The World of William Clissold, Wells's longest novel, was first published in three volumes, like an old Victorian triple-decker. And it has some of the vibe of an old Victorian triple-decker, too, although with rather more detailed digressions on philosophy and politics and rather more extramarital sex than your average Mrs Oliphant. It is a novel about an old man trying to make sense of his life. ‘Yesterday,’ runs the opening sentence, ‘I was fifty-nine, and in a year I shall be sixty—“getting on for seventy,” as the unpleasant old phrase goes. I was born in November, 1865, and this is November, 1924’:
In the face of these figures I cannot hide from myself that the greater part of my life has been lived. ...Maybe I have not so much lost endurance as learnt wisdom. And generally my vigour is unimpaired. It is the dates and figures that will not be denied. They show quite plainly that at most only two decades remain for me, and when they are spent my strongest will be a white-faced, rather shrunken, assisted old man—‘wonderful,’ they will say. [1:1]And they will say how his hair is growing thin. And how, conversely, his novels are growing fat. Indeed, Clissold's life is so very much like H G Wells's life (Wells had turned 60 in 1925) that the author felt moved to add a special ‘preface’ to the novel disavowing autobiographical content, and insisting ‘this is not a roman à cle’ (a typo, perhaps; or else Wells being distracted by the way the French pronounce clef). ‘It would be a great kindness to a no doubt undeserving author if in this instance William Clissold could be treated as William Clissold, and if Mr Wells could be spared the standard charge ... it is a point worth considering in this period of successful personal memoirs that if the author had wanted to write a mental autobiography instead of a novel, there is no conceivable reason why he should not have done so. Clearly he did not want to do so.’
Critics have not believed him, despite the fact that Clissold is a wealthy industrialist rather than a socialist writer. I don't believe him either. Although a couple of the events of Clissold's life are different to those of Wells's, most are not; and there's simply no denying that Clissold ventriloqust-dummies all the Wellsian opinions, often at enormous length, all the way through this novel. So we turn past the dubious preface to:
And we're into the story. Bill Clissold, his mark.
The two main components, tossed salad-like together in the novel's construction, are: Clissold's memory of his infancy, growth to adulthood, professional-life and love-life on the one hand, and on the other Clissold's thoughts on the universe, spun out of conversations he has with famous people, or simply inlaid into the text as a kind of marquetry of myriad little lectures. This latter element blurs into a general discursiveness, unfortunately characteristic of Wells's later style. Not everybody can stick it. And this novel is sometimes slackly garrulous, Still, I enjoyed reading The World of William Clissold a great deal more than I thought I would. Its discursive components are often stimulating and pointed, and though its narrative line is a little meagre the portraiture—especially the core characterisation of the two brothers, where Wells manages the technically tricky business of rendering them quite different sorts of people who are still recognisably related to one another—is excellent. In other words the balance in the novel is (deliberately) shifted away from narrative and action and towards character and the discursive elaboration of ideas. And that's an interesting authorial strategy, I think.
Interesting isn't necessarily the same as successful, of course, and it's certainly not a style that has caught on. To set Wells's experimental text alongside two more famous examples of the life-novel from the same period, Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (1913-27) is to understand the ways in which Wells's manner simply misses the main wave of modernism. I must say, there are moments in William Clissold that reminded me of Joyce and Proust (and I'd say that it does not overinflate Wells's novel to compare it with those two classics). But the larger differences of approach are more to the point. Joyce dispenses with the Victorian commentator-narrator altogether, and indeed pares his narrative voice down to basically nothing, which leaves only the vividly isolated epiphanic moments out of which the uncreated Stephen is forged in the smithy of the text. On the other hand Proust goes, in a sense, to the other extreme, and pares down the constitutive moments-from-a-life to a very few (going to sleep, eating a cake, a grandmother dying, a party here, a trip to the sea-side there) in order to foreground reflection itself, the multiply-considered and complexly-layered self-engagements out of which the Marcel of the novel is construed. Wells steers a middle course between the two approaches, which is the conventional path; although, to be fair to him, he manages to do so in a way that produces a final result very unlike any conventional novel I have ever read.
