I read H.G. Wells for the first time this year. I’d mentally set him aside as a purveyor of antique sci-fi thrills, which usually isn’t my cup of tea. Then one day at the library, dull on the unread titles at home, I suddenly wondered if that particular cup wasn’t the one I was craving after all, and so I checked out The Island of Dr Moreau. It delivered pretty much what I’d expected, until, that is, the final chapter, which shook halfway loose of the rest of the book and hinted, I thought, at something broader in Wells’ genius.
Looking for that broader Wells, I came across his neglected 1910 comic-picaresque, The History of Mr Polly. Wells missteps in a couple places: putting too clinical a focus on Polly’s digestive troubles in the first few chapters and contradicting himself on his hero’s age, for example. But Mr Polly himself – undereducated but word-drunk, virginal but affecting depravity, expecting illumination but stumbling blind into family, work and marriage – Mr Polly is the kind of character that marks the difference between author-as-storyteller and author-as-demiurge: Mr Polly breathes.
Since he was an active socialist and sometime-member of the Fabian Society, we’re not surprised to find Wells here and there poking into issues of class and industry, but Polly is never flattened to symbol. If there’s no proper place for him in the tumult of modernity, this is due as much to his personal idiosyncrasies as his background and status:
A man whose brain devotes its hinterland to making odd phrases and nicknames out of ill-conceived words, whose conception of life is a lump of auriferous rock to which all the value is given by rare veins of unbusinesslike joy, who reads Boccaccio and Rabelais and Shakespeare with gusto, and uses ‘Stertoraneous Shover’ and ‘Smart Junior’ as terms of bitterest opprobrium, is not likely to make a great success under modern business conditions.
It’s a very funny book. Certain scenes read like a provincial Victorian precursor to Withnail and I. But there’s a quality to the vaguely-yearning but downtrodden Polly that can remind us, between chuckles, of Naipaul’s Mr Biswas or John William’s William Stoner. If life is a landscape of obstruction and discontent, then Polly is sustained, like these, by occasional glimpses of beatitude, “the momentary vision of a very beautiful thing seen through the smoke of a passing train.”
The final quarter of the book I found somewhat weaker than the rest. Perhaps it’s simply that Polly’s climb towards the light isn’t so funny as his fumbling in darkness. We don’t want our windmill-tilters to snap out of it. But their adversaries don’t have to be visible in order to be real:
Man comes into life to seek and find his sufficient beauty, to serve it, to win and increase it, to fight for it, to face anything and dare anything for it, counting death as nothing so long as the dying eyes still turn to it. And fear, and dullness and indolence and appetite, which, indeed, are no more than fear’s three crippled brothers, who make ambushes and creep by night, are against him, to delay him, to hold him off, to hamper and beguile and kill him in that quest.
No matter how entertaining his trials, I suppose there’s always some satisfaction in seeing the hero come home in the end.