Monday, July 8, 2013

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.

“TONO-BUNGAY” by H.G.Wells (first published 1909)
            I have never had much sympathy for people who under-rate the power of good storytelling, that is, the ability to spin a yarn and to hold a reader’s attention. Certainly these things alone are not the acme of literary achievement, where we have to start considering those little matters of style and structure and psychological insight. But they are not to be under-rated either. So if I say negative things about H.G.Wells (1866-1946) it’s not because I fail to appreciate his grip as a storyteller. You would have to have been pretty dry if you did not, as a teenager, enjoy his best science fiction, especially the early stuff like The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau and above all The War of the Worlds, which I see as his genre masterpiece. (The War in the Air, When the Sleeper Wakes and The First Men in the Moon haven’t worn as well, if only because their “predictions” now seem rather quaint). The Dickensian social comedies Kipps and The History of Mr Polly are still good fun, too.

            But when Wells attempted to write serious grown-up novels on big issues, something always went badly wrong. Usually it was the strident polemical tone, mixed in with clumsy elements of roman a clef, and often it was the fact that the issue in question was highly topical when the novel was written, but now seems a period piece. Thus The New Machiavelli (about his attempts to take over the Fabian Society). Thus Ann Veronica (a disguised account of William Pember Reeves’ daughter Amber, with whom Wells had one of his many affairs).  Thus Love and Mr Lewisham (daring Edwardian ideas of “free love”). Then there was the fact that Wells, to his very last days, couldn’t stop churning them out. He had a huge audience and may have been the most popular English writer of his generation. But progressively through the 1920s and 1930s his work got worse and worse and stylistically more slapdash. One day on this blog, I might discuss his The Shape of Things to Come (1933) as an example of how not to write predictive fiction; and this would be without mentioning the heavy tinges of Social Darwinist racism in nearly all Wells’ work.

            All this is by way of introducing the novel that is sometimes touted as Wells’ literary masterpiece. Tono-Bungay has certainly never been Wells’ most popular novel, but it is the one academics mention when they want to promote Wells as a suitable candidate for study in university Eng Lit departments. Its first-person narrator George Ponderevo is clearly a version of Wells himself, so this autobiographical outing can be seen as Wells’ David Copperfield, especially as George’s most important relationship is with a character who could be seen as a modified Micawber.

George Ponderevo is the only son of a solo mother who is senior servant in a country house. Young George seems destined for a life of kowtowing to the country gentry, whom he detests. After he is involved in a fight, his mother sends him away to live with a narrow psalm-singing, chapel-attending evangelical family. Finding this even more unbearable than the condescending gentry, little George escapes back to his mother. (So far, these events are similar to the early life of little H.G.Wells). This time, George’s mother sends him off to live with his uncle Edward Ponderevo, who is married but childless. George’s relationship with his Uncle Edward (or Uncle Ponderevo as he is often called) is the pivot of the novel.

Uncle Edward is a small-town pharmacist, frustrated by the backward and unenterprising nature of his neighbours and vaguely wanting to make something of himself in the world. He quickly recognizes young George’s intelligence and enterprise (he calls them his “whoosh”) and sends him to the local school, where the adolescent George begins to win prizes in science, and then wins a scholarship to study at Birkbeck College in London (as H.G.Wells did).

As a student, the young man George is distracted sometimes by women and sometimes by his raffish sculptor friend Ewart. When he catches up with his Uncle Edward, the older man has begun to promote a dodgy patent medicine called Tono-Bungay. Uncle Edward employs George to make his plant more efficient and to tweak the product. George is basically aware that Tono-Bungay is medicinally worthless and (because of unspecified ingredients) may indeed be mildly harmful. Nevertheless, he goes along with his uncle’s schemes. By advertising and publicity and puffery, Tono-Bungay becomes immensely popular and both uncle and nephew become rich. Funded by his uncle’s profits, George is able to pursue real research in aeronautics, designing gliders, dirigibles and flying machines that would have been brilliantly new concepts when the novel was first written.

The novel seems to be setting itself up as satire on the relationship of science and commerce and how the latter can corrupt the former. Indeed it is as such that Tono-Bungay is often praised. But alas, it lacks focus, and Wells takes his first-person narration as an excuse to throw in things and episodes as they occur to George’s mind, rather than according to their coherence as narrative. One self-contained chapter tells of George’s marriage to, and then divorce from, the vapid and apparently brainless Marion, before he goes philandering off with the typist Effie and later re-marries.

Meanwhile Tono-Bungay prospers, Uncle Edward Ponderevo gives himself airs as a self-made gentleman (sometimes reined in by his no-nonsense wife Susan in the novel’s best comic scenes) and devises more and more grandiose schemes to spend his profits. These culminate in his employing an army of contractors to build a huge modern mansion. It is at about this time that George crash-lands in one of his flying machines, and has an affair with the aristocratic Lady Beatrice Normandy, who nurses him back to health.

Shoddily supported by borrowed capital, Uncle Ponderevo’s patent-medicine-producing empire begins to fall apart. In an effort to help save it, George sets off on an antiquated hired ship to steal a valuable pile of a mysterious radioactive mineral called “quap” from the coast of Africa. The expedition goes badly wrong, the ship sinks as it is returning to England, and George and the crew are lucky to escape with their lives. George returns to England to find his uncle bankrupt, being pursued by creditors and harassed in public by a newspaper magnate called Boom. The unfinished, grandiose mansion becomes a symbol of the pointlessness of Uncle Ponderevo’s jerry-built schemes. Uncle Ponderevo absconds from the bankruptcy hearing in London. George spirits him out of the country in one of his flying machines. The two of them fly across the Channel and crash-land somewhere near Bordeaux. George plans for the two of them to pose as rambling tourists but, worn out by his losing campaign to be solvent, Uncle Ponderevo sickens and dies, babbling incoherent nonsense as he does so.

