Sunday, 24 September 2017

Boon (1915)

1: James

Boon is known today, if it is known at all, as the book that broke the friendship between Wells and Henry James. You can see the whole length of its title on the first-edition dust jacket cover, at the head of this post. You can also see that it was published as by ‘Reginald Bliss’, Wells supposedly contributing only an introduction. In fact Wells wrote the whole lot. His authorship was, I think, pretty much an open secret at the time. James certainly knew.

Which fact caused the old man genuine pain, because the novel contains a sustained and wittily heartless attack upon him. Not to put too fine a point on it, Wells shreds James in this novel, notwithstanding that the two of them had been good friends for two decades, and actual neighbours for much of that time. Gloves are off, though, in this book. Reading James, says Wells, is like watching ‘a leviathan retrieving pebbles’; James himself (not, of course, a slim man) is: ‘a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost, even at the cost of its dignity, upon picking up a pea which has got into a corner of its den.’ Miaow. The typical Jamesian novel is:
like a church lit but without a congregation to distract you, with every light and line focused on the high altar. And on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg-shell, a bit of string ... [Boon, 4.3]
There's much more in this vein. Just to be sure his target wouldn't miss this attack, Wells left a copy of the novel at James's London club for him to pick up when he was next in town: an act either of deliberate malice, of remarkable thoughtlessness, or perhaps of something else.

At any event, James was deeply hurt, and wrote Wells a letter full of dignified woundedness: ‘Boon has naturally not filled me with fond elation. It is difficult of course for a writer to put himself fully in the place of another writer who finds him extraordinarily futile and voice … the falling away of this is like the collapse of a bridge which made communication possible.’ Wells replied in jocular mode: the novel was ‘just a waste-paper basket. Some of it was written before I left my house at Sandgate [n 1909], and it was while I was turning over some old papers that I came upon it, found it expressive and went on with it.’ James, unimpressed, wrote back, framing what has become one of his most famous aesthetic assertions:
Your comparison of the novel to a waste paper basket strikes me as the reverse of felicitous, for what one throws into that receptacle is exactly what one doesn’t commit to publicity and make the affirmation of one’s contemporaries by … It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process.
Wells’s reply to this was chillier: ‘when you say “it is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance,” I can only read sense into it by assuming that you are using “art” for every conscious human activity. I use the word for a conscious attainment that is technical and special.’ And that marked the end of the correspondence, and of the James-Wells friendship.

Biographically speaking, there are various readings of what was going on here, some of which I'll come back to below. And the falling out has, I think, a greater than personal significance as symptomatic of two models of what ‘the Novel’ ought to be, battle-lines drawn over the very meaning of Literature in the Modern age. Simon James's Maps of Utopia includes a good assessment of this, which I'm not inhibited from quoting at length:
Darko Suvin declares the contest [between Wells and James] ‘a draw’, but in subsequent versions of specifically literary history, James had tended to have the ascendancy (aided, in no small part, by Wells’s undeniable personal insensitivity). Even Time Magazine, when putting Wells on its cover in 1926, titled the text that followed ‘All Brains, Little Heart’, ruling that ‘in Boon, his wicked attack on Henry James, he may have been assaulting in James what was missing in himself: infinite care and moral responsibility. James was a theorist crucial both to the New Criticism in the United States and to F R Leavis and Scrutiny in the United Kingdom (indeed, Mark Schorer’s famous New Critical deprecation of Tono-Bungay is strongly reminiscent of James’s misgivings over Balzac’s over-‘inclusiveness’). As university departments of English Literature began to be founded in the 1920s and 30s, James’s concern with significant form and moral seriousness exerted a profound influence over the formation of the academic canons of judgement and value, to the detriment of the side of the argument that Wells, still alive was happy to continue, in the Autobiography and elsewhere. In the 1920s Wells wrote a caption for a National Gallery Portrait postcard of James which in draft form reminded that ‘he ventured upon the stage and was routed by the gallery’; Wells own copy of this note contains the handwritten addition, ‘Keep this, to recall the crime.’ As late as 1943, in answer to a letter from Herbert Read, Wells asserted that, ‘believe me, Henry James deserved it.’ [Simon James, Maps of Utopia: H. G. Wells, Modernity and the End of Culture (OUP 2012), 28-29]
Deserved it, did he? Well: I'll come back to that. So ingrained has this tacit narrative of Modernism become, it remains, even today, quite a radical thing to counter it, as when Roger Luckhurst makes the case that, whatever the Academy says, Wells in fact ‘won’ this war. We touch on a most important fault-line in what the novel ought to be.

2. Mallock

That said, I want to turn for a moment away from the scandal the book was going to cause, and look back to the work that directly inspired it. Because if it's hard for a modern reader to get a handle on Boon, that's in part because it is an explicit re-jigging, or a modern version of, a book that was very famous and is now entirely forgotten: William Mallock's The New Republic (1877). Wells is perfectly up front about this. His alter-ego, Boon, organises a ‘conference’, or literary party in a villa by the sea, inspired by Mallock's book, which itself concerns a literary party in a villa by the sea:
“Now picture to yourself the immediate setting of my conference. Just hand me that book ...”

It was Mallock’s New Republic. He took it, turned a page or so, stuck a finger in it, and resumed ... “It’s an astonishing thing. Do you know the date of the New Republic? The book’s nearly forty years old! And since that time there’s been nothing like a systematic stocktaking of the English-speaking mind. And I propose a Summer Congress, which is to go into the state of the republic of letters thoroughly. It isn’t perhaps quite Gosse’s style, but he has to be there—in a way he’s the official British man of letters—but we shall do what we can for him, we shall make him show a strong disposition towards protective ironies and confess himself not a little bothered at being dragged into the horrid business. And I think we must have George Moore, who has played uncle to so many movements and been so uniformly disappointed in his nephews.”
I'll come back to Moore in a bit. Various other names are mentioned, and a venue for the congress is located and rented:
with magnificent gardens in the Victorian-Italian
style reaching down to the sea, and replete with
Latin and Greek inscriptions, a garden study,
literary associations, fully matured Oxford allusions,
and a great number of conveniently arranged bedrooms,
to be
Apply to the owner,
original author of
“The New Republic.”
Key within.
Very intertextual: this novel actually rents the space of another novel in which to erect its text. Soon the party is joined by ‘emissaries of Lord Northcliffe and Mr. Hearst, by Mr. Henry James, rather led into it by a distinguished hostess, by Mr. W. B. Yeats, late but keen.’ From here we're into Chapter 4, ‘Of Art, Of Literature, Of Mr Henry James’, which contains several merciless pastiches of the echt Jamesian manner:
Meanwhile Mr. James, being anxious not merely to state but also to ignore, laboured through the long cadences of his companion as an indefatigable steam-tug might labour endlessly against a rolling sea, elaborating his own particular point about the proposed conference.

“Owing it as we do,” he said, “very, very largely to our friend Gosse, to that peculiar, that honest but restless and, as it were, at times almost malignantly ambitious organizing energy of our friend, I cannot altogether—altogether, even if in any case I should have taken so extreme, so devastatingly isolating a step as, to put it violently, stand out; yet I must confess to a considerable anxiety, a kind of distress, an apprehension, the terror, so to speak, of the kerbstone, at all this stream of intellectual trafficking, of going to and fro, in a superb and towering manner enough no doubt, but still essentially going to and fro rather than in any of the completed senses of the word getting there, that does so largely constitute the aggregations and activities we are invited to traverse. My poor head, such as it is and as much as it can and upon such legs—save the mark!—as it can claim, must, I suppose, play its inconsiderable part among the wheels and the rearings and the toots and the whistles and all this uproar, this—Mm, Mm!—let us say, this infernal uproar, of the occasion; and if at times one has one’s doubts before plunging in, whether after all, after the plunging and the dodging and the close shaves and narrow squeaks, one does begin to feel that one is getting through, whether after all one will get through, and whether indeed there is any getting through, whether, to deepen and enlarge and display one’s doubt quite openly, there is in truth any sort of ostensible and recognizable other side attainable and definable at all, whether to put this thing with a lucidity that verges on the brutal, whether our amiable and in most respects our adorable Gosse isn’t indeed preparing here and now, not the gathering together of a conference but the assembling, the meet, so to speak, of a wild-goose chase of an entirely desperate and hopeless description.” [Boon, 4.2]
... as well as the cruelly witty description of James as the hippo trying to pick up a pea, quoted earlier in this blogpost.

The book does other things than just attack James, of course: it rattles through the wider literary scene, with little puffs and barbs for and against Shaw, Conrad, Rebecca West, American literature, journalist E B Osborn and various others. Schopenhauer gets quoted at some length, as does Houston Stewart Chamberlain, the latter's proto-Nazi Aryan theorising being, I'm pleased to say, solidly mocked (‘it isn’t any sort of truth, it is just a loud lie’ [7:2]). There are some interesting metafictional touches: ‘“All through this book, Boon,” [Wilkins] began. “What book?” asked Dodd. “This one we are in. All through this book you keep on at the idea of the Mind of the Race....”’ [7:1]. Still, I have to say: having read the whole, it's the Jamesian parody that really sticks with you.

