Henry James and H G Wells represented such different things - aristocratic New York and "below-stairs" Bromley, contemplation and energy, detachment and engagement, abstinence and free love - that it is hard to imagine anybody holding them in equal esteem. As for someone taking it on himself to write hefty, adoring novels about one and then the other: forget it. Yet this is the mini-project that David Lodge, having excavated James in Author, Author, has completed with A Man of Parts. His double fetish is not new. James and Wells are the only writers who figure in both Language of Fiction (1966), Lodge's first book of criticism, and The Year of Henry James, his most recent; in both, a consideration of a novel by James is followed directly by one of Wells. So, even though Lodge has returned to more familiar comic territory (Deaf Sentence) since the publication of Author, Author, it is nevertheless well established that when he is thinking about HJ, it won't be long before he turns to HG.
The reason for Lodge's attraction is that, as a novelist-critic, he can't help but adulate James; and as a brilliant student educated in London rather than Oxford or Cambridge, as well as a writer possessed with energy, humour and worldliness rather than patience and a sense of tragedy, he feels an affinity with Wells. Lodge is well equipped to understand the writers' mutual admiration - and their eventual falling-out. For many years, Wells had been sending James his books and receiving in return private reviews in which James would marvel at, for instance, the younger writer's "life and force and temperament, that fulness of endowment and easy impudence of genius"; but there were usually "remonstrances" about, say, the work's lack of unity or Wells's recourse to the first-person novel ("that accurst autobiographic form"). And sometimes his praise took a less-than-flattering form. Did he really intend an unmixed compliment when he wrote to Wells, "I love your agglomerated lucubrations"?
James's essential scepticism about Wells was given free expression in an essay of 1914, "The Younger Generation", in which he said that certain of Wells's novels attest more to "the presence of material" than an "interest in the use of it". Wells retaliated in his novel Boon (1915), the protagonist of which describes James's approach as being (among other insults) "just omission and nothing more". Elsewhere, and in his own voice, Wells had promoted "the saturated novel", meaning it to apply both to his scientific romances and to his social comedies; among the things James omitted were the bulk of "living human motives", most obviously religion and politicals.
In the short exchange that followed James's reading of Boon, the two men laid down their philosophies and then went their separate ways. Lodge has said that, for readers of the novel, the dispute takes on "an almost allegorical quality": "a classic encounter between a great theorist and exponent of the aesthetically 'pure', modern international novel, and a redoubtable spokesman for and practitioner of the rambling, discursive, aesthetically 'impure' novel of the traditional English type". In the main, the novelists of today are descendants of the "elegant, harmonious, intricate" James rather than the "hurried, urgent, groping" Wells.
Wells's friendship with James receives plenty of attention in A Man of Parts, though mostly in the form of quotations from correspondence accompanied by a little context and commentary. Indeed, this is how Lodge handles much of what happened to Wells between roughly 1890 and 1920 - his boom years as a writer, polemicist and philanderer. When Wells is not quarrelling with the Webbs and George Bernard Shaw about the future of the Fabian Society, he is in bed with the undergraduate Amber Reeves, or the rookie novelist Dorothy Richardson. His wife Jane tolerates his "passades" and his long-term affairs, though she occasionally gets irritated by the complications and the scandal. Although Wells is the leading figure in the book, he is not the only male character, which makes it odd, and not a little annoying, that Lodge has decided to identify him not by a name ("Bertie", "HG") but by masculine pronouns ("him", "he himself").
The book takes the form of a long serial flashback, with Wells sitting in Hanover Terrance in 1944 and considering whether his life has been a success. "In trying to answer this question," the narrator explains, "it is useful to have a second voice." Useful to Lodge, for whom Wells's auto-interrogation provides a nifty way of unloading a great many facts and details. The book is nevertheless A Novel because, however much Lodge cleaves to the copious "factual sources", he always settles on a version of events: for
example, Wells reads James's essay and immediately fetches "the manuscript of a book he had been working on intermittently . . . provisionally entitled Boon". Lodge does not have to apologise here for speculating, as he did in his essay "Assessing H G Wells" (1967). In the historico-biographical novel, speculation about detail and motive goes by the more respectable names of narrative construction and character development.
Lodge employs a voice that alternates between ventriloquising and speaking for itself, and the eccentricity of this approach is evident from the start. Thirty pages after Wells helpfully informs Rebecca West, the mother of his son Anthony, "You managed to finish Black Lamb and Grey Falcon in spite of the Blitz," we are told:
The publication in 1941 of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, half a million words on the history, topography, ethnography and culture of Yugoslavia, established her as an authority on that country as long as Britain supported its royalist government-in-exile and the Serbian General Mihailovic's resistance campaign against the German occupation, her sympathies being emphatically pro-Serb.
This is about as exalted and colourful as things get. The author of The Art of Fiction is forever resorting to glib transitions ("And Dorothy Richardson"), handy collocations ("the brightest and the best") and uneasy sexual euphemisms ("the pent seed of three weeks' abstinence"). It is a rare writer who can find cause to use the phrases "conventional morality", "intolerable strain" and "collective memory" in such swift succession.
Yet this is not the kind of sleek or pretty novel where clumsiness makes much of a dent. The purpose of A Man of Parts is to organise a vast amount of material into a fluent and engagingly busy narrative. The manner of this organisation does not obey James's command that novelists "Dramatise! Dramatise!" rather than pouring detail on to the page. But even if James has prevailed over Wells on most matters, it is still within Lodge's power to appeal to a Wellsian standard; and when Wells revisited that "sincere yet troubled friendship" in Experiments in Autobiography (1934), he made a point of denying James's claim that novels could exist without "a biographical element", complaining that James, that slave to omission, "never scuffled with Fact". l
Leo Robson is the NS's lead fiction reviewer
A Man of Parts: a Novel
Harvill Secker, 565pp, £18.99