Tuesday, 16 May 2017

In the Days of the Comet (1906)


This is minor Wells, if we're honest: a broken-backed twofer of social realism and utopian extrapolation. The novel's premise is simple: ‘one of the largest comets this world has ever seen’ [1.1.2] is on course to pass close by the Earth. The first of the novel's three sections describes its approach, from ‘a greenish-white apparition in the dark blue deeps ... brighter than the moon because it was smaller’ [1.2:7] to a huge phosphorescent presence in the night sky:
Its greenish white illumination banished the realities of day, diffused a bright ghostliness over all things. It changed the starless sky about it to an extraordinary deep blue, the profoundest color in the world, such as I have never seen before or since ... It turned our ugly English industrial towns to phantom cities. Everywhere the local authorities discontinued street lighting—one could read small print in the glare. [Days of the Comet, 1.5.1]
But the narrator of the novel, Willie Leadford, is barely interested in the comet as it approaches, because his whole life is consumed by an unhappy love affair. Leadford narrates, looking back as an old man, with an unsparing eye for his youthful arrogance, anger and stupidity, as well as a careful descriptive attentiveness to the qualia of his lower-middle-class life. He is a clerk, sharing a rundown rented bedsit in the Potteries with his mother, and in love with beautiful Nettie Stuart, the daughter of the head gardener of a local upper-class widow, Mrs Verrall. But Leadford treats Nettie in a priggishly high-handed way, and she runs off with Mrs Verrall's young son, the handsome young aristocrat Edward Verrall. As the lovers do not plan to marry, this elopement causes a small scandal, but it is as nothing compared to the murderous rage that overwhelms Leadford. He steals some money, buys a pistol and goes after both Nettie and Verrall determined to kill them both.

As he tracks them down to their love-nest in the seaside resort of Shaphambury, war between Germany and Britain grows ever closer. The climax of Part One of the novel is set, with the comet looming brightly even in daylight, against the backdrop of a naval battle in the North Sea, visible from the beach at Shaphambury: the HMS Lord Warden and the German battleship Rother Adler both sink with the loss of thousands of lives. Leadford finally catches up with Nettie and Verrall and chases them across the seaside golf links, shooting his gun at them and missing, until the comet enters the Earth's atmosphere and disintegrates, spreading a soporific green mist over everything. Leadford sleeps and when he awake he and the entire world have changed for the better:
The whole world of living things had been overtaken by the same tide of insensibility; in an hour, at the touch of this new gas in the comet, the shiver of catalytic change had passed about the globe. They say it was the nitrogen of the air, the old azote, that in the twinkling of an eye was changed out of itself, and in an hour or so became a respirable gas, differing indeed from oxygen, but helping and sustaining its action, a bath of strength and healing for nerve and brain. I do not know the precise changes that occurred, nor the names our chemists give them, my work has carried me away from such things, only this I know—I and all men were renewed. [Days of the Comet, 2.1.1.]
And with this rather gloriously shameless handwave, Wells ushers in his Utopia. Leadford no longer wishes to kill, and can't remember why he ever did. Everyone has changed. The human faults that poisoned the world—which Wells boils down to variants of a cluster of related fundamental flaws, possessiveness, anger and pride—vanish. Over the remainder of the novel humankind pulls down the old world and rebuilds a more egalitarian, cleaner and more beautiful society. All the old housing stock is demolished, and new, improved communal living blocks erected; shoddy goods are destroyed and fine new gear supplied to all; war is a thing of the past, as is money, everyone has the opportunity for happiness and self-fulfilment and, if you'll excuse me sounding dismissive, so on, and so on, and so forth.

Part 2 sees Leadford embracing and blessing Nettie and Verrall, and apologising for trying to murder them. Nettie proposes he join them in a ménage à trois, but Leadford is not yet ready for such sexual latitude. Instead he becomes the private secretary of prominent politician Lord Melmount, whom he chanced upon out on the golf links. From this position Leadford is able to observe how the world is reconfigured after ‘the Change’, the world's politicians collaborating to facilitate the renewal. The novel lays all this out in numbing detail. Finally Part 3 returns to the question of the ménage à trois: Leadford cares for his elderly mother, and when she dies [Wells's own mother Sarah died 12th June 1905, as the novel was being drafted] he marries a woman called Anna Reeves and has a son with her. But his love for Nettie does not diminish, and four years later they meet up once more, whereupon Anna, he, Nettie and Verrall enter into a ménage à quatre.

