27 July 2012
Part 1, and Chapter 1 of Part 2
This is not far into a fairly long book… and at present I can’t understand why it’s going to be so long. Unless David Lodge keeps repeating himself in the way he’s already begun to do. We know from Part 1, in which H G Wells in his final years looks back on his own life, that his two early marriages were not satisfying to him sexually. Ok. Then a great deal of the chapter I’ve just read in Part 2 consists of fairly detailed descriptions of how his first marriage, to his cousin Isabel, was a disaster, sexually and otherwise. Dull? We’ve all read Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, so we know what happens on the wedding night when there’s a mismatch between an inexperienced, red-blooded young man and a virginal woman with no interest in sex. Well, that’s what we get, in far more detail than could possibly be interesting. I’ve had a quick look at the beginning of the next chapter, when Wells and the woman who will become his second wife have moved in together and… same again. She wants to do right by him, but he concludes that she simply doesn’t feel lust in the way that he does. What’s a man to do? (He does it with, he estimates, 100 different women.)
So I’m not massively impressed, either by the fact that sex seems to be almost the only driver of any of the narratives so far – I’m wondering, genuinely, if the ‘Parts’ of the title are the ones that Wells spends so much energy in satisfying – or by the framing devices Lodge uses. He assures us in a kind of preamble that his book is based on fact, but it’s a novel and therefore he has the novelist’s right to make a few things up, based on inference and extrapolation. Anybody would think we’d never read such a thing before… and, in fact, I’m often slightly irritated by a kind of unnecessary self-consciousness. In the first chapter we’ve had The 70-something Wells, in failing health, having conversations with a kind of imaginary friend. Like Dennis, Margaret Thatcher’s dead husband in the movie Iron Lady, this highly unsubtle device allows the writer to get through important business: dilemmas faced, decisions made – and, of course, consequences. Most of Chapter 2 – there are only two chapters in Part 1 – is in the form of an interview between Wells and another imaginary entity, less demanding and mainly interested in the facts of his early life.
Can you believe this? David Lodge, who has written so well about the different style choices open to novelists – his column on the subject in The Independent on Sunday was the main reason I bought that newspaper for week after week in the 1990s – has chosen two of the most clunkingly obvious techniques in the shape of these imaginary ‘interlocutors’. And along comes a third in the third chapter (Chapter 1 of Part 2 – try to keep up) when Wells, or Lodge, signals that the next memories are going to be as ‘a novelist’ might write them. (Sigh.)
But I’m not telling you what’s actually happening in any of the time-lines – Wells as an old man, or the strings of memories we get, some more straightforwardly chronological than others. Beginning in 1944, the timeline that acts as a framing device for the rest, shows us Wells in his London house – one of those Nash houses along the edge of Regents Park – having defied the bombs and those around him who tell him to find somewhere safer. Lodge can reference various of his writings – this wasn’t how he had envisaged war in the air, although he had predicted bomb-dropping airships, and so on – as Wells unpicks his life, a process his family describe as ‘muttering to himself’. If only they knew. (It’s not unlike the way the nurses in Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger dismiss the old woman’s memories as proof of her dementia. A lot of features of A Man of Parts remind me of others that did it more interestingly.)
I’m sorry, I can’t go on with this. Since writing the above I’ve read a little further, into the first chapter of Part 3, and I’m bored now. Sorry. Wells was a remarkable man but the self-centred, self-justifying character Lodge has pieced together is somebody I seem to be incapable of caring about.