Thoughts on A Man of Parts — David Lodge

* A Man of Parts is surprisingly dull despite H. G. Wells’s salacious, important life; there are too many passages like this:

Amber seemed to him a golden girl that summer and autumn, an almost mythical creature, such as the gods of classical Greece coveted and descended from the heights of Olympus to ravish in human disguise or in the form of some animal or bird.

The novel is dutiful yet has a limited feeling for what it’s like to be a writer; the novel deserves comedy but it isn’t particularly funny. There are good moments:

“You hear so much talk about sex, and read about it in books, and you don’t know what or who to believe, and anyway, words can never tell you what it’s actually like. Is it wonderful, or just ordinary?”
“It’s both wonderful and ordinary,” he said.

which capture the feeling of much of life; so often it’s two or more contradictory things at once, and the question of ordinariness or extraordinariness say much about the temperament of the consciousness doing the observing.

* The travails and politics of the Fabian Society arise in so many novels set in the 1890 – 1929 period, but in this novel their machinations are dull. Something like A. S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book covers similar territory but much more effectively, and more strangely.

* Science itself is mostly absent, as it is not from, say, Ian McEwan’s Solar or Peter Watt’s Blindsight.

* Novels about people who really know things are surprisingly rare.

A.S. Byatt and Tracy K. Smith speaking in New York

A.S. Byatt and poet Tracy K. Smith spoke in New York last night, and my favorite moment may have been Byatt’s comment on influence: she said, “I learn from dead people. I read books.” Which is accurate, simple, and too seldom mentioned. She also said, “If there is one thing I shall never do it is write a memoir.” But Byatt does watch viral YouTube videos, though I won’t offer the context. No word on whether she’s seen “Gangnam Style.” I wanted to listen to her indefinitely; she seemed low bullshit and subtly, Britishly funny in a way not conveyed by these quotes and perhaps not conveyed by any quotes. I would take her seminar despite the danger of being assigned Henry James and Melville.

IMG_2029Byatt also said that at some point “I got sick of realism. . . and I realized realism is only one way of putting prose together.” That remark—”putting prose together” was deliberate. English’s promiscuous borrowing also delights her (as it does pretty much anyone who really writes), and to that I would add that English has a sophisticated technical vocabulary offering a rich lode of metaphors not always available, or easily available, in other languages, unless they’ve borrowed from English (often in turn borrowing from other languages).

One senses that literature for her is urgent, as it is for Roland Mitchell in Possession (in one of my favorite moments in the novel, Roland Mitchell explains that he stole letters from the British Library “Because they were alive. They seemed urgent,” implying that much of what happens in the British Library and academia is so not urgent that one must wonder if and why it should happen at all) and many characters in The Children’s Book. She makes me want to be a better writer.

Smith said, in the context of mentorship, that having someone ask different kinds of questions of your work can be useful. She’s right, though I’d never conceptualized the issue in those terms, and it’s difficult to find people who will ask questions different but still useful than those you ask yourself.

Does she like Billy Collins?

What’s wrong with Harry Potter? Sophistication.

In The Atlantic, David Thier describes How the ‘Harry Potter’ Movies Succeeded Where the Books Failed. I haven’t seen all the movies or read all the books, so I can’t comment on their relative merit, but notice this in Their’s post:

The basic story in Harry Potter is an old one, and a good one. The boy of destiny is plucked from ordinary circumstances and becomes incredulous when he’s told the truth behind his real identity. Some training, trials, and a crisis of self-confidence later, he emerges as the true hero ready to defeat ultimate evil.

In real life, it seems like the problem isn’t often defeating ultimate evil: it’s identifying ultimate evil. Or recognizing that ultimate evil doesn’t exist very often, and more often there are banal evils, or inadvertent evils, or people just trying to get along but harming others as they do, or working in favor of malign self-interest, or some variation on these themes. Adult literature tends to recognize this. Children’s literature seldom does. Even The Lord of the Rings spends a lot of time trying to decide how to respond and who should wield power. Harry Potter seldom does that, from what I can recall: Harry is destined from birth. I don’t appear destined from birth to do much of anything; neither does anyone else (more on that below).

Robin Hanson says something similar to the preceding paragraph in “Beware Morality Porn:”

[. . .] movies usually focus more on whether characters have the strength of will to do what is obviously right than on whether they have the wisdom to discern what is right. And movie characters rarely have to choose between the praise of associates and doing the right thing – key associates usually support doing the right thing.

He uses Lord of the Rings as an example, although I don’t think it’s as appropriate as some others. The book version of The Lord of the Rings makes a point of showing how Aragorn, Gandalf, and other “good” characters work to limit their own power and define what the “right” thing is, beyond the defeat of Sauron. In the past, the Elves and Númenóreans repeatedly treated with Sauron, to their detriment. It’s not completely obvious what the “right” thing to do is: in the “Council of Elrond” chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring, proposals about using the Ring against Sauron are debated. It’s true that, by the time we get to The Fellowship of the Ring, it’s pretty clear Sauron’s the bad guy, but only because of past book-time experiences with him.

