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Tony Grist

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H.G. Wells- An Overview [Sep. 20th, 2011|01:10 pm]
Tony Grist
Wells was an artist who got tired of his art. It happens. I can think of many other examples- with Shakespeare and Tolstoy leading the field. Art is time consuming and difficult and involves digging deep- and to what end? Wells was always primarily interested in ideas and once his art had gained him a platform he eased up and used his story-telling skills as a vehicle for preaching and teaching.  Most of the later novels (there may be exceptions- I haven't read everything) feel like they've been skimped.

Novels that are works of art cherish ambiguity and invite interpretation. They are complex,  they have multiple (even contradictory) meanings . They contain characters with something of the complexity of real human beings and/or wonderfully imagined grotesques. In Wells's later novels the characters tend to be types- and only types. I say "tend" because there are exceptions. Rud Whitlow, the hero/villain of The Holy Terror is a tremendous creation- surrounded by cardboard cut-outs. 

I suppose I should now say, "what a shame", but I don't really feel it. Wells later books are sufficiently entertaining. They do what he wanted them to do- which is dramatise the ideas that were important to him. And how much more have we the right to expect?  In his most productive decades, from roughly 1895 to 1915, Wells produced at least ten novels that deserve to be called masterpieces.  This collection includes (of course) the SF stories on which his current reputation rests, but also brilliant social comedies like Kipps and The History of Mr Polly and landmark state-of-the-nation novels like Tono-Bungay and the (woefully neglected) Wife of Sir Isaac Harman. Ten is more than E.M Forster- another great novelist who got tired of his art- ever managed.  Maybe those ten- or is it eleven or twelve?- exhausted him. When you've written a truly great novel do you really need to go on repeating the trick? The worst thing about the merely adequate fictions of the later decades is that they obscure the greatness of the work that went before. 
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: michaleen
2011-09-21 10:49 am (UTC)
Your conclusions are very close to Mencken's, that Wells, despite falling away in later years, produced a small shelf of first-rate books of which any novelist worthy of the name should be proud.

You also seem to agree with Mencken that artistry and evangelism are incompatible, that once Wells took to enlightening and uplifting, his art was done for.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2011-09-21 11:51 am (UTC)
He never lost his artistry. It flares out here and there in the later books. Men Like Gods- for example- turns into a gripping adventure story in its central sections. Even at his preachiest he never stopped being an entertainer.

The later books aren't rubbish. They're enjoyable. It's just that he stopped trying as hard.
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[User Picture]From: michaleen
2011-09-22 09:42 am (UTC)
Many thanks. I suspect I shall be taking up Wells myself, before long. I have been reading more since acquiring a tablet and your reviews have flung a craving on me.
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