The starkness of the difference between Part 1 and the linked Parts-2-and-3 has to do with more than content. Or more precisely, as the content plots a path ever further into the broad sunlit uplands of Wells's imagined future-world, the form of the novel sinks into a combined bathos of dullness and narrative lethargy. Before is a world of seedy compromise, frustration and anger, where After is a glorious utopia; which is another way of saying that Before is dramatically engaging and vivid and After fictively rootless and inert.

Following on from the academic speculation of Anticipations and Mankind in the Making, and the experiment in laminating narrative and utopian exposition of A Modern Utopia, Days of the Comet tries something different: a stark juxtaposition of two fundamentally different modes of text. I'd like to praise the boldness of this, and would, if the reading pleasure didn't decline so markedly once the comet has come. All changed, changed utterly, a terrible duty is born.


Comets have, as everybody knows, long been thought to presage disaster, or at least upheaval and change, in the mundane world. The idea that a comet might actually collide with the Earth is a more recent idea, dependent on the realisation that comets are not purely celestial signs, but rather material bodies orbiting the sun like the planets, moons and other asteroids, and therefore as liable to impact as any other solid object. Simon Schaffer dates this latter apprehension to the end of the eighteenth-century:
In 1773 the whole of Paris was terrified to learn that a leading astronomer of the Royal Academy of Sciences was seriously discussing whether a comet might crash into the Earth. In Normandy pregnant women suffered still-births; Voltaire wrote a satirical poem mocking those citizens who had fled the city in terror. This comet scare recurred 18 years later, during the middle of a more obviously terrifying revolution in France. We might recall the effect of Orson Welles’s broadcast of War of the Worlds in the 1930s, which brought New Yorkers out of their homes and scurrying across the Hudson into New Jersey.
Schaffer might have gone further: another comet scare alarmed the world in 1857—The Great Comet, Now Rapidly Approaching, Will It Strike the Earth? (1857) was only one of many pamphlets and articles it occasioned (that anonymously authored book subtitles itself ‘an Historical Philosophical and Prophetical Inquiry into the Probability of a Collision and the Consequent “End of All Things” at this Epoch of the World’s History’). And in 1874 Coggia's Comet passed within 40 million km of the earth (close!) and became, accordingly, very bright in the sky, with an enormous double-tail reported to stretch 60° across the night-time field of view. Anxieties were expressed that even if the comet missed the Earth its tail might sweep disastrously over us, which is the notion Wells himself takes up in Days. It was Coggia's comet that was the first to be subjected to spectroscopic analysis, another feature Wells draws on for his novel; and Wells insistence that his own comet has two tails may reflect the double-tail observed on Coggia (although Wells orients his two tails differently: ‘astronomers talked of its double tail, one preceding it and one trailing behind it, but these were foreshortened to nothing, so that it had rather the form of a bellying puff of luminous smoke with an intenser, brighter heart’ [1.3.3]).

That's an image from Sir Robert Stawell Ball's The Story of the Heavens (1893), and very attractive it is too. 1905, when Wells was writing, the return of Halley's comet, only five years away, was eagerly anticipated. Why do we get so het up over these objects? Well, Schaffer's point above, of course, is that the semiology of comets has been about social anxiety and upheaval since the memory of man goeth not to the contrary, but that a new materialist age needs to literalise that anxiety in terms of physical collision—the French Revolutionary context for the 1791 impact panic for instance.

Which is to say: modern comets figure as modern sorts of Revolution: and the ‘vapours’ it intermixes with Earth's atmosphere represent a sort of abdication of political agency as such, a deus ex machina short-circuiting of all the tedious business of actual reform. The old, old stumbling block for utopian thinkers is human nature itself, and previous utopias tended to argue either that human nature would slowly evolve into something better once the material conditions of existence had been sorted out, or else that human nature might not alter but an (often militaristic) reorganisation of society would better able to control and restrain our baser instincts, to everyone's mutual benefit. In the Days of the Comet fast-forwards the former approach, and its most radical innovation is also the ground of its weakness as a novel—because Wells construes all those failings in human nature as various iterations not only of possessiveness, but specifically of sexual possessiveness.