The book ends with two excerpts, supposedly from Boon's oeuvre. One is ‘The Wild Asses of the Devil’, in which an author extremely like Wells befriends an old tramp, who turns out to be an actual devil, charged with tending the asses of Hell. who has been sent into the world to retrieve them when they happened to escape. The asses transmogrified into human form, and, unable to discern them amongst the rest of humanity, the devil has given up. Wells rouses him to go out and give it another go, since these asses ‘will do no end of mischief’, but the tale ends inconclusively. Finally there's the story of ‘The Last Trump’, in which the titular magical trumpet is found in a junk shop in Caledonian market and blown by old Briggs to see what would happen. What happens is that the world ends, God and his angels descend; but only a few people even notice, and these witnesses are easily dismissed, ridiculed and explained away: ‘Men will go on in their own ways,’ Wells concludes, ‘though one rose from the dead to tell them that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand, though the Kingdom itself and all its glory became visible, blinding their eyes.’ That's the end of Boon.

3. A Queer Story

In one sense Boon represents Wells trying another strategy for putting over his standard agenda: the future of the race, the world state and so on. Lots of this is about helping the Mind of the Race refine itself and facilitate the coming World State. He'd done all this before as Utopian fiction, as SFnal extrapolation, as preachy interjections into his straight fiction and of course as non-fiction. Here he sees if the material goes over as satiric comedy. It has to be said: it doesn't, really.

I think that in part that's because there's a too great a mismatch between advocacy and satire. The latter. destructively, attacks specific targets; the former needs to make a positive, constructive case for its imagined future, often in general terms. And though some of the figures targeted in this book figure as examples of what needs to be swept out of the way before the new future can be instantiated, Henry James really doesn't. In what ways exactly, we wonder, does it impede the development of the Mind of the Race if Jamesian prose is a little on the prolix side? The answer, of course, is: it has no bearing at all. Which in turn makes us wonder why Wells gives over so much of Boon to roasting his old friend.

Earlier I quoted the elderly Wells looking back: ‘believe me, Henry James deserved it’. But in what way did he deserve it? In his account of the affair, Anthony West sides, as we might expect, with his father: James had ‘patronised’ Wells ‘relentlessly’ and ‘in the most offensive possible way’; ‘the older man had written to my father too many times to shower him with oily praise as a preliminary to telling him that his latest book had proved, yet again, that he didn't begin to know what he was doing’. West thinks a letter from James dismissing The Passionate Friends (‘I find myself absolutely unable [to consider it] in any aesthetic or literary relation at all’), and an article James published in the Times Literary Supplement criticising various younger writers, including Wells, were the final straws. ‘The more my father thought of them, the more intolerable James's papal pretensions seemed to him. The old fat cat could not rest content with his absolute freedom to do his own precious thing—he had to foreclose on all other forms of the novel.’ [West, 43-44] According to West, Wells was not only entitled to kick back, doing so was profoundly therapeutic for him: ‘my father felt that a great load had been lifted from his spirit. His block had been blown away, like a cork from a champagne bottle, and a new novel—Mr Britling Sees It Through—was soon absorbing his energies.’

It may be there's some truth in this, partisan though it obviously is. It would certainly explain why the attack on James occupies so disproportionate an amount of Boon as a whole. But there's a tone in West's account of James (‘the old fat cat’) that chimes with Wells's own mockery, and reminds us, or ought to, how easily straight men can slip into unconsidered homophobia.

In Boon, George Boon, is planning ‘rather in the manner of Henry James’ a book to be called The Spoils of Mr. Blandish, in which a Henry-James-alike has no adventures but instead visits places ‘consciously taking delicate impressions’ of them ‘upon the refined wax of his being’ [4:4]. The stress is on the passivity as well as the feline decadence and triviality of James's work—on, not to be too over-obvious, the ways in which it is coded as feminine. The novel is illustrated throughout with Wells's ‘picshuas’, and here's the one of Mr Blandish, which is to say, of James himself. Remember that James was by 1915 an elderly and corpulent man, selfconscious about his physical appearance, very sensitive to slight both in terms of his own hyper-refined sensibility and also as a closeted gay man in a homophobic world. And here's Wells's pained-looking, feminine-lipped, pig-trottered, mincing fatty:

Wells had known James intimately for many years. It's inconceivable he didn't know about James's sexual orientation. And whilst Wells devoted much of his energy, and indeed his life, to the project of making the world a sexually freer and less repressed place, he is oddly silent on the topic of homosexuality in his writing. It simply doesn't come up in books like A Modern Utopia; none of the novels contain obviously gay characters, he doesn't address the topic in his journalism.

My sense is that Wells's view of sex was more than usually egoist. He was a highly sexed individual who projected his own sense of erotic energy outwards, and rationalised it to himself via a basically procreative metanarrative: we must breed the best to enhance the race and so on. This really leaves no room in his model for gay desire. Now, it is true that he had many gay friends (James among them), and there's nothing in his writing we can read as assertively homophobic; but that's not to say that he was entirely comfortable with homosexuality as such. So, for instance, he teased his friend A L Rowse about his gayness (with a nice cattiness, Rowse wrote a marginalium in a biography of Wells he owned, recently sold at auction: ‘He was kind enough to send me his books inscribed. I sold them’).  The question is how far Boon's mockery of James is just a rather cruel wittiness, and how far it is the expression of a buried sexual hostility.

I'm conscious that this may look like me straining at a reading. Boon certainly might stand, as it was taken by many of its first readers, merely as a jeu d'espirit, a puckish satire of contemporary mores. If it has lost much of its sting, that's because its targets are no longer current (James, ironically enough, aside). But I don't think that's the whole picture here.

In part I think this because of how much Boon owes to its template, Mallock's New Republic. To make the point, I'll have to trespass on your patience, dear reader, and say a little more about the old novel by Mallock upon which Wells erected his new one.

The New Republic has various targets (a main one is Benjamin Jowett who, as Mallock saw it, was dangerously trivialising Christianity by meddling with a kind of ecumenicism). But one of its barbs hit home in unexpected ways, and that was its attack on Walter Pater, ‘Mr Rose’ in the book, for being what everybody knew him to be: gay. In Mallock's account Mr Rose is a poseur, an effeminate aesthete whose adoration for Greek literature and culture is a mere figleaf for his homosexual appetites. Here's a sample:

All those handsome couples! Xάρις (‘grace’) is used, I'd say, in the sense that Plato specifies, as that mutual, reciprocal gratification that can only occur between lovers who are equal—as, Plato argues, men and men may be, but as men and women can never be, because, Plato argues, women are by nature inferior. It is, in other words, code, much as talking about ‘Greek love’ is code (the other bit of Greek quoted is Thetis to her son Achilles in Iliad 1:417, ‘but now you are doomed to a quick death, weighted with sorrows above all men’: ah, Achilles, beautiful, physical, doomed! Just like Gaveston). There's plenty more like this in the book, too. Indeed, Linda Dowling notes that the appearance of Mr Rose came to dominate the way the New Republic as a whole was read:
Mallock’s portrait of Mr Rose was to have several unintended consequence of the greatest significance for late-Victorian culture, not the least of which would be its contribution to the constitution of homosexuality as a positive social identity in Oxford and beyond. For with the reductio ad absurdum embodied in his portrait of Mr Rose Mallock would implicitly accept the basic premise from which Pater has begun, “that male love has the capacity to initiate powerful cultural change”—and the very brilliance of his satire would unwittingly serve to drive the premise home. [Linda Dowling, Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford (Cornell University Press, 2014), 89]
Rehabilitating homosexuality was certainly not Mallock's intention, of course. My point, though, is to suggest that Wells's Boon picks up this tonal agenda of pansy-mocking.

So for instance, Reginald Bliss, going through Boon's remains, is disappointed to find only the odds-and-ends that constitute the book we are reading. The only thing not in fragmentary form, we're told, is ‘a series of sketches of Lord Rosebery, for the most part in a toga and a wreath, engaged in a lettered retirement at his villa at Epsom, and labelled “Patrician Dignity, the Last Phase”—sketches I suppress as of no present interest.’ [Boon, 1:2]  Rosebery crops up several times in the book, actually. And why Rosebery? Conceivably because of the rumours that Rosebery was gay (toga, wreath, decadent ‘last phase’: you get the drill.) Supression-worthy, you see.

[A sidebar: was Rosebery gay? McKinstry's Rosebery: Statesman in Turmoil (2006) goes to great and indeed one might say doth-protest-too-much lengths to insist on Rosebury's ‘robust heterosexuality’. I don't know if I'm persuaded. The Marquis of Queensbury—he of Oscar Wilde trial infamy—pursued Rosebery all the way to Germany with the intention of horsewhipping Rosebery for sleeping with his (Queensbury's) son. Edmund Backhouse and George Ives claimed to have had sex with him, and many, from contemporaries such as Frank Harris to modern-day writers like Neil McKenna believe them. Of course it's not a question we can answer with any certainty, and also, of course, it's liable to strike us as an irrelevance (so he was gay? so what?), except insofar as a figure like Rosebery can figure, in a homophobic society where gay people live closeted lives, as a rebus of insinuation.]

