Wednesday, 17 January 2018

The Croquet Player (1936)



This short novel mixes multiple differently-tonal elements into an uneasy, but strangely memorable, emulsion. First there is the frame story, told by our narrator, George Frobisher, an egregiously unmasculine man, unusually close to the overprotective aunt who raised him. Both his aunt and he have devoted their lives to the sport of croquet. I mean, it's not just croquet. They also play tennis, and are, says the narrator ‘both quite extraordinarily good at the long-bow’. But ‘croquet is our especial gift. If we did not shrink from the publicity and vulgarity of it we could certainly be champions.’ [1]

When not knocking balls through hoops with a mallet, Georgie is keen on ‘the Woman's World Humanity Movement’, though he deflating adds ‘I have never clearly understood what it is all about’. Still, he's happy to support it ‘travelling over the world for it—so far, that is, as there are bathrooms en suite, upon which my aunt insists’ [1]. So far, so caricatural: he's frittering his life away on an effete and pampered existence: pleasant travel, nothing too taxing and many games of croquet.

As the novel opens, George and his aunt are spending the summer at a luxury hotel on the Normandy coast, at a place called Les Noupets. Here, on the terrace, he strikes up a conversation with an English doctor named Dr. Finchatton, who is trying and failing, with some desperation, to find a book from a big pile collected from the library that will absorb his attention. He needs his mind taking off something. Off what, you ask?

Finchatton tells George how he took up General Practice in a remote East Anglian district called Cainsmarsh. But instead of a quiet life, he found a closed, superstition-haunted, uncommunicative world, plagued with violence and mysterious goings-on. There's a weird, subconscious thobbing unpleasantness in the air. The kids go to school with bruises on their bodies about which they will not speak. A dog's carcass turns up, beaten savagely to death. ‘I drove back home,’ Finchatton recalls at one point. ‘There was an old man bending down in a ditch doing something to a fallen sheep and he became a hunched, bent, and heavy-jawed savage. I did not dare look to see what he was doing’ [2]. The fogs and remoteness of the place get under Finchatton's skin. He starts having nightmares. All this M R James mood of eerie dread is atmospherically rendered by Wells.

Finchatton speaks to the local vicar, who has been in the place long enough to be half mad, and who airs his theory that Cain is buried in the locality. He blames the recent nightmarish atmosphere on the activities of archaeologists, digging up gigantic bones. Finchatton insists these are dinosaur-bones, but the vicar isn't having that.
[He] grew fiercer and louder and hoarser. He wanted suppression, he wanted persecution of Science, of Rome, of every sort of immorality and immodesty, of every sort of creed except his own, persecution, enforced repentance, to save us from the Wrath that was coming steadily upon us. ‘They turn up the soil, they strip things bare, and we breathe the dust of long-dead men.’ It was as if he was trying to escape from our common marshland obsession by sheer screaming violence. ‘The doom of Cain!’ he shouted. ‘The punishment of Cain!’

‘But why Cain?’ I managed to insert.

‘He ended his days here,’ the old man declared. ‘Oh, I know! Is this called Cainsmarsh for nothing? He wandered over the face of the earth and at last he came here, he and the worst of his sons. They poisoned the earth. Age after age of crime and cruelty, and then the Flood buried them under these marshes—and there they ought to be buried for ever.’

I tried to argue against this fantasy—Cainsmarsh is just a corruption of Gaynes Marsh, as all the guide books say; it is written Gaynes in Domesday Book—but the old man bore me down. [Croquet Player, 2]
I liked this idea, and admire the way it is written. Ghost stories trade in the idea that we might be haunted by our recent ancestors; so why not our more geologically distant forebears? Finchatton doesn't buy the Cain argument, but he comes to believe that Neanderthal ghosts are haunting the area.

Then: a third element to the story. Finchatton, terrified of losing his mind, consults a London psychiatrist called Norbert, and Norbert packs him off to Les Noupets to recuperate. More, Norbert has come along too, so as to continue his consultations with his patient. The final passage in the novella brings this character on scene: Finchatton goes off for a nap, and Norbert interrogates George as to what he thinks of the fellow's story. This is, if you like, the book's twist; for the doctor is adamant that ‘there is no such district in the world’ as Cainsmarsh. ‘It is a myth.’
‘Our friend,’ he said, ‘was a doctor near Ely. Everything he told you was true and everything he told you was a lie. He is troubled beyond reason by certain things and the only way in which he can express them even to himself is by a fable.’

‘But some of these things—really happened?’

‘Oh yes. There was a case of gross cruelty to a dog. There was a poor old drunken parson who beat his wife. Things of that sort are happening all over the world every day. They are in the nature of things. If you cannot accept things like that, sir, you cannot live. And Finchatton really went to the Tressider Museum at Ely, and Cunningham, the custodian, had the sense to spot his condition and send him on to me. But the mischief was already done to him before he went into the marsh. He's told you practically everything—but as though he showed it through bottle glass that distorted it all. And the reason why he has made it all up into that story—’

Dr Norbert turned upon me, putting his arms akimbo and glaring at my face. He spoke with slow deliberation, as if he was speaking in capital letters, ‘—is because the realities that are overwhelming him are so monstrous and frightful that he has to transform them into this fairy tale about old skulls and silences in butterfly land, in the hope of getting them down to the dimensions of an hallucination and so presently expelling them from his thoughts.’ [Croquet Player, 4]
Which realities? Well, the horrors of the contemporary life, the rise of fascism, the Spanish Civil War (these things are not spelled out in the text, but that's the unmissable imputation), all that. When he's telling his story Finchatton keeps interpolating little comments: ‘And then Finchatton said a queer thing. “Little children killed by air-raids in the street.” I made no comment. I remained quietly attentive. It was an “aside”, as actors used to say. He took up his story where he had left it’ [3]). And this reality has infected the doctor's wits too.

Indeed, in a sort of second twist, the doctor has his own theory, to set alongside the ghost of Cain explanation and the restless Neanderthal spirits explanation, to explain all this madness, his own included. It is that we have, by expanding our consciousness of the past and future, through archaeology and speculation, somehow broken time and let in monsters. ‘“Animals,” he said, “live wholly in the present. They are framed in immediate things. So are really unsophisticated people ... But we men, we have been probing and piercing into the past and future. We have been multiplying memories, histories, traditions, we have filled ourselves with forebodings and plannings and apprehensions. And so our worlds have become overwhelmingly vast for us, terrific, appalling. Things that had seemed forgotten for ever have suddenly come back into the very present of our consciousness”.’ [4] Norbert insists that George must feel the same way, but George refuses to get sucked in.
I stood up. ‘I must be going,’ I said. ‘I have to play croquet with my aunt at half-past twelve.’

‘But what does croquet matter,’ [Norbert] cried in that intolerable voice of his, ‘if your world is falling in ruins about you?’

He made a move almost as though he would impede my retreat. He just wanted to go on being apocalyptic. But I had had enough of this apocalyptic stuff.

I looked him in the face, firmly but politely. I said, ‘I don't care. The world may be going to pieces. The Stone Age may be returning. This may, as you say, be the sunset of civilization. I'm sorry, but I can't help it this morning. I have other engagements. All the same ... I am going to play croquet with my aunt at half-past twelve today.’ [Croquet Player, 4]
Fin, as they say in the French films.

It's an odd book, this one. Hard to shake the sense, on a first read, that it (excuse my French) pisses away all the expertly generated M R Jamesiness, or Lovecrafty ghoulish eeriness of its Cainsmarsh sections in a string of increasingly arbitrary, less resonant shifts in story-direction. And the assumptions embodied in the frame narrative, the effeminate passivity and ostrich-head-in-sand-y Georgie, drips with unpleasant preconceptions. Wells wants doers, agents, active men (and women, but that's not what this book is about) to help humanity into its utopian inheritance. Georgie pretends an interest in global justice, but in practice he washes his hand of the horrors of his contemporary world, and looks to his own comfort and habit. That's bad, to Wells; and coding George as so mincingly effete and mummy's-boy a type is problematic. There's no specific indication in the novel that George is gay, but he crosses off several boxes in the homophobic gay-stereotype bingo. Put it that way.

And yet, and yet. The test of a ghost story's effectiveness is not rational analysis, but the quiver in the heart, the sensations of tendrils of dread being dragged down the tender membrane of the imagination. And, fitfully but unmistakably, this short novel achieves that. And there's a genuinely interesting notion structuring the whole: that instead of being scarily haunted by recent history, by our beheaded great-great-grandfather, or the ghost of our walled-up great-great-great-aunt—that instead what truly haunts us nowadays is the deep pre-human past and the technologically-monstrous future. That these two things, counter-intuitive as it might seem to say so, are psycho-symbolically speaking the same thing. Jason Gleckman [Science Fiction Studies, 32:3 (2005), 540-542] praises it as ‘A Ghost Story for the Atomic Age’, which is the right ball-park.

