Bogged down in reality

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 May, 2011, 12:00am


A Man of Parts
by David Lodge
Harvill Secker, HK$247

What is the difference between biography and fictional biography when narrating a real person's life? Is it just the phrase 'based on a true story'? Does it matter whether a novelist plays fast and loose with the facts of someone's life if it makes for better art? And when does research become too much research?

David Lodge's new book, A Man of Parts, asks these questions too. The cover depicts a man staring directly at us from between two Victorian matrons. He is H.G. Wells, an undeniably real subject, hero and occasional narrator of Lodge's tale. Both Wells and Lodge are well qualified to examine the line between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy. Lodge is well known both as a novelist (of Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work) and a literary academic: his collected essays, Write On, are masterful.

Wells, too, told high-flying stories with a popular touch: The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man and The Island of Dr Moreau. He was convinced of their prophetic and realistic intent about technology, warfare and genetics.

Wells was, in his lifetime and Lodge's retelling, a force to be reckoned with in British politics. A controversial member of the Socialist Fabian Society, he famously jousted with George Bernard Shaw about policy and ideology. Wells corresponded with Henry James, met Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad, was friends with children's author E. Nesbit and more than friendly with Rebecca West.

Wells was self-made. Born into genteel poverty at the end of the 19th century, he pulled himself up by his bootstraps, before he became obsessed with his jockstrap. Wells became wealthy and famous across the globe, and yet never quite left the depravations of his background behind. Voracious for money, success, power, status and women, he remained perpetually insecure about how he, his work and his opinions were received.

A Man of Parts is rather a courageous project. Lodge has done this sort of thing before and been badly burned. In 2004, he published Author, Author, an imaginative autobiography of Henry James. The only hitch was he wasn't alone: Irish novelist Colm Toibin had exactly the same idea at roughly the same time and his version, The Master, beat Lodge to the publication punch, and then won the Man Booker Prize for fiction.

Perhaps the best thing about A Man of Parts is its title, which blossoms as you read. It prepares you for a tale of success and variety, while also promising some nudge-nudge-wink-wink naughtiness. As we read, other meanings begin to bloom: Wells' fascination with science and machines; his flair for the dramatic; his compartmentalised life, narrated by Lodge in distinct and distinctive sections; and, possibly, his affection for departures.

But an obstacle appears pretty quickly in a fussy epigraph that leaves none of these subtleties to chance. 'Parts PLURAL NOUN 1. Personal abilities or talents: a man of many parts. 2. short for private parts.' Lodge then lodges two further quotes from Wells, before adding a prologue explaining his own fictional method: 'Nearly everything that happens in this narrative is based on factual sources - 'based on' in the elastic sense that includes 'inferable from' and 'consistent with'.' Surely an explanatory introduction that has to explain itself this much is an explanation too far?

This returns us to the question asked at the beginning: does it matter if a novelist plays fast and loose with the facts of someone's life if it makes for better art? And where A Man of Parts is concerned, should a novelist include facts if they get in the way of a ripping yarn?

Lodge argues that he has 'used a novelist's licence in representing what [his characters] felt and said to each other'. True, but he displays an academic's pedantry when authorising the work of his imagination: 'Quotations from their books and other publications, speeches, and (with very few exceptions) letters, are their own words.' One is tempted to shout, 'Get on with it' - not the last time such a feeling will arise.

Here is our introduction to Wells the best-selling writer. Lodge pays tribute to 'his hundred-odd books, his thousands of articles, the originality of his early scientific romances like The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, the controversial impact of his treatment of sexual relations in novels like Ann Veronica (the irregularity of his own sexual life would be discreetly veiled), the warm Dickensian humour of novels like Kipps and The History of Mr Polly ...' and on and on and on.

The passage reads like an entry in a literary encyclopaedia, and not a very thrilling one at that. A Man of Parts actually turns the obituary into a narrative strategy - not inappropriate as the story is seen in retrospect by an elderly Wells dying of liver cancer. Wells' main obituarist is Wells himself, who reviews his life in a series of weirdly plodding self-interviews. It makes for a strange and ponderous read, one that seems intent on settling an argument rather than creating fully rounded characters. Budding writers are told, perhaps too vehemently, that stories should show rather than tell. This applies double to A Man of Parts, which too frequently feels like a literary interview elevated towards the state of art. Wells doesn't so much leap from the page as transcribe himself from a host of primary sources. On the positive side, A Man of Parts is impressively informative, especially if, like me, you know little about Wells. But is information what we really want from a novel when, as Lodge notes himself, Michael Sherborne published a biography of 'meticulous scholarship' last year?

This is the main gripe with A Man of Parts. Its more than capable writing, and obtrusively impressive research, make for a less than successful work of art. Lodge's need to prove his point is almost compulsive and obstructs his imagination's ability to do that for itself. Most disappointingly, this prevents an enjoyable story being truly entertaining - and isn't entertainment, at the end of the day, the vital quality that separates fiction from non-fiction?