Clunky or Canny – a Northernreader’s view

Well, sometime last week I finally managed it – finished A Man of Parts by David Lodge. Have you ever felt that you’ve lived with a book for a long time, perhaps a mite too long?

I have read a few reviews of this book, and one labelled it ‘clunky’ and I can see what they meant. It is a big book, which takes a fair bit of commitment, but overall I think it is worth it. This is not a book for the academic study of H.G.Wells, his life and works. It is, however, based on a great deal of research, while remaining readable and drawing the reader along.

It begins as the aging and ill Wells is surviving the end of the Blitz in wartime London. It switches, clearly, between the view of his surviving children, one of whom is instantly identified as the son of Rebecca West, so that Wells’ somewhat relaxed attitude to relationships is soon revealed. Detailed interview questions soon appear, and resurface throughout the text at odd intervals.This gives the opportunity for a factual detour, as well breaking up the strict chronology. It also pursues some of the motives behind particular behaviour, without excusing the inconsistencies of Wells’ attitudes. For this book leaves you with the knowledge that his sexual appetites were overwhelming, seeming to override his political interests, his settled relationships with both of his long suffering wives, and almost his writing.

His book variously provided the necessary finances, gave him a platform to argue from, and almost allowed him to justify his relationships. He visited prostitutes from a young age, had passing relationships with his contemporaries, but most significantly formed long term relationships with very young women who declared their crushes on him, as a leading writer and probably a bit of a father figure, and were instantly taken up on their (to his mind at least) offers. Amber and Rebecca had children by him, both notable women in their own right, but both set up for at least a number of months or years. He seduced other women, prim in his knowledge and use of contraception but with little regard for how they would live afterwards. Some were seduced because he knew their family almost too well, others (such as Elizabeth von Arnem) happily gave as good as they got. He was an early advocate in his writing of free love, as long as there were two woman to every man if he required them and always claimed that his wife was content with his affairs provided he asked her, which did not always happen…

If you know nothing in detail of Wells’ writing and are expecting a lit crit of his works, you will be disappointed in this book. His novels, reviews, and political writing are mentioned in passing, but there are sparse details of their content unless, as in the case of some of his novels, they are written to excuse his latest arrangement with women.

I felt that this book does not seek to justify or condemn Wells, but to expose what he was really like. It is a writer’s biography of a writer, but the subtext is perhaps that he struggled to defend the indefensible. I finished this book not liking Wells much, but full of admiration for Lodge’s evident ability to catalogue and create an account of this man whose self belief meant his genuine ability to ignore the emotional damage he was doing to so many women. Despite its sheer size and, frankly, repetition of seductions, it is an engaging book which carries the reader along. I admit to not having come to terms with Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall as yet, but I suspect that this is also a picture of a monster who engaged as many people as he destroyed. This is such a well written book that I would hate to put anyone off embarking on it, but it is in no sense a quick read. Borrow or buy a copy and read it, soon.

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