The rightness, here, I might say, has to do with a curious illogicality about what it is that scares us, the underlying affective rationale of ‘the ghost story’ as such. What is the pleasure we derive from this curious mode? The classic ghost story is saying something about the relationship of the past and the present. Whatever else it does, it embroiders one central idea: that the past still touches the present. Common sense and intellect tell us that death draws a line beyond which a person can no longer reach, but our emotions and our subconscious tell us, on the contrary, that death can only drain momentum from, it cannot stop, the past grasping hold of us with its chilly grip. This is, at least in part, because the idiom of the subconscious, and the substrate of all emotion, is memory. A Freudian might put it this way: the classic ghost story is the objective correlative to the inevitable return of the repressed. But a Freudian should also say: the way to exorcise the ghost of the returning repressed is to acknowledge it, to talk it to a cure, to shine the light upon it. That process of explanation dissolves away not the ghost as such, which is always built around the existential truth that we never really get mentally past the dead, so much as the specific, nightmarish form the ghost adopts. Existential truths aren't to be wished away, and they are far from comforting, but at least their starkness and enormousness blow away the carefully chilling and unnerving uncertainties out of which M R James et al conjure their most readerly-somatic effects: shivers up the spine; hairs bristling; eyes widening.

And that's where Wells comes in. He writes a ghost story that says: it makes no sense to be scared of what's been and gone. The dead past is outside the circle of what can harm us. Harm lives in the future, not the past. The truly scary ghost is what is still to come, and what makes it scary is its inevitability.

In other words, Wells is tacitly saying: the real reason ‘we’ enjoy in classic ghost stories is that we know, on some level, that the unnerving sensations we experience are safe, because they are linked to something—the past—that can't ‘really’ hurt us. It's a fairground-ride or bungee-jump sense of alarm, not an actually-falling-off-a-cliff sense of alarm. The future though can hurt us, and probably will hurt us, and by 1936 Wells could see that a war was coming that was going to hurt us all on an unprecedented scale. That's where the reader's frights, and dread, and unease should be focused.

He had a point.

Let me put it this way. Perhaps my single favourite short-story is Nabokov's ‘Symbols and Signs’ (New Yorker, 1948). The characters are two elderly Russian Jews, living in New York after the war and trying to find the wherewithal to keep their deranged, paranoiac, possibly suicidal son in the mental institution that cares for him. At one point, the mother pulls out a photograph album and looks through the memories of her boy as a youngster, from before the madness really took hold. Her attention is mostly on her son, of course; but I want to draw your attention to the story's exquisite, single-sentence mention of Aunt Rosa, at the end of this passage.
She pulled the blind down and examined the photographs. As a baby, he [the son] looked more surprised than most babies. A photograph of a German maid they had had in Leipzig and her fat-faced fiancé fell out of a fold of the album. She turned the pages of the book: Minsk, the Revolution, Leipzig, Berlin, Leipzig again, a slanting house front, badly out of focus. Here was the boy when he was four years old, in a park, shyly, with puckered forehead, looking away from an eager squirrel, as he would have from any other stranger. Here was Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, and cancerous growths until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.
There's a whole novel in that sentence (I often think Nabokov doesn't get enough credit for the sometimes extraordinary tenderness with which he writes): tartly funny and heartbreaking, both at once. It isn't that we simply dismiss Rosa for worrying about what she worried about, I think. These are the kinds of things people do worry about, after all. But, still: her fears were misplaced, fussing at the near-by trivia and not seeing the storm-front rearing over the horizon. Wells's novella, from twelve years previously, and looking forward to the same catastrophe at which Nabokov's story looks back, says the same thing. It says: what ought to scare our socks off, the real Pennywise the Clown, is the doom that's coming.

The cover at the head of this post is the UK first edition; and here is the US first edition cover.



Tuesday, 16 January 2018

The New America: the New World (1935)



Wells travelled to the USA in 1934, and went back again at the beginning of 1935. The second of these trips was commissioned by Collier's, who wanted Wells's view of the Rooseveltian New Deal. They paid him $12,500, plus all his expenses—first class cabin to New York, accommodation in the best clubs in the States, a flight from New York to Washington. In return he wrote them four articles, which were later collected in this slim (it's less than 100 pages) volume. He was in America for 23 days. He spoke to people and moseyed around. He had lunch with Roosevelt (Wells declines to report ‘upon the particular things that were said in our rambling and discursive conversation. It was not an “interview” for publication’ [50]) and chatted with Louisiana Senator Huey Long among others.

One thing that strikes him is how much influence demagogues have upon US public opinion: what he calls ‘raucous voices’, pulling the country into what he sees as a series of radically incommensurate directions. So: no change there over the last 80 or so years. Wells argues that ‘the great masses of the American population ... were ready and eager for a New Deal’ but that now ‘the actual New Deal has not gone far enough and fast enough for them, and that is what the shouting is about’ [41]. Conceivably, though, the shouting is more integral to the republic than might be explained by disagreements about specific government policy. I don't know. Nobody has paid me what would be in modern money several hundred thousand dollars to go round America asking people.

Wells undertakes a certain amount of discussion of elements of FDR's policies, which boils down to his feeling the New Deal is too much of a sticking-plaster designed, fundamentally, to maintain a status quo Wells believed had to be swept away. Some of the criticism is more convincing than others. There is for instance an odd insistence in the book that aspects of the New Deal (Wells means but doesn't specifically mention the NRA Blue Eagle campaign, which sought among other things to rein-in agrarian and industrial over-production and so raise prices for producers) was an attack on vitality as such.
I must confess that I am temperamentally hostile to all attempts to lower the vitality of the human community in order to ease its troubles. But I think that below this innate feeling there is an intuition of a primary biological fact. A living creature or species that will not live more and more, will soon be living less and less and presently pass away. Restraint that concentrates vigour is always justifiable, but only if it amounts to a real net gain in vitality. Birth control, for example, may be either a means to fewer, better, and individually more energetic offspring, in which case it is admirable, or a mere evasion of parental responsibility, in which case it is an attentuation of life. And in a large part of the governments’ controls of production in America and Great Britain, I cannot see anything else but devitalization. [New America, 63]
It's not that this makes Wells sound like a suspiciously right-wing free-marketeers although it sort-of does. It's more that it makes him sound like Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper in Dr Strangelove, banging on about precious bodily fluids.

It's a short book, and it makes for quite an interesting read. I'd have liked more on Roosevelt, to be honest. He and Wells were friends, after a fashion; FDR read Wells and wrote letters praising his books, and Wells met him in 1934 as well as in 1935. But The New America doesn't give us much. Wells writes that Roosevelt ‘looked well and energetic’ [48], which is the white lie all correspondents agreed to disseminate where that crippled and physically ailing man was concerned. ‘He talked with that curiously detached freedom, which is part of his distinctive charm for me’, Wells adds, which, to be honest, I'm not sure I understand. But Wells is surely right with his broader comments on the office FDR occupied:
The job of being President of the United States is one of the most difficult, the most nearly impossible, ever devised by the ingenuity of man. A politician is elected and he is expected to become a divinity. Past presidents of the United States belong to two classes; those who attempted to rise to the occasion, and those, the majority, who did nothing of the sort, and from the outset remained, like Harding, apologetic good fellows, or like Hoover, just paralyzed figure-heads overcome by their own prominence. Wilson was the great tragedy in the former class. In some respects I imagine Franklin Roosevelt has got nearer to the effect of a divinity floating in a cloud a little off the earth, than anyone of his predecessors. He is a politician, they say, although, how it could be possible to become President of the United States and not be a politician, no one has ever explained to me; but at any rate he is an exceptionally subtle and exalted politician. [New America, 48-49]
And here we are, in 2018, with Donald Trump as President. Ho hum.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Experiment in Autobiography (1934)




:1:

It seems that writing the closely autobiographical novel The World of William Clissold (1926) put the idea of writing an actual autobiography in Wells's head. There were presumably other factors too: the death of his wife Jane in 1927, and the drawn-out, painful break-up of his long-term relationship with Odette Keun that stretched (the break-up, I mean) through 1932 and 1933, and which is detailed at excruciating length in H G Wells in Love. Not to mention his advanced age, and his diagnosis as a diabetic. These things presumably put him in a mood to take stock of his life.

At any rate, he decided the time was ripe for his life story. This he composed mostly in Bournemouth between 1932 and 1934 (he'd given over his beloved Provençale house, Lou Pidou, to Keun when he ended their nine-year affair). The work quickly sprawled. He wrote to his friend Harold Laski (8 Jan 1933): ‘I have recently been writing an exhaustingly full and intimate account of my early life up to the age of 35. There is a good mass of letters and sketches available.’ The ‘sketches’ are the ‘picshuas’, the little doodles Wells was constantly drawing, and which liberally illustrate the Autobiography, as they do various others of Wells books.