One problem with this is that Wells's post-Comet free love falls between too stools: too shocking for Wells's contemporaries, but too mealy-mouthed and tame for 21st-century sensibilities. We're entitled to wish Wells had had the courage of his convictions instead of having Leadford, in a patent sop to Edwardian sexual mores, piously repudiating the offer of sharing Nettie with Verrall. What happens in Part 3 is that Leadford goes back to care for his elderly mother, grieves her passing, marries Anna and has a son, and only then, having demonstrated the priority familial duty has over the promptings of his cock, does he change his mind and open himself to multiple sexual relations. But it is very odd that cometary vapours strong enough instantly to do away with his literally murderous erotic jealousy, were simultaneously too weak to dent his conventional sexual pudeur. ‘I thought of Nettie much,’ Leadford tells us, ‘and always movingly beautiful things restored me to her, all fine music, all pure deep color, all tender and solemn things. The stars were hers, and the mystery of moonlight; the sun she wore in her hair, powdered finely, beaten into gleams and threads of sunlight in the wisps and strands of her hair.’ [3.3.4.] Which is about as sexy as a Thomas Kinkade landscape. There are reasons for this, I think, which I discuss below.

Finally there is the book's epilogue, a sort of punchline to the whole novel that, as punchlines tend to do, demeans what has gone before. Wells stages a dialogue between a narratorial voice adopting 1905 sexual sensibilities and Leadford, now an old man, which results in a fatally hesitant sort-of affirmation of free love.
I felt a subtle embarrassment in putting the question that perplexed me. And yet it seemed so material to me I had to put it. “And did you—?” I asked. “Were you—lovers?”

His eyebrows rose. “Of course.”

“But your wife—?”

It was manifest he did not understand me.

I hesitated still more. I was perplexed by a conviction of baseness.

“But—” I began. “You remained lovers?”

“Yes.” I had grave doubts if I understood him. Or he me.

I made a still more courageous attempt. “And had Nettie no other lovers?”

“A beautiful woman like that! I know not how many loved beauty in her, nor what she found in others. But we four from that time were very close, you understand, we were friends, helpers, personal lovers in a world of lovers.”


“There was Verrall.”

Then suddenly it came to me that the thoughts that stirred in my mind were sinister and base, that the queer suspicions, the coarseness and coarse jealousies of my old world were over and done for these more finely living souls. “You made,” I said, trying to be liberal minded, “a home together.” [Days of the Comet, ‘Epilogue’]
If this was designed to inoculate the book against scandal it failed: ‘in letting his obsession with polygamous relationships erupt openly into his fiction,’ Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie note, ‘H. G. was running a considerable risk.’ Various organisations dedicated to preserving public morals, including the YWCA, Salvation Army and ‘Anti-Vice and White Slavery’ campaigners took against the book, reviewers were haughty (‘Socialistic mens' wives, we gather,’ bloviated the Times Literary Supplement's book reviewer, ‘are, no less than their goods, to be held in common’) and the whole affair damaged Wells place in the Fabians. Hubert Bland (no acolyte of marital chastity in his own private life, of course) insisted that the Fabian public reputation would be badly damaged if it became associated with ‘Free Love’, and any such advocates might have to be expelled from the organisation: ‘we had to do that with the Anarchists,’ Bland wrote to Edward Pease on the 14th October 1906 after hearing Wells talk on the subject; ‘and we may have to do that with the Free Lovers.’ Four days later Beatrice Webb wrote in her diary:
In the Days of the Comet ends with a glowing anticipation of promiscuity in sexual relationships ... [but] H G Wells is, I believe, merely gambling with the idea of free love—throwing it out to see what sort of reception it gets—without responsibility for its effect on the character of the hearers. It is this recklessness that makes Sidney dislike him.
In the end In the Days of the Comet became neither a succès nor even a succès de scandale. Whilst it wasn't a complete flop (it went to a second printing before the year was out) its relative failure depressed Wells; Shaw wrote to friends noting his ‘moroseness and discontent’. Wells never tried this particular literary experiment again.


