BOOK REVIEW / The Extremely Visible Man

Christopher Priest welcomes a new life of 'probably the most influentia l writer of the modern era'; HG: The History of Mr Wells by Michael Foot Doubleday, pounds 20

Because he died before this century was half over, it's easy to neglect the idea that HG Wells is the probably most successful and influential British writer of the modern era. He has no current equivalent, and none seems likely to rise up in the next five years to take his place as pre- eminent 20th-century writer.

His achievements were immense. He had a vast popular audience for whom he spoke, who expected him to speak for them, and who of course gave him his constituency. He became the confidant and consultant of statesmen. He singlehandedly created modern science fiction. He was the lover of some of the most intelligent, articulate and forceful women of the century. He wrote more than 50 notable novels, and twice as many non-fiction books and pamphlets. He inspired two generations of readers, and with his imagination gave his dreams to the world.

In spite of this, he is now remembered, outside the relatively small school of Wellsian scholarship, for much less: his early scientific romances, naturally; Kipps and Mr Polly; and, most likely through the medium of television, the film of The Shape of Things to Come. Some will recall a well-turned phrase or two ("the war that will end war" is one of his, as is "the open conspiracy").

Wells is a neglected writer and thinker these days, now that the sheer force of his personality is long gone from us. Who now settles down to read, say, Joan and Peter, or The Holy Terror, or Boon ... and who, if reading them today, can pick up the clef references, or appreciate the political positioning and the galumphing parodies?

Michael Foot, in this new biography, notes that Wells, to his dying day, was "a servant of truth, a champion of youth, and a man who could not live without the companionship of women". Of these, the first is paramount. Truth, and his quest for it, dogged Wells's intellectual life. Slave to him and master of him, truth constantly dazzled his vision, especially when he tried to be true to himself. It made him into a prophetic novelist (predictions of trench warfare, tanks, the atom bomb), a brilliant historian (The Outline of History is his masterpiece) and a crusading if eccentric journalist. But towards the end of his life, his unyielding obsession with the truth frequently made him sound like a crank.

"He was born in Kent, where Socialism was also born, and he was always happy to celebrate the association." Michael Foot begins his biography thus, using brisk and economical English of the kind we do not normally associate with his political utterances. In fact, the book is neither verbose nor divergent, and sticks remarkably well to its theme of Wells as Socialist writer, his life examined through his books.

Wells grew up in Bromley, son of a cricketer and a housekeeper, lately reduced to shop-holders. Throughout his childhood he was a voracious reader and he dreamt of the stars, but he was indentured at an early age into the dullness of drapery. He spoke in a high-pitched Cockney accent which he never completely lost. By sheer determination he got himself to Kensington Normal School, where he studied under Huxley, and soon after began not only his first love affairs but also his books. This year is the centenary of The Time Machine, not actually his first book but the one that broke through, made him famous and, soon enough, rich.

Other scientific romances followed, and to many people these are still his best books, but Wells was restless. In 1900 he took a step into political and social prophesying, with his book Anticipations, and after that he took himself much more seriously.

The particular insight Michael Foot offers is the way Wells would force an argument to express his ideas, and frequently seem thereby to be in dispute with himself. His books often came in pairs: the first would describe the perils ahead, the second would offer a prospect of overcoming the worst and moving forward beyond immediate danger. The doomsayer and the visionary were combined in Wells, a unique fusing of contradictions. In a similar way, his enlightened advocacy of free love could be seen by cynics as a male wish to "liberate" women sexually for his own ends. When he was travelling to discuss world affairs with Roosevelt and Stalin, his critics said that he was trying to build a better world for the ordinary man, but treating the ordinary man as the ultimate beneficiary, not as a participant in the process.

The complexity of Wells's personality was much of what made him attractive to women. Rebecca West, who argued with him constantly about feminism, and with good reason, said in old age that she had loved him all her life and reproached herself for leaving him: "One had, in actual fact, the luck to be young just as the most bubbling, creative mind that the sun and moon have shone upon since the days of Leonardo da Vinci was showing its form."

A similar sentiment was expressed by Orwell, who remembered "this wonderful man" who told you about the planets and the bottom of the sea, while you lived in a world of "pedants, clergymen and golfers". That relationship too was a difficult and finally bitter one. The two great writers met a couple of times, Orwell unrepentant for his earlier claim that Wells could not understand the modern world, Wells convinced that Orwell had tried to poison him with curry and fruit cake. But this was at the end of Wells's life, when the bubbling creative mind was slowing. Foot clearly loves Wells and admires his work, and the wholeness of Wells is here.

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