(The picshuas are, I think, a means of mild self-mockery on Wells's part; and I discuss the place of that in the whole below). The letter to Laski goes on to describe the autobiography as ‘a sort of diary in pen and ink caricature that makes it rather specially interesting. But I have not yet set myself to discuss how a large book of 200,000 words with two or three score pages of facsimile pictures and photographs can be published.’ A fifth of a million words just to get him to 35! Since the published Autobiography takes us all the way up to Wells's late 60s, we have to assume the first MS draft was va-a-ast. We don't know exactly how vast, though. Having finished it, Wells took a working holiday in America and left the MS in the hands of his daughter-in-law Marjorie Wells and his old friend (and former lover), the novelist Dorothy Richardson. It seems these two cut the MS down to a more manageable, although still hefty, 290,000 words. When Wells returned to the UK he checked over, and approved, their work.

During this lengthy gestation period word got around publishing circles, and by the time the work was finished there was considerable excitement: Hutchinson offered £3,300 for the book, but Gollancz outbid them with an advance of £4000—roughly a quarter of a million pounds in 2017 money—plus a whopping 20% royalty. I mean, I've been being published by Gollancz for two decades now, and I have to say they've never offered me those kind of terms. Macmillan published it in the States. Excerpts were sold to various papers, and the Daily Mail offered serialisation rights. When Gollancz warned him that serialisation might harm sales of the book edition, Wells replied by suggesting the book be sold in cinema lobbies as well as bookshops. Which is an odd idea. (You don't have to lurk in cinema foyers to read this one, mind you: the whole text is available free online here).

In the event the book was a notable success; a big seller, praised by his friends, widely and positively covered by reviewers. It was hailed by some as one of the great autobiographies of the age. And, although I suppose the truth is that it's little read today, some critics have endorsed this assessment: Michael Sherborne [H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life (2010), 299] thinks it ‘by far the best of his later books,’ and David C. Smith calls it ‘one of the great autobiographies of this century ... one of the best testaments to the human condition and its possibility’ [H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal (1986), 418–19]. Readers in the 30s were especially struck by how candidly revealing the book is, a point to which I'll return in a bit.



And it's not hard to see why Experiment in Autobiography did so well. Despite its length, it is an extremely compelling piece of writing. It is full of engaging and often hilarious detail, helped by the fact that Wells knew everyone worth knowing; it gives an absorbing portrait of its times, especially of what it was like growing up in late-Victorian England, and what being young and hopeful and in-love (and randy) was like in the 1890s. And the central figure, Wells's Wells, is as vividly rendered and engaging a piece of characterization as any in his fiction. I presume this character bears some relationship to the (handling the word with the sugar-tongs of scare-quotes) ‘real’ HG, but one thing to which the Autobiography is constantly and pleasingly alert is how much of fiction there is in any self-assessment or retrospective life-narration, published or not. I'll come back to that in a bit, too.

The contents list (page numbers are to the one-volume US edition, published by Macmillan) gives a sense of the structure
Chapter the First. INTRODUCTORY
§ 1. Prelude (1932) page 1
§ 2. Persona and Personality 8
§ 3. Quality of the Brain and Body Concerned 13

Chapter the Second. ORIGINS
§ 1. 47 High Street, Bromley, Kent 21
§ 2. Sarah Neal (1822-1905) 25
§ 3. Up Park and Joseph Wells (1827-1910) 32
§ 4. Sarah Wells at Atlas House (1855-1880) 42
§ 5. A Broken Leg and Some Books and Pictures (1874) 53

Chapter the Third. SCHOOLBOY
§ 1. Mr. Morley's Commercial Academy (1874-1880) 59
§ 2. Puerile View of the World (1878-79) 69
§ 3. Mrs. Wells, Housekeeper at Up Park (1880-1893) 80
§ 4. First Start in Life—Windsor (Summer 1880) 84
§ 5. Second Start in Life—Wookey (Winter 1880) 96
§ 6. Interlude at Up Park (1880-81) 101
§ 7. Third Start in Life—Midhurst (1881) 107

Chapter the Fourth. EARLY ADOLESCENCE
§ 1. Fourth Start in Life—Southsea (1881-1883) 113
§ 2. The Y.M.C.A., the Freethinker; a Preacher and the Reading Room 124
§ 3. Fifth Start in Life—Midhurst (1883-84) 135
§ 4. First Glimpses of Plato—and Henry George 140
§ 5. Question of Conscience 149
§ 6. Walks with My Father 153

Chapter the Fifth. SCIENCE STUDENT IN LONDON
§ 1. Professor Huxley and the Science of Biology (1884-85) 159
§ 2. Professor Guthrie and the Science of Physics (1885-86) 165
§ 3. Professor Judd and the Science of Geology (1886-87) 183
§ 4. Divagations of a Discontented Student (1884-1887) 188
§ 5. Socialism (without a Competent Receiver) and World Change 196
§ 6. Background of the Student's Life (1884-1887) 217
§ 7. Heart's Desire 229

Chapter the Sixth. STRUGGLE FOR A LIVING
§ 1. Sixth Start in Life or Thereabouts (1887) 237
§ 2. Blood in the Sputum (1887) 244
§ 3. Second Attack on London (1888) 255
§ 4. Henley House School (1889-90) 260
§ 5. The University Correspondence College (1890-1893) 274
§ 6. Collapse into Literary Journalism (1893-94) 290
§ 7. Exhibits in Evidence 311

Chapter the Seventh. DISSECTION
§ 1. Compound Fugue 347
§ 2. Primary Fixation 350
§ 3. Modus Vivendi 361
§ 4. Writings about Sex 392
§ 5. Digression about Novels 410

Chapter the Eighth. FAIRLY LAUNCHED AT LAST
§ 1. Duologue in Lodgings (1894-95) 425
§ 2. Lynton, Station Road, Woking (1895) 450
§ 3. Heatherlea, Worcester Park (1896-97) 471
§ 4. New Romney and Sandgate (1898) 494
§ 5. Edifying Encounters. Some Types of Persona and Temperamental Attitude (1897-1910) 509
§ 6. Building a House (1899-1900) 544

Chapter the Ninth. THE IDEA OF A PLANNED WORLD
§ 1. Anticipations (1900) and the ‘New Republic’ 549
§ 2. The Samurai—in Utopia and in the Fabian Society (1905-1909) 560
§ 3. ‘Planning’ in the Daily Mail (1912) 566
§ 4. The Great War and My Resort to ‘God’ (1914-1916) 568
§ 5. War Experiences of an Outsider 578
§ 6. World State and League of Nations 592
§ 7. World Education 611
§ 8. World Revolution 625
§ 9. Cerebration at Large and Brains in Key Positions 643
§ 10. Envoy

Whether it was Wells's original design, or something Marjorie Wells and Dorothy Richardson sculpted out of more shapeless MS raw material, this is a meaningful structure, avoiding the dull chronological plod without distorting the underlying narrative. I have a theory that it deliberately reshuffles the classic ‘Seven Ages’ template in order to apprehend the Wellsian essence. I csn't prove it, but I still hold to it. Jacques' seven ages, I hardly need remind you, were: infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, the slippered pantaloon, and old age.  Here we have: ‘Origins’ (infancy); ‘Schoolboy’/‘Early Adolescence’ which treat Wells's schooldays; ‘Struggle for a Living’ which details Wells's early experiences as a lover and ‘Science Student in London’ in which he talks of those science teachers, or Jacquesian Justices, who brought him to the bar of science. Then the story pauses for some slippered-pantaloony literary-critical analyses of the state of the Novel and other things in ‘Dissection’. ‘Old Age’ gets frontloaded in the very first section (‘Introduction’) which is specifically dated to the end of Wells life and reduces the whole of him to an inferior brain before breaking the brain down. The actual final section of the Autobiography, ‘The Idea of a Planned World’, details Wells's engagement (not as an actual enlisted man but still) in the Great War, and styles the battle for the coming World State as the struggle to which all must submit. We end, in other words, with Wells as soldier.