Both Joyce and Proust, of course, are self-consciously experimenting in the literary treatment of semi-autobiographical fiction; but then so is William Clissold. Wells subtitles it ‘A Novel at a New Angle’, and its novelty is more than the rather gimmicky disposition of a prefatory note before the copyright and title pages. Colin Wilson—hardly the most level-headed of commentators, of course, but still—thought William Clissold ‘as bold an experimental novel as Ulysses and, in its own way, as successful’ [quoted in Nicholas Tredell, The Novels of Colin Wilson (Vision/Barnes & Noble 1982), 40]. He may have a point.
The new angle, then, is more than simply the fitting together of equal parts narrative and disquisition to form one complete novel. It's also that this novel includes among its fictional characters a great many real 1920s people, most of them friends of Wells's, whose appearances in the book range from mentions to brief cameos to whole, extended scenes. It is the admixture of the two modes, one fictional and one non-fictional, that had characterised Wells's entire career into a single emulsion. Formally this means fictive narrative and discursive sections woven together, but on the level of representation it means playing quite sophisticated games by which fictional characters interact with real people, by way of exploring the solidity, or otherwise, of the ego. And the ego matters to Wells because, I think, he apprehends it as one of the obstacles to people-just-getting-along-ness necessary for his peaceful utopian World State.
So, not only is Clissold's life based on Wells's life, Wells himself also appears: as ‘a distant relative of mine, Wells, who had employed many religious expressions in a book called God, the Invisible King’ [1:13], which work gets discussed at a party (amongst whose guests is also Carl Jung). More knowingly, Clissold makes reference to ‘my distant cousin Wells—if a character may for once turn on his creator and be frank about him—has written frequently and abundantly of the supreme necessity of education’ [5:14] which knocks at least a couple of bricks out of the fourth wall.
There are other intertextual games being played too, and many real people have walk-on parts in the stort. I'll come back to them. But first, since this is a novel almost nobody nowadays has read, I suppose a little summary is needful.
So: at the start of Book 1 ‘The Frame of the Picture’ elderly William Clissold is sitting in his London apartment, readying himself to travel to his much more congenial Provençal house, where his lover Clementina is waiting for him. He beguiles the time before his departure by writing the opening chapters of his life-story, and summarising the kind of person he is (‘metaphysically I have never been able to get very far beyond Schopenhauer's phrase: Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung. Life to me as to him ... is a spectacle, a show, with a drive in it’ [1:6]). He chats about the time he met Jung, and about a supper he recently enjoyed with his old friend Sir Rupert York, fossil-expert and director of the Natural History Museum—this latter a portrait of Wells's old friend, who had helped him with the Outline of History, Sir Ray Lankester. Why Jung gets to appear in the novel in propria persona where York is fictionalised under this wars-of-the-roses switchabout moniker is a question to which the answer is, perhaps, not immediately clear. I suppose it has to do with the larger theme of the novel: the relationship of fiction to history. I'll come back to that. Finally Clissold takes the train to the south of France, and describes his very congenial-sounding set-up there. Otherwise nothing very much happens in Book 1, although it does set-up the terms on which the story proceeds.
Book 2 ‘The Story of the Clissolds—My Father and the Flow of Things’ tells the story of the early youth and upbringing of the two Clissold boys: William and his brother Dickon. Their childhood is overshadowed by the disgrace and suicide of their businessman father, Richard Clissold. Richard, in the words of one of the boys' governesses, was ‘very, very, very rich’ (‘always with three “verys,” and the last one stressed’ [2:1]); but ‘having been found guilty of falsifying the books of London and Imperial Enterprises and sentenced to seven years' penal servitude’ he ‘committed suicide and died in the passage behind the court just after he had left the dock. He had swallowed a small capsule containing poison which he had concealed in the lining of his waistcoat.’
Their mother takes the now orphaned boys to Montpellier where they live, poor in comparison to their earlier wealth ‘but not impossibly poor’ [2:3]. Then Mrs Clissold remarries: a wealthy London solicitor called Walpole Stent: ‘a tall, shy, thoughtful, knickerbockered man with a very large forehead’ [2:3]. The boys go to Dulwich College and afterwards to London University to study science, and on reaching adulthood they discard their stepfather's surname and become again Clissolds. It is one of Wells's conceits through the novel that there is something wild about the Clissolds not present in the many, other-surnamed branches of their family, and William purports to find ‘a strong suggestion of the predatory animal’ about his brother and himself [2:5].
