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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Wells liked to insist that his many affairs and “passades” were quite refreshing, by and large, the “fairly equal” exchange of “two libertines.” But A Man of Parts confirms a more complicated story: West, for example, came to resent playing second fiddle to Wells’s legal wife, the long-suffering Jane. And for years Wells’s son with West, Anthony, nursed an identity crisis of his own. In his 1984 account of life with Wells, West emphatically notes that “I was allowed to call him Wellsie, but expressly forbidden to speak to him or of him as father, papa, or daddy.” Lodge has Wells describe his relationship with Anthony this way:

When he was very young he thought his mother was his aunt and I was his uncle, and then Rebecca told him she was his mother but he should still go on calling her “auntie,” and years later she told him his uncle was really his father.

As the years passed, and Wells’s hopes for the future darkened, his difficulties with the ladies grew. One disgruntled fellow libertine threatened suicide in his flat. Another spied on him, apparently, for the Kremlin. And yet another, Odette Keun, the bane of Wells’s later years, treated him with the same cool mockery Lodge displays in his campus satires. In a series of widely read articles, Keun described Wells as an egoist cranking out half-hearted propaganda—a gifted writer who, in the modern way, grew less interested in the meaning of his words than in his own publicity. For Wells, “it was only a game. He was only a player.”

Poor Wellsie. It’s hard enough remaking mankind. You’re at it seven days a week. Perhaps he should have consulted a medical man to find out if his chief hobby was, in fact, an absorbing waste of time and energy. He might have found a more orderly pastime, like golf, and avoided the gloom he described in a candid memoir marked for posthumous publication: “The story of my relations with women,” he wrote, “is mainly a story of greed, foolishness, and great expectation. I am an insufficient and often quite irritable ‘great man’ with an infantile craving for help.” Keun couldn’t have said it better herself.

Although Lodge tends to describe Wells with a certain ironic detachment, it’s also clear he rather admires his fellow Londoner; both men, after all, had seized their opportunities and built successful literary careers against the odds. Thus Lodge concludes A Man of Parts by noting that Wells was “like a comet,” appearing suddenly “out of obscurity” and then blazing away “in the literary firmament for decades, evoking astonishment and awe and alarm, like the comet of In the Days of the Comet, which threatened to destroy the earth, but in fact transformed it by beneficial effect of its gaseous trail.”

Lodge believes that Wells
also had

a liberating and enlightening effect on a great many people. As time went on his imagination and intellect dwindled in brightness, gradually people ceased to look up and stare in wonder, and now he has passed out of sight. But there are eccentric orbits in literary history. Perhaps one day he will glow in the firmament once again.

It’s a curious remark, for of course Wells’s best books—particularly those great science-fiction novels he dismissed as fluff—have never passed from view, and are probably more widely read today, in more languages, than ever before. But Wells, who was wonderfully imaginative, was neither intellectually nimble nor morally astute. He’d found a formula—science plus socialism minus religion equals Utopia—and banged on about it in book after bloated book.

Wells’s own gaseous trail can be found in titles that, as Lodge himself writes, are “all dead as doornails now. Fodder for the penny tray outside the second-hand bookshop.” And they will still be there, it’s safe to predict, in the world of tomorrow.

Brian Murray teaches writing and literature at Loyola University Maryland.