Ending with the soldier, the least Wellsian Wells (I would say) is in a sense symptomatic of this exercise in textual selfcreation: as much an attempt at escape from subjectivity as a recreation of that subjectivity. There's interesting stuff in that last section, too: on how the tank was developed, how he liaised with Churchill, toured the trenches, proposed new communications technology and so on. But it's a little po-faced. Much more entertaining are the pantaloon moments of literary gossip scattered throughout, and particularly gathered in chapter 7. I especially love his account of his friendship with Joseph Conrad:
He was rather short and round-shouldered with his head as it were sunken into his body. He had a dark retreating face with a very carefully trimmed and pointed beard, a trouble-wrinkled forehead and very troubled dark eyes, and the gestures of his hands and arms were from the shoulders and very Oriental indeed. He spoke English strangely. Not badly altogether; he would supplement his vocabulary—especially if he were discussing cultural or political matters—with French words; but with certain oddities. He had learnt to read English long before he spoke it and he had formed wrong sound impressions of many familiar words; he had for example acquired an incurable tendency to pronounce the last e in these and those. He would say, ‘Wat shall we do with thesa things?’ And he was always incalculable about the use of ‘shall’ and ‘will.’ [Autobiography, 525]
It is from Wells's account that I discover Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent on the same desk that Christina Rossetti had written ‘Goblin Market’ (when Conrad moved to Kent he rented from Ford Madox Heuffer a farm called the Pent at the foot of the Downs above Hythe, which had previously been Rossetti's dwelling and which still contained much of her old furniture). And Conrad's first encounter with George Bernard Shaw makes me chuckle:
When Conrad first met Shaw in my house, Shaw talked with his customary freedoms. ‘You know, my dear fellow, your books won't do’—for some Shavian reason I have forgotten—and so forth.

I went out of the room and suddenly found Conrad on my heels, swift and white-faced. ‘Does that man want to insult me?’ he demanded.

The provocation to say ‘Yes’ and assist at the subsequent duel was very great, but I overcame it. ‘It's humour,’ I said, and took Conrad out into the garden to cool. One could always baffle Conrad by saying ‘humour.’ It was one of our damned English tricks he had never learnt to tackle. [Autobiography, 530]
There's a great deal of stuff like this in the Experiment in Autobiography, and it's very often this charming. Not that the humour is always kindly. Encountering his neighbour G K Chesterton driving a horse and gig in the narrow Kentish lanes, Wells describes how his friend ‘seemed to overhang his one-horse fly’ (‘rather swollen by the sunshine, he descended slowly but firmly; he was moist and steamy but cordial’ [453]). Of Henry James, once his close friend, later estranged and by 1934 (of course) dead, Wells says he was ‘a strange unnatural human being, a sensitive man lost in an immensely abundant brain, which had had neither a scientific nor a philosophical training, but which was by education and natural aptitude alike, formal, formally æsthetic, conscientiously fastidious and delicate. Wrapped about in elaborations of gesture and speech, James regarded his fellow creatures with a face of distress and a remote effort at intercourse, like some victim of enchantment placed in the centre of an immense bladder’ [450]. Bladder is funny, in a cruel sort of way.

Wells is capable of pathos, as with his description of attending his friend George Gissing at his deathbed, and he has a nice line in acid-drops, too, as with his account of Edith Nesbit's husband, the chronically unfaithful and bullying Hubert Bland (‘a thick-set, broad-faced aggressive man, a sort of Tom-cat man, with a tenoring voice and a black ribboned monocle and a general disposition to dress and live up to that’ [513]), whom Wells hated almost as much as he hated Wells. But what redeems all this is Wells's real gift for self-deprecation. He very often captures his own absurd, pompous, petty and comical nature, and does so with a lightness of touch and ingenuousness that makes those stories where he is the butt of the joke some of the best. The picshuas reinforce this. And his literary self-assessment is unforgiving:
Tried by Henry James's standards I doubt if any of my novels can be taken in any other fashion [than failures]. There are flashes and veins of character duly ‘treated’ and living individuals in many of them, but none that satisfy his requirements fully. A lot of Kipps may pass, some of Tono Bungay, Mr Britling Sees It Through and Joan and Peter and let me add, I have a weakness for Lady Harman and for Theodore Bulpington and—— But I will not run on. These are pleas in extenuation. The main indictment is sound, that I sketch out scenes and individuals, often quite crudely, and resort even to conventional types and symbols, in order to get on to a discussion of relationships. [Autobiography, 414]
Here's another of the Experiment's picshuas: Wells waiting anxiously for Jane to give her verdict on something he has written. I'm guessing she's about to say something fairly crushing.



But I have the feeling, with all this, that I'm not conveying the larger flavour of the Autobiography. It is, I have to say, much more than a wittily diverting collection of personal and cultural gossip in the mode of, say (to be anachronistic for a moment) Peter Ustinov's Dear Me. Dates me, that reference, I know; but there you go. Quite apart from all that, the work's most notable literary achievement is its account, in the early chapters, of Wells's childhood at Up Park; of his mother and the two milieus between which she, and therefore he as her son, were strung. That whole ornate and archaic Edwardian world. It is set-up in the book as the ground against which Wells's later achievements can be gauged—in order to be able to measure the distance traveled. But it also stands on its own merits as, simply, a wonderful piece of writing.



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The question that naturally arises, here but also of course with any autobiography, is: what specific relation exists between the character at the heart of this book and the human being Herbert George Wells who lived between 1866 and 1946? It's more than a question about autobiography, actually. It touches on the fundamental structural misprison of writing as such: the priority of representation over actuality. I'm old enough to find something reassuringly deconstructive about this idea, actually: the inescapability of textuality, the counter-intuitive precession of the written version of H G Wells over the irrecoverable (irrecoverable even when he was alive!) biological version of H G Wells. And Wells himself is certainly aware of what he is doing here: crafting himself, unveiling not the echt Wells but the Wellsian persona. That canny self-awareness is one of the great strengths of the Experiment in Autobiography precisely because the persona so created does have value as a way of apprehending what was ‘really’ going on to and in the Wellsian sensorium. As Wells argues, and as I think even Derrida would have conceded, the necessarily manque de hors-texte nature of all discourse, including that discourse we use to construe of our own selves to our own selves, doesn't mean that there is no actual self to talk about. Representation distorts and exaggerates but it doesn't invent out of whole cloth. This is how Wells puts it—how he theorises his own autobiographical praxis, via Jung:
A persona, as Jung uses the word, is the private conception a man has of himself, his idea of what he wants to be and of how he wants other people to take him. It provides therefore, the standard by which he judges what he may do, what he ought to do and what is imperative upon him. Everyone has a persona. Self conduct and self explanation is impossible without one ... So that this presentation of a preoccupied mind devoted to an exalted and spacious task and seeking a maximum of detachment from the cares of this world and from baser needs and urgencies that distract it from that task, is not even the beginning of a statement of what I am, but only of what I most like to think I am. It is the plan to which I work, by which I prefer to work, and by which ultimately I want to judge my performance. But quite a lot of other things have happened to me, quite a lot of other stuff goes with me and it is not for the reader to accept this purely personal criterion.

A persona may be fundamentally false, as is that of many a maniac. It may be a structure of mere compensatory delusions, as is the case with many vain people. But it does not follow that if it is selected by a man out of his moods and motives, it is necessarily a work of self deception. A man who tries to behave as he conceives he should behave, may be satisfactorily honest in restraining, ignoring and disavowing many of his innate motives and dispositions. The mask, the persona, of the Happy Hypocrite became at last his true faces.

