Tuesday, 16 May 2017

In the Days of the Comet (1906)


This is minor Wells, if we're honest: a broken-backed twofer of social realism and utopian extrapolation. The novel's premise is simple: ‘one of the largest comets this world has ever seen’ [1.1.2] is on course to pass close by the Earth. The first of the novel's three sections describes its approach, from ‘a greenish-white apparition in the dark blue deeps ... brighter than the moon because it was smaller’ [1.2:7] to a huge phosphorescent presence in the night sky:
Its greenish white illumination banished the realities of day, diffused a bright ghostliness over all things. It changed the starless sky about it to an extraordinary deep blue, the profoundest color in the world, such as I have never seen before or since ... It turned our ugly English industrial towns to phantom cities. Everywhere the local authorities discontinued street lighting—one could read small print in the glare. [Days of the Comet, 1.5.1]
But the narrator of the novel, Willie Leadford, is barely interested in the comet as it approaches, because his whole life is consumed by an unhappy love affair. Leadford narrates, looking back as an old man, with an unsparing eye for his youthful arrogance, anger and stupidity, as well as a careful descriptive attentiveness to the qualia of his lower-middle-class life. He is a clerk, sharing a rundown rented bedsit in the Potteries with his mother, and in love with beautiful Nettie Stuart, the daughter of the head gardener of a local upper-class widow, Mrs Verrall. But Leadford treats Nettie in a priggishly high-handed way, and she runs off with Mrs Verrall's young son, the handsome young aristocrat Edward Verrall. As the lovers do not plan to marry, this elopement causes a small scandal, but it is as nothing compared to the murderous rage that overwhelms Leadford. He steals some money, buys a pistol and goes after both Nettie and Verrall determined to kill them both.

As he tracks them down to their love-nest in the seaside resort of Shaphambury, war between Germany and Britain grows ever closer. The climax of Part One of the novel is set, with the comet looming brightly even in daylight, against the backdrop of a naval battle in the North Sea, visible from the beach at Shaphambury: the HMS Lord Warden and the German battleship Rother Adler both sink with the loss of thousands of lives. Leadford finally catches up with Nettie and Verrall and chases them across the seaside golf links, shooting his gun at them and missing, until the comet enters the Earth's atmosphere and disintegrates, spreading a soporific green mist over everything. Leadford sleeps and when he awake he and the entire world have changed for the better:
The whole world of living things had been overtaken by the same tide of insensibility; in an hour, at the touch of this new gas in the comet, the shiver of catalytic change had passed about the globe. They say it was the nitrogen of the air, the old azote, that in the twinkling of an eye was changed out of itself, and in an hour or so became a respirable gas, differing indeed from oxygen, but helping and sustaining its action, a bath of strength and healing for nerve and brain. I do not know the precise changes that occurred, nor the names our chemists give them, my work has carried me away from such things, only this I know—I and all men were renewed. [Days of the Comet, 2.1.1.]
And with this rather gloriously shameless handwave, Wells ushers in his Utopia. Leadford no longer wishes to kill, and can't remember why he ever did. Everyone has changed. The human faults that poisoned the world—which Wells boils down to variants of a cluster of related fundamental flaws, possessiveness, anger and pride—vanish. Over the remainder of the novel humankind pulls down the old world and rebuilds a more egalitarian, cleaner and more beautiful society. All the old housing stock is demolished, and new, improved communal living blocks erected; shoddy goods are destroyed and fine new gear supplied to all; war is a thing of the past, as is money, everyone has the opportunity for happiness and self-fulfilment and, if you'll excuse me sounding dismissive, so on, and so on, and so forth.

Part 2 sees Leadford embracing and blessing Nettie and Verrall, and apologising for trying to murder them. Nettie proposes he join them in a ménage à trois, but Leadford is not yet ready for such sexual latitude. Instead he becomes the private secretary of prominent politician Lord Melmount, whom he chanced upon out on the golf links. From this position Leadford is able to observe how the world is reconfigured after ‘the Change’, the world's politicians collaborating to facilitate the renewal. The novel lays all this out in numbing detail. Finally Part 3 returns to the question of the ménage à trois: Leadford cares for his elderly mother, and when she dies [Wells's own mother Sarah died 12th June 1905, as the novel was being drafted] he marries a woman called Anna Reeves and has a son with her. But his love for Nettie does not diminish, and four years later they meet up once more, whereupon Anna, he, Nettie and Verrall enter into a ménage à quatre.