I'm wondering, in other words, whether James occupies a place in Boon akin to the place Pater occupies in New Republic, and that this gives Wells's novel a, to modern sensibilities, deplorable homophobic flavour.

Consider, for instance, ‘The Wild Asses of the Devil’. What's going on in this strange little fable? Ass means donkey, and also means stupid person, and the ostensible moral of the story is that Hell has unleashed not malign focused wickedness but a kind of plague of idiocy upon our world. Fair enough. But ass also means arse (it's a mistake to think the former uniquely US and the latter uniquely UK usage: as the dictionary makes clear, ‘contrary to the widespread belief of [ass] being a euphemism [for arse], it arose as a pronunciation spelling still used in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, etc. that shows the loss of -r- before s increasingly common in all words since the 18th century in both England and its colonies.’) The devil Wells's narrator encounters has been working in our world as a stoker: that is, a seaman. Asked why he hasn't tracked any of the wild asses down, he complains that they look just like regular people; and this leads into the following little exchange:
“So far as I can see,” he said, “they might all be Wild Asses. I tried it once——-”

“Tried what?”

“The formula. You know.”


“On a man named Sir Edward Carson.”


“Ugh!” said the devil.


“Don’t speak of it. He was just a professional lawyer-politician ... How was I to know? ... But our people certainly know how to hurt....” [Boon, 8:5]
To be clear, the notion here is: a sailor has approached Sir Edward Carson and propositioned him as a closet ‘wild ass’, and in outraged reply Carson has used his legal and political powers to punish the sailor severely. Carson, of course, was the barrister who acted in the first trial, and therefore the downfall, of Oscar Wilde. Look again at the title of this odd little story. Does it need spelling out? Wilde. Arses. Nor do I think the jocular tone of all this defangs its homophobic bite. A certain proportion of the population, though they look just like ‘ordinary’ human beings, are actually manifestations of a demonic, hellish, impulse, at once bestial and rather absurd? As allegories go it's not subtle. I'm reminded of the unpleasant rhyme Algernon Swinburne (himself hardly a sexually conventional individual) wrote on the death of Wilde:
When Oscar went to join his God
Not earth to earth, but sod to sod ...
It was for sinners such as this
Hell was created bottomless.
What's so dislikable about this sort of thing is its smugness: the self-satisfaction of cleverness framing a sneer. We're being invited to snigger, as, I suspect, we are with the other hard-to-square reference to Carson in Wells's novel.

It takes us back to the central chapters of the novel, with their portrait of James. What is it that Wells finds so ludicrous and unusual about James, that he also finds threatening enough to merit so elaborate and public a rebuke? Don't forget: ‘believe me, Henry James deserved it.’

James joins the party and contributes to the discussion, but is evidently out of place. He falls in with the Irish novelist, George Moore, and the two of them go off together. Was George Moore gay? He boasted elaborately of his sexual conquests of women, but the rumours, and indeed modern scholarship, suggest the answer: is the Pope Catholic? Moore's biographer Adrian Frazier concludes [in George Moore 1852-1933 (Yale University Press 2000)] that he was ‘a homosexual man who loved to make love to women’, something which didn't of course preclude him from making love to lots of men too.

Anyway, in Boon Moore and James hit it off (they weren't even acquaintances in real life). Here they are, walking across the garden together, talking simultaneously, James prolixing on about the symposium, Moore describing an attractive urchin he had spotted in France:
At that moment Mr. George Moore was saying: “Little exquisite shoulders without a touch of colour and with just that suggestion of rare old ivory in an old shop window in some out-of-the-way corner of Paris ——”

Each gentleman stopped simultaneously.

Ahead the path led between box-hedges to a wall, and above the wall was a pine-tree, and the Editor of the New Age was reascending the pine-tree in a laborious and resolute manner, gripping with some difficulty in his hand a large and very formidable lump of unpleasantness....

With a common impulse the two gentlemen turned back towards the house. Mr. James was the first to break the momentary silence. “And so, my dear Moore, and so—to put it shortly—without any sort of positive engagement or entanglement or pledge or pressure—I came. And at the proper time and again with an entirely individual detachment and as little implication as possible I shall go....” [Boon, 4:2. Ellipses all in original]
You came did you, Henry? And without any sort of marriage-like entanglement, pledge, or pressure too! Very good. The editor of the New Age was Alfred Orage; your guess is as good as mine as to the identity of the lump of unpleasantness. Wells adds in a picshua of the odd couple, subtitled: ‘Mr. James converses with Mr. George Moore upon matters of vital importance to both of them.’

On the one hand, the fact that ‘matter of vital importance to both of them’ is never explicitly spelled out in Boon is part of the satire on the nebulous emptiness of the Jamesian manner. But on the other hand, it could be a matter the obliquity of which is determined not by literary affectation but by the hefty structures of social disapproval and judicial punishment, the same ones that were brought to bear in the ruining of Oscar Wilde.

I don't want to be too heavy-handed, here. And I'm certainly not suggesting Boon is an example of out-and-out queer-bashing. But I do find myself wondering if there is a sniggering, hetero-boys-altogether web of rather sneering insinuation running through the whole exercise. Art is delight, but Wells thinks it needs to be more than delightful: it needs, in some sense, to be productive. James thinks the delight is an end in itself, and indeed that it upends the conventional wisdom about the priority of the lived and the aesthetic: ‘it is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance’. Maybe they're not just arguing about art—or perhaps it would be better to say, maybe they're arguing about a wider remit of delight than just the textual. For Wells sex is a pleasure but also a productive engagement with the world, filling it up with new life (with, in point of fact, the eugenically best new life, all the better to bring about the World State). He certainly fathered a good brood of kids himself. Who knows how James personally experienced sex, though his writing certainly has eloquent things to say about physical desire, and more to the point precisely about such desire as a end in itself, not as the means to a further, worldly end.

Putting it like that will perhaps bring to mind the big debates in Queer Theory from the 1980s to the present. So, for example, a book like Lee Edelman's influential No Future (Duke University Press 2004) is a boldly polemical account to reclaim ethical as well as the aesthetic value in the childless pleasures of non-future-oriented fucking. Read through this kind of a lens, Wells's stiff reply—‘when you say “it is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance,” I can only read sense into it by assuming that you are using “art” for every conscious human activity. I use the word for a conscious attainment that is technical and special’—looks just dense, or perhaps actively disingenuous. Of course James is talking about more than just the technical business of constructing a novel when he insists that art makes life. Presumably Wells knew it, too; he'd certainly had enough conversations with James over the years about art, life and everything else. Of course for James aesthetic pleasure is a much wider category than just books, and politics; and of course aesthetic beauty and aesthetic delight inform life—manners, sex, everything—in the fullest sense.

The best case I can make, then, is that Wells here articulates a sort of refined homophobia in Boon: not crude revulsion at gay sex as such, so much as a notionally more considered judgement that gay sex is a dead-end, a no-future childless abdication of collection racial responsibility.

At any rate, I think it's in this light that Wells's mockery of the Jamesian aesthetic is best read: not that it is prolixly vapid, or empty, but rather that it is a sort of symbolic repudiation of fertility, a tacit celebration of Edelman's ‘No Future’. That's why it gets described as an ‘Altar of the Dead’ [4.3], as ‘an elaborate, copious emptiness’, a ‘desert’ populated by ‘eviscerated people’. It's death in the long-term sense that interested Wells, but which didn't interest James in the least. And, as the chapter ends Wells comes up with an image that makes me think of strenuous and perfectly unfecund, unproductive sexual activity:
His vast paragraphs sweat and struggle; they could not sweat and elbow and struggle more if God Himself was the processional meaning to which they sought to come. And all for tales of nothingness. [Boon, 4.3]
To come. There we are again. And all for nothing!

Still, there's part of me that wants to read all this as not amounting to straightforward homophobia. Conceivably Wells, who knew James as well as anybody, was talking not about (what we would nowadays call) gay art, or a gay asethetic, but was just talking about James. As Colm Tóibín says, there is something a little tragic about James's life, the case of ‘a gay man whose sexuality has left him frozen in the world. It is, in all its implications, a desolate and disturbing story’. And Tóibín quotes James's biographer, Leon Edel: ‘no passion had ever touched him for this was what passion meant. He had seen outside of his life, not learned it from within.’ Wells is sort-of saying the same thing. He's just saying it with a grin on his face. I suppose it's the grin that is the problem.