... A biography should be a dissection and demonstration of how a particular human being was made and worked; the directive persona system is of leading importance only when it is sufficiently consistent and developed to be the ruling theme of the story. But this is the case with my life. From quite an early age I have been predisposed towards one particular sort of work and one particular system of interests. I have found the attempt to disentangle the possible drift of life in general and of human life in particular from the confused stream of events, and the means of controlling that drift, if such are to be found, more important and interesting by far than anything else. I have had, I believe, an aptitude for it. The study and expression of tendency, has been for me what music is for the musician, or the advancement of his special knowledge is to the scientific investigator. My persona may be an exaggeration of one aspect of my being, but I believe that it is a ruling aspect. It may be a magnification but it is not a fantasy. A voluminous mass of work accomplished attests its reality. [Autobiography, 9-11]
What this means, in practical terms, in this book, is that Wells consistently underplays himself, produces a persona more comically inept than the public record might suggest was ‘actually’ the case. Wells was, let's not forget, someone who, almost entirely on the strength of his own energy, genius and persistence, turned himself from a nobody into one of the world's most famous, influential, and wealthy authors. He went from being a draper's apprentice with literally no prospects to being friends with Jung, Beaverbrook, Roosevelt, Marie Stopes, George Gissing, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Dorothy Richardson and Bernard Shaw, with Roger Fry and Charlie Chaplin and Booker T Washington, a man who took tea with Prime Ministers, Presidents and Archbishops. He was a man who overcame almost wholly impermeable barriers of class and background in the country and at the time when class and background were greater impediments than almost anywhere in the world, the man who took a congeries of futurist and technological-novum tropes and made them a coherent genre called ‘science fiction’, who made prophesy respectable and helped reconfigure the political landscape of his homeland. But the Wells who writes his Autobiography softpedals all that, and instead repeatedly stresses his inadequacies. What's remarkable is that he manages to do so in a way that doesn't come across as false modesty. His modesty has the sheen of genuineness, even of a kind of baffled ingenuity. How did all this happen to me? he seems to be saying.
The brain upon which my experiences have been written is not a particularly good one. If there were brain-shows, as there are cat and dog shows, I doubt if it would get even a third class prize. Upon quite a number of points it would be marked below the average. In a little private school in a small town on the outskirts of London it seemed good enough, and that gave me a helpful conceit about it in early struggles where confidence was half the battle. It was a precocious brain, so that I was classified with boys older than myself right up to the end of a brief school career which closed before I was fourteen. But compared with the run of the brains I meet nowadays, it seems a poorish instrument. I won't even compare it with such cerebra as the full and subtly simple brain of Einstein, the wary, quick and flexible one of Lloyd George, the abundant and rich grey matter of G. B. Shaw, Julian Huxley's store of knowledge or my own eldest son's fine and precise instrument. But in relation to everyday people with no claim to mental distinction I still find it at a disadvantage. [Autobiography, 13]
He is disarmingly honest about the limitations of his own writing: Mankind in the Making (1902) is ‘extremely sketchy’ and its component elements ‘do not interlock’ [213]; Joan and Peter (1918) ‘is as shamelessly unfinished as a Gothic cathedral’ [420]; What Is Coming (1916) was assembled ‘in a very blind and haphazard fashion’ (he says he would prefer to ‘let this little volume decay and char and disappear and say nothing about it’ [580]) and so on. Of his experience with the Fabians, he notes: ‘on various occasions in my life it has been borne in on me, in spite of a stout internal defence, that I can be quite remarkably silly and inept; but no part of my career rankles so acutely in my memory with the conviction of bad judgment, gusty impulse and real inexcusable vanity, as that storm in the Fabian tea-cup’ [564]. The reader feels that he's being perfectly honest in acknowledging his silliness and ineptitude.

The key to all this is (an English person is liable to say, but of course) class. Wells lives his own life on his own terms, but that life is also to an extent already overwritten by the social class into which he was born. Another way of expressing the quality of silliness or ineptitude, of comical bumptiousness, of his whole small-stature squeaky-voiced Britling-y nature, would be to say: he's a bit vulgar. Which is a thoroughly class-saturated way of putting things. What Wells never had as a person, and what his Autobiography never tries to mimic, are: breeding, refinement, elevation, suavity. Repudiating these things, and insisting on speaking the plain truth as he sees it, is the core of Wells's philosophy of life. The truth is that he wasn't even a parvenu. He was, in the crushingly snobbish English phrase, a counter-jumper. And the great merit of his Autobiography is that he owns that fact, revels in it, and so makes something potent out of it.

And that also speaks to the nature of autobiography as such. Because one of the unspoken truths of the mode is that telling your life story is, inherently, just a rather vulgar thing to be doing—a tad me! me! me!, a touch ungentlemanly or unladylike. And Wells's book owns that truth, mitigating it with wit and charm and pushing it through to suggest that the whole social hierarchy that supports such an attitude is due a bottom-up refit.

Other memoirists tend to tiptoe about this vulgarity. There's a lot more I could say about this, of course, but I'll limit myself here to one, Jamesian counter-example.  Max Saunders [‘“Fusions and Interrelations”: Family Memoirs of Henry James, Edmund Gosse and Others’, in Adam Smyth (ed), A History of English Autobiography (Cambridge 2016), 255-68] reads Henry James's various attempts at life-writing as ‘relational autobiography’, a specific alternative to the mode's more common egoist autonomous individualism. For Saunders, the series of autobiographical texts that James began in 1913 with A Small Boy and Others articulates his recognition that ‘really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw ... the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.’

This is certainly suggestive, and a persuasive reading of James, although it doesn't address the risk of outright mendacity in such work, especially where the artist concerned is actually possessed of a prominent ego, as, we can be honest, almost all artists are. Ego doesn't disappear because we drape it in the cloud-of-unknowing of upper-class refinement. Au contraire, in fact. It would certainly have been flatly dishonest for Wells to write a wholly self-effacing autobiographical work. His self-deprecation, though ingenuous, is the next best thing he can do to Jamesian self-abstention.

I don't want to overstress the contrast between James and Wells (although precisely that contrast occupies a goodly portion of the Experiment in Autobiography, actually).  Still, bladder or no, James devoted as much of his art as his life to the quest for a particularly evanescent Holy Grail of English class-determined refinement, where Wells saw much of that social edifice as a sham that needed to be cleared away. It's a differend, I suppose.

In The Spoils of Poynton, Mrs Gereth's impeccable taste and her iron will are iterations of one another. Her dismay that her son will inherit Poynton, upon which she has expended such immaculate beautifying energies, and allow his beautiful, well-bred yet in some unspeakable way nonetheless vulgar fiancée Mona Brigstock to ruin it, is presented by the novel as a genuine grievance, a dismay we should take seriously. Mona, as Owen Gereth's wife, will come into possession of the house, chuck out the perfect furnishing and artworks, add a billiard room and a winter garden and ruin everything. The potential injury done to Mrs Gereth's scrupulous aesthetic tact has Lear-like magnitude in James's vision, although, as in many of his books, exactly what is at stake, what super-refinement of an already wholly refined upper-class world is being outraged, assumes, when you try and pin it down, something of the consistency of melted ice-cream.

Poynton is fiction, but Saunders is quite right that fiction and autobiography overlap for James. And that's the difference. Wells's approach to autobiography is: sure, build that winter garden. Indeed, why stop there? He is Mona Birgstock to James's Mrs Gereth, or Gereth's tasteful young companion Fleda Vetch. It would miss the point of James's aesthetic philosophy to call Wells approach more honest, but it is certainly, and deliberately, more vulgar, and therefore more revealing. And that is a rationale in its own right where autobiography is concerned.



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Which brings me to the unpublished (in his lifetime) third volume of Wells's Experiment in Autobiography.

After he finished drafting the text I've been discussing, Wells went on writing, creating an account of his sexual life:—which is to say a narrative of his many extra-marital affairs. It's not that he is inhibited, or reticent, about discussing his sexual life in the Experiment in Autobiography. On the contrary, his account of his first marriage, the sexual incompatibility between his wife and himself, their breakup and Wells's elopement with Catherine (Jane) is perfectly frank. But the Experiment says nothing about his later many affairs, nor his habit of visiting prostitutes or his other occasional pick-ups. These are the subject of Wells's third testament, which was eventually published quite a long time after his death as edited and abridged by his son Gip: H G Wells in Love (Faber 1984). ‘In the book I have called Experiment in Autobiography,’ is how this work opens,
I have tried to trace out the emotional development of a human brain from the year of my birth in 1866 to the year 1934. It was a rather quick and bold type of brain, as I conceived it, but its general texture was mediocre, and it served rather as a sample of the current movement of thought and purpose during that period of human experience than as anything extraordinary in itself. Some critics said that my assertion of its essential mediocrity was insincere and were inclined to overrate my quality and blame me for a sort of inverted arrogance. But I meant exactly what I said. [H G Wells in Love, 51]
This is to put the premium on honesty as such, I think, howsoever vulgar such honestly may seem; and that in turn means that Wells is troubled by the degree of insincerity involved in an autobiography that omits much of its subject's sex life.
Its one outstanding quality was a disposition to straightforwardness. I told as fully as I could of the sexual awakening of this brain, of its primary emotional and sentimental reactions, and of the play of its instinctive impulses amidst established conventions of behaviour, up to the establishment of what I called a modus vivendi between husband and wife, towards 1900. Thereafter sexual events and personal intimacies had to fall into the background of the story. ... But I regretted the dimming of the easy frankness of the beginning. These later personal affairs were of considerable importance; significant sexual and personal intimacies occurred after 1900, and the omission of any particular discussion of them caused, as it were, an effect of partial blankness within the general outline. [51-52]
Partial blankness, in terms of calculated omission, suggestive ellipses and the like, is the whole Jamesian game, fictionally or autobiographically speaking (can you imagine James laying out all the specifics of his sex life in his writing?) But such blankness is intolerable to Wells's aesthetic. ‘The main reason for the suppression,’ he explains, ‘was, of course, that a number of people who were still living in 1934 were bound to be affected very seriously by a public analysis of the roles they played in my life’ [52]. But eventually posterity would deal with that obstacle. Wells hoped this third testament would ‘be published as soon as that can conveniently be done’ as part of an expanded three-volume edition of the Experiment in Autobiography, ‘so all the main masses of my experiences and reactions will fall into proportion’ [233-34].

