NABOKV-L post 0010649, Thu, 25 Nov 2004 11:20:06 -0800

VN & H.G. Wells

Forgotten favourites - Disappearing act
New Statesman, UK - 5 hours ago
... It came as a shock when I subsequently discovered that Vladimir Nabokov
regarded HG Wells as a master, describing him as possessing a genius denied to
his ...

Forgotten favourites - Disappearing act
Book Reviews
Bryan Appleyard
Monday 29th November 2004

The Invisible Man
H G Wells Kessinger Publishing, 140pp, £15.95
ISBN 141916757X

Between 1895 and 1898, H G Wells wrote four science fiction masterpieces - The
Time Machine, The Island of Dr Moreau, The Invisible Man and The War of the
Worlds. Then, as now, SF was seen as not quite respectable by literary types.
The vile George Bernard Shaw sneered at Wells, and even his own literary
patron, W E Henley, told him: "You could also do better - far better & to begin
with, you must begin by taking yourself more seriously." In our day, Margaret
Atwood has turned her nose up at SF, preferring to call the novels she writes
"speculative fiction", a truly toe-curling piece of petty snobbery.

The ratio of bad to good SF novels is about the same as that of bad to good
literary novels, but, for some reason, SF is always judged by the output of its
most inept practitioners. In truth, a form that has produced, among others,
Stanislaw Lem, J G Ballard, the Strugatsky brothers and, above all, Herbert
George Wells has nothing to apologise for.

I used to make the same mistake. I loved Wells in my childhood, but, at
university, came to accept the prevailing judgement that he was a secondary
figure. He wasn't in the Great Tradition of F R Leavis, nor in the alternative
pantheon generated by the structuralists. It came as a shock when I
subsequently discovered that Vladimir Nabokov regarded H G Wells as a master,
describing him as possessing a genius denied to his contemporaries Henry James
and Joseph Conrad. Both of the latter were, it goes without saying, bang in the
middle of the Great Tradition.

A greater shock was in store when I read The Invisible Man. For some reason, I
don't recall reading it in my first flush of Wells enthusiasm, though I might
have done. In any case, this recent reading felt like first contact.

It is, without doubt, a great book, as are those other three SF works. Wells's
biographer Michael Foot, like many others, tended to justify the life by
focusing on the later shenanigans of the Fabian Society and his political work.
But in fact, if Wells had died after completing The War of the Worlds in 1898,
his true stature would not be diminished at all. For three years, he wrote as a
genius. What more can be expected of anybody?

The Invisible Man is a masterpiece of the uncanny. Like Alfred Hitchcock,
another great and very English artist, Wells knew how to subvert the banal with
a discreet, almost subliminal suggestion that something is not quite right. In
the first sentence of the novel, the mere mention of a glove is enough to cause
a sudden shiver:

"The stranger came early in February, one wintry day, through a biting wind and
a driving snow, the last snowfall of the year, over the down, walking as it
seemed from Bramblehurst railway station, and carrying a little black
portmanteau in his thickly gloved hand."

Something is wrong, but what? It rapidly becomes apparent. Griffin, the
invisible man, is an outcast. He wants to be left alone and he gives nothing
away. He has "fallen out of infinity into Iping Village" and he says he is "an
experimental investigator". Gradually, he reveals himself as a self-made
outcast. It is his own experiments that have made him invisible and this
invisibility, for reasons that are never quite clear, have turned him into a
violent revolutionary. He wants to start a reign of terror and "all who disobey
his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend them".

Griffin, like the anarchists in Conrad's Secret Agent or in G K Chesterton's
hugely underrated The Man Who Was Thursday, is a man of the 20th century, a
creature driven by a psychotic logic. He fails to see that his true enemy is
not the "general inanity of things", but the suffocating reality of his own
condition. He is, like Robert Louis Stevenson's Mr Hyde, trapped by a
technology, a fate that, Wells saw, awaited us all.

If that isn't enough, the book is also full of comic scenes constructed with a
Marx Brothers-like ingenuity and moments of poetry that leave you dry-mouthed
and gasping. Meanwhile, the plot rattles along and the themes progressively
deepen and spread. Wells was on fire when he wrote these books, a condition
Shaw never attained and one incomprehensible to both Leavisites and
structuralists. Speculative fiction? Stuff that. This was pure-bred science
fiction, doing what only SF can do.

Bryan Appleyard's new book Aliens: why they are here will be published by Simon
& Schuster next March

This article first appeared in the New Statesman. For the latest in current and
cultural affairs subscribe to the New Statesman print edition.