William trains as a geologist, and passes through a socialist phase and out the other side. Indeed, Book 2 contains, as an avocado does its indigestible stone, a huge excursus on the inadequacy of Marxism as Clissold understands it. William calls Marx ‘the maggot, so to speak, at the core of my decayed socialism’ [2:8] and a great stretch of the novel is given over to a purported ‘Psycho-Analysis of Karl Marx’:
It is for the pyscho-analyst to lay bare the subtler processes in the evolution of this dream of a Proletarian saviour. Everybody nowadays knows that giant, in May-day cartoons and Communist pamphlets and wherever romantic Communism expresses itself by pictures, presenting indeed no known sort of worker, but betraying very clearly in its vast biceps, its colossal proportions, its small head and the hammer of Thor in its mighty grip, the suppressed cravings of the restricted Intellectual for an immense virility. [2:8]30 pages of this are followed by a 30-page summary economic history of humankind from 3000 BC to the present, which winds its way back towards the downfall of Clissold senior, caught up (William argues) in the ‘credit whirlpool’ and global financial ‘confusion’ that money has become.
John Clute, no fan of the Clissold, appropriates the useful term from SF criticism ‘infodumping’ to critique Wells's novel. ‘The longest and most unrelenting of his mouthpiece narratives’ is what he calls it, in which ‘chapter-long seemingly interminable Infodumps, designed to present Wells's well-argued economic and political convictions, mock any pretext to storytelling’ [‘Wells, H G’, Encylopedia of Science Fiction] . That's a little harsh, I think; although this hard-to-digest chunk of anti-Marxian ranting (plus some of the slabs about education in book 5) come closest to supporting his case.
Anyway: Book 3, ‘The Story of the Clissolds—Essence of Dickon’ carries on the story of William's brother: a man ‘canine where I was feline’, a ‘stout tweed-wearing man’. Forceful, ‘Nordic’ and large [3:1]. Dickon makes it big in advertising, and meets many of the famous names from 1920s retail and media: Harry Gordon Selfridge and Lord Northcliffe have cameos, amongst others. Dickon innovates in his field, going from ‘hoardings and magazine-covers’ to ‘sky-signs’ and ‘smoke-writing on the blue’ [3:5]. William, meanwhile, moves rapidly upwards through the industrial firm of Romer, Steinhart, Crest & Co, first as a minerologist, later as a director. Both men get married: Dickon to Minnie, and William to Clara. Since William's marriage is a failure he confesses ‘a certain chagrin’ that his brother's marriage ‘was heartily successful, ostentatiously successful’ [3:8]. Both men father children.
William, separates from his unfaithful wife but is unable to divorce on a technicality, and so has what is strictly-speaking-but-not-really an affair with a woman called Sirrie Evans. They cohabit. His more socially-conventional brother ostracizes him for this; but then Sirrie dies and William is accepted back into his brother's bosom. By now it's World War 1, and William does important work in the Ministry of Munitions and becomes a public figure of repute and influence. Dickon, despite being fifty, joins the army (he becomes what they nowadays call a logistics officer) and ends up with a baronetcy. This book spends some time on the war, and rather more on the missed opportunities of the post-war reconstruction period. Both brothers conclude that a ‘new sort of man is wanted’ to populate a reformed and harmonious world [3:15], with Dickon believing such a being could be engendered by harnassing the powers of advertising: ‘time for the man-midwife ... the propagandist, the advertiser, to set about his task, and bring the new order into the world’ [3:15]. Book 3 ends with a rather well-drawn portrait of the wealthy ex-pats who congregate on the French riviera.
