author, Author," his 2004 novel about Henry James, Lodge used the fictional format to develop greater imaginative insight into his subject. This does not happen here, or if it does, it does not fully compensate for the uncertainty sowed as to which episodes in `A Man of Parts" are fact and which are fiction. The reader is left feeling slightly cheated even though the experience was undeniably satisfying. The Man Booker judges will have a dilemma.