That's a shame, though: because, sex aside, there is something innovative in the make-up of Days of the Comet. And I must say I feel justified in putting the sex aside. This is a singularly unsexy novel, especially given that its vision of Utopia involves everyone becoming, in effect, a swinger. But when I put it like that you can see that I'm misrepresenting Wells's project. It is true that he sees utopian jouissance in erotic as well as sociopolitical terms, and indeed that is true of most of what he writes in the first decade of the 20th-century. But I think In the Days of the Comet styles sex less as intercourse and more as a kind of existential cleanness.

Part of this is the zeal of the recent convert to practical promiscuity, as Wells was at this time: the desire to assert forcefully that sex is not, as the prudes say it is, dirty. This, I think, is why Nettie is called Nettie; not (as Chris Fern argues) because she functions as a kind of ‘net’ or trap for Leadford; but on the contrary because Wells thinks her desire for him, and his for hers, clean.

But part of this is a more interesting interrogation of the correlation of property and (sexual) propriety. Leadford's murderous fury in Part 1 is entirely a function of his sense, shown throughout the novel to be both wrongheaded and pathological, that he owns Nettie. And the passage from grubby Before to Utopian After in the novel is marked by literal bonfires of vanities, the vanities in this case being the myriad shoddy items of personal property that define 20th-century us. This is the new ceremony of Beltane, the ‘ten great rubbish burnings that opened the new age’:
Young people nowadays can scarcely hope to imagine the enormous quantities of pure litter and useless accumulation with which we had to deal; had we not set aside a special day and season, the whole world would have been an incessant reek of small fires; and it was, I think, a happy idea to revive this ancient festival of the May and November burnings. ... Endless were the things we had to destroy in those great purgings. First, there were nearly all the houses and buildings of the old time. In the end we did not save in England one building in five thousand that was standing when the comet came. Year by year, as we made our homes afresh in accordance with the saner needs of our new social families, we swept away more and more of those horrible structures, the ancient residential houses, hastily built, without imagination, without beauty, without common honesty, without even comfort or convenience, in which the early twentieth century had sheltered until scarcely one remained; we saved nothing but what was beautiful or interesting out of all their gaunt and melancholy abundance. The actual houses, of course, we could not drag to our fires, but we brought all their ill-fitting deal doors, their dreadful window sashes, their servant-tormenting staircases, their dank, dark cupboards, the verminous papers from their scaly walls, their dust and dirt-sodden carpets, their ill-designed and yet pretentious tables and chairs, sideboards and chests of drawers, the old dirt-saturated books, their ornaments—their dirty, decayed, and altogether painful ornaments—amidst which I remember there were sometimes even stuffed dead birds!—we burnt them all. The paint-plastered woodwork, with coat above coat of nasty paint, that in particular blazed finely. I have already tried to give you an impression of old-world furniture, of Parload's bedroom, my mother's room, Mr. Gabbitas's sitting-room, but, thank Heaven! there is nothing in life now to convey the peculiar dinginess of it all. For one thing, there is no more imperfect combustion of coal going on everywhere, and no roadways like grassless open scars along the earth from which dust pours out perpetually. We burnt and destroyed most of our private buildings and all the woodwork, all our furniture, except a few score thousand pieces of distinct and intentional beauty, from which our present forms have developed, nearly all our hangings and carpets, and also we destroyed almost every scrap of old-world clothing. Only a few carefully disinfected types and vestiges of that remain now in our museums ... I have mentioned, I think, the part my own boots played in the squalid drama of my adolescence. I had a sense of unholy triumph over a fallen enemy when at last I found myself steering truck after truck of cheap boots and shoes (unsold stock from Swathinglea) to the run-off by the top of the Glanville blast furnaces. [Days of the Comet, 3.3.1]
This does have, I think, an uncomfortably Pol-Potian ‘Year Zero’ quality to a modern reader, but what I'm suggesting here is that it needs to be read as a conscious parallel to the passages with which the novel opens, and in which Leadford itemises in exhaustive, and -ing, detail the crappy things he used to own:
Let me describe this room to you in detail. It was perhaps eight feet by seven in area and rather higher than either of these dimensions; the ceiling was of plaster, cracked and bulging in places, gray with the soot of the lamp, and in one place discolored by a system of yellow and olive-green stains caused by the percolation of damp from above. The walls were covered with dun-colored paper, upon which had been printed in oblique reiteration a crimson shape, something of the nature of a curly ostrich feather, or an acanthus flower, that had in its less faded moments a sort of dingy gaiety. There were several big plaster-rimmed wounds in this, caused by Parload [the landlord]'s ineffectual attempts to get nails into the wall, whereby there might hang pictures. One nail had hit between two bricks and got home, and from this depended, sustained a little insecurely by frayed and knotted blind-cord, Parload's hanging bookshelves, planks painted over with a treacly blue enamel and further decorated by a fringe of pinked American cloth insecurely fixed by tacks. Below this was a little table that behaved with a mulish vindictiveness to any knee that was thrust beneath it suddenly; it was covered with a cloth whose pattern of red and black had been rendered less monotonous by the accidents of Parload's versatile ink bottle, and on it, leit motif of the whole, stood and stank the lamp. This lamp, you must understand, was of some whitish translucent substance that was neither china nor glass, it had a shade of the same substance, a shade that did not protect the eyes of a reader in any measure, and it seemed admirably adapted to bring into pitiless prominence the fact that, after the lamp's trimming, dust and paraffin had been smeared over its exterior with a reckless generosity.