The focus in this book is not really sex. H G Wells in Love is actually pretty inexplicit about the mechanics of Wellsian lovemaking, and reads quite differently to, say, Henry Miller or Anaïs Nin. Instead the book adumbrates the premise that a sexless or under-sexed life must need index a superstructure of repression. Personally, I don't think that's necessarily true, actually; but it's Wells's position. ‘I have never been able to discover,’ he says, ‘whether my interest in sex is more than normal. There is no meter yet for that sort of thing.’ Indeed, he thinks he is ‘less obsessed’ with sex ‘than the average man’. But one thing he knows: his sexual impulses ‘have never been suppressed; because my mental constitution is averse from suppression’ [52]. And that's the autobiographical crux, here.

I don't propose to go into H G Wells in Love in any great detail, fascinating and entertaining though that volume is. I've already gone on long enough, and too long by far. But I want to round-off by returning to one thought about the Experiment in Autobiography in the light of what I've been saying. Academic and biographer Philip Furbank doesn't think Wells's Autobiography really works. It's not just its length, for Furbank; it's that he thinks ‘there are vast gaps in Wells’s autobiography’. Writing in 1984 Furbank confesses
a feeling, fed by his Experiment in Autobiography and his newly-published confessions H.G. Wells in Love, that he was fertile in self-criticism, but that ... the self-criticism never caught up with him; it was hardly ever to hand when it was needed. In H.G. Wells in Love (the title is supplied by his son G.P. Wells) he remarks, apropros of his famous affair with Amber Reeves: ‘Voluminous explanations flowed from me—and the more voluminous an explanation is, the less it explains.’ It is a very true remark and pinpoints the prevailing weakness in his autobiographical writings. Page after page, with fatal and increasing fluency as Experiment proceeds, he explains—only to have to admit that, in fact, nothing has been explained. [P.N. Furbank ‘Picshuas’, LRB (18 October 1984), 19-20]
But I don't think this is right, or even fair, actually. It confuses two quite different things: the relationship between two lovers as they break-up, and the relationship between an author and his/her readers. Explanation in the former case, irrespective of volume, can never manage the work it purports to, because explanation has already been negated by the fact of the break-up. If there were salvageable explanatory power in the conversation the couple wouldn't be breaking up in the first place. But in the latter case meaningful explanation is, of course, not only possible but easily achievable, granted only a modicum of candour and self-awareness. I'd say Wells mounts a compelling defence. It is, in the old-fashioned but also the contemporary senses of the word, an apology for a life, and it's crucial to remember than a gentleman never apologies or explains. Wells was no gentleman, and that's his glory.

Taking of break-ups, when the Experiment in Autobiography was published, Odette Keun, fresh from the grazed heart and bruised ego of a protracted, ungainly end-of-the-affair with Wells, expressed in review an ungenerous opinion of it, and its author:
When a really objective biography of Wells will be written, instead of the enormous reel of self-justification which he is still producing, where his very cunning art of feinting, his very subtle trick of inaccuracy in confession, have again succeeded in blinding his audience to the nature of his play, it will be discovered that he has wounded and injured often beyond cure. [Odette Keun, ‘H. G. Wells—The Player’, Time and Tide (13-27 October 1934), 1251]
She means, I think: he has wounded and injured me beyond cure; though she can't say so without sacrificing the pretense of reviewerish objectivity. And no doubt she has a point, although it's (surely) a general point rather than one specific to Wells, except in the sense that she, Odette Keun, has specifically been sleeping with Wells for the previous nine years. But the Experiment in Autobiography never sets out to be a letter of exculpation addressed to an ex-lover. If it's a reel it's a reel around the fountain of Wellsian genius. His origins were low, and his adult manner kept betraying that lowness. But lowness is a good, indeed a vital, quality in a well; and without wells how would we drink?

And this brings me back, as a parting shot, to *clears throat* the work's Ustinovian qualities. Because whatever other kind of reel Experiment in Autobiography dances, it is very often genuinely funny. Earlier I suggested the structure of the whole plays games with Jacques' Seven Ages of Man, and that the mere oblivion/sans everything phase is frontloaded in the ‘Introduction’. From that section, then, I conclude with Wells looking forward to his own death, and very genial he is about it to.
In 1905 my mother slipped and fell downstairs one evening and was hurt internally and died a few weeks later. In her last illness her mind wandered back to Midhurst and she would fuss about laying the table for her father or counting the stitches as she learnt to crochet. She died a little child again. In 1910 my father woke up very briskly one morning, delivered a careful instruction on the proper way to make suet pudding to his housekeeper Mrs. Smith, insisted that it should be chopped small, protested against ‘lumps the size of my thumb,’ glanced over the Daily Chronicle she had brought him and prepared to get up. He put his legs out of bed and slid down by the side of the bed a dead man. There is an irregularity in our family pulse, it misses a beat ever and again and sooner or later it misses more than one and that is the end of us. My grandfather had leant over a gate to admire the sunset and then ceased to live in the same fashion. This last spring as I write (1933) heart stoppage came also to my elder brother and as he got up from his breakfast, he reeled and fell down dead. But this was a little premature; he was only seventy-seven and my father and grandfather were both eighty-two. I shall hate to leave the spectacle of life but go I must at last, and I hope when my time is fulfilled that I too may depart in this apparently hereditary manner. It seems to me that whatever other defects we have, we have an admirable way of dying.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

The Shape of Things To Come (1933)



I suppose this is the last book Wells published that has any kind of currency today. And that's quite a striking thing, actually: his bibliography stretches through nearly thirty more original titles, up to his death in 1946, and some of those works are really good (his Autobiography, published a year after Shape of Things to Come, is wonderful; and a couple of the later novels are actually very interesting: Star Begotten and The Holy Terror in particular). But there we are. No one today has heard of, let along read, any of those; where people have at least heard of this one. I mean, I'm certainly not claiming it's a novel as famous as Time Machine, War of the Worlds or The Invisible Man; but SF aficionados are at least likely to have heard of it (not something true of 1932's The Bulpington of Blup, if the reaction to my post on that novel is anything to go by).

It helps that a relatively famous movie was made of the work: Things to Come (1936), produced by Alexander Korda and directed by William Cameron Menzies. Wells collaborated enthusiastically with the filmmakers and wrote the screenplay, although the film is a very different beast to the book.


1. Film

It's worth starting with the film, actually, because it slimmed this lengthy, fine-grained novel into simpler shapes, which in turn point out a couple of problems with what's going on in Wells's future speculation. Here's a photo of Wells on set with two of the film's cast: Pearl Argyle and the lead, Raymond Massey.



The film is in three acts, not very smoothly linked-together. It opens in 1940 in the bustling metropolis of ‘Everytown’, where businessman John Cabal (Raymond Massey) is too worried about the danger of impending war to enjoy Christmas.



His friend, Pippa Passworthy (Edward Chapman: did Pippa used to be a man's name, then?) is more optimistic: even if war break out, he thinks it will provide a boost to technological progress. But then war does start: aerial bombardment, general mobilisation, global conflict. The next we see of Cabal he is piloting a plane, and trying to stop a one-man bomber that is gassing his city. Having shot the plane down, Cabal lands chivalrously to rescues the enemy pilot (John Clements) from the wreckage, and the two put on gas masks because of, well, you know: the gas. But then the enemy pilot gives-up his gas mask to save the life of a young girl who chances upon them, and Cabal, impressed at the fellow's sacrifice, takes the girl away with him in his plane.

Act Two steps forward to the 1970s. War has dragged on for decades, and people have forgotten why they are fighting. A plague called ‘the Wandering Sickness’ has devastated the population. Civilisation has collapsed and barbaric local warlords have seized power and rule amongst the ruins.





The film concentrates on one such, a warlord known as ‘Chief’, who rules what's left of Everytown, and who is played with rather more campness that one might think appropriate to the role, by Ralph Richardson:



John Cabal flies into town, landing in a sleekly futuristic plane, and wearing an absolutely extraordinary coal-scuttle helmet. I worry about the helmet. He wears it once, then seems to lose it and we never see it again.



The Chief takes him prisoner and forces him to work mending his warlord air-fleet of battered old biplanes, but Cabal is entirely unfazed. He represents, he says, an elite band of engineers and mechanics, based in Basra, Iraq, who have have formed a group to rebuild civilisation called ‘Wings Over the World’. The Wings have outlawed war and decreed an end to individual nation states. Here's smug Cabal, left, and the paranoid Chief, right.


The Wings Over the World fly-in, in some impressively art-deco aircract, easily beat the Chief's antiquated biplanes, drop sleepy-bombs on the population, and take charge.



