21 September 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: Experiment in Autobiography, Part 3

Happy Birthday, Herbert George Wells! Today, I celebrate the 150th birthday of one of my favorite authors by continuing my lengthy review of his lengthy autobiography. (Access part 2 of the review here.)

Hardcover, 718 pages
Published 1934
Acquired December 2010
Read June 2016
Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866)
by H. G. Wells

Wells's Writing and Wells on Writing

Of course, his literary career is a frequent topic of the book. It's interesting, the extent to which he obviously doesn't rate his scientific romances. The Time Machine gets a bit of discussion, but I suspect only because it had a sort of complicated genesis, and it was his first substantive work of fiction. The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds get only passing asides-- Wells mentions the 1933 film of The Invisible Man (saying it makes the book as well read as ever) and he alludes to biking around Woking looking for places for Martian to blow up. But that's about it, while his more "literary" works get pages upon pages devoted to them, reminding me of how many more of these I have yet to read.

One of the most interesting parts of his discussion of literature was a fourteen-page section titled "Digression about Novels," where he lays out his theory of the novel, especially how he disagrees with Henry James's conception of it. Wells saw the novel as an "ethical enquiry" (410), while James "had no idea of the possible use of the novel as a help to conduct. His mind had turned away from any such idea. From his point of view there were not so much 'novels' as The Novel, and it was a very high and important achievement. He thought of it as an Art Form and of novelists as artists of a very special and exalted type" (411). This feels very much accurate to what I know of James, and I'm always happy to read someone skewering his pomposity.

I also really like Wells's own definition: "I was disposed to regard a novel as about as much an art form as a market place or boulevard. It had not even necessarily to get anywhere. You went by it on your various occasions" (411).

Nice guy, Henry James.
James's big critique of Wells's novels, especially Marriage (which I haven't read, but is a sort-of sequel to Ann Veronica), is that Wells did not care about his characters as people, but as vehicles for ideas. Wells doesn't disagree with his critique of his character development, but rather argues that the novel can be other things than "this real through and through and absolutely true treatment of people more living than life" (413). For Wells, novels should have a free hand to examine big questions, and he even disparages the Victorian writers who dealt with social questions, but who he felt tacitly accepted the values of society; they just "assailed some particular evil, exposed some little-known abuse" (417), while Wells was examining the very values upon which ideas of evil rested. Which is all well and good, but I suspect there's a reason that the more directly Wells engaged with social ideas, the less lasting values his novels have had. We read The Time Machine still and The War of the Worlds (though neither book really has characterization either), but we no long read The World of William Clissold.

Anyway, were I to teach a class on the modern novel again, I would probably pair Henry James's discourse on "The Art of the Novel" with Wells's digression/rebuttal upon the same topic. His account of talking with Joseph Conrad is also amusing:
I remember a dispute we had one day as we lay on the Sandgate beach and looked out to sea. How, he demanded, would I describe how that boat out there, sat or rode or danced or quivered on the water? I said that in nineteen cases out of twenty I would just let the boat be there in the commonest phrases possible. Unless I wanted the boat to be important I would not give it an outstanding phrase and if I wanted to make it important then the phrase to use would depend on the angle at which the boat became significant. But it was all against Conrad's over-sensitized receptivity that a boat could ever just be a boat. (528)
Look, I'm not saying you're wrong, H. G., but we still read Heart of Darkness these days yet everyone seems to have forgot Love and Mr. Lewisham.

Wells does tell some good anecdotes about his early literary career: in particular, there's an incident where he wets an old hat to make it look new when he goes to see an irate editor that is particularly delightful. When you read too much of Wells banging on about the failures of feminism and the necessity of the World State, it's easy to forget that he can actually be quite funny if he likes.

Be Back Tomorrow: H. G. Wells on his own personal life.

No comments:

Post a Comment