The uneven floor boards of this apartment were covered with scratched enamel of chocolate hue, on which a small island of frayed carpet dimly blossomed in the dust and shadows.

There was a very small grate, made of cast-iron in one piece and painted buff, and a still smaller misfit of a cast-iron fender that confessed the gray stone of the hearth. No fire was laid, only a few scraps of torn paper and the bowl of a broken corn-cob pipe were visible behind the bars, and in the corner and rather thrust away was an angular japanned coal-box with a damaged hinge. It was the custom in those days to warm every room separately from a separate fireplace, more prolific of dirt than heat, and the rickety sash window, the small chimney, and the loose-fitting door were expected to organize the ventilation of the room among themselves without any further direction.

Parload's truckle bed hid its gray sheets beneath an old patchwork counterpane on one side of the room, and veiled his boxes and suchlike oddments, and invading the two corners of the window were an old whatnot and the washhandstand, on which were distributed the simple appliances of his toilet.

This washhandstand had been made of deal by some one with an excess of turnery appliances in a hurry, who had tried to distract attention from the rough economies of his workmanship by an arresting ornamentation of blobs and bulbs upon the joints and legs. Apparently the piece had then been placed in the hands of some person of infinite leisure equipped with a pot of ocherous paint, varnish, and a set of flexible combs. This person had first painted the article, then, I fancy, smeared it with varnish, and then sat down to work with the combs to streak and comb the varnish into a weird imitation of the grain of some nightmare timber. The washhandstand so made had evidently had a prolonged career of violent use, had been chipped, kicked, splintered, punched, stained, scorched, hammered, desiccated, damped, and defiled, had met indeed with almost every possible adventure except a conflagration or a scrubbing, until at last it had come to this high refuge of Parload's attic to sustain the simple requirements of Parload's personal cleanliness. There were, in chief, a basin and a jug of water and a slop-pail of tin, and, further, a piece of yellow soap in a tray, a tooth-brush, a rat-tailed shaving brush, one huckaback towel, and one or two other minor articles. In those days only very prosperous people had more than such an equipage, and it is to be remarked that every drop of water Parload used had to be carried by an unfortunate servant girl,—the “slavey,” Parload called her—up from the basement to the top of the house and subsequently down again. Already we begin to forget how modern an invention is personal cleanliness. It is a fact that Parload had never stripped for a swim in his life; never had a simultaneous bath all over his body since his childhood. Not one in fifty of us did in the days of which I am telling you.

A chest, also singularly grained and streaked, of two large and two small drawers, held Parload's reserve of garments, and pegs on the door carried his two hats and completed this inventory of a "bed-sitting-room" as I knew it before the Change. But I had forgotten—there was also a chair with a "squab" that apologized inadequately for the defects of its cane seat. I forgot that for the moment because I was sitting on the chair on the occasion that best begins this story. [Days of the Comet, 1.1.1.]
This clutter externalises and embodies all that must be swept away, destroyed by fire, for the new Utopia to come into being. Society must be de-propertied to become clean enough for the new order, and all these petty things are objets-petit-a to the grand A of sexual possessiveness. We need, Wells is saying, to break the habit of feeling possessive about things so that we break the habit of being possessive about people, because once we reach the latter condition we shall have Utopia.

