David Lodge’s “A Man of Parts,” reviewed by Michael Dirda

September 14, 2011

HG. Wells’s life (1866-1946) has always read like a novel. And now it is one. Or is it?

David Lodge’s “A Man of Parts” hews closely to all the known facts about Wells, derives much of its dialogue from his letters and memoirs and includes no made-up characters.

The book also draws many details from the numerous secondary works devoted to Wells and his distinguished contemporaries. After all, the author of “The Time Machine” and “The War of the Worlds” — not to overlook “Tono-Bungay” and “The Outline of History” — knew Henry James, Arnold Bennett, Bernard Shaw, Ford Madox Ford, the children’s author E. Nesbit, all the movers and shakers of the Fabian socialists, the Russian writer Maxim Gorky and many, many others.

He also slept with an astonishing number of women, including some noted writers (Rebecca West, Dorothy Richardson), at least one Cambridge undergraduate, the daughters of friends, a possible Russian spy (Moura Budberg), a black Washington prostitute named Martha, birth-control pioneer Margaret Sanger and, according to his own calculations, perhaps 100 other women. Why? Or, perhaps, why not?

“A Man of Parts” explores, with great verve, Wells’s lifelong attempt to honor his own complexity, to be true to himself as a sexual being, a loving family man, a creative artist and an ambitious social thinker.

Long ago, Lodge made his reputation with “Changing Places,” “Small World” and “Nice Work,” widely praised satires of academic life. Yet, for all their laughs, these books were, in a way, “condition of England” novels, rich in reflections on the way we live now and regularly depicting the undercutting of dreams by reality. In “A Man of Parts” we again see a protagonist who tries to make his ideals — artistic, erotic and societal — come true, seems to succeed for a while and then finds everything falling apart.

But there’s a difference between this new book and the older ones. In “Small World” Professor Morris Zapp was generally thought to be closely based on the well known academic Stanley Fish. When A.S. Byatt brought out “The Children’s Book” — set among many of the same people as “A Man of Parts” — she called her E. Nesbit character Olive Wellwood. But here H.G. Wells really is H.G. Wells and E. Nesbit is E. Nesbit. What lies behind this decision to ignore the usual boundaries dividing fact from fancy?

In most historical novels, a fictional character acts against the background of, say, the French Revolution or the Indian Mutiny. Think of Baroness Emmuska Orczy’s “The Scarlet Pimpernel” or George MacDonald Fraser’s “Flashman in the Great Game.” This is the model established by Walter Scott, and it allows the novelist a kind of imaginative breathing space. The character can think and act with relative freedom, unlike the historical figures who are, more or less, straitjacketed by the established facts of their famous lives.

There is another, trickier model, however. Sometimes, the biographical record is so rich and full that a novelist will risk impersonating a figure from the past. Think now of Robert Graves’s “I, Claudius,” which reads, quite convincingly, like the actual memoirs of the Roman emperor. In “A Man of Parts,” Lodge writes in this other, more difficult tradition and succeeds brilliantly.

H.G. Wells was born the son of a housemaid, left school at 14, worked for a time in a draper’s shop and essentially educated himself. He was short — he believed because of his impoverished diet as a child — and never completely lost his cockney accent. But he was also a genius. In his early stories alone, Wells established and explored virtually all the major ideas of what we now call science fiction.

Nonetheless, Lodge scarcely refers to this work. He’s primarily interested in Wells the Edwardian novelist and ideologue, and how the man’s erotic life affected his career and the people close to him. In nearly all the mature fiction and nonfiction, Lodge reminds us, Wells consistently argues for a more rationally arranged world. He envisions future Utopias where free love flourishes, where a ménage a quatre is possible, where young women speak openly of their sexual desires.

Yet sex, as Wells comes to know from his experience, is a vexing issue. As he tells one infatuated young thing, “It’s both wonderful and ordinary.” When he writes “The Sea Lady,” an early work about a mermaid, he wonders whether it’s “a fable illustrating the destructive effect of sexual love, or celebrating its transcendent power? He didn’t really know.” Readers of “A Man of Parts” will ask themselves the same question and probably give the same answer.

Even if you’re well up on Wells’s life and writings, Lodge makes his novel-cum-biography mesmerizing. Here is the young writer’s unfortunate first marriage to a sexually frigid cousin, his second marriage to Jane, who quietly accepts his affairs as the cost of being a part of his life, and his liaisons with Rosamund Bland, Amber Reeves and West, all three intelligent young women half his age. Each reappears in his fiction. As Wells says, “If you’re writing about contemporary life, there’s really no alternative but to draw on your own.”

In “Ann Veronica,” for instance, the heroine — mainly based on Reeves — forthrightly tells her married biology teacher: “ ‘I want you. I want you to be my lover. I want to give myself to you. I want to be whatever I can to you.’ She paused for a moment. ‘Is that plain?’ ”

Because Lodge describes, more or less, all the major affairs in Wells’s life, his book does grow just slightly repetitive after a while. As the long-suffering Jane shouts out when learning of her husband’s involvement with yet another young woman: “For God’s sake, H.G.! . . . Not again!” Lodge does speed through several of the later liaisons.

In Lodge’s hands, though, these numerous affairs all function as test cases, illustrations of the ineradicable and contradictory nature of human beings. Intellectual Fabian parents argue for free love, yet balk when their daughters engage in it. Time and again, passion cools, then rekindles, then finally dies into friendship. Wells bullies one reluctant mistress into marriage so he can get rid of her and return to the serenity of his family and work. In their later years, he and West are both appalled when their grown (and illegitimate) son announces that he’s leaving his wife for his mistress.

Lodge orchestrates the biographical narrative of “A Man of Parts” with his usual easy-going lightness and grace. Nonetheless, this is — for all its Wellsian particularities — still the common human story of how life, sooner or later, defeats our dreams. It’s also a terrifically enjoyable novel.

Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday. Join his discussion at wapo.st/reading-room.

A MAN OF PARTS

By David Lodge (right), Viking. 436 pp. $26.95

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