A disconsolate George returns to England, hoping to take up with his aristocratic lady. But she prefers the comfort of being the mistress of a titled gentleman. George, the practical research scientist, ends up designing destroyers for the highest bidder. The novel fades out on George travelling down the River Thames through London, giving a mystic account of what little things we and all our aspirations really are. The final words are: “I have come to see myself from the outside, my country from the outside – without illusions. We make and pass. We are all things that make and pass, striving upon a hidden mission, out to the open sea.”

Am I allowed to say how profoundly this novel annoys me?

I restrain myself from commenting at length on the number of very dated ideas it proposes, which must have seemed very “advanced” at the time. Tono-Bungay has often been described as a “Condition of England” novel, so I suppose I can’t harp on its topical journalistic aspect, which is the very thing that gives “Condition of England” novels their historical interest. But I do note how evasive so much of it is. The final mystical note dodges so many of the issues that the novel has raised. If we are just moving we know not whither towards the open sea as we “make and pass” etc., then we do not have to interrogate our own motives or the consequences of our actions. They become, literally, meaningless. This problem is implicit in the whole mode of narration of the novel. Wells appears to have set out to write a novel satirising “puffery” and pointless commerce in worthless articles – in this case patent medicine – with industry and energy spent in creating nothing of value. But his narrator, George Ponderevo is implicated in his uncle’s schemes and benefits from them. His occasional moralising comments on his uncle are thus badly compromised (a bit like the more skilful narration of Jack Burden in Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men – look it up on the index at right). He is not an impartial observer, and yet neither he nor Wells seems to realize this. No. This is not an “unreliable narrator” of the sort so beloved by more recent novelists. It is an ill-conceived narrator, with Wells at times fully identifying with George when he makes his social commentary.

George Ponderevo’s lack of self-awareness parallels Wells’ own. Wells takes shots at the social abuses and snobberies of his day – the gentry, tycoons, newspaper editors – without considering how much he himself shares his age’s prejudices and daydreams. Note, for example, the anti-Semitic caricature of the Rumanian Jewish captain on the expedition to get “quap”. Note how, on the novel’s first page, George promises us that he will tell us many startling things about himself, such as that  “once (though it was the most incidental thing in my life) I murdered a man”. The murder is the casual shooting of an African during the “quap” expedition, basically seen by George (and Wells) as a matter of little importance. Indeed Social Darwinist racism ran deep in those imperialist days, even among writers who thought themselves the epitome of rationalism.

I am aware that Wells is rehearsing much of his own sex life in George’s accounts of Marion, Effie and Lady Beatrice. (If you have not yet caught up with it, check out David Lodge’s 2011 novel A Man of Parts for a funny and sad version of Wells’ experiments in “free love”.) But, as they appear in this novel, the three women are basically sexual conveniences for George, and those notorious Wellsian rows of dots (“…….”) are another instance of evasion – in this case evading the complexities of human sexual experience.

My main reason for being so harsh on this novel, however, is this: There is so much evidence here of a prodigious story-telling talent, but it is not equal to the task of building rounded characters or making events anything more than passing amusements. When George goes in search of “quap” it is like an improvisation to sustain readers’ interest. When George flies his uncle across the Channel in a primitive flying machine it is another improvisation. Even the self-contained chapter on George’s marriage to Marion has the air of ticking a subject off before moving on. The novel is a collection of bits.

And in the end, what a boyish view the novel has of commercial “success”! It is impossible to believe that one-dimensional, chatty, caricatured Uncle Ponderevo would ever become a business tycoon – even one selling a dodgy product on the basis of dodgy finance. Here we have the essence of “whoosh” in Wells’ work – an adolescent enthusiasm with little real thought or analysis to back it up.

Stray parting shots: There are three things about Tono-Bungay that are intriguing, but for reasons unconnected to the novel’s literary worth.
i.)A biography of the realist novelist George Gissing told me that, in Uncle Ponderevo’s incoherent death-bed babblings, H.G.Wells was borrowing from accounts he had heard of Gissing’s rambling death-bed soliloquy.

ii.) There is the strong (but unproven) possibility that Wells’ patent medicine “Tono-Bungay” was partly based on Coca Cola. In a courtroom case in 1902, it was revealed that the “stimulant” Coca Cola – in its original form – had caffeine and unspecified amounts of cocaine among its ingredients. It was partly this revelation which led to the passage of the USA’s Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, a mere two years before Tono-Bungay began to appear in serial form. Wells’ fictitious stimulant has a name with the same rhythm as Coca Cola, and Wells was aware of the American case. So Coca Cola may well have been the original of the novel’s medicinal rubbish in a bottle, although there were plenty of other quack remedies for Wells to attack.

iii.) Finally, a passage that amuses me from this novel, but not for reasons Wells would have intended. In Chapter Two, the boy George Ponderevo is arguing with the children of the narrow evangelical family he has to live with. The relevant passage goes thus:
            “ ‘There’s no hell’, I said, ‘ and no eternal punishment. No God would be such a fool as that.’
            My elder cousin cried aloud in horror, and the younger lay scared, but listening.
            ‘Then you mean,’ said my eldest cousin, when at last he could bring himself to argue, ‘you might do just as you liked?’
            ‘If you were cad enough’, said I.”
            Fair enough to have a go at evangelicalism and hellfire, I guess. But I am amused by the boy’s “if you were cad enough”. Here’s the notion that it would be ‘caddish’ to do some things, but without any attempt to define how we arrive at conclusions on what is or is not ‘caddish’. This is pardonable in the boy in the novel, but regrettably this notion of morality (that it’s no more than a social sanction) underpins much adult thought now.

No comments:

Post a Comment