We're entitled to doubt that last idea, I think; although I don't know—maybe there's something in it. Still: that lengthy passage from the opening chapter of the novel I just quoted points us down a more interesting avenue of interpretation than whether Wells's Utopian speculations were correct or not on the level of content: towards a reading that considers the form of this novel. This may be its most interesting aspect.

Look again at the passage: wallpaper and chairs and tables and slop-pails and toothbrushes and shaving paraphernalia, all minutely itemised. That particular textual strategy is drawn directly from the traditions of nineteenth-century Realist writing. It's the sort of thing that we find all the time in Zola's novels, for instance: Zolaesque; the novel offers great scads of closely observed and specific detail about the world, and thereby troweling-on a sort of thickness of verisimilitude (it’s one of the things Joyce parodies so nicely in Ulysses). One example from many: this passage from Chapter 3 of Zola's Le Ventre de Paris in which seafood is unloaded for sale at Les Halles:
The deep-lying forests of seaweed, in which the mysterious life of the ocean slumbers, seemed at one haul of the nets to have yielded up all they contained. There were cod, keeling, whiting, flounders, plaice, dabs, and other sorts of common fish of a dingy grey with whitish splotches; there were conger-eels, huge serpent-like creatures, with small black eyes and muddy, bluish skins, so slimy that they still seemed to be gliding along, yet alive. There were broad flat skate with pale undersides edged with a soft red, and superb backs bumpy with vertebrae, and marbled down to the tautly stretched ribs of their fins with splotches of cinnabar, intersected by streaks of the tint of Florentine bronze—a dark medley of colour suggestive of the hues of a toad or some poisonous flower. Then, too, there were hideous dog-fish, with round heads, widely-gaping mouths like those of Chinese idols, and short fins like bats' wings; fit monsters to keep yelping guard over the treasures of the ocean grottoes. And next came the finer fish, displayed singly on the osier trays; salmon that gleamed like chased silver, every scale seemingly outlined by a graving-tool on a polished metal surface; mullet with larger scales and coarser markings; large turbot and huge brill with firm flesh white like curdled milk; tunny-fish, smooth and glossy, like bags of blackish leather; and rounded bass, with widely gaping mouths which a soul too large for the body seemed to have rent asunder as it forced its way out amidst the stupefaction of death. And on all sides there were sole, brown and grey, in pairs; sand-eels, slim and stiff, like shavings of pewter; herrings, slightly twisted, with bleeding gills showing on their silver-worked skins; fat dories tinged with just a suspicion of carmine; burnished mackerel with green-streaked backs, and sides gleaming with ever-changing iridescence; and rosy gurnets with white bellies, their head towards the centre of the baskets and their tails radiating all around, so that they simulated some strange florescence splotched with pearly white and brilliant vermilion. There were rock mullet, too, with delicious flesh, flushed with the pinky tinge peculiar to the Cyprinus family; boxes of whiting with opaline reflections; and baskets of smelts—neat little baskets, pretty as those used for strawberries, and exhaling a strong scent of violets. And meantime the tiny black eyes of the shrimps dotted as with beads of jet their soft-toned mass of pink and grey; and spiny crawfish and lobsters striped with black, all still alive, raised a grating sound as they tried to crawl along with their broken claws.
In his recent The Antinomies of Realism (2013) Fredric Jameson discusses these sorts of great itemisations of things as ‘the new autonomization of the sensory’ which ‘here first emerges in Zola’; a particular moment in the later 19th-century when ‘the realm of the visual begins to separate from the verbal’ and ‘to float away in a new kind of autonomy’ [Jameson, 55]. Wells is doing something akin to this, by using the mass of textually described quotidiana as an index to a kind of low-rent reification of lived experience in order to destroy all such autonomization in a new Utopian mode of the authentic sensory life.

Now Jameson's book (which, incidentally, I discuss at length in this series of posts) positions its whole, wide-ranging argument on the distinction it establishes in its first chapter, ‘The Twin Sources of Realism: the Narrative Impulse’. Jameson distinguishes between récit and roman, the former a ‘tale, whose events are already over and done with before the telling of it can begin’, the latter defined via Sartre as re-establishing ‘the open present of freedom, the present of an open undecided future.’ [Jameson, 9] And that's quite a useful way of thinking of the relationship between the pre-comet and post-comet portions of Wells's novel: instead of choosing between between roman and récit it does both, associating the clogged dissociation of roman with the pre-Comet world and shifting register to a cleaner récit for the passages about Utopia.