Monday, 18 September 2017

The War That Will End War (1914)

There are two things to consider here. One is the book, compiled out of eleven newspaper and magazine articles Wells published in the first months of the First World War. The other is the title itself. Because where the book is an object lesson in what happens to hostages-to-fortune under the withering glare of hindsight, the title may be one of the most famous phrases ever to come from Wells's pen.

So to start with the first of these two things, the book itself. It has not, I'm afraid, aged well.
Chapter I. Why Britain Went to War
Chapter II. The Sword of Peace
Chapter III. Hands Off the People's Food
Chapter IV. Concerning Mr. Maximilian Craft
Chapter V. The Most Necessary Measures in the World
Chapter VI. The Need of a New Map of Europe
Chapter VII. The Opportunity of Liberalism
Chapter VIII. The Liberal Fear of Russia
Chapter IX. An Appeal to the American People
Chapter X. Common Sense and the Balkan States
Chapter XI. The War of the Mind
Wells blames the war entirely on German aggression, and more specifically on Prussian militarism (it's possible, just possible, that the actual causes of the war were a little more complex than that). He is certain that Germany will lose, and soon (that within ‘two or three months’ the entire edifice of ‘German Imperialism will be shattered’): that ‘Prussianism took its mortal wound at the first onset before the trenches of Liege. We begin a new period of history’; that ‘the German repulse at Liege was but the beginning of a German disaster as great as that of France in 1871’; and that
if you want to see where diplomacy and Weltpolitik have landed Europe after forty years of anxiety and armament, you must go and look into the ditches of Liege. These bloody heaps are the mere first samples of the harvest. [War That Will End War, 6]
Nor was he alone in thinking that the defence of Liège constituted a war-ending repulse to the Germans. Here's a contemporaneous Punch cartoon:

In fact Liège fell relatively quickly, on the 16th August 1914, and the defence it mounted delayed the German advance by a couple of days at most (plus: it cost as many as 20,000 Belgian lives, as against 5000 German casualties). So the gate in that cartoon very speedily had the ‘No’ before its ‘Thoroughfare’ erased.

Since Wells is certain the Germans are in the process of being defeated, he gives a lot of time to the question of how to order the postwar world. For example, he proposes completely redrawing the map of Europe (‘I suggest that France must recover Lorraine, and that Luxemburg must be linked in closer union with Belgium. Alsace, it seems to me, should be given a choice between France and an entry into the Swiss Confederation .. the break-up of the Austrian Empire has hung over Europe like a curse for forty years. Let us break it up now and have done with it ... then, I would suggest that the three fragments of Poland should be reunited, and that the Tsar of Russia should be crowned King of Poland’ and so on, for many pages). As far as this goes, he is at least cheerily up-front about his complete lack of expertise—‘I am a fairly ignorant person ... and I admit a certain sense of presumptuous absurdity as I sit here before the map of Europe like a carver before a duck and take off a slice here and decide on a cut there’—although he does nonetheless insist upon its urgent needfulness. Once again, hindsight is not on Wells's side where this kind of thing is concerned (there are plenty of examples of the damage it can do).

More worryingly still, the book contains a deal of raw, anti-Semitic blather:
In the South and East [of the Russian empire] are certain provinces thick with Jews, whom Russia can neither contrive to tolerate nor assimilate, who have no comprehensible projects for the help or reorganisation of the country, and who deafen all the rest of Europe with their bitter, unhelpful tale of grievances, so that it is difficult to realise how local and partial are their wrongs. [War That Will End War, 1]
‘Thick with Jews’ is an especially unpleasant piece of phraseology, isn't it? It's not that Wells is unaware of the series of anti-Jewish pogroms conducted in Russia between 1881 and the years in which he was writing. It's that, in his own words, Jewish prominence ‘in the English and still more in the American Press’ has had the effect of ‘distort[ing] the issue of this’, an argument with some very alarming implications. He also asserts that ‘the Jews by their particularism invite the resentment of all uncultivated humanity.’ Invite it, no less!

Anyhow: Wells proposes a Balkan League to solve the Balkan Problem (indeed he asserts, breezily, that ‘the Balkan States never have been a problem’), and presses hard on the need for Propaganda:
By means of a propaganda of books, newspaper articles, leaflets, tracts in English, French, German, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Italian, Chinese and Japanese we have to spread this idea, repeat this idea, and impose upon this war the idea that this war must end war. We have to create a wide common conception of a re-mapped and pacified Europe, released from the abominable dangers of a private trade in armaments, largely disarmed and pledged to mutual protection. [War That Will End War, 8]
That passage comes near the end of the book, and contains the main text's only iteration of the titular slogan.

Which brings me to that slogan. I'd say that there are three phrases in particular, out of all the many phrases and ideas Wells coined, that have enjoyed the most widespread and enduring afterlife: time machine, atom bomb and the war to end war. This latter has a particularly pungency, since it went in short order from being heartfelt and genuine rallying cry to an ironic, bitter, reflection on a conflict that killed seventeen million, maimed twenty million more and ruined a continent without resulting in larger benefit for humankind of any kind. Wells here uses the phrase ingenuously; when he cites it again in his later novel The Bulpington of Blup he does so with rather sour irony. You see, it turns out that—spoiler—this war didn't actually end war after all.

And The War That Will End War is a frankly self-contradictory title:—one might as well call a book The Cholera Bacillus That Will End Dysentery or Fucking for Virginity. Hindsight, to put it bluntly, licences us to mock Wells (and several of his prophecies really do look rather naïve: that it will become globally illegal to produce warships, for instance, and the oceans of the world free of armied navies ‘for hundreds of years’). His larger twofold point is not so far-fetched, I suppose: that militarism can only be defeated militarily, and that a victory so won will give the world the chance at collective disarmament, ‘at a settlement that shall stop this sort of thing for ever.’ Even so:
Every soldier who fights against Germany now is a crusader against war. This, the greatest of all wars, is not just another war—it is the last war! [War That Will End War, 1]
Say what you like about the crusades, they at least put an end to all religiously-grounded conflict and war forever.

I shouldn't be sarcastic. It's no laughing matter. And yet the phrase continues to endure. Of the various versions of it, ‘The War To End War’ (or the ‘War To End All War’), ‘This War Must End War’ ‘Making War on War’ and so on, I think Wells's title here is the best: something to do with the way it follows its initial iamb with two unstressed and then two stressed syllables—technically this latter is called a minor ionic, or sometimes a double iamb—which is prosodically quite forceful.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman (1914)

The novel starts with young Lady Harman, driven by a chauffeur who also functions as a chaperone and guard, viewing a house.

The house belongs to the novel's version of Wells himself, George Brumley (Wells's middle name plus a surname that evokes the town where he was born). Brumley is a successful novelist, small, energetic, randy, ‘one of those very natural-minded men with active imaginations who find women the most interesting things in a full and interesting universe’ [1:1]. He has been a widower for three years, and is just starting to get over his wife's death, which is why he's now selling his spacious country house. But Mrs Harman definitely catches his eye, since she is both very young and very beautiful. Indeed she is so young that he is astonished when he discovers she already has four children.

After some pleasant enough, if not exactly rib-tickling, comedy of manners stuff we get her backstory: born Ellen Sawbridge, the daughter of a financially embarrassed middle-class mother, courted by the wealthy Sir Isaac Harman whose self-made fortune is based on selling sub-par loaves (‘Staminal Bread’) to the masses, and running a chain of cheap, sub-par shops and cafés, the ‘International Bread and Cake Stores’. Harman is shallow, acquisitive and gasping, the sort of man who measures his self-worth solely in terms of his possessions. He more-or-less straightforwardly purchases Ellen, installing her in a lavish household that she is not permitted to leave, and fathering four children in quick succession upon her. Indeed, having so many kids so quickly damages her health: after ‘tactful explanation on the part of the elderly and trustworthy family doctor’ Harman is persuaded to leave his wife alone for a bit: ‘there came a less reproductive phase’.

The bulk of the novel traces Lady Harman's growth from thoroughly naïf and timid child-bride, living out an Ibsenian Dolls-House existence, into self-assured young woman who reads suffragette literature, befriends other women, undertakes her own projects in the world and otherwise ‘comes out’. She does all this in the teeth of her husband's implacable opposition. He leaves a copy of The Taming of the Shrew around the house with key passages underlined, and explicitly acts the Petruchio to her Katherina—chapter eight is actually called ‘Sir Isaac as Petruchio’: hectoring her, denying her use of the car to go out and see friends, and at one point abruptly moving her to a house in the country to keep her away from London society. But instead of taming her, Harman's behaviour only strengthens her resolve to achieve some measure of independence.

As this is going on, Brumley is falling deeper in love with Lady Harman. He tries, and fails, to seduce her, and decides instead to style himself as a knight errant dedicated to rescuing her from her misery. Her denial of his sexual advances is polite but firm, dedicated as she is not simply to pass from one man's ownership to another. They do become friends though, meeting from time to time, and exchanging letters in which Brumley says things like ‘I would rather kiss the hem of your garment than be the lord of any other woman's life’. And this relationship plays its part, as does Ellen's friendship with a group of suffragette women, in bracing her in her struggle for independence.

