The Magazine

The Wells Machine

A novelist reimagines a novelist’s progress.

Nov 28, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 11 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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David Lodge is probably best known for a series of campus novels—Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work—that, back in the 1970s and ’80s, deftly exposed the pretensions and foibles of academic life. Lodge’s erudition and skills as a parodist have made him popular with highbrow readers. But his novels are also often funny, in a rueful way, making them strong sellers throughout the world.

Photo of H.G. Wells with Orson Welles

Wells and Orson Welles after ‘War of the Worlds’ (1938)

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Of course there’s no lack of good novels satirizing academics, and some of the most celebrated examples (Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution) belong to the postwar era when higher education in both Great Britain and the United States began its big boom. Lodge, who grew up in a working-class London suburb, is himself a product of that expansion: In the 1950s and ’60s he was the first in his family to attend a university, and to earn a Ph.D. Lodge taught for many years at the University of Birmingham. He has published widely as both a literary scholar and a creative writer. And so he knows the world of professors of literature as Dick Francis knew the world of jockeys—from the inside.

Lodge’s own academic career coincided with the rise of critical theory, which by the end of the 1980s had largely transformed English in the academy. “Theory,” as it was called, reverentially or not, created a slew of critical schools with their own ardent disciples and stars: Deconstructionists, Structuralists, Post-Structuralists, Postcolonialists, Russian Formalists, and New Historicists, among others, all of them eager to confound the uninitiated while blasting away the intellectual assumptions of yore. The cocky American Morris Zapp, who appears in several of Lodge’s campus comedies, is especially good at exploiting the latest critical fashions for his own professional ends.

When he entered the profession, Zapp, a self-described “Jane Austen man,” assumed that the critic’s goal was to “establish the meaning of texts.” But when the new theorists declared “meaning” obsolete, Zapp duly mastered the new lingo and took to writing pieces like “Textuality as Striptease.” For Zapp, the sole point of literary studies is to “uphold the institution of academic literary studies” and the only smart thing a smart guy can do is go with the flow. “There comes a time,” he observes, “when the individual has to yield to the Zeitgeist or drop out of the ball game.” Zapp relishes the game: the professional combat, the collecting of grants, the chance to strut his stuff at professional conferences where his relative celebrity ensures that his chances of seducing a hot post-structuralist are reliably high. “Before I retire,” he declares, “I want to be the highest paid English Professor in the world.”

Herbert George Wells, the subject of A Man of Parts, was neither an academic nor a practicing Ph.D. He attended middling schools and the Normal School of Science in South Kensington, a teacher’s college. H. G. Wells, of course, was also the author of The Time Machine and the Outline of History, among other things; he sold millions of books and became a rich man and a household name. Wells’s circle of acquaintances included Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. Even the tallest ivory tower would have been too small for Wells at the height of
his fame.

And yet, in many ways, Wells would fit perfectly into one of Lodge’s campus novels. He, too, was an ambitious intellectual who relished his rivalries and took himself very seriously indeed. He disdained the petite bourgeoisie and saw himself as a great blaster of old-fashioned ideas—a blunt, jaunty, rather shocking writer-prophet whose chief interest, next to sex, was the care and feeding of his own career.

In A Man of Parts, Lodge sometimes uses his “novelist’s license,” as he calls it, to describe the thoughts and conversations of his principal characters. But Lodge also sticks closely to the facts of Wells’s life, making extensive if selective use of a wide range of sources, including Wells’s letters and his 700-page Experiment in Autobiography. Wells, in fact, quite enjoyed writing about Wells, offering thinly veiled and idealized self-portraits in such novels as Ann Veronica, The New Machiavelli, and The Passionate Friends. A later novel, The World of William Clissold, is similarly self-admiring; here Wells assumes the persona of a wealthy industrialist who, when not brooding about his many amours, drones on about Wells’s own most cherished fantasy—the World State where, one day, all will find their happy place in the great human hive.