Book 4 ‘The Story of the Clissolds—Tangle of Desires’ occupies itself with the I-love-you-love-my-only-truelove of William's complicated erotic life. First there is the unhappy marriage with Clara (a woman of ‘inevitable unchastity’ [4:6] it seems) who eventually runs off with a painter called Peter Weston. Then there is William's co-habitation with Sirrie Evans (they can't marry because Clissold's divorce, though desired by both parties, hits legal snags). Sirrie makes him happy, but she dies in 1905, I think of TB (it's not spelled out exactly). After that William has an affair with a famous and rather heartless actress called Helen. This relationship doesn't work because, basically, she is too good-looking, ‘wonderful and mystical’, ‘beautiful and lovely for me as no human being has ever been’ [4:12] and he feels inadequate beside her (‘it was impossible for me to have been a worthy lover of Helen’). This section concludes with Clementina Campbell, a close portrait of Odette Keun, Wells's partner 1924-1933, who the novel presents, for all her flaws and indeed in part because of them, as Clissold's final and ideal love. Clementina is a young woman of Scotch-Greek pedigree (Keun herself was half Dutch and half Italian/Greek) and Clissold says of her: ‘Scotch heredity and Greek heredity do not mix; they make a sort of human Macedonia, a melange of hostile and incompatible districts in the soul. Clementina is in streaks beautifully logical and clear-headed, and in streaks incoherently but all too expressively passionate; she is acutely artistic and rigidly Philistine’ [4:14]
The final two books contain much less by way of narrative. Book 5 ‘The Story of the Clissolds—The Next Phase’ is almost exclusively given-over to developing Wells's idea of a global ‘open conspiracy’: eminent men and women (but mostly men), business leaders, politicians, scientists, intellectuals and writers coming together to conspire, in full view, to establish a ‘World Republic’: ‘The world republic is going to be as different from any former state as, let us say, an automobile from a peasant's cart,’ promises Clissold. ‘Its horse-power will be in its body. There need be no visible animal, no emperor nor president at all; and no parliament of mankind devoted to the betterment of human life’ [5:4]. This was the first time Wells explicitly wrote up this idea of the ‘open conspiracy’, although it went on to become a dominant notion in his later writings.
Book 5 includes a walk-on part for David Lubin, and a cameo for F. A, Sanderson, and spends about as long on proposing educational as international-political reforms. It also contains a long chapter repudiating racism. Well, sort-of repudiating racism: all races, says Clissold-Wells, are equally worthy of the citizenship of his World Republic. Except maybe the Negro. But even then: ‘The negro is the hardest case. But the negro has hardly ever had a dog's chance of getting civilised in considerable numbers, and yet his race has produced brilliant musicians, writers, and men of scientific distinction ... I refuse to consider even the black patches of the world as a gangrene in the body of mankind or shut any kind of men out of a possible citizenship’ [5:12], which is a pretty racist way of being anti-racist, to be honest. Not to get sidetracked, but I think the problem here is that Wells still believes race is a meaningful way of categorising human beings when, as it happens, race is not a meaningful way of categorising human beings. So he says: ‘it is foolish to deny the variety of human types. There are strains with an earlier maturity, a shorter span of years, quicker, more vivid sensibilities, less inhibitory, less enduring ... a great range of susceptibility to particular shocks and diseases and stresses’ [5:12] when in fact not a single one of those characteristics correlates to ‘race’ as the term has been understood (that is to say, these things of course do differ between individuals, and sometimes between cultures, but in no other way). But still: it's fair to say that 1920s Wells is both considerably less racist than most people of that time, and rather less racist than earlier Wells.