In David Smith's words, Wells set out in this novel to ‘present a picture of feminists of various kinds, especially suffragettes’, this latter group being broadly criticised for failing the larger aims of female emancipation by ‘defusing and re-focusing the battle for equality, by their attention to side issues’ [Smith, 378]. In the Experiment in Autobiography, Wells says: ‘in The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman I tried to explain to myself and my readers the suppressions and resentments that might lead a gentle woman to smash a plate-glass window. I studied my model carefully and I think the figure lives, but no suffragette saw herself in my mirror.’ Presumably that's because suffragettes saw themselves as committed to equality predicated on specific social reform, where Wells's novel advances the case that the real problem is jealousy, troped in this novel as a function of masculine possessiveness. It's not that he doesn't have a point. It's that he's taking aim at a rather different, less tractable, target.

Lady Harman's involvement in proto-feminism sees her founding a number of hostels for the underpaid and homeless waitresses at her husband's cake shops and cafés, some of whom are driven to supplement their wages by prostitution. I have to say: that's as far as her activism goes, really. Wells's interest in the hostels is that they can act as a piece of plot leverage, with Sir Isaac threatening to take away their funding if his wife leaves him, and so prolonging the conflict (and therefore) drama in the narrative—rather, that is, than Wells showing any deeper interest in the social questions the hostels, and the need for them, raise. Sir Isaac, generally dyspeptic and nervy, falls into rages when his will is thwarted, and so grows iller.

It's a dialogue-heavy novel, with some pleasant if weak-tea comedy of misunderstanding and deflated pompousness, and a certain amount of period-piece interest for the modern reader. But it's not very good, overall. Part of its problem. I think, is that Sir Isaac is an insufficiently intimidating villain. Wells handles Ellen's Bildungsroman pretty well, and there's something quite clever in the fundamental ineffectiveness of Brumley's character. But the novel as a whole feels underpowered, dawdling along until its rather abrupt mors ex machina ending. Which is: Sir Isaac's doctor instructs him to take a rest cure on the Continent, at a place called Santa Margherita, near Genoa. He has forbidden his wife from seeing Brumley, and to keep her hostels financially solvent she had agreed; but the two still correspond. Sir Isaac discovers some of these letters, has an apoplectic fit and dies.

Now, this development of course frees-up our heroine; but although Brumley proposes marriage, she turns him down. In part this is for practical reasons: Sir Isaac, like Casaubon in Middlemarch, has sought to influence his wife from beyond the grave by a provision in his will that would take the hostels away from her in the event of her remarriage. But her refusal to accept Brumley's suit also reflects her determination not to be owned by another man, and Brumley's anguished sense of emasculation in the face of this fills up quite a lot of the final section of the novel: ‘I am to be your tormented, your emasculated lover to the very end of things,’ he whines. ‘Emasculated by laws I hate and customs I hate and vile foresights that I despise ... Because I'm going to do it. I'm going to do what I can. I'm going to be as you wish me to be, to help you, to serve you. If you can't come to meet me, I'll meet you. I can't help but love you, I can't do without you.’ [12]

So it seems they'll carry on as friends, and Lady Harman will end the novel a free agent. Ah, but then again, on the very last page, Wells shuffles his two characters into a fragrant hyacinth garden and closes with a big old snog:
She crouched down upon him and, taking his shoulder in her hand, upset him neatly backwards, and, doing nothing by halves, kissed the astonished Mr. Brumley full upon his mouth. [The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman, 12]
So maybe not.

Wells began writing The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman in 1913, at the tail-end of his affair with Elizabeth Von Arnim, and Wells actually inserts a little tribute to Von Arnim's most famous book:
About this time she happened upon “Elizabeth and her German Garden,” and was very greatly delighted and stimulated by that little sister of Montaigne. She was charmed by the book's fresh gaiety, by its gallant resolve to set off all the good things there are in this world, the sunshine and flowers and laughter, against the limitations and thwartings and disappointments of life. For a time it seemed to her that these brave consolations were solutions, and she was stirred by an imitative passion. How stupid had she not been to let life and Sir Isaac overcome her! She felt that she must make herself like Elizabeth, exactly like Elizabeth; she tried forthwith, and a certain difficulty she found, a certain deadness, she ascribed to the square modernity of her house and something in the Putney air. The house was too large, it dominated the garden and controlled her. [The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman, 5:9]
But Ellen herself, he later claimed, was based on Agnes Eleanor Williams, a suffragette who married the overbearing W W Jacobs (author of ‘The Monkeys Paw’ and other classics of macabre writing). In his posthumously published supplement to his Experiment in Autobiography, Wells recalls how one woman of his acquaintance, Maud Pember Reeves, had worked her way slowly out from under the dominance of her husband, William Pember Reeves, to become ‘almost before he knew what was happening’ a leading suffragette. Then he adds:
The same way of escape was found by the wife of another tyrannous husband, Mrs W. W. Jacobs, and I made a book out of that type of reaction that I think may survive as a fragment of social history, The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman. [H G Wells in Love: Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography (ed G P Wells, 1984), 71]
Now the thing here is, despite the surname, W W Jacobs wasn't Jewish. And Wells's Isaac Harman most assuredly is.

And so we come to the elephant in the room of this novel, and it's a big elephant, and it's brought its auntie with it—auntie-Semitism. I shouldn't crack wise, I know. But, still: damn. My guess is that Wells decided from the get-go that he wanted to focus his novel's critique on a certain possessive, materialist, jealous and stubbornly destructively mind-set, one he identified as masculine (which is fair enough), plutocratic and, well, Jewish. And that's obviously a problem. There are anti-Semitic gestures all the way through this novel. They are rarely more than gestures, but when one's culture is steeped in anti-Semitic assumptions a gesture is enough. This is Brumley when, beginning his pursuit of Ellen, he meets her children for the first time.
“Come and be hugged, you dears! Come and be hugged!” Before she knelt down and enveloped their shrinking little persons Mr. Brumley was able to observe that they were pretty little things, but not the beautiful children he could have imagined from Lady Harman. Peeping through their infantile delicacy, hints all too manifest of Sir Isaac's characteristically pointed nose gave Mr. Brumley a peculiar—a eugenic, qualm. [The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman, 3:4]
A eugenic qualm. Right.
At school Sir Isaac had not been a particularly prominent figure; his disposition at cricket to block and to bowl "sneaks" and "twisters" under-arm had raised his average rather than his reputation; he had evaded fights and dramatic situations, and protected himself upon occasions of unavoidable violence by punching with his white knuckles held in a peculiar and vicious manner. He had always been a little insensitive to those graces of style, in action if not in art, which appeal so strongly to the commoner sort of English mind; he played first for safety, and that assured, for the uttermost advantage. These tendencies became more marked with maturity. When he took up tennis for his health's sake he developed at once an ungracious service that had to be killed like vermin; he developed an instinct for the deadest ball available, and his returns close up to the net were like assassinations. Indeed, he was inherently incapable of any vision beyond the express prohibitions and permissions of the rules of the games he played, or beyond the laws and institutions under which he lived. His idea of generosity was the undocumented and unqualified purchase of a person by payments made in the form of a gift. [The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman, 5:4]
This is really quite a nasty piece of writing by Wells: insinuatingly painting Harman as ‘not one of us’, not a proper gentleman, as a man naturally (we might say: racially) a sneak, a cheat and a hoarder of wealth. I mean: killed like vermin? Really? ‘Oh but I'm only talking about his tennis!’ Yeah. Right.

Even blithe young Ellen has her eugenic qualms. Here she is trying to talk herself into sticking with her marriage:
Why, after all, shouldn't she take life as she found it, that is to say, as Sir Isaac was prepared to give it to her? He wasn't really so bad, she told herself. The children—their noses were certainly a little sharp, but there might be worse children. [8:5]
Noses crop up more than once:
Just how much she didn't really like her children she presently realized when in the feeble irascibility of their sickness they fell quarrelling. They became—horrid ... insisted upon having every single toy they possessed brought in and put upon their beds; Florence was first disingenuous and then surrendered her loot with passionate howlings. The Teddy Bear was rescued from Baby after a violent struggle in which one furry hind leg was nearly twisted off. It jars upon the philoprogenitive sentiment of our time to tell of these things and still more to record that all four, stirred by possessive passion to the profoundest depths of their beings, betrayed to an unprecedented degree in their little sharp noses, their flushed faces, their earnest eyes, their dutiful likeness to Sir Isaac. [7:3]
So there it is: gentile women have sex with Jews, contrary to all the best eugenic ideas, and the next thing the world is full of children with sharp noses ‘stirred by possessive passion to the profoundest depths of their beings.’ Putting the unmistakeably Jewish name of the heroine's husband right there on the title page of the novel can't help but flag this up, I think. And it makes me wonder if the Shakesperian prototype for Wells's novel is not The Taming of the Shrew so much as it is The Merchant of Venice. That's a story about how a clever woman bests a wicked Jew by taking on the habiliments of a man, which is more or less what Wells has written here.

