David Lodge is one of the few safe bets in the literary market. If you like his work the first time around, you like it forever. He does not disappoint. At least that is how I feel every time I open a new Lodge novel. A Man of Parts was no different.
Set in the few decades around the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the novel follows the fortunes and misfortunes of the visionary, über-prolific author, H.G. Wells, who is mostly remembered for his early novels, today's world-literature classics, such as The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), or The War of the Worlds (1898). Even if some of us have not read the novels, we all know the movies and their multiple remakes. There is no doubt that Wells' stories have stood the test of time.
The fame of his novels overshadowed his other achievements, such as the remarkable The Outline of History (1919), which "ran to three-quarters of a million words, mostly his own." He not only wrote the book in just two years, but sold over two million copies of it in the years immediately after publication! His own life-story will be even less familiar to today's public, but is equally fascinating. David Lodge has packed it into a structurally intriguing novel, which according to the Acknowledgments is very closely based on Wells' life, and often reads more like a biography than a work of fiction.
A Man of Parts opens when H.G., as Herbert George Wells was known to family and friends, decides to take stock of his life shortly before his death in the war-ravaged London of 1944. Famous for his fictitious predictions of the future, he now faces his own past, private and public. By raking his memory, rereading his notes and novels, and interrogating himself in numerous self-reflective interviews, Wells goes over the details of his stellar literary career, his conflicted involvement with the Fabian Society, as well as his adventurous love life. Married twice - under the circumstances only twice - Wells became infamous for his more or less open practice of free love. He had countless affairs with women who became famous in their own right, such as the secret agent, Baroness Moura Budberg or the writers Rebecca West and Amber Reeves. With the latter he also had children.
The individual stories are set against the broader developments in England of the time, with the two world wars featuring prominently, and are interspersed with fragments of literary criticism, excerpts of Well's own writing, and real or imagined letters. The chronology is disrupted by many flashbacks and some foreshadowing, often giving the novel a disjointed feel. Occasionally, it becomes too much and A Man of Parts reads like a novel of many parts, as if some of these passages were notes towards a novel and not the final version of the narrative.
But even though I sometimes found myself wondering why we need to read about yet another of Aigee's conquests (as Moura referred to Wells), in the end the novel is so full of other indispensable material, and remarkable wit and humour that one easily forgives the few narratorial foibles. As H.G. tells himself: "We're a bundle of incompatible parts, and we make up stories about ourselves to disguise the fact."
A Man of Parts is a rich and entertaining portrait of one of the literary greats of the past century and a timely re-introduction to his fascinating oeuvre. "Perhaps one day he will glow in the firmament once again", it says in the novel. He does - in Lodge's latest.
A Man of Parts by David Lodge
Harvill Secker, 2011
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