The starkness of the difference between Part 1 and the linked Parts-2-and-3 has to do with more than content. Or more precisely, as the content plots a path ever further into the broad sunlit uplands of Wells's imagined future-world, the form of the novel sinks into a combined bathos of dullness and narrative lethargy. Before is a world of seedy compromise, frustration and anger, where After is a glorious utopia; which is another way of saying that Before is dramatically engaging and vivid and After fictively rootless and inert.

Following on from the academic speculation of Anticipations and Mankind in the Making, and the experiment in laminating narrative and utopian exposition of A Modern Utopia, Days of the Comet tries something different: a stark juxtaposition of two fundamentally different modes of text. I'd like to praise the boldness of this, and would, if the reading pleasure didn't decline so markedly once the comet has come. All changed, changed utterly, a terrible duty is born.


Comets have, as everybody knows, long been thought to presage disaster, or at least upheaval and change, in the mundane world. The idea that a comet might actually collide with the Earth is a more recent idea, dependent on the realisation that comets are not purely celestial signs, but rather material bodies orbiting the sun like the planets, moons and other asteroids, and therefore as liable to impact as any other solid object. Simon Schaffer dates this latter apprehension to the end of the eighteenth-century:
In 1773 the whole of Paris was terrified to learn that a leading astronomer of the Royal Academy of Sciences was seriously discussing whether a comet might crash into the Earth. In Normandy pregnant women suffered still-births; Voltaire wrote a satirical poem mocking those citizens who had fled the city in terror. This comet scare recurred 18 years later, during the middle of a more obviously terrifying revolution in France. We might recall the effect of Orson Welles’s broadcast of War of the Worlds in the 1930s, which brought New Yorkers out of their homes and scurrying across the Hudson into New Jersey.
Schaffer might have gone further: another comet scare alarmed the world in 1857—The Great Comet, Now Rapidly Approaching, Will It Strike the Earth? (1857) was only one of many pamphlets and articles it occasioned (that anonymously authored book subtitles itself ‘an Historical Philosophical and Prophetical Inquiry into the Probability of a Collision and the Consequent “End of All Things” at this Epoch of the World’s History’). And in 1874 Coggia's Comet passed within 40 million km of the earth (close!) and became, accordingly, very bright in the sky, with an enormous double-tail reported to stretch 60° across the night-time field of view. Anxieties were expressed that even if the comet missed the Earth its tail might sweep disastrously over us, which is the notion Wells himself takes up in Days. It was Coggia's comet that was the first to be subjected to spectroscopic analysis, another feature Wells draws on for his novel; and Wells insistence that his own comet has two tails may reflect the double-tail observed on Coggia (although Wells orients his two tails differently: ‘astronomers talked of its double tail, one preceding it and one trailing behind it, but these were foreshortened to nothing, so that it had rather the form of a bellying puff of luminous smoke with an intenser, brighter heart’ [1.3.3]).

That's an image from Sir Robert Stawell Ball's The Story of the Heavens (1893), and very attractive it is too. 1905, when Wells was writing, the return of Halley's comet, only five years away, was eagerly anticipated. Why do we get so het up over these objects? Well, Schaffer's point above, of course, is that the semiology of comets has been about social anxiety and upheaval since the memory of man goeth not to the contrary, but that a new materialist age needs to literalise that anxiety in terms of physical collision—the French Revolutionary context for the 1791 impact panic for instance.

Which is to say: modern comets figure as modern sorts of Revolution: and the ‘vapours’ it intermixes with Earth's atmosphere represent a sort of abdication of political agency as such, a deus ex machina short-circuiting of all the tedious business of actual reform. The old, old stumbling block for utopian thinkers is human nature itself, and previous utopias tended to argue either that human nature would slowly evolve into something better once the material conditions of existence had been sorted out, or else that human nature might not alter but an (often militaristic) reorganisation of society would better able to control and restrain our baser instincts, to everyone's mutual benefit. In the Days of the Comet fast-forwards the former approach, and its most radical innovation is also the ground of its weakness as a novel—because Wells construes all those failings in human nature as various iterations not only of possessiveness, but specifically of sexual possessiveness.