Wells wasn't a dedicated anti-Semite, or at least adult Wells wasn't. There is, it's true, this eye-popping bit in 1934's Experiment in Autobiography about his teenage years: ‘I had ideas about Aryans extraordinarily like Mr. Hitler's. The more I hear of him the more I am convinced that his mind is almost the twin of my thirteen year old mind in 1879; but heard through a megaphone and—implemented.’ Implemented indeed. Wells reminisces in a rather misty-eyed manner: ‘I do not know from what books I caught my first glimpse of the Great Aryan People going to and fro in the middle plains of Europe, spreading east, west, north and south ... and driving the inferior breeds into the mountains.’ Inferior breeds. Right. What's worse is the way he concludes with what he presumably believed was mitigation: ‘I thought Abraham, Isaac, Moses and David loathsome creatures ... but unlike Hitler I had no feelings about the contemporary Jew.’  Ugh!

But, we might say: that was thirteen-year-old Wells. We all have crazy ideas as kids. Adult Wells had plenty of Jewish friends, slept with Jewish women, repudiated Hitlerism and so on. But I'm not sure he ever shook off the shaping assumptions of the immanent, low-level anti-Semitism that characterised nineteenth-century British society. It has, perhaps, something to do with his novelist's impulse not only to diagnose but to personalize and dramatize social problems. Rather than talk about money, greed, unproductive capital acquisition and plutocracy in the abstract, he liked to personify them, and such personifications often took on the lineaments of Der Stürmer-style racial libel—as in this novel.

This touches on an intriguing larger issue: the extent to which our broader cultural determination retains anti-Semitism as a default even in individuals who are consciously and deliberately not anti-Semitic, even sometimes in people who would consider themselves philo-Semites. Think of Proust: À la recherche du temps perdu is amongst other things an extraordinarily sensitive portrait of a Jew, Swann, as well as a potent critique of the reflex anti-Semitism of the France of l'époque de l'affaire Dreyfuss. Marcel loves Swann, and writes about him with deep and abiding insight and tenderness. But there are also passages in the novel like the one in Sodome et Gomorrhe when Marcel visits the dying Swann and is struck by how repulsively Jewish he looks: how ‘enormous, tumid, crimson’ his nose is, ‘fit for a clown or an old Hebrew.’ Proust's letters are full of offhand anti-Semitism, even though he was himself half-Jewish. It's complicated.

Wells never delves into the Jewish Question in as profound a way as Proust, of course; indeed his jaunty denial that there even was such a question is one of the most alarming aspects of his relationship to Jewry more generally. Here he is on his early journalistic days, in the 1890s, and his close friendship with Walter Low, another struggling young writer. Low was Jewish. It's alright though: he didn't look like a Jew:
Low was tall and dark, not the Jew of convention and caricature, the ambitious and not the acquisitive sort, mystical and deliberate. He had an extensive knowledge of foreign languages and contemporary literature. He knew vastly more about current political issues than I did. We argued endlessly about the Jewish question, upon which he sought continually to enlighten me. But I have always refused to be enlightened and sympathetic about the Jewish question. From my cosmopolitan standpoint it is a question that ought not to exist. So, though we never quarrelled, we had some lively passages and if we convinced each other of nothing we considerably instructed each other. [Experiment in Autobiography, 291]
I have always refused to be enlightened and sympathetic about the Jewish question is meant, I suppose, to be offhand and funny, a genial wave of the hand. But it strikes a genuinely catastrophic note in a book published only a few short years before the Final Solution to that very Question was put into grisly practice. To repeat myself: ugh.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

World Again Enchained: A Sequel to "The World Set Free" (2017)

The man had been waiting, patiently, for a great many days. He sat on a bench in a public chamber on the hundred-and-tenth floor of the World Council Building, and waited. From time to time he rose, and went over to one of the wide windows to gaze down at the cityscape of New Paris, still in the process of being constructed. Men and women were visible moving through streets and over esplanades, small as commas—artists, these, whose medium was urbēs. But mostly the motion visible belonged to atomic machinery, atom-powered cranes and diggers, atomic trucks of gigantic size bringing in the raw materials. A fine and wondrous labour it was, the creation of a new World Capital.

The man had been repeatedly told it was unlikely any of the Council would have leisure to speak with him, and that he would be better served returning home and communicating by notarised citizen's letter. But, he said, he preferred to stay. He left the building every evening and returned every morning. ‘What I have to say to the Council is too important, and too urgent,’ he told the receptionist, who happened to have started, new, on Friday, ‘for a letter. Please communicate to the Council that I am here. Once they have spoken to me they will wish to shelve all on-going Council business, and, indeed, to recall currently non-attending members. What I have to tell them will change the world—destroy it, I'm afraid.’

The receptionist on duty that day was Faye Teng. Having recently graduated from university with the best results of her entire year, and having been identified as a possible future Council member. she had taken up a position in the New Paris centre. The aim was to familiarise herself with the workings of government, although the main thing she had learned was how nugatory such workings were. By this stage, after the upheavals of the Last War and the collective assiduity of the Period of Reconstruction that followed it, the World State needed very little by way of ‘governance’ at all.

Here was this petitioner, though: one of those monomaniacs or eccentrics still, occasionally, thrown up in the general population. Usually such people were not violent, and the principles of humane co-existence meant that the State rarely interfered with idiosyncrasy, provided of course that it did not have any deleterious effect on others. You know the sorts of people: the ones convinced they have been contacted by aliens, or demons, who claim to have perfected perpetual motion machines, or to have decoded the Voynich Manuscript. Generally they were left their own odd devices, free to publish, to preach in public parks and to bore their friends and family and free in the largest sense to be ignored.

On rare occasions such people decided the Council needed to act, and so sent in petitions, or—as here—actually turned up in the Council Building itself. By decree the Council Parliament and all its infrastructure was perfectly open to any citizen of the world, so they could not be locked out, and such intrusions happened so rarely no formal protocol had been devised for processing them. The best strategy, it was thought, was to let them cool their heels; to use boredom as metaphorical antiseptic.

Faye smiled: ‘I should tell you, Citizen, it is very unlikely any Council Member will be free to see you today. Perhaps you should come again on Monday?’

‘Monday will be too late,’ said the man. ‘I must be seen by close of business this afternoon.’

‘I'm afraid that's very unlikely.’

The individual did not look disappointed, or angry. He nodded, a little dolefully. ‘Citizen, permit me—’

He handed her a laminated card on which was a name, GÜRCIOU KUYÜLAR, and a London address.

‘Thank you,’ she said, and returned to her business.

After lunch she happened to pass again through the chamber and saw Kuyülar still sitting there, patiently. He was so mild-mannered and polite, and her duties were light enough to encroach on actual boredom, that she went over to suggest they take coffee together. He agreed with a little bow, and the two of them went to one of the building's many little cafés: an automated wall that dispensed all manner of drinks and food, and many tables with a view over the resurrecting cityscape. It was Friday, the business of world governance was not pressing, and Faye and Kuyülar were the only two people in that room at that time.

‘It is kind of you to spend time with me,' he said, sipping his drink. ‘I appreciate I must appear a mere crank, or idiota.’

‘Not at all,’ said Faye, politely.

‘There is no need to humour me,’ Kuyülar said, with a wry smile. ‘I am, indeed, very sorry to be here. I have lived a happy life, truly. I bless Providence that I was born into the New Utopia our world has become. Such happiness as I have had would not have been possible for one such as me at any earlier period in history.’

‘Many people can say the same,’ agreed Faye. ‘My own genetic line consists of a thousand generations of peasants, all of them condemned to short lives of body-wrecking hard physical labour. And here I am, sitting in a room half a kilometer above the Capital of the World, helping the governance of the a perfected human society. I can do anything with my life I chose, make my talents manifest howsoever I prefer.’

At this, though, Kuyülar looked grave. ‘Alas to bring such a Utopia to an end!’ he said.

An individual from a past age might have affected not to have heard this strangely threatening statement; but people in the New Utopia were accustomed to speak plainly, so Faye said: ‘why would you say such a thing, Citizen?’

For a time Kuyülar was silent. The room faced west, and the sun was low in the sky, scattering fruit-coloured lights through the stacked layers of cloud as delicate-looking as gauze. The ripening light glinted from a million windows in the brand new metropolis. Faye realised only belatedly that Kuyülar was weeping, silently.

‘I apologise,’ he said, wrapping his right hand in a handkerchief and tapping at his face with it. ‘Only, it fills me with such sorry to think of all this passing away. Reverting, in fact, into what has past. But it is inevitable.’

‘How so?’

Kuyülar took a breath, put his handkerchief away, and say back. ‘Citizen,’ he said. ‘Permit me to burden you with my story, for which I apologise in advance. I have been working as a researcher at the London Polyscientia Institute for ten years. My citizenry file will confirm as much. And for much of that time my research brought me only joy, and joy, and joy. I worked on the physics of time itself, on what we must now, after the breakthrough research of McFarlane, call the coordinating manifold of space-and-time.’

