Tuesday, 25 October 2011

David Lodge, A Man of Parts (2011)

Here's a younger David Lodge (quoted in Malcolm Bradbury's The Modern British Novel 1878-2001):
This rising self-consciousness was one remarkable quality of mainstream British fiction over the Sixties; we can justly say a significant rediscovery of the novel and its possibilities was now occurring ... But where was it leading? The novelist, David Lodge famously said in 1969, now stood at the crossroads: 'the pressure on the aesthetic and epistemological premises of literary realism is now so intense that many novelists, instead of marching confidently straight ahead, are at least considering two routes that branch off in opposite directions', one towards neo-documentary, fiction as history, history as fiction; the other towards fabulation. [411]
There's never been any doubt in my heart that the latter is the right way to go; but Lodge, having made his name with a string of successful Campus novels (Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses, 1975; Small World: An Academic Romance, 1984; Nice Work, 1988 and the underrated Thinks ..., 2001) appears to have decided on the former. Author, Author (2004) was a carefully researched facto-novel about Henry James; Deaf Sentence (2008) a fictional autobiography about Lodge's own experience losing his hearing, lightly dusted with a sort-of-thriller plot; and this year's A Man of Parts, though subtitled 'A Novel'. is actually a scrupulously researched biography of H. G. Wells. The two main narrative strategies are, on the first hand, a process of docudramatisation of Wells's life as narrative; and on the other, a slightly stiff notional interview between Wells and an unnamed individual who poses question in bold type. Conceivably this is Wells's own conscience. I'm not entirely sure and can't remember if the novel makes it plain.  Anyway, much of the book concerns Wells relentless pursuit of sex (hence the parts, private in nature, dangling about the book's title); although various other aspects of the public Wells gets handled (oo-er! 'handled'!) here -- lots on his early life; a great chunk about his engagement with the Fabians -- indeed, there's something a touch distorting about the centrality Lodge gives this episode to Wells's larger biography, I think -- and some interesting material on his later life as a world-famous man.

I interviewed Lodge (and, as it happens, Steven Baxter) at the British Library over the summer. Despite his deafness, and thanks in part to a very cool advanced-tech hearing aid, he was fluent, eloquent and on the ball. The novel itself is consummately crafted, and full of fascinating detail, without ever, quite, coming alive. I wonder if, in some sense, this has to do with the way this is a novel that goes down route A, in 1969-Lodge's fork in the road, even though it is about an individual whose most important contribution to world culture was the way he paved route B. I asked Lodge why he concentrated in this novelmentary on Wells's non-SF life -- his politicing, Fabianising, New Women novels and other mainstream writing. SF gets mentioned (as how could it not?) but you get the impression that Lodge really does prefer Ann Veronica and Boon and Mr Britling Sees It Through -- I was surprised to see this last title get such a resounding endorsement ('Whatever you say, Mr Britling Sees It Through was a good novel. Britling lives' [478] ... really?). His answer, whilst conceding the influence the SF has had, was basically that these were the Wells novels that intrerested him.  Wells's life is full of fascinating busy-ness, but despite its high fucking quotient, and its interpolated Wells/Conscience interviewing, the focus here remains public and exterior, as neodocumentary surely must. It lacks the element of fabulation that might have enabled it to do what metaphor can do, and what factuality rarely can, howsoever scrupulously pursued -- infused the Frankenstein spark into the monster and have it lurch to life.


Sam Clark said...

Did Lodge answer your question about why he chose to go documentary rather than fabulous?

(Incidentally, thank you: I've been trying to remember the name of 'that fictional biography of Wells I read about recently' for weeks.)

Adam Roberts said...

Sam: you're right, I should have said something about Lodge's answer -- I've added a sentence to the post.