Anyway, we're nearing the end of this long and winding read. Book 6 ‘The Story of the Clissolds—Venus as Evening Star’ is an elongated meditation on the differences between men and women, taking in love and sex and leaning hard on what Clissold sees as the dangerous mendacity of ‘romanticism’ (in a love-affair, rather than the literary movement, sense of the word). Really the point of this book is as a peroration to honesty in love and the demystification of sex. ‘I know,’ says Clissold-Wells ‘that my insistence in this book upon a completely normal sexual life for an energetic man is a breach of literary decorum. I shall be called over-sexed, when indeed I am merely normally sexed and only abnormally outspoken’, which is nicely put. (He goes on: ‘but our literary standards derive from schools and universities that have sheltered almost to the present day the dishonest and inwardly unclean chastity of mediaeval romanticism ... I decline to follow these monkish usages and put a fig-leaf upon my account of myself’ [6:1]). He insists that, of the four major relationships in his life, the one that comes closes to this erotic honesty and companionship is the one he is presently in. Clissold's narrative ends with him in Provence, writing, and apparently coming to the decision that he shall propose to Clemantina. The last paragraphs are in the future tense:
In a few moments now she will be standing in my door way, doubtful of her reception. She will look gravely at me for an instant and then smile softly when she sees I have turned my chair away from my table. For that means the morning's writing is over.That's the last of William Clissold. All that remains of Wells's novel is a coda written by Richard Clissold: ‘and there my brother ceased to write and never wrote again. ... He was killed in an automobile accident upon the narrow road leading from the gorge of the Loup to Thorenc on April 24th, 1926. Miss [Clemantina] Campbell, who was with him in his car, was killed at the same time. This was perhaps only a day, or a day or two, after the unfinished passage was left.’
There will be a moment of mutual scrutiny, for she will realise immediately that something has changed, and as for me, I shall be diffident, I know not why.
‘Do I interrupt?’ she will ask according to our custom.
And I shall say—What shall I say? [6:13]
So there you have it: a whale of a novel: impressive, surprisingly agile considering its bulk, but also containing a high proportion of blubber. It's fair to say that contemporaries really weren't sure what to make of it. There were some respectful reviews (The Rotarian, Dec 1926, said ‘this novel is the most important and interesting which the much-productive Mr. Wells has written’), but also some rather more mixed ones. John Maynard Keynes, reviewing the novel for The New Republic, called the main character ‘a great achievement’, but thought the themes ‘not all treated equally well’ and judged the whole an ‘omnium gatherum’, not ‘a work of art’ [New Republic, 1 Feb 1927]. D H Lawrence was less conciliatory in the English Review calling it ‘simply not good enough to be called a novel’, and A.A.M. Thomson went so far in the direction of mockery as to publish book length parody The World of Billiam Wissol in 1927. Nor was the work a particular commercial success. The three volumes were published in separately, one a month: September-November 1926. The first volume sold out and went quickly to a second edition, but the same did not happen for the second and third volumes (so the edition I read, my own, photographed at the top of this post, is a bibliographical curio: the first third of it is a second impression, the remaining two thirds are first edition).
You can sort of see why people were nonplussed. It is a great chunk of a book, no question about it. But although I found the third volume in particular a fair slog to traverse, and although Clissold himself, with the sheer relentlessness of his opinionating, grows increasingly grating as the book goes on ... nonetheless, I came away from the whole admiring rather than otherwise.
And one point is worth making before I get onto more abstruse theorising. Whatever else is the going on this novel, it showcases some of Wells's very best prose, just on a technical level. Here's a rainy day in London from the very beginning, and as sharp, memorable and vivid as piece of descriptive writing as any Wells ever made:
Outside it is not so much day as a saturated piece of dingy time, a stretch of chewed and damp and dirty fourth dimension between two nights. It rains fitfully, now in fine clouds, now in hysterical downpours, now in phases of drizzling undecided intermission; and the shops are lit and there are lights in the windows. There is a sort of grey discoloration filtering down from above that I suppose one must admit to be daylight. Wet omnibuses, wet taxicabs and automobiles splash and blunder by. There are a few reluctant foot passengers under wet umbrellas. Everything shines greasily with the rain like the backs of rolling porpoises. [William Clissold, 1.1]Lovely writing, and there's lots of similar stuff to be mined from the experience of reading the novel. Not all the descriptions have aged equally well of course (I'm old enough, reading Wells's description of the British Museum Reading-Room as ‘a place that always suggests the interior of a gasometer to me’ [2:8] to remember both the old BL Reading Room and gasometers, but younger readers are liable just to be baffled). But when he wants to, Wells can write in a supremely evocative manner. The worst you can say of this, a description of a day in his Provençal house, is that maybe it's a little soft-edged, with just the slightest whiff of sentimentality. But vivid, though:
In the early morning the stream-beds and valleys between the crests and ridges are filled with very sharp restricted banks of white mist, and then a conical hill some five or six miles away from here becomes an island of romance. All day long there is a quiet soft change in the features of this scene, hillsides hold the sunlight for a time and then fade away, spurs and summits grow from insignificance to prominence as the sun searches them out on its daily round. Towards sundown Mougins upon its ridge six miles away will at times shine out with such a brightness that I think of Bunyan's Celestial City. Everywhere at this time of year there are rubbish fires burning, and their bright down-feathers of white smoke expand and unroll and dissolve away continually and are continually renewed. Ever and again an absurd little single-track railway asserts itself by an acute long nose of white steam that burrows hurriedly across the bluish greens and greys and hangs for a time and fades like an unimportant memory.His more arresting images are often drawn from science or (you'd expect me to say this, I know) from science fiction. The novel flirts with Freud at various places, but Clissold's own preferred image for mental life's conscious and subconscious processes is not one I've ever seen used anywhere else:
Almost always the sky above this land is a pure clear blue or delicately streaked with filmy cloud, and the sunlight is a benediction. Sundown brings a glow of warm contentment. Then presently the nearer houses lose strength, and faint and die and become white ghosts in the twilight. Amidst the darkling scattered lights appear. [William Clissold, 1:15]
The inhabitants of Venus, if there are any inhabitants upon that steamy planet, see no sun in their sky. There is, the astronomers suppose, a complete cloud shell between its surface and outer space. Life beneath that canopy must be life in the hot twilight of a tropical forest; daybreak must be a mere rosy or orange brightening of the grey, and night a darkling into blackness. But perhaps there are storms there, and then on some rare occasion that flocculent, dense welkin may be rent and swept aside, and the stars may shine or the naked sun blaze down upon the tossing, waving jungle. A thousand things, faintly suspected, dimly apprehended hitherto, must be revealed for a little while, stark and plain. [William Clissold, 1:8]I think that's a pretty arresting image, myself. It might be interesting to explore further the notion of the subconscious as a kind of Burroughsian jungle Pulp-SF Venus, actually (Wells uses Venus because one of his main points is the importance of the erotic life to the rest of the life of the mind).
Later Wells mentions Gabriel Tarde's Fragment d'histoire future, which is interesting for several reasons: Tarde's novel was published in 1896, and since Clissold shows that Wells read it, I wonder if Tarde's subterranean utopia influenced those passages in 1898's War of the Worlds in which the artilleryman dreams of an underground utopian refuge from the Martian invaders. In Tarde's book the death of the sun drives humanity underground for warmth, and there they (we) collectively decide to remake society on the basis of music, art and kind of ‘interspiritual’ telepathy.
When Wells brings the novel into William Clissold it is to describe the despair that afflicted his main character, and Wells himself, in the economic depression of the early 1920s, as hopes of reconstruction and lasting world peace died. What's interesting is that Wells entirely omits reference to the later, utopian portions of Tarde's novel:
There is a book of Tarde's called Fragment d'histoire future. It describes the unexpected extinction of the sun. A sudden extinction, like a gas-light being turned off. It is springtime in France, the almond blossom has come, the birds are nesting, people are going afield, when the catastrophe occurs. The sun rises already shorn of its radiance, cools to a red orb at midday, is dulled to a sullen coppery glow, and a snowstorm that grows thicker and thicker fills the air, driven before a cold and devastating wind. The young elder leaves, the almond petals whirl past and are forgotten. Everyone is presently in flight for shelter and searching frantically under cover for fuel. The icicles gather along the eaves and fall clattering like broken glass before the freezing gale. The plants bud no more, the birds sing no more, a great darkness comes upon the world. Naturally those who have fuel cling to the fuel. The quicker-witted start for the coal-mines and begin to burrow down towards the central heat.The sciencefictional, just as much as the utopian, still interpenetrates Well's mimemtic mode, even so late as 1926. The question is: which is the truth, and which the fable?