Faye's own degree had been in art and aesthetics, with a final year project on the narratological understanding of history. But of course her school-level education had equipped her with an up-to-date knowledge of physics, chemistry, biology, sociology and mathematics. ‘A very interesting field,’ she said.

‘My dream,’ said Kuyülar, ‘was to invent a time machine and so travel through the future. I have little interest in the past, but am intensely curious as to what life will be in, let us say, the eightieth millennium. And the physics suggests that such travel should be possible.’

Despite herself, Faye's interest was piqued. ‘Fascinating! And did you make any progress with your machine?’

‘I created models and attempted to send small drones backwards and forwards in time. The theory told me they should have travelled, but they did not. After false starts and much puzzling I came to the conclusion that the temporal medium, the very stuff of time itself, was too attenuated to support their passage. That what I was attempting was akin to trying to fly a fixed-wing aircraft in a near-vacuum. And if it was too attenuated for small models to travel through, there is no hope that a craft large enough to transport a human being could be supported or make temporal pro- or regress.’

‘I see.’

‘It was frustrating,’ Kuyülar said, ‘but there were many other projects upon which I could direct my scientist's attention. Very many! And in fact, I very nearly began an entirely new project mapping the curvature of the manifold in the presence of supermassive objects. Would that I had! But instead I worried at my calculations. It bothered me that I had been so wrong in my mathematics when determining the, as-it-were, density of time itself. I re-worked all my equations and checked everything to find where I had gone wrong.’


‘And I had not gone wrong. The density of the space-and-time manifold ought to be much higher than it is. There is no doubt about that. And that sent me on an increasingly desperate quest into the wastelands of the Higher Physics, and atomism.’

‘Atomics? How so?’

‘It was a lengthy but inevitable path that led me there,’ Kuyülar murmured. ‘I reopened questions to do with atomic physics humankind had assumed buried forever. For why should we worry about it when the atomic technologies we use, on which our entire civilisation is based, work so manifestly well? But it did not take me long to understand that such theory as exists as to why our atom engines work is mere guesswork. You have studied history, and have read accounts of the old atomic bombs.’

‘Of course.’

‘They exploded continuously for months. We take it for granted. But study the underlying physics from first principles, and it becomes apparent that such a thing is impossible. There is indeed a great deal of energy in matter, and that energy can be liberated via atomic explosion. But such an explosion, though ten thousand times as powerful as any conventional detonation, would last mere fractions of a second. To cause Carolinum, or Radium, to release its energy in a catastrophic chain-reaction would result in all that energy being liberated instantly.’

Faye considered this. ‘And yet, in the Last War, the old bombs burned for many months. Paris itself was razed by one device.’

Kuyülar nodded. ‘Indeed. I was near the final conclusion of my researches, you see. It only remained for me to determine how those devices were able to maintain their prodigious output of energy.’

‘What did you find?’

‘The developers of these bombs did not fully understand what they were doing; and since the End War, there has been no need for the further development of weaponry of any kind. Those primitive scientists who made the atom bombs assumed their ordnance drew on the energy of the atom. But although the bombs initially exploded in a properly atomic reaction, the explosion continued because that initial release had, in a catastrophic cascade, torn the fabric of space-and-time itself. The ongoing explosions burned because they were drawing energy directly from the underlying fabric of the cosmos itself.’


Kuyülar once again performed his remarkably doleful nod. ‘Alas. Of course, it is not merely a question of bombs. All our machines, small and large, automobile and aircraft engines, construction, excavation, power generation on the largest scale; every thing. Our whole world is covered with a skein of these devices, and every one of them has rent the fabric of space-and-time, and has sucked energy from the very foundation of material life.’

‘And you reason,’ said Faye, ‘that this is why the temporal fabric has become so attenuated?’

Kuyülar said: ‘indeed. And it has reached crisis point. I shall leave this building tonight, and ride the atomic express through the Channel Tunnel to my London home, and make my final arrangements, for I do not wholly expect to see the morrow.’

‘Are things truly so dire?’

By way of reply, Kuyülar brought a folder from his carry-case and passed it over to Faye. ‘I was going to present this to the Council,’ he said. ‘It contains the details, my calculations, estimation as to how long things can continue. My prediction has a tolerance of weeks, not hours; and so it might be that we will last until the end of the month.’

‘And you come to the Council only now?’

‘I completed my calculations in July. Since then I have been trying to bring them to the Council's attention. It has not proved easy.’

‘What do you mean, last until the end of the month? How might we not ... last?’

‘Last? Oh, well, we are talking about the substrate upon which matter itself rests. That is what we have been so sedulously, if inadvertently, eroding. If we continue then, very soon, that substrate will lose its fundamental coherence. Below a certain structural threshold, matter will dissipate. The good news, if I may use that term, is that my calculations suggest the breakdown will be local—I mean, in terms of our solar system. Our planet will disaggregate, but the effect will not reach even so far as our Moon, and the other planets will not be effected. Beyond, of course, the alterations in their respective orbits occasioned by the gravitational absence of our world. So the cosmos as a whole will carry on, and only humankind will vanish.’

‘This is terrible!’ cried Faye. ‘We must stop all atomic engines, without delay.’ She leapt up. ‘We must act immediately! Perhaps it will not be too late?’

Kuyülar was also getting to his feet, though more slowly than Faye. ‘I must go, or I shall miss my train. If you'll forgive me, I would prefer to spend what may be my last night alive surrounded by familiar things.’

Faye, as it happened, possessed that energetic ferocity of optimism of which only the young are truly capable. ‘We can send out a world-wide order! Turn off every atomic engine, every machine!’

‘And perhaps that might hold off the end,’ Kuyülar said, as he walked towards the elevator doors.  ‘Although, of course, it would also mean the end to humanity's Utopia. We would revert to more primitive industrialism, to coal and oil, and to the social logics of that time. We would return to squabbling over scarce resources, and that would mean war. And war would mean what it always means, the collapse of true human civilisation. It is not a pretty choice, I think. And I do not have confidence that the World Council could enforce such a diktat, in the face of a population who have grown accustomed not to being oppressively ruled.’ He paused, and turned to face her, as the elevator light flashed to indicate that it was coming. ‘I suppose I consider it vastly more cruel of Providence to show us bliss and then to snatch it away, than never to have shown us bliss at all. Much crueller than can be justified, I think, except by postulating malignancy on a transcendent scale. But such thoughts are liable to depress the spirit. I shall take up my reservation in the dining car, and eat a fine meal, and drink a glass of bordeaux, and feel better about myself. Goodbye, Citizen!’

He stepped into the waiting elevator, and the doors slid shut.

The World Set Free (1914)


A novel without an individual hero, this is instead, as its subtitle puts it, ‘A Story of Mankind’. Wells speculates about the creation of nuclear weapons, ordnance for which he himself coined the enduring name ‘atom bombs’. He sketches their use in ‘the Last War’, when humanity teeters on the brink of utter destruction, before managing, after millions of deaths and the annihilation of some of the world's greatest cities, to haul itself back. The novel ends with a new utopian world state being built on the ruins of the old.

Formally The World Set Free is mostly disquisitional—the very first chapter, for instance, is an undiluted lecture on the long view of history, ‘the history of mankind is the history of the attainment of external power; man is the tool-using, fire-making animal’ and so on: pages and pages of it. This lecturer's mode is leavened with a series of fictioneer's touches, vingette-y individual character mini-stories. So, as he unfurls his future history, Wells gives us: Holsten, whose scientific breakthrough unleashes the new atomic energy, wandering around London and wondering what the future holds. Then there's more future exposition (‘the American Kemp engine, differing widely in principle but equally practicable, and the Krupp-Erlanger came hard upon the heels of this, and by the autumn of 1954 a gigantic replacement of industrial methods and machinery was in progress all about the habitable globe’), followed by a second inset life-story: Frederick Barnet, a rich kid who falls on hard times, is conscripted into the army, fights in northern Europe during the ‘Last War’ and fades from the novel's view as he takes up post-bellum duties in ‘the army of pacification’. Embedded in this account are two cut-aways, an unnamed secretary, serving the French supreme commander Marshal Dubois, who experiences the atomic bombing of Paris first hand and dies; and an unnamed French pilot part of the retaliatory mission that bombs Berlin.

Then the action moves on to a world-peace conference held in the Alps; into which Wells drops the good example of King Egbert, ‘the young king of the most venerable kingdom in Europe’ who surrenders his power to the new World State Council and the bad example of King Ferdinand Charles, ‘the “Slavic Fox,” the King of the Balkans’, who steals a number of atom bombs and tries to use them, to leverage his personal power, and is shot dead by the Council for his pains.