I'm not pretending Wells's experiment works, exactly; but I do think it is an experiment worth undertaking. What tangles it, I suspect, is (to return to what I was saying earlier) the sex. Because howevermuch Wells thought he yearned for clean unencumbered sex—for, we might say, sex-as-récit—human beings are actually much more invested in the roman of their sex lives than they are in the mere mechanics of doing it. That roman may be cluttered, over-long, it may even be conflicted or buried or Henry-James-opaque, but that's still where we are invested, erotically and emotionally. It's also surely true that this sort of erotic sensibility connects with our understanding of time, narrativised or otherwise. In saying so I'm picking up from the way Jameson connects his two modes, récit and roman, to two particular modes of time:
... to distinguish two kinds of time, two systems of temporality, which will be the basis for the argument that follows. The distinction is one between a present of consciousness and a time, if not of succession or of chronology, then at least of the more familiar tripartite structure of past-present-future. [Jameson, 24]
It's not that Jameson thinks that ‘consciousness’ exists in some magic space outside past-present-future, but rather that there is an apprehension of time, accessible in art, that transcends the mundanity of clock-time, an open-ended expression of being that generates what Jameson calls affect: a feeling ‘nameless and unclassifiable’ [33] that is somatic (‘the senses are mobilised' [33]) although one which ‘seems to have no context, but to float above experience without causes’ [35]. Jameson aligns this with ‘impressionism and post-impressionism in painting, the Wagnerian revolution in music’ [42]. Old fashioned récit-based emotions are like Beethoven’s sonata form, he suggests; affect is like Wagner’s sonic chromatism.

Now, as I've argued elsewhere, this strikes me as largerly a matter of reinventing-the-wheel, a version of Frank Kermode’s ‘chronos’ and ‘kairos’ from Sense of an Ending (1967)—and what a great book that is, always worth a re-read. So: chronos is Kermode's term for mundane time, ordinary time, time as one-thing-after-another; and kairos is his word for the right time, the special or transcendent moment, the Wordsworthian spot-of-time or Joycean intensity.

My point here is that the main reason sex matters to so many of us is because it gifts us moments of kairos in lives otherwise determined by chronos: the school run, the job, clocking on, clocking off, fifty weeks in the year. Nor would I wish to underestimate the importance of that. And it connects with Jameson's point about affect and Le Réalisme: Madame Bovary is an immeasurably sexier novel, after all, than anything by Smollett; Tolstoy's Natasha vastly more desirable than Richardson's Pamela. Human sexual desire cannot stand too much cleanness, is the truth of it. It's the old Woody Allen joke: ‘my analyst asked me if I thought sex was dirty. I told him: only if it's done right.’

The formal structure of this novel pulls hard against Wells's sexual utopia: because In the Days of the Comet, counter-intuitively, defines its pre-Comet dystopian world in terms of a kind of dark kairos of murderous quasi-erotic intensity, where the post-Comet world falls back into a bland chronos of logical improvements to human quality of life, and social cleanness and rational sexual openness. And when you think about it, that really is the wrong way about. In the Days of the Comet is a novel front-loaded with Jamesonian affect that shifts abruptly into a novel of chronos that drains away all kairos intensity at precisely the moment when the project of the book needs it most. It makes you want to say: Bertie, récit down, you're rocking the boat. Or not rocking it enough.


  1. Two postscript notes. One is that I wrote a sequel to In the Days of the Comet, called 'In the Night of the Comet', which is available free online here.