In much the same fashion did the hope of Reconstruction vanish from the sky. Peace conditions had returned and the phase of ready borrowing was at an end. The golden sun of credit veiled its countenance. A heavy ground swell in the European currencies gave place to a storm. The States had over-borrowed and mankind was collectively in debt. [William Clissold, 3:13]
Wells's Experiment in Autobiography is surprisingly dismissive of The World of William Clissold: it ‘has a rambling manner’, Wells says, and although he qualifies this judgement (‘it seems to ramble more than it actually does’) he does insist that the point of the book is its least narrative, most directly andragogic portion: the ‘Open Conspiracy’ stuff in Book 5. Wells calls this the novel's ‘gist, to which, after four Books mostly of preparatory novel writing to get the Clissold brothers alive, I came in Book Five’: the ‘possibility of bringing the diffused creative forces of the world into efficient co-operation as an “Open Conspiracy.”’ [Autobiography, 635]
The novel's epigraph is Heraclitus's πάντα ῥεῖ (Wells prints this as παντα ῥει). It's a flow that has several valences for the novel, and, although Wells doesn't use this specific image, what his Open Conspiracy is trying to do is find a way of both controlling and harnassing that massive flow, after the manner of hydroelectric dam.
One main version of the flow is the catastrophe of unregulated capitalism, in which money is so huge and so fluid it washes away human lives and happiness on an epic scale (Clissold's father's suicide is one tangible example of this); Wells describes traders in the City ‘superficial consequences’ caught in ‘a swirl ... upon a deep flood of changes beyond their understanding’ [2:14]. Money flows, as the economists insist it must; but Wells things this flow inevitably becomes the kind of inundation that washes human happiness away. The fatuities and hypocrisies of romantic love are, Clissold insists, such another flow, eroding the stability of relationships. Life itself, of course, is the fundamental, the res that ῥει, the thing that flows; and finally that flows inevitably away, as the novel's very last paragraph records.
But I don't think the novel is as formally shapeless, or fluid, as Wells's ‘rambling’ implies. I think that, not for the first time, he is engaging in a little playful misdirection.
Let me try putting it this way. There are two quite different as-it-were ‘modes of approach’ running parallel through this dual-project (that is, the dual project of telling a fictional story about fictional characters and of advancing a real-world discursive account of politics, education and future-planning including real-life people). We're likely to think of each of these two elements in linear ways: that is, to think of the metonymic succession of events that make up a linear narrative on the one hand, and the metonymic succession of points that make up a linear argument on the other. That is, no question, at play in The World of William Clissold. But there's a parallel mode in which the novel advances both its fictional and its argumentative agenda that's not linear: via metaphorical (rather than metonymic) images and intensities. This in turn is linked to the way childhood ‘sets’ moments for us, that then overdetermines certain adult experiences (but not others) as epiphanies, spots of time, transcendences. This is something both Proust and Joyce understood, and their novels both describe that epiphanic process and embody it. It is a standard undergraduate exercise to take the first babytalk chapter of Portrait of the Artist and draw out how its elements (storytelling, wetness and incontinence, anger, birds, green) are remixed and rung through the changes in the rest of the novel. I'd argue that The World of William Clissold does something similar, on a larger scale and in perhaps a more intricate way.
I've already gone on far too long, I know: and your patience, dear reader, was exhausted long ago—or else I'd go into this in much greater detail. I do think the sixfold structure of the novel, and a sixfold pattern of repeated images and moments of conceptual intensity, disclose on closer analysis a deliberate, quasi-crystalline design in this only superficially rambling novel (Wells keeps coming back to crystalline images in the novel, actually). But I don't have the space to develop a comprehensive reading of that here. I will, though, give one example of what I think is going on in this novel, to try and wrap-up my larger argument.