Which brings us to the movie's final act. A fast-froward montage shows Everytown (and the rest of the world) being rebuilt as part of the new Wellsian World-State utopia. The new city is all white and shining monumental architecture, rather anticipatory of the Fredric Jamesonian Westin Bonaventure Hotel and, I'd guess, as disorienting actually to live in.





We're now in the 2030s. Massey plays his own great-grandson, Oswald Cabal, who is planning a space rocket to advance mankind's domination to the planets. In a poorly prepared-for final drama, an angry mob appears, it seems from nowhere (notionally they have been incited by a reactionary sculptor played by Cedric Hardwicke, who thinks progress has gone too far). The mob swarms towards the space gun that launches the rocket intent on wrecking it, but Cabal fires the vessel into space just in time. It's a transparent and unconvincing attempt to wring a little dramatic tension out of a profoundly undramatic situation. The movie ends with his pious-pompous speechifying: ‘Man ... must go on, conquest beyond conquest. First this little planet and its winds and ways. And then all the laws of mind and matter that restrain him. Then the planets about him and at last, out across immensity to the stars. And when he has conquered all the deeps of Space, and all the mysteries of Time, still he will be beginning.’



Here's Cabal pointing out details in an improbably regular star-map or else indicating the rivets in the pan of the world's largest Le Creuset. One of the two, certainly.



Now: there are those who think highly of this film. I am not one such. I can't deny that it was influential, especially some of the designs from the last act, which reappeared for many decades in modified forms as the template for cleanly antiseptic future utopian infrastructure. But otherwise this is a bad film; unconvincingly characterised, stiffly acted and disposed into a story that falls between two stools—too large-scale and disconnected for us properly to invest emotionally in specific characters (who can care about the aviator who gives us his gas mask to save the girl? What even happens to the latter? Are there any commonalities apart from name between Cabal the 1940 business and Cabal the 1970s Wings Over The World aviator?)—and too bogged-down in its individual stories to create the proper sense-of-wonder longue durée of the novel.

Structurally the whole is too joltingly abrupt in its segues between its three time-periods, and the riot at the end is bafflingly under-motivated. More, there's a conceptual muddiness in the whole: is the movie arguing that the destructive barbarism of its 1940-70 is a necessary period of, as it were, technological retrenchment in order to wipe the slate of history clean and so enable the gleaming 21st-century utopia? Or is the war a regrettable lapse, perfectly avoidable if only the nations of 1940 had listened to figures like Wells, and so a kind of distraction on the path to the broad, sunlit uplands?

There's also an ideological problem. Not to put too fine a point on it: it's hard to imagine a clearer celebration of technofascism than this motion picture. The gleaming war-machine of the Wings Over The World possessing the highest of high-ground and imposing order on the squabbling barbarism below with shock, awe and superior engineering. This is a movie that says: left to its own devices human society descends into squabbling chaos: only the übermensch, clad in his coal-scuttle überhelmet, and focusing his will-to-power through his gleaming aerial machines, can save us.

The film is a starker fable of fascist victory than the book because the appearance of the engineering overlords (out of a Basra that is mentioned briefly and in passing) is so abruptly deus ex machina—might even call its second Act denouement SS ex machina, if only it didn't look like a cheap shot. The political palate of the film is designedly two-tone, which means it only admits of two possibilities: social chaos or rule by the technocratic elite. No other political settlement, says Things To Come, is either possible or even imaginable.

Fascism not only (of course) dominated not only Europe's 1930s, it's an unavoidable load-bearing beam in Wells's own intellectual-ideological make-up. This blog has returned often to those occasions when Wells has expressed what might be charitable called pseudo-fascist ideas. In 1932 he delivered his notorious talk ‘Liberal Fascism’ to the Young Liberals at their Summer School in Oxford in July 1932. I've said before, here, that he wasn't really a fascist, and stand by that judgment. But he flirted with aspects of the movement, no question.

Wells probably deserves some credit for a few things on this unpromising front. He repeatedly and clearly repudiated the militarism and nationalism championed by actual fascist movements, and his views did change in the later 1930s, as events in Nazi Germany showed how illiberal actual fascism, applied efficiently enough, actually was. But he still felt, as he wrote this novel, that there only was one path to a better future: a quasi-fascist singular focus of power, the top-down application of it to cut the combined gordian knots of history, tradition, bureaucracy and petty self-interest. An aggressive commitment to technological and engineering development. Collective will overriding individual selfishness. And that's quite a fascist set of beliefs, if we're honest. It is easy to judge him with hindsight, but ease doesn't mean that doing so is wrongheaded. The stakes, after all, are high.

Wells's son with Rebecca West, Anthony West, waxes crotchety over the idea that his father was any kind of actual-fascism fellow-traveler. He attacks those who claim that ‘it was only my father's vanity that kept him from taking up the totalitarian cause in the early thirties’, that ‘he would have thrown in his lot [with the fascists] if he hadn't had a swollen-headed feeling that it was their place to come courting him rather than his to go over to them’. West doesn't say who claims this, but, never mind who, he's having none of it:
The next step from there was to indicate that, as the author of The Shape of Things To Come, my father was one of the creators of the spirit of Munich. According to this thesis the fantasia in question, which first saw the light in 1933 and was very soon afterwards made into a film, with my father's active and enthralled participation, has to be considered as one of the many factors which created public support for the policy of appeasement, because it featured a massive air attack on London, shrewdly previsioned as taking place in 1940. [West, H G Wells: Aspects of a Life (1984), 130]
This is not to address the fascistic quality of the Wings Over The World as a movement, although West is adamant that what the book is really saying is, in his words: ‘this is the sort of thing you will more than likely be in for if you don't take a stand against Fascism now’. This strikes me as an argument that includes a fairly high quotient of wishful thinking.

The real question, I suppose, is whether Wells can be acquitted of a culpable naïveté in believing fascism ever could be neatly separated out from its nationalism and militarism. Maintaining a huge fleet of art-deco bombers might be thought a strangely inconsistent thing for an organisation that had outlawed war, after all; and Wells's screenplay tries to fudge the issue by dropping bombs not of high-explosive but of soporific gas. Then again, the gas does kill Ralph Richardson's ‘Chief’ character, and Massey's Cabal delivers a gloating speech over his body: ‘Dead, and his world dead with him—and a new world beginning. And now for the rule of the Airman, and a new life for mankind. For now we have to put the world in order’. Here he is doing just that, with the ‘Chief’ dead in the bottom right-hand corner. I draw your attention to the Chief's charmingly amateurish chalk-board efforts at propaganda.



FURTHER HOSTILITIES WILL BRING A VICTORIOUS PEACE LONG LIVE THE CHIEF is hardly a marching slogan to trip off the tongue, I'd say. The point, and Wells's Act 2 moral, is that history must be erased, and that a Year Zero inaugurated, with all opposition to the coming top-down technocratic utopia eliminated. And there are fewer more terrifying political strategies than insisting upon a Year Zero. At any rate, implying that one might be able to do any of this without the forceable breaking of the old norms to which people are so stubbornly attached, without in other words more war, is, frankly, Wells not thinking-through his own premises with any clarity—very much him pretending his omelette can be made without breaking eggs. His global pacific omelette. Conceivably cooked-up in that gigantic riveted Le Creuset already pictured.


2. Book

Enough about the movie: what about the book? Or to frame the question more precisely: does the novel manage to tell what is, in its broadest lineaments, the same story as the film—from now to a decades-long near future war and out the other side to a World State utopia—in a more nuanced, less nakedly fascistic manner? I think it does. But only up to a point.

Certainly, not only the specifics of the book but the texture is different: the pages are dense with detail, the focus ranges around the world, various individual set-pieces (often vividly realised) intersperse long stretches of expository and explanatory prose. The book has none of the characters of the movie, and no clumsily Bunyanesque ‘Everytown’ touches; instead it carries-through the stylistic strategies of 1920's Outline of History into the future. Indeed, roughly the first quarter of the novel isn't concerned with the ‘to-come’ at all, instead recapitulating and abbreviating Outline of History's account of the 19th-century and the first two decades of the twentieth, and bringing it up to 1933. And as far as that goes, it still reads pretty well. This, for an account of Hitler (for instance) gets to the nub of the issue, which is pretty good going for a date as early as 1933:
Adolf Hitler is one of the most incredible figures in the whole of history. He must have astonished even the teachers and writers who had evoked him. We can study his personal presence from a hundred different angles in Vol. 30112 of the Historical Portrait Gallery, and it is that of an entirely commonplace man, void of dignity, void of fine quality. We can hear his voice, we can hear him persuading, exhorting and attempting to reason from the numerous steel-tape records that were made of his speeches. It is a raucous, strained voice, talking violently but incoherently. It is the voice of a vulgar, limited, illiterate man, lashing himself to fierceness, shouting, threatening, beating his fists at the window, smashing the furniture about him, to escape from perplexity and despair. He was perfectly simple and honest in his quality. And that was perhaps the secret of his career. He gave vent to the German overstrain. He is the voice of Germany losing control.

