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Review: Fiction

A Man of Parts, by David Lodge Add to ...

In 1965, David Lodge wrote, “Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children. Life is the other way round.”

As if to correct this imbalance, Lodge in 2004 wrote Author, Author, a novel about Henry James, a man who probably never had sex with anyone at all: no sex, no children. By contrast, Lodge’s new novel about H.G. Wells, A Man of Parts, is chockablock with sex. There are even children, just as in life: two legitimate, two il-. No wonder it’s almost 200 pages longer than the Henry James novel.

The two books share a similar structure. Both begin with an aged literary lion confronting death. For Wells, living in his Regent’s Park home despite the continuing threat of Nazi incendiary bombs descending on London, it is little satisfaction to see so many of his literary prophecies coming true, particularly the horrors of aerial warfare and devastated cities. So far, at least, the atomic bomb, predicted by Wells in 1914, has not materialized, though he will live to see it. Wells, a more public figure than James, is a more obvious choice as the subject of a novel, and not just because of all the sex.

The life of H.G. Wells is, in many ways, a gift to a novelist: He was a self-made man who became famous and wealthy, who knew practically everybody (Shaw! Gorky! Lenin!) and had sex with many of them (Rebecca West! Elizabeth von Arnim! Margaret Sanger! a Russian spy!), provoking no shortage of scandal. Along the way, Wells wrote more than 100 books, some still read today. The complications of his personal life necessitated a brisk writing pace, and it was The Outline of History, published in 1920, that finally cemented his financial well-being. (Lodge ducks the issue of the plagiarism charges laid by Florence Deeks, the Canadian at the heart of A.B. McKillop’s The Spinster and the Prophet. He may have felt the book was long enough already.)

If Wells had not existed, an enterprising novelist might have had to invent him. An outspoken champion of socialism and free love (and a formidable practitioner of the latter), Wells is already a larger-than-life character, to the point that only his intelligent, forbearing second wife can begin to match him. Wherein lies the problem, in that there is room only for one sun in this universe. With the exceptions of the second wife and Rebecca West (beware women who name themselves after tragic Ibsen heroines), the women tend to come and go. And the hazard of writing fiction about real people is that life, by nature, is a messy thing, and it’s a challenge to impose any sort of coherent plot around that messiness, particularly if, like Lodge, you’re trying to stick as closely as possible to known facts. And few lives were messier than Wells’s.

A Man of Parts concentrates on the first half of Wells’s life, effortlessly (as is Lodge’s wont) introducing us to a number of his books as well as to both his wives and an army of female admirers. Wells is a complex man, capable of holding a variety of strongly felt, entirely contradictory opinions at any time. Jane, the second wife, who failed to share Wells’s sexual appetite, but who not only tolerated his dalliances but offered frequent advice to all concerned, is the quiet star of the book.

Lodge had access to letters from and to Wells, and he has read countless books in which his hero figures, so we can be fairly confident of his facts, though there are moments in which he has had to imagine events or conversations. And of course we know how it will end, it being widely accepted that Wells died in 1946, shortly before his 80th birthday. Lodge’s novel ends, as it began, near Regent’s Park, the elderly Wells trying to make sense of his life and, as ever, trying to fire off one more book. A Man of Parts may not be Lodge at peak form, but he remains a lively and entertaining writer. And, to his credit, for all the bonking in the book, I can’t see him contending for this year’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award.

David Lodge 101

His early works

English novelist and critic David Lodge has been publishing fiction since 1960. A deft comic touch characterizes his work, and his novels usually reflect his own experiences. Lodge’s early work touches on his childhood in south London (Out of the Shelter, 1970, and The Picturegoers, 1960) and his period of National Service (Ginger You’re Barmy, 1962). He draws upon his life as a young, Catholic university student during the sexual revolution in The British Museum is Falling Down (1965), a clever novel that confused some readers with his imitation of assorted literary styles, and How Far Can You Go? (1980).

The grooves of academe

Lodge’s career as an English professor at the University of Birmingham led to his much-loved novels of academe: Changing Places (1975), Small World (1984), Nice Work (1988) and Thinks… (2001). Changing Places, a gloriously funny account of an exchange program that sends a high-flying American academic to a drab English university and his mild-mannered English counterpart to an American institution modelled on Berkeley, is one of Lodge’s great achievements. Small World, a sort of sequel, deals with the world of academic conferences and is equally popular on campuses.

Deftly deaf

Lodge’s fans are inclined to read his books with a view to find out what he’s been up to, and were worried in 2008 when Deaf Sentence appeared. It’s a very funny novel about a retired academic with growing hearing problems; sure enough, we were unsurprised to learn that Lodge was becoming deaf.

A critic’s eye

Lodge’s life as a literary critic has brought him to Author, Author (2004), a novel about the life of Henry James, and now A Man of Parts (2011), a fictional work about H.G. Wells.

Nicholas Pashley is the author of Cheers: An Intemperate History of Beer in Canada .

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