    Two is a point about the persistence of Wells's racism in his conception of utopian life, which I couldn't fit into the specific argument I make in this post, but which I think is important. So: I was very struck by this anti-Semitic cameo by 'Gurker, the Chancellor of the Exchequer' at one of Melmount's post-Comet cabinet meetings. Everybody is discussing how to make the world sane and whole and so on, and the physically repulsive Gurker keeps interrupting to apologise on behalf of the entire race of Jews:

    "Ever and again Gurker protruded into the discussion, swaying forward, a deep throaty voice, a big nose, a coarse mouth with a drooping everted lower lip, eyes peering amidst folds and wrinkles. He made his confession for his race. 'We Jews,' he said, 'have gone through the system of this world, creating nothing, consolidating many things, destroying much. Our racial self-conceit has been monstrous. We seem to have used our ample coarse intellectuality for no other purpose than to develop and master and maintain the convention of property, to turn life into a sort of mercantile chess and spend our winnings grossly. . . . We have had no sense of service to mankind. Beauty which is godhead—we made it a possession.'" [2.3.1]

    I mean: like, ugh.

  2. I'm energised by the idea of reading through the Complete Works of One Author. Could I manage all of Sir Walter Scott? Or even

    I love your sequel about the second comet!

  3. Btw found a bunch of these Wells books (h/c) in Oxfam/Egham

  4. [1] You offer interesting insights about this novel. I can't help feeling glad, however, that you're the one who read it so I don't have to, based on the prose samples you extract.

    [2] "We Jews,' he said, 'have gone through the system of this world, creating nothing..." Yikes. Ironically, 1905, the year when Wells presumably would have written this enlightened passage, was Albert Einstein's 'annus mirabilis,' perhaps the most intellectually productive year that anybody anywhere ever had.


    [3] You mentioned that you might occasional look at books not by Wells that nevertheless bear on his output. And of course around this time imitators are appearing, other writers trying to get in on the 'scientific romance' that Wells has innovated.

    Most prominently, of course, Rudyard Kipling writes his few but excellent SF efforts, like 'As Easy As ABC,' which bear comparison with the best of Wells, while Ford Madox Hueffer/Ford and Joseph Conrad write their THE INHERITORS (1901), which -- doesn't.


    (It strikes me in fact that your description of IN THE DAYS OF THE COMET makes it sound quite a bit like THE INHERITORS, a little as if Wells had descended to self-pastiche with this one.)

    At any rate, are you going to look at any of Wells's prominent imitators in the early SF game? It feels relevant to examine his influence and impact. (I'll read THE INHERITORS if you will.)

    1. I've read The Inheritors actually! But it's really not very good.

      I will look at other books I think, as I go on; and appreciate your suggestions. Since the initial prompt for this whole blog is me writing a 'Literary Biography' of Wells, I was thinking in the first instance of reading what he evidently read, and also reading books by people he slept with: Rebecca West's fiction for instance. But no reason to limit itself to that.

      On Jews: Wells's anti-Semitism didn't remain as virulent as this through his life; by the 1930s he was an energetic opponent of Hitler's plans for Jewish mass-murder, for instance.

    2. 'I've read The Inheritors actually! But it's really not very good.'

      Yeah, well, I suspected as much. Glancing at the Project Gutenberg text, I observed lots of hyphenated sentences ending in dashes and recalling the sub-FIFTH QUEEN stylings of Hueffer rather more than Conrad. Alas.

      'I will look at other books I think, as I go on.'

      You're polite, but it might be worthwhile.

      As we know, contemporary SF readers tend to default to the belief that essentially SF was and is an American construct that arose out of the U.S. pulps and that John Campbell then shoved into early maturity in 1940s-era ASTOUNDING, which then begat the various reactions of 1950s-era American magazine SF (Pohl, Kornbluth, Sheckley, Dick, etc), which then begat .... and so on.

      As we also know, though, great SF exists that never owed a lick to American magazine SF. There's the SF from the Edwardian writers influenced by Wells's example, like Kipling's 'As Easy As ABC' or Forster's 'The Machine Stops.' (And there's also Stanislaw Lem, whose shoelaces the American SF writers are mostly not fit to tie.)

      Alongside that, what your investigation of Wells here is also making clearer than ever -- to me, anyway -- is just how much Well was firstest with the mostest ideationally. That is, how many of the great SF ideas Wells had first, before anybody else and that other people (not least John W. Campbell writing as Don Stuart) then ran with.

      For instance, Wells's now-forgotten STAR-BEGOTTEN in 1937 is about 'the human race being altered, by genetic modification, by Martians to replace their own dying planet'


      In other words, one of the great SF tropes is the one contained in Nigel Kneale's 'Quatermass and the Pit.' And there's Wells thinking it up first, twenty years before Kneale.