Who was the “man of parts”? H. G. Wells, and this novel is the story of his life. Treating it as fiction, while staying close to the biographical facts and using excerpts from real letters and other documents, offers some great advantages. Instead of speculating what this versatile man thought and felt, the novelist can tell us right out. I especially enjoyed Wells’ dialogs with himself, damning and excusing himself at the same time.
But you made the holiday sheer hell for her. As soon as you transferred to the Maria Cristina in Algeciras, you started throwing your weight around, to her acute embarrassment.
– I wasn’t well. I was exhausted from all the travelling, and I had a sore throat.
And the dog ate his homework.
If you can imagine writing 50 novels, great amounts of non fiction, being a political activist, going on lecture tours, entertaining a large circle of friends, and bedding dozen of women, you are way ahead of me. I cannot fully imagine this level of activity, but I can enjoy David Lodge’s account of this gifted and complex man. Wells is remembered now as the author of The War of the Worlds (the basis for Orson Welles’ radio drama) and The Time Machine, but these science fiction novels are from early in career. He went on to write novels of social criticism and social comedy, political polemics and, when money was needed, potboilers. Many of them, including Tono Bungay, drew on the circumstances of his own life. Born in undistinguished circumstances and poorly-educated as a boy, Wells was fearless in writing about science, history, politics and just about anything else that interested him.
What greatly interested him was sex, although he had to be somewhat circumspect in writing about it in the early 1900s. He was married twice and also had numerous passing liaisons, passades, in addition to several serious love affairs, fathering children with Amber Reeves and Rebecca West. Yes, that Rebecca West, and their son was Anthony West. Wells’ sex life is prominent in The Man of Parts and, as Lodge portrays him, Wells tries to be honest about it.
– I just happen to enjoy sex, and if I found a woman with the same appetite I had fun with her. I never forced a woman in my life, and I’ve had long-lasting friendships with women who turned me down.
– But a contradiction runs through your thinking about sex. Sometimes you say it should be regarded as just fun, a healthy form of recreation, like golf; at other times, with a beloved partner, it’s the most sublime physical, emotional and spiritual experience attainable, a portal to the Lover-Shadow.
– True. I oscillated between those two attitudes to sex without ever reconciling them — but that’s the human being for you. We’re a bundle of incompatible parts, and we make up stories about ourselves to disguise the fact.
Wells was intelligent and perceptive and sympathetic with women. He didn’t want to use them, or not only to use them, but did also want to feel his power in giving them pleasure. He failed, however, to foresee the emotional consequences of his actions. He would explain up front that he had no intention of divorcing his wife and then be disappointed to find that, as the affair proceeded, the other party very much wanted him to divorce his wife. He wanted both: the loving mistress for sex and the practical wife who managed his home and children and small daily comforts. Or again, when Amber Reeves wanted to conceive a child by him, he fathered the child and then was astounded to find that all parties would not accept the result. There is a central egotism here that Lodge does not quite get hold of. This egotism made Wells a prolific and successful writer, but it also had its price, and often others paid it.