After this there's more exposition, describing Wells's future-state utopia (clean new roads and cities are constructed, money is pegged to energy production, English becomes the world language, atomic power frees humans to live as artists and gardeners, and flies are exterminated. That's right: ‘the War against Flies has been waged so successfully that this pestilential branch of life is nearly extinct’. Hah! Take that, flies!) Storytelling and lecturing come together in the last inset life-story: that of the brilliant, congenitally crippled Marcus Karenin, who plays a large part in reforming the world, and who dies in a hospital in the Himalayas, preaching from his deathbed:
“Man lives in the dawn for ever,” said Karenin. “Life is beginning and nothing else but beginning. It begins everlastingly. Each step seems vaster than the last, and does but gather us together for the nest. This Modern State of ours, which would have been a Utopian marvel a hundred years ago, is already the commonplace of life. But as I sit here and dream of the possibilities in the mind of man that now gather to a head beneath the shelter of its peace, these great mountains here seem but little things....” [World Set Free, 5:5]
The thrust of the novel is plain enough: soon, Wells is saying, we will develop weapons capable of utterly destroying civilisation, and then we will either extirpate ourselves entirely or, faced with this prospect, mature as a species and put all such foolishness behind us. OK then.


Wells's reputation as prophet accrued particular kudos from this novel, something he humblebrags about in the preface to the 1921 reissue, listing all the things he got ‘right’ and conceding only that he was wrong to date the coming ‘end war’ to 1956 rather than 1914-18 (‘as a prophet, the author must confess he has always been inclined to be rather a slow prophet’). Contemporaries and later critics both have tended to concur: ‘all this,’ said The Advocate of Peace in their positive review, ‘is a vision seen by Mr Wells, but one might imagine it to be the history which will be read a century or more hence.’ [The Advocate of Peace, 76:8 (Aug-Sept 1914), 193]. David Seed talks about the book's ‘keen prophetic vision’ and David C Smith praises it for its ‘prescience’. And it is true that Wells coined the phrase ‘atom bomb’, and in doing so named the weapon under whose shadow the second half of the twentieth-century, and the current portion of the twenty-first, quails.

But, but, but. The truth is Wells gets the really crucial things wrong. For one, I think he simply misread what Frederick Soddy (the novel's dedicatee) argues in his Interpretation of Radium (1909). Soddy's book was Wells's direct inspiration for the novel, and Wells's misprison of it creates atomic weaponry of prodigious oddness. I don't mean to sneer, hindsight-benefitted as I am: and indeed what Wells comes up with here makes for a very striking and memorable SF conceit. But that's not to say it makes sense. His reasoning seems to have gone like this:
1. A conventional bomb explodes instantaneously;

2. But a radioactive element releases half its energy over the course of its half-life, which might be many weeks, months, or even years;

3. Therefore an atom bomb would explode continuously for many weeks, months or even years.
Of the active ingredient of his bombs, Carolinium (which he calls ‘Carolinum’), Wells tells us that ‘what chemists called its half period was seventeen days’, and glosses this: ‘that is to say, it poured out half of the huge store of energy in its great molecules in the space of seventeen days, the next seventeen days' emission was a half of that first period's outpouring, and so on’ [2:4]. Thus his bombs explode with unprecedented force for seventeen days, and over the following months slowly reduce the intensity of their exploding.

There's a kind of genius in the sheer bonkers-ness of this, actually. Wells's bombs are suitcase-sized devices, carried in the open-cockpits of planes, activated by the aviator biting off a fuse with his teeth, and then dropped vaguely over the side. The US edition of the novel carried an illustration of one such moment on its front cover.

The bombs destroy Paris, Berlin and many other cities, and nearly destroy San Francisco (‘the Japanese very nearly got San Francisco. The Americans ran the Japanese aeroplane down into the sea and there the bomb got busted ... Submarine volcano. The steam is in sight of the Californian coast’). I can't prove it, but I wonder if, in reading Soddy's book, his eye skimmed past this passage on p.99:

... and instead was caught by the imaginative potential of this passage on p.100.

At any rate, it results in some splendid disaster-porn set-pieces.
The phenomena, it must be remembered, changed greatly from day to day, and even from hour to hour, as the exploding bomb shifted its position, threw off fragments or came into contact with water or a fresh texture of soil. Barnet, who came within forty miles of Paris early in October, is concerned chiefly with his account of the social confusion of the country-side and the problems of his command, but he speaks of heaped cloud masses of steam “all along the sky to the south-west” and of a red glare beneath these at night.

Other descriptions agree with this; they all speak of the “continuous reverberations,” or of the “thudding and hammering,” or some such phrase; and they all testify to a huge pall of steam, from which rain would fall suddenly in torrents and amidst which lightning played. Drawing nearer to Paris an observer would have found the salvage camps increasing in number and blocking up the villages, and large numbers of people, often starving and ailing, camping under improvised tents because there was no place for them to go. The sky became more and more densely overcast until at last it blotted out the light of day and left nothing but a dull red glare 'extraordinarily depressing to the spirit.' In this dull glare, great numbers of people were still living, clinging to their houses and in many cases subsisting in a state of partial famine upon the produce in their gardens and the stores in the shops of the provision dealers.

Coming in still closer, the investigator would have reached the police cordon, which was trying to check the desperate enterprise of those who would return to their homes or rescue their more valuable possessions within the 'zone of imminent danger.'

That zone was rather arbitrarily defined. If our spectator could have got permission to enter it, he would have entered also a zone of uproar, a zone of perpetual thunderings, lit by a strange purplish-red light, and quivering and swaying with the incessant explosion of the radio-active substance. Whole blocks of buildings were alight and burning fiercely, the trembling, ragged flames looking pale and ghastly and attenuated in comparison with the full- bodied crimson glare beyond. The shells of other edifices already burnt rose, pierced by rows of window sockets against the red-lit mist.

Every step farther would have been as dangerous as a descent within the crater of an active volcano. These spinning, boiling bomb centres would shift or break unexpectedly into new regions, great fragments of earth or drain or masonry suddenly caught by a jet of disruptive force might come flying by the explorer's head, or the ground yawn a fiery grave beneath his feet. Few who adventured into these areas of destruction and survived attempted any repetition of their experiences. There are stories of puffs of luminous, radio-active vapour drifting sometimes scores of miles from the bomb centre and killing and scorching all they overtook. And the first conflagrations from the Paris centre spread westward half-way to the sea. [World Set Free, 4:3]
In a way, a deeper problem with the novel is its social vision rather than its nuclear physics. The real point here, as with all of Wells's utopian writings, is to diagnose the now as ‘a phase of gigantic change in the contours and appearances of human life’ a change ‘as rapid and as wonderful as the swift ripening of adolescence to manhood after the barbaric boyish years’ and one ‘correlated with moral and mental changes’ [4:11]. Wells's wish was father to this thought, of course, but golly how he wished it. He suggests that two generations are enough to separate human beings entirely from ancestral barbarism:
The Highlanders of the seventeenth century, for example, were cruel and bloodthirsty robbers, in the nineteenth their descendants were conspicuously trusty and honourable men. There was not a people in Western Europe in the early twentieth century that seemed capable of hideous massacres, and none that had not been guilty of them within the previous two centuries. [World Set Free, 4:11]
Again, hindsight is easy; but there's something spectacularly misjudged about standing at the beginning of the twentieth-century and declaring there is not a people in Western Europe capable of hideous massacres now. Guess again, Bertie. (Also, has he not read his Walter Scott? Does he not understand the difference between Highlands Scots and Lowland Scots?)

Nor did his more fundamental prophesy, the one that structures the whole of The World Set Free, prove correct. That fundamental prophesy is that once humankind develops weapons with the power literally to destroy the planet, the old ways of global belligerence will be discarded, the weapons unmade, and a new utopia of social justice and peace built in its place. In fact what happened was: humankind, having developed weapons with the power literally to destroy the planet, not only kept them but proliferated them to many different countries, and otherwise carried on pretty much as before. Alas.


I will say that I enjoyed The World Set Free, although it's minor Wells, really. It anticipates the narrative strategies that became famous with later century blockbuster thrillers and disaster stories: an long-shot overview frame in which a number of individual point-of-view characters are embedded to give us on-the-spot perspectives. What is that mode of writing called? Does it even have a name?

Anyway: the real significance of this novel is that it marks a major change in Wells's own broader worldview. Reading those scientists who were, in the early nineteen-teens, investigating radioactivity—the opening to chapter one namechecks ‘such scientific men as Ramsay, Rutherford, and Soddy’, but there were probably others as well—in effect cured Wells of his attachment, as much aesthetic as intellectual I suspect, to entropy. It wasn't just him: this period at the beginning of the twentieth century stretched general conceptions of how long the sun would continue to shine, whether the earth was cooling, the age of the universe and so on. The winding-down, decay and ending of things had been believed relatively imminent; now it was pushed back. Here's the relevant passage from Soddy's book, which image I encourage you to click and embiggen:

This new Radioactivity Wells is, in crucial ways, a different sort of writer to the older Entropy Wells: less imaginatively pessimistic, more spaciously open-ended. It's an important rubicon in his career.