So, in Book 1 Clissold says that ‘things are first seen and heard and felt in childhood, and our minds file these early impressions as key-pictures and refer the later ones to them’. This means our childhood images are ‘continually refreshed’ where ‘later experiences are no longer used as new points of reference’ [1:3]. To illustrate what he means, he tells us that he has very seen ‘autumnal horse-chestnut leaves reflected in brown water and the branches of a horse-chestnut tree coming down close to that still mirror’ hundreds of times; but only one memory of this scene really lives in him, and it's the time he first saw it, as a kid:
I was in the old punt on the great pond at Mowbray. The silvery sheet of water had that convex effect one always got there upon a day of absolute calm. It was like a very smooth broad buckler. I think that effect of curvature must have been due to the way the reeds and bushes shaded the edges, or perhaps to some trick in the angle of the reflection of the pines up the slope. Far away against a background of dark bushes, some of them still deep green and some a rusty red, floated a little squadron of motionless swans, the old bird marvellously tranquillised since his days of terrifying aggression in the early summer. Even the ducks and the friendly attendant dab-chick among the lily leaves were silent. Everything was so still that I remember being startled by the sudden ‘plop’ of a falling husk into the crystalline water behind me. [William Clissold, 1:8]A spot-of-time indeed: beautifully written. The way the pond's surface appears slightly convex is an especially vivid touch, I think; not least because it figures as the symbolic emblematisation of the narrator's ego-identity. I'm reminded of the way Golding's Free Fall uses that image of the young Sammy in the middle of a round, with a spread of possible paths lying before him, except that Golding's purpose it to externalise freedom of choice, where Wells's (I think) is to metaphorize the solidity of ego as such, shield-like and poised, yet actually made of a fluid, flowing medium.
Whilst he is on his punt, in the middle of this optical illusion, this Escher curved mirror of the self, everything about young Clissold holds. The silence and stillness becomes explicitly transcendental (‘it is as if the whole world paused. It is as if God was present’ [1:8]). But young Clissold is distracted by the beauty of some forget-me-nots amongst the rushes growing at the edge of the pond. He rolls up his trousers and wades into the rushes to seize some of the flowers:
I waded into the water and mud until my knickerbockers, in spite of all the tucking up I gave them, were soaked. And I picked handfuls of these the loveliest of all English wild-flowers.This is not ‘narrative’ in the fullest sense; instead it's an almost imagist rebus for transcendent-stillness followed by the painful impingement of the outside world. As long as he sits in the middle of his magical convex lake of selfhood Clissold is safe, but as soon as he goes searching for beauty outside himself he encounters laceration and trauma. In miniature, this little memory establishes the paradigm for the whole of the novel.
Then suddenly came horror, the unqualified horror of childhood. My legs were streaming with blood. The sharp blades of the sedge leaves had cut them in a score of places. Fresh gouts of blood gathered thickly along the cuts, and then darted a bright red ribbon down my wet and muddy skin. ‘Oh! Oh!’ I cried in profound dismay, struggling and splashing back to the bank and still holding my forget-me-nots with both hands.
Still do I remember most vividly my astonishment at the treachery of that golden, flushed, and sapphire-eyed day. [William Clissold, 1:8]
That egoism is a problem, though: I mean, in terms of making Wells's ambitious fictional edifice palatable to actual readers. I found much to admire in the triple-decker, but I also Clissold himself, with his unceasing on-pushing narrative voice, got more on my nerves the longer I spent with him. There's an element of the subjective in such a reaction, I know; and it's possible that (given how close Clissold's voice is to Wells's voice) that I was registering not this one fictional character in this one novel, but Wells himself over the many many books of his I've read this year. Many many many. Except that it's not just me. One of the most swingeing reviews the novel received appeared in Blackfriars Magazine [Nov 1926], and identified Clissold himself as the problem. ‘With a touch of the Max Beerbohm genius,’ said the rather snide reviewer, ‘J.B.R.’, ‘Mr. Wells may yet turn his Clissold into the best Devil in fiction. It is inconceivable that Clissold's pontifical stupidities are going to end within the short space of a third volume. A hero cannot die in his own autobiography—not even at the end of a third tedious volume.’ Miaow!
Clissold needs only that and a silk hat to finish him off into a first-rate Devil. Already he is almost as omniscient, as malicious, as cunning even, as Mr. Wells himself.My problem is not, as J.B.R.'s problem manifestly is in this review, that Wells shows insufficient reverence to priests and politicians. I could care less, as the phrase goes, on that score. But it is hard to deny the sense of relief I felt at laying down the final volume and knowing that I didn't have to spend any more time in the orbit of William Clissold's elderly ego. Well, until I pick up the next H G Wells book to read, I suppose.