"A Man of Parts" is a big, nervy book of more than 550 pages devoted to H. G. Wells, a prolific writer not too much remembered in America except for his two Saturday afternoon entertainments "War of the Worlds" and "Time Machine."
Nervy in a way because David Lodge's decision to devote a big chunk of his own life researching and writing about Wells was risky. Would his subject be compelling enough to attract sufficient interest to make the effort worthwhile? The answer is, well sort of.
Wells (1866-1946) lived a long, productive life and it comes as pretty much a surprise that as well as being a writer of a hundred-odd books of fiction and nonfiction, the man was a sex machine, a fin de siècle man of many conquests.
Lodge describes Wells as not particularly attractive. Late in life Wells humorously portrays himself in an "auto-obituary" as a "bent, shabby, slovenly and latterly somewhat obese figure." Still, he was as successful in his conquests as a rooster in a henhouse.
Married twice, Wells was a socialist who believed in, was an activist for and practiced free love (ardently and often and with a score or more of women who were married, single, young and not so young, including birth control advocate Margaret Sanger).
Lodge suggests that one of the reasons for Wells' appeal was, strangely, his scent. His longtime lover the writer Rebecca West, nearly 30 years his junior, said he gave off the aroma of English walnuts, and another of his dalliances, the novelist Elizabeth von Arnim, said he exuded the smell of honey. Whatever the reason for his allure, throughout his life when he approached a potential conquest he was usually eagerly received.
I don't know how best to describe the book. It's either a fictionalized biography or a novel that passes itself off as something very true to life. In a front page, Lodge says the truth is "elastic" and nearly everything he writes about Wells is "inferable from" or "consistent with."
The book begins and ends in 1944 at the end of Wells' life when in his late 70s he's ill and in a mood to defend his reputation and define a legacy by talking about his life and works. Between those bookends, Lodge tells his subject's story in flashback.
Wells was not born to privilege. But his origins weren't like something from Dickens either. His father was a shopkeeper and his mother worked as a servant to the more prosperous. He struggled to get an education, worked as a teacher and apprenticed as a draper. He began writing while young and relatively quickly found a following. Money and prosperity followed soon after.
West summed up Well's life this way: "HG was like a comet. He appeared suddenly out of obscurity at the end of the 19th century and blazed 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 the beneficial effect of its gaseous tail."
Wells said of himself, "I want to change the world not just describe it." Whether he succeeded is open to debate. Lodge's life of Wells is long and although the book is interesting I wanted it to be something more, engaging enough to hold my interest page after page and affair after affair. For me it didn't quite measure up.