As mentioned above, I think movies and books have a larger problem (and one that, if I recall correctly, Harry Potter does address to some extent): virtually no one is “destined” to do anything. People who accomplish major deeds often just have the right combination of circumstances, luck, tenacity, and ability. Arguably only the last two are influenced by the person themselves. Taken together, the problems with pre-destiny and automatic right/wrong might go under the header of “sophistication.” More sophisticated novels (or movies) will tend to recognize and/or deal with these problems. Less sophisticated novels (or movies) won’t.


If you’re interested in Harry Potter, A.S. Byatt’s “Harry Potter and the Childish Adult” is worth reading.

What's wrong with Harry Potter? Sophistication.

In The Atlantic, David Thier describes How the ‘Harry Potter’ Movies Succeeded Where the Books Failed. I haven’t seen all the movies or read all the books, so I can’t comment on their relative merit, but notice this in Their’s post:

The basic story in Harry Potter is an old one, and a good one. The boy of destiny is plucked from ordinary circumstances and becomes incredulous when he’s told the truth behind his real identity. Some training, trials, and a crisis of self-confidence later, he emerges as the true hero ready to defeat ultimate evil.

In real life, it seems like the problem isn’t often defeating ultimate evil: it’s identifying ultimate evil. Or recognizing that ultimate evil doesn’t exist very often, and more often there are banal evils, or inadvertent evils, or people just trying to get along but harming others as they do, or working in favor of malign self-interest, or some variation on these themes. Adult literature tends to recognize this. Children’s literature seldom does. Even The Lord of the Rings spends a lot of time trying to decide how to respond and who should wield power. Harry Potter seldom does that, from what I can recall: Harry is destined from birth. I don’t appear destined from birth to do much of anything; neither does anyone else (more on that below).

Robin Hanson says something similar to the preceding paragraph in “Beware Morality Porn:”

[. . .] movies usually focus more on whether characters have the strength of will to do what is obviously right than on whether they have the wisdom to discern what is right. And movie characters rarely have to choose between the praise of associates and doing the right thing – key associates usually support doing the right thing.

He uses Lord of the Rings as an example, although I don’t think it’s as appropriate as some others. The book version of The Lord of the Rings makes a point of showing how Aragorn, Gandalf, and other “good” characters work to limit their own power and define what the “right” thing is, beyond the defeat of Sauron. In the past, the Elves and Númenóreans repeatedly treated with Sauron, to their detriment. It’s not completely obvious what the “right” thing to do is: in the “Council of Elrond” chapter in The Fellowship of the Ring, proposals about using the Ring against Sauron are debated. It’s true that, by the time we get to The Fellowship of the Ring, it’s pretty clear Sauron’s the bad guy, but only because of past book-time experiences with him.

As mentioned above, I think movies and books have a larger problem (and one that, if I recall correctly, Harry Potter does address to some extent): virtually no one is “destined” to do anything. People who accomplish major deeds often just have the right combination of circumstances, luck, tenacity, and ability. Arguably only the last two are influenced by the person themselves. Taken together, the problems with pre-destiny and automatic right/wrong might go under the header of “sophistication.” More sophisticated novels (or movies) will tend to recognize and/or deal with these problems. Less sophisticated novels (or movies) won’t.


If you’re interested in Harry Potter, A.S. Byatt’s “Harry Potter and the Childish Adult” is worth reading.

Rereading A.S. Byatt's Possession: A Romance

The key moment in A.S. Byatt’s Possession: A Romance comes when Roland Mitchell, a prematurely desiccated academic, wonders why he might have stolen letters written by an invented 19th Century poet from the British Library. In explaining why, he says, “Because they were alive. They seemed urgent[….]” Nothing else in his life does, which straddles comedy and sadness. The act propels the action of the novel as well as a return of urgency and of discovery to his own life, implying that when we lack such attributes, we begin to die ourselves.

I’ve previously discussed Possession here), and the novel concerns academics who begin emotionally dead, and their intellects are perilously close to the same state. The key to their resurrection—their return to what one might skeptically call “the real world”—comes in an act of very minor theft by Roland. It’s out of character but brings him rolling to a beautiful academic, to a secret, and to the double discovery of his own romance and of someone else’s. Tracing the path of another person’s romance teaches him how to live his own; without that signal, perhaps he would remain among the academic undead, or the undead more generally. A rare forbidden act—sex has lost its forbiddenness, so theft of an academic nature will have to do—has a rejuvenating effect, reminding us of the limits and limiting nature of bounds and boundaries, sexual, textual, and otherwise. For a novel that is composed heavily of invented texts, stealing carries a larger moral rigor that it might otherwise not, and it helps Roland see his own life and work in way that is, again, finally, urgent.

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