He denounced foreigners, Jews, Cosmopolitans, Communists, Republicans, owners of property and leaders in finance with raucous impartiality, and nothing is so pleasing to perplexed unhappy people as the denunciation of others. Not their fault, their troubles. They have been betrayed. To Fallada's question, ‘Little Man, what now?’ his answer was, ‘Massacre Jews, expel foreigners, arm and get more arms, be German, utterly German, and increase and multiply.’ [Shape of Things to Come, 2:7]
Not a bad thumbnail sketch, I'd say.

But this dry, historico-analytic tone becomes less persuasive as Wells imagines into the future. His later 1930s is characterised by increasing lawlessness, gangsters seizing power, protection rackets becoming the norm, people driving around in armoured cars and living in fortified houses. Wells does, its true, imagine World War 2 breaking out in 1940, but not because Hitler preemptively invades Poland and France, instead through a random if violent misunderstanding: a Jew, on a train that has stopped briefly in the free city of Danzig, tries to extract ‘an orange-pip or a small fragment of walnut’ from behind his dental plate. A young Nazi on the platform sees what he thinks is a Jew making disrespectful faces at him through the window, boards the train and shoots the Jew dead. This violation of neutrality snowballs until it has ‘released the dogs of war from the Pyrenees to Siberia’ [2:9].

That war is essentially a re-run of 1914-18, a trench-war stalemate that drags on until the 1950s. Then plague ravages the shattered remains of civilisation, described in a chapter with some nice zombie-like touches (‘one terror which is never omitted [in accounts of the plague] is the wandering of the infected. Nothing would induce them to remain in bed or hospital; nothing could keep them from entering towns and houses that were as yet immune. Thousands of these dying wanderers were shot by terror-stricken people whom they approached’ [2:9]) but which has nothing to do with meaningful prophecy.

Finally, in 1965, the remaining aircraft and shipping companies gather in Basra to consolidate and protect their interests. With the roads shot, a monopoly on flight and shipping is effectively a monopoly on all travel and trade, and the ‘Union of Tansport’ (not, I was sorry to see, these guys) uses its influence to enforce civilisation and order upon the world. The account of the reconstruction occupies Book 3 (‘The World Renaissance: The Birth of the Modern State, 1960–1978’), and then we get a Cook's Tour of the World State Utopia Books 4 and 5: ‘The Modern State Militant 1978–2059’ and ‘The Modern State in Control of Life, 2059 to New Year's Day 2106’.

In the novel there's no John or Oswald Cabal, no ‘Wings Over the World’ and no rocket to outer space, let alone any random Simpsons rentamob to disrupt the launch. Rather, it's half a novel of Stapledonian extrapolation followed by an end to history, and a survey of the perfected society. This latter is a remix of a lot of old Wellsian friends, from a global currency based on energy rather than precious metals, to the centrality of ‘right’ education, global unity, the eradication of poverty, racism and so on.

Not that the path from here to there is smooth: there is resistance, backsliding, and for a time Utopia is enforced by a ‘Second Council’ of ‘Air Dictators’, who fly around compelling obedience to the new laws. These are the latest iteration of Wells's beloved Samurai. Their credo is ‘I shall do nothing worth while and nothing worth while will be done unless I pull myself together and stiffen up my conduct’:
If the new Air Dictatorship was schooling the world with considerable austerity, it was certainly schooling itself much more so. The code of the first makers of the World-State had been a simple one. ‘Tell the truth,’ they insisted; ‘maintain the highest technical standards, control money and do not keep it, give your powers ungrudgingly to the service of the World-State.’ [Shape of Things To Come, 4:5]
By the end of the novel, humanity has outgrown its need for rule by the Air Dictatorship, and they sportingly and improbably give up power. Homo sapiens is ready for the next phase of human civilisation: radically reshaping the earth (Wells calls this ‘Geogonic Planning’) and a move towards a transcendent group-consciousness of all mankind, to supersede ‘our little selves’ and become a collective ‘Man the Undying who achieves these things through us’ [5.9]

Because this whole historical narrative happens much more gradually, with vastly more specific detail, it doesn't feel as wrenching as it does in the movie. But that fine-grained confident voice is more than a little misleading. The basic wrench, or twist, in historical process is still there, just disguised by a great deal of prose. We still go from a species so violent and self-destructive that we all but annihilate ourselves, through the needle's-eye of a group of technocratic aircraft and ship owners, to a glorious gleaming future Utopia. And we're still entitled to ask: how?

The key, I think, is buried in the middle of the book, and, rather oddly, Wells does not draw attention to it. The novel's framing device is a conceit by which ‘H G Wells’ is actually editing for publication a visiomary manuscript completed by his friend Dr Philip Raven (whom I take to be a version of Graham Wallas) immediately before his death. Raven foresees the shape of things to come in a series of visions, and has written it all down. Immediately after the section on Hitler quoted above, ‘editor’ Wells inserts a short chapter called ‘A Note on Hate and Cruelty’, noting: ‘this section was in a detached fascicle, but its place seems to be here’. This begins:
The student of history will find it almost impossible to understand the peculiar difficulties of political life as it was lived until about a hundred years ago, nor will he grasp the essential differences between what was called education in those days and the educational processes we are still developing to-day, unless he masters the broad facts about these systems of hatred that dominated the group relationships of mankind right up to the assertion of the Modern State. [Shape of Things To Come, 2:8]
Wells styles hatred as a disease, ‘a sort of social dementia’ occasioned by ‘the absence of a common idea of community’. As communities grow and fill-out more of the world's limited real-estate they bump uglies with other communities, and ‘civilized motives [give] place to instinctive hostilities and spasmodic impulses’. Our problem is that we don't understand that hatred is a disease, and therefore eradicable in the same way that diseases are eradicable: ‘our ancestors did not envisage this as a controllable mental disease. They did not know that it was possible to get through life without hatred, just as they did not know that the coughs and colds that afflicted them and most of the phenomena of senility were avoidable’. But that's the magic ingredient ‘X’ that enables the transition from our grisly present to Wells's gleaming future. We cure hatred.

It is, I think, an interesting notion. It is also, so far as I can see, the first time Wells, howsoever tentatively, proposes an actual mechanism by which what we might call ‘human nature’ gets altered far enough to make Utopia practicable. Hatred is not integral to the human animals, he says: it comes about when ‘two or more population groups, each with its own special narrow and inadaptable culture and usually with a distinctive language or dialect’ finds itself ‘by the change of scale in human affairs jammed together or imposed one upon another’. But this hatred is not in any sense a strategic group self-defense or interest, but instead a kind of group psychosis, and literally rather than metaphorically an illness.

It's a beguiling idea, although I don't think it's (you know) true, actually. But it makes me think. It's interesting to me that hatred isn't one of the traditional Christian seven deadly sins: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride. I suppose you might bracket it with wrath, but that's a poor fit: one can very easily hate coldly, with a kind of rational clarity, and cruelty—hate's handmaiden—needs a clearer head than ira tends to allow. Indeed, in another sense hate has a place approximate to virtue in Christian thought, doesn't it? We're supposed to hate the devil, and to hate the sin, though we strive to love the sinner. Hate in the proper proportion, or aimed at the correct target, is an indication that you still care. Of course, that puts a lot of pressure on the need to find the correct target.

This is surely the nub of the matter. Hate is not, whatever some people think, the opposite of love. The opposite of love is indifference. Actually, it's surprisingly easy to fall hard for people we find in many ways hateful. Peter Gay's monumental social history The Cultivation of Hatred (1994), itself the conclusion to an even more monumental trilogy of historical analyses, locates the success of the bourgeoisie in the way it, as a class, internalised repressions that then stoked up, precisely, hatreds. For Gray this reservoir of hatred fueled an aggression that middle class subjects sublimated into the new fields of business and money-making: making one’s way in the world is read as the concrete expression, in many ways a constructive and benevolent expression, of hatred.

I suppose what Gay shares, for all his radical differences, with traditional Christianity is a sense that hatred, as wrongness, is one of the secret truths of human existence. Original sin, as the phrase goes. Wells is saying: on the contrary, hatred is an excrescence, a social infection to which social medicines can be imagined; and that if we removed hatred from human breasts then we would leave the other passions in place.

Whether you're convinced by this thesis or not, it does, I'd argue, at least suggest why the novel version of this story works so much more compellingly than the film version. The idiom of the movie is melodrama, and the currency of melodrama is hate, and its coin-obverse, love. The idiom of the history textbook is one already purged of such destabilising emotional intensities. Form matches content rather better that way.