Saturday, December 15, 2012

What Comes Around.......

“A Man of Parts”, David Lodge's novel about the life of HG Wells, that I 've begun reading, begins in 1944, when HG Wells was terminally ill and living alone in wartime London, intrepidly ignoring the bombs and V1 rockets.

He does, though, get visits from the likes of Anthony, his son with Rebecca West, and from Rebecca herself, who, despite her long ago divorce from HG, still loves him in a way. In the extract below, Rebecca is travelling home from visiting HG. Among what they had talked about was Anthony's wish to divorce his wife, Kitty, because he'd met Someone Else who he liked better:
Travelling from Marylebone to High Wycombe in a stuffy first-class railway compartment, in the company of three elderly businessmen with bowler hats, peeping at her from time to time over their evening newspapers, Rebecca is overwhelmed by dread. The sense of a curse working itself out in delinquent fathers over several generations.

Her father had deserted his family when she was eight, going off to South Africa on some vague business venture and disappearing without trace, leaving his wife to bring up Rebecca and her two sisters on barely adequate means. Then she herself had to bring up Anthony on her own – admittedly with more generous financial support from his father, but HG kept his distance and his freedom – and now Anthony is planning to leave Kitty to bring up his children on her own. And what was the reward for the mothers whose lives were pinched and frustrated by the responsibility thrust upon them? They became the object of their children's displaced resentment, that was their reward.

She never gave up hope that her beloved Daddy would somehow return to the family with an honourable explanation for his absence, like the father in The Railway Children (how she had wept over the ending of that book!), until she was thirteen, when they heard that he had died. Later she learned from her mother that he had been an incorrigible philanderer, seducing their own housemaids and resorting to prostitutes.

She recognises in retrospect that she was a difficult disruptive child and adolescent, always quarrelling with her sisters and criticising her mother; Anthony was the same when he was growing up – hero-worshipping his absent father and blaming her for all the miserable experiences of his schooldays. She can so easily imagine little Caroline and Edmund [Anthony's and Kitty's children] in years to come repeating the same mistake, adoring Anthony and inflicting the same undeserved punishment on Kitty, as she struggles to bring them up, run the farm and, if she is lucky, find a little time for her art.

The feminism Rebecca campaigned for all her adult life has liberated women sexually – the bolder spirits among them anyway – but it has not redressed this fundamental imbalance in the relations between men and women: the female instinct to nurture their offspring and the male instinct to spend their seed promiscuously.

HG is simply a more intelligent and more successful version of her father. Even Henry [Rebecca's current husband] has disappointed her in this respect. Unfailingly kind and protective, admiring and supportive of her work (gamely escorting her around Yugoslavia in dirty trains and flea-infested hotels when she was researching Black Lamb and Grey Falcon), possessing impeccable manners, and enough money to allow her to live in some style, he is in every respect the perfect spouse, except that he is prone to infatuations with pretty young women, and he hasn't made love to her since 1937.

Lying beside him in bed one night she cried out in the dark: 'Why don't you make love to me any more?' But he was asleep, or pretended to be, and said nothing. She has had other lovers herself, of course, since then, though none at present. She reflects despondently that her sexual life may have come to an end.
Living as we do in today's enlightened times, we can read Rebecca's musings only in aghast, as we reflect on the fact that the lot of Rebecca was once upon a time the lot of so many other women too.


  1. More holiday good cheer, I see. So, do you recommend this novel?

    First in the imposing Cleveland public library and then on a long bus ride across the Midwest yesterday I read Philip Roth's "American Pastoral" in a single day, and maybe that's just the way to do it. That's the kind of novel I'd like to write.

    Next up for me is China Mieville's "The City and the City."

    Perhaps instead of your novel about HG Wells, I'll just read Rebecca West instead. Maybe I'm as bad as everyone else about dismissing women writers.

    Meanwhile (and somewhat related) I wanted to know who you think wrote "Sweet Tooth."

  2. That you could read “American Pastoral”, all 423 pages, from cover to cover in a single day is an achievement. I doubt even Serena could have done this.

    Do you think I would like “American Pastoral”? Because I've, since childhood, closely followed the American political and social scene, and because I did like “The Human Stain” - the only Philip Roth novel I've read - I think I just might.

    As to who wrote “Sweet Tooth”, I think it was Serena, because I didn't once stop to think, while reading, that what I was reading may have been written by a man. If Ian McEwan or Tom Haley did in fact write it, it's a supreme testimony to their art that they could write so convincingly in the persona of a woman.

    From what I've read of it so far, I do recommend “A Man of Parts" to you. Since you read so fast, you would polish it off in a day, leaving you lots of time to polish off as well, all Rebecca West's fictional works, as well as the oeuvre of HG Wells, and not to speak of Anthony West's autobiographical novel, in which his mother is one of the main characters.

  3. Christopher,

    That's funny about "Sweet Tooth"! I suppose you noted Tom Haley's (that is to say Ian McEwan's) reference to the the Kingsley Amis poem "Bookshop Idyll" about the reading tastes of men and women. It's not there for nothing. In case you didn't look up the poem, I'll tell you that the last stanza is beautiful and sort of surprising.

    You're exaggerating my capacity for reading and making fun of me a little bit. That's OK. Saves me the trouble.

    I would be astonished if you did not love "American Pastoral," and I hope you will read it. I started reading Philip Roth because my father adores him and has been sending me used paperback Roth novels as fast as I can read them. And I do read because, in the best Roth tradition, my father looms large. I'm hooked. I can almost promise that you will be too.

    OK, I'll find some starting place in the HG Well/Rebecca West mix. Thanks.

  4. I do apologise for making fun at your expense. I'm cursed with a waspish tongue that I try to curb, but all too often in vain.

    I'd forgotten about the reference in Sweet Tooth to the Kingsley Amis poem.

    I looked it up in Google. I particularly liked:

    ....Man's love is of man's life a thing apart;

    Girls aren't like that......

    This poem does resonate with me because as I go through life I'm struck more and more by how differently women and men act, think, talk, feel, and how different are the books they like to read.

    Fact is, most men and most women have almost nothing in common - as if each is of a separate species. Scientific studies of male and female brains are now confirming this.

    In any case, one need only look at the sorts of comments left on YouTube, which appears mostly a male milieu. Or listen to what is said among male teens on any bus.

    I'll put "American Pastoral" on my reading list.