Once upon a time there was a future. H.G. Wells had seen it. Apparently it was going to be naked. Well that’s certainly the impression one gets from the dollops of sex folded into David Lodge’s novel on Wells’ life, A Man of Parts.
I call the book a novel because it’s called one on the cover. But in reality I think Lodge has managed to out-Hamlet Hamlet and given us a new mixed genre perhaps best described as historico-biographical-novelistic-political-critical-gossip. ‘Nearly everything that happens in this narrative,’ we are told in a short preface, ‘is based on factual sources’. Once you tuck in, however, it’s left to you to chew over each detail and guess at its reality or otherwise. Quoted letters, one assumes, are factual sources. Wells’ erotic pillow-talk probably not. And everything in between?
Lodge’s discursive-psycho-romance ostensibly records Wells’ reminiscences as he dies in London at the close of the Second World War. These reminiscences are structured primarily by his succession of lovers . A lengthy parade. I had no idea Wells was such a vigorously conscientious practitioner, as well as a preacher, of sexual liberation. He seems to have been particularly fearless about liberating his friends’ virginal daughters. A secondary theme is Well’s career as writer, and then as socialist. Behind all, the sickeningly honeyed slide of Edwardian England into the First World War hovers with Minerva’s owl in the dusk.
The narrative is mainly carried out in the third-person, and proceeds on the whole chronologically, which encourages you to take it as a particularly vivid biography. Until, that is, you get to one of the sections in which Lodge puts us briefly inside Wells’ mind to eavesdrop on conversations between himself and an unbidden voice in his head.