Saturday, July 20, 2013

Bottomless Wells

Fame's a fickle ol' sow; as likely to eat her children as nurse them.  Literature is littered with the bones of yesterday's darlings.  One has only to review the bestsellers of a bygone NYT to see the once familiar names now largely lost to history.  As someone who buys used books for a living, believe me, there are few sights sadder than the lovingly preserved hardcovers of, say, John O'Hara, let alone the likes of Frank Yerby.  (Ah, the promise that was Grace Metalious!)  

There's another twist, nearly as common and perhaps as unfair.  The most familiar example is probably still A. A. Milne.  Eighteen successful plays, three novels -- including an excellent if improbable thriller, The Red House Mystery, 1922 -- essays, and humour and editorial work, and now he is naught but the father of Pooh.  There's an immortality that clearly wasn't all the author had in mind when he went to his desk every morning of a long literary life.

And so to Wells.  The remainder tables at the bookstore where I work are dangerous places for the poor bibliophile, and never more so than when newly populated by unforeseen British reissues, in hardcovers, attractively bound in a uniform edition and of titles otherwise obscure.  Here we have four comic novels, all dating from the turn of the last century, by one of the most admired practitioners of the form, H. G. Wells.  Now if that somehow doesn't sound quite right to you, dear reader, you are not wrong to think so.  Nowadays Wells is still widely read, but only as the father of modern science fiction, to which he contributed a number of now classic titles: The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau.  Even his lesser efforts in this genre, however quaint they may now seem, as in The First Men in the Moon or The Sleeper Awakes, still have their ardent enthusiasts, as do a number of his more speculative short stories.  One would be hard-pressed to remember more than a handful of names contemporary to Wells with so much of their published work still not only in print but so widely read, in both the original and translation.

A writer like Wells, a writer who spent a good part of his adult life in not only making literature but also trouble in the world -- in the very best sense, mostly I mean -- might well be forgiven for thinking that politics and history would define their posthumous fame nearly as much as their as their efforts at fine letters.  Wells certainly seemed to think so.  He spent at least the last half of his life vociferously advocating for his ideal of the "World State", among other noble-minded socialisms, and played the sage from podium to podium for decades.  (I don't mean to be flippant about what were, by and large, quite respectable and progressive ideas from a man whose financial and artistic success might as easily have allowed him to abandon the political idealism of his youth.  Happens all the time.  Wells however remained a committed and active reformer, and an astute critic of both the capitalist west and the socialist east all his life.  True, he was unfortunately a life-long subscriber to, for example, eugenics, but that now rather unforgivable slip had, in his day, still at least the endorsement of other notables as diverse as George Bernard Shaw and Margaret Sanger.  Never the less, H. G. Wells was also one of the first and few committed socialists in his day to denounce totalitarianism, left or right, and to revise his opinions according to changing circumstances rather than just ossifying, as so many did, into just another Communist dinosaur.)

Much is still made of Wells the "futurist" and to that I cannot speak.  I haven't much interest in checking either his fictional inventions or his predictions against the historical record.  Perhaps he foresaw cellular phones and the yet to be realized socialist Eden.  If that was the primary reason to read Wells, I would argue that the few benighted hobbyists of scientific esoterica, and a few ageing communists would now constitute his only devotees. Such is clearly not the case.

My recent re-reading of his short novel, The Invisible Man, convinced me that what makes reading Wells such a pleasure still is less to do with his powers of speculation and prediction than with his craft as a comic novelist.  It's a funny book.  True, the story of a scientist hounded to madness for a mistake he can't himself correct is not without a wider resonance, both as a cautionary tale of unintended consequences and of the primitive power of the mob to destroy what, and who it cannot understand.  The genius of the thing though is in the nakedness of the protagonist.  Wells has the great comedian's eye for awkward repercussions of fantasy played out in a real place and time; for example, what weather can do to undo dreams of perfect liberation.  (Hint: the English climate is not the nudist's friend.)  It is the comic novelist who appreciates that human beings in a frightened mass are more dangerous, yes, but also funnier; slapping and kicking and accusing one another instead of their unseen foe.  It's Wells the satirist who shows the even most respectable, rational sort of persons resorting to the same violent superstitions as the comic, rural rubes when threatened by the seemingly inexplicable, indeed, the invisible, and so on.

In his own day, H. G. Wells was as much a literary gent as he was an agitator or prognosticator.  To really appreciate this, may I recommend the selection of his comic novels not to do Dystopian futures or alien invaders, but rather to do with the rise of advertising and the nouveau riche, with the "New Woman", and always, or nearly always to do with the deadly hand of the British class system?

It's worth remembering just here that Wells was a working class lad, as likely once to have ended up a draper's assistant in a shop as a anything, despite his native intelligence and talents.  There was some luck in his rise, as well as genius.  He had a quite healthy ego, did Wells, but he never forgot what a near thing it was, obscurity.

Which makes it such a pleasure to see some of his best comic novels so recently retrieved from said forgetfulness and reissued in these handsome British hardcovers.  By the time I saw them of course they have been remaindered by some American firm or other, but even just their reissue gives me hope.  More people should read these books.  They're quite good.

From the remainder table I've collected four of the best of these.  I've read two before, the almost autobiographical story of ruined aspirations, The History of Mr. Polly, perhaps his greatest "straight" novel, and the marvelously entertaining, Tono-Bungay, a tonic comedy on the rise of the then quite new consumer-society, advertising, new money and bad, if successful ideas.  The other two books, Kipps and Ann Veronica, I haven't read before, though now I've started the latter at lunch and am already enjoying it.  The story of the "new woman", I was most dubious when I picked the book up.  I had some apprehension of it proving one of those wrong-headed, anti-feminist antiques like James' unfortunate novel, The Bostonians -- an otherwise predictably beautiful book, made all but unreadable by a laughably overheated horror of the unhealthy influence of an older lesbian on a Suffragist prodigy.  So far, there's none of that Victorian auntishness, nor I should think is there likely to be.  Among the many lovers of that ol' dog, Herbert George Wells, were a number of brilliant and rather challenging women, including not only that intellectual and feminist powerhouse, Rebecca West, but also Margaret Sanger and the novelist Elizabeth von Arnim.  No man, however much the egoist, attracted to such women could really have learned nothing from them, could he?  Instead, I'm reminded of many a Shavian heroine, and not a little of Waugh's early comedies, still a couple of decades out from Wells' novel.  As for Kipps, it may well have been the novelist's most popular title and was, I know, made into a popular movie some long while after.  A quick peak at this one suggests Thackeray's Pendennis; another once popular novel of a largely harmless young man's coming of age.  Wells version seems more straightforwardly comic, and considerably less forgiving than Thackeray's novel, though I can also already see how Kipps might have endeared himself to the reading public.

Huzzah then, yet again, for all the books that can still bob back up to the surface, even after being under for more than fifty years, and even if only on our beautifully maintained bargain tables at the bookstore where I work.  Now I've got two comic novels to read for the first time, by one of the masters of the form, and for less than the price of a new paperback.

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