A Man Of Parts, by David Lodge (Random House)

David Lodge is a prolific writer of novels, literary criticism, and drama: how is it, then, that he is capable of a sentence such as the following?

“Anthony rings up Jean, a pretty young brunette with superb breasts who works as a secretary at Bush House, with whom he is having a passionate affair, and tells her the news about his father.”

It’s not so much the lazy, sexist characterization (poor Jean, reduced to a hair colour in possession of superb breasts). It’s not the expository style, ploddingly telling us what it ought to show. It’s not the mangled syntax (Anthony appears to be having an affair with a building). It’s not the clunky, prefabricated phrasing (if “passionate affair” doesn’t make you wince, try “stormy and passionate relationship” on the following page). All right, it’s all of these, but really it’s the sound of the thing – archaic-genteel, Edwardian, with a whiff of the smoking-room – that sets my teeth a-grinding. But then, this is a biographical novel set in Edwardian times, filtered mostly through the consciousness of its protagonist, the astoundingly prolific writer H.G. Wells (his literary output makes Lodge look like he’s still in training pants), so it’s hard to tell whether Lodge’s prose is cleverly inflected with the idiom of a bygone cultural milieu, or whether it’s plain atrocious.

It’s a tough call, but by novel’s end, I was firmly in the atrocity corner. Structurally the novel is unexceptionable: its central narrative is bookended with Wells in old age, sitting out the London Blitz and querulously negotiating with his adult children, former mistresses, and daycare staff – but mostly with himself, the merciless interlocutor only he can hear. This inner voice becomes the novel’s main narrative device, steering it back into the past, to Wells’s unpromising beginnings as a working-class boy in Victorian Bromley, on the outskirts of London. His Dickensian rise is charted article by article and then book by book, and there is a lot of tedious detail concerning his involvement with the wishy-washy socialist movement known as Fabianism, but it is Wells’s sexual history that is the novel’s core.

And a rich, vastly populated history it is. Wells enjoyed sex the way Englishmen of his era enjoyed their food: none of your Continental jiggery-pokery, but hearty, no nonsense fare, and plenty of it. Scarily well-endowed (the title is the first of many allusions to this), he turned to women for refreshment rather than relationships, and got embroiled in one scandal after another – frequently seducing the daughters of his friends, to the horror of fellow-Fabian George Bernard Shaw and others of his literary set. A latter-day Byron in this regard, Wells was, if not mad, certainly bad, and dangerous to know.

Lodge focuses on the years of Wells’s fame, from the 1890s to 1920 – the years in which he published enduring bestsellers such as The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds, among a host of lesser-known works. His more literary novels such as Ann Veronica, Kipps and Tono-Bungay earned him the critical success he craved, and he was on friendly terms with Henry James, Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad and Arnold Bennett. But these friendships get scant coverage in this account, apart from some delicious excerpts from James’s letters. (I detect some overflow here from Lodge’s research for his previous novel, a fictionalised biography of James.) Henry James may be a literary giant, but he’s not sexy – so it’s never very long before we’re treated to breathless – or breathy – passages such as this:

“Is that your…?” Amber whispered. “That is my erect penis,” he said, “a column of blood, one of the marvels of nature, a miracle of hydraulic engineering.”

That’s not very sexy, either, come to think of it, but it’s about as sexy as this novel gets. Perhaps Lodge is constrained, here, by historical fact – Wells lovingly recorded all the details of what he called his passades – but it’s very hard to believe that either Amber Reeves or Wells himself ever said any such thing. (Amber goes on to say, inevitably, “It’s enormous.”)

After The Outline of History, a textbook issued in 1920 that became an unexpected bestseller, Wells’s career and reputation went into decline. His ideas were clever and prescient, but couched in an obsolete, conventional language. Eclipsed by the Modernists, he continued to publish books year after year that the public no longer had a taste for. This is where Lodge, as a novelist, has the advantage over the biographer: whereas a biographer must doggedly follow the life’s trajectory, the novelist can simply skip to the end. This is also, of course, an option for the reader.

Dominion

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Tim Tweets