One problem with this is that Wells's post-Comet free love falls between too stools: too shocking for Wells's contemporaries, but too mealy-mouthed and tame for 21st-century sensibilities. We're entitled to wish Wells had had the courage of his convictions instead of having Leadford, in a patent sop to Edwardian sexual mores, piously repudiating the offer of sharing Nettie with Verrall. What happens in Part 3 is that Leadford goes back to care for his elderly mother, grieves her passing, marries Anna and has a son, and only then, having demonstrated the priority familial duty has over the promptings of his cock, does he change his mind and open himself to multiple sexual relations. But it is very odd that cometary vapours strong enough instantly to do away with his literally murderous erotic jealousy, were simultaneously too weak to dent his conventional sexual pudeur. ‘I thought of Nettie much,’ Leadford tells us, ‘and always movingly beautiful things restored me to her, all fine music, all pure deep color, all tender and solemn things. The stars were hers, and the mystery of moonlight; the sun she wore in her hair, powdered finely, beaten into gleams and threads of sunlight in the wisps and strands of her hair.’ [3.3.4.] Which is about as sexy as a Thomas Kinkade landscape. There are reasons for this, I think, which I discuss below.

Finally there is the book's epilogue, a sort of punchline to the whole novel that, as punchlines tend to do, demeans what has gone before. Wells stages a dialogue between a narratorial voice adopting 1905 sexual sensibilities and Leadford, now an old man, which results in a fatally hesitant sort-of affirmation of free love.
I felt a subtle embarrassment in putting the question that perplexed me. And yet it seemed so material to me I had to put it. “And did you—?” I asked. “Were you—lovers?”

His eyebrows rose. “Of course.”

“But your wife—?”

It was manifest he did not understand me.

I hesitated still more. I was perplexed by a conviction of baseness.

“But—” I began. “You remained lovers?”

“Yes.” I had grave doubts if I understood him. Or he me.

I made a still more courageous attempt. “And had Nettie no other lovers?”

“A beautiful woman like that! I know not how many loved beauty in her, nor what she found in others. But we four from that time were very close, you understand, we were friends, helpers, personal lovers in a world of lovers.”


“There was Verrall.”

Then suddenly it came to me that the thoughts that stirred in my mind were sinister and base, that the queer suspicions, the coarseness and coarse jealousies of my old world were over and done for these more finely living souls. “You made,” I said, trying to be liberal minded, “a home together.” [Days of the Comet, ‘Epilogue’]
If this was designed to inoculate the book against scandal it failed: ‘in letting his obsession with polygamous relationships erupt openly into his fiction,’ Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie note, ‘H. G. was running a considerable risk.’ Various organisations dedicated to preserving public morals, including the YWCA, Salvation Army and ‘Anti-Vice and White Slavery’ campaigners took against the book, reviewers were haughty (‘Socialistic mens' wives, we gather,’ bloviated the Times Literary Supplement's book reviewer, ‘are, no less than their goods, to be held in common’) and the whole affair damaged Wells place in the Fabians. Hubert Bland (no acolyte of marital chastity in his own private life, of course) insisted that the Fabian public reputation would be badly damaged if it became associated with ‘Free Love’, and any such advocates might have to be expelled from the organisation: ‘we had to do that with the Anarchists,’ Bland wrote to Edward Pease on the 14th October 1906 after hearing Wells talk on the subject; ‘and we may have to do that with the Free Lovers.’ Four days later Beatrice Webb wrote in her diary:
In the Days of the Comet ends with a glowing anticipation of promiscuity in sexual relationships ... [but] H G Wells is, I believe, merely gambling with the idea of free love—throwing it out to see what sort of reception it gets—without responsibility for its effect on the character of the hearers. It is this recklessness that makes Sidney dislike him.
In the end In the Days of the Comet became neither a succès nor even a succès de scandale. Whilst it wasn't a complete flop (it went to a second printing before the year was out) its relative failure depressed Wells; Shaw wrote to friends noting his ‘moroseness and discontent’. Wells never tried this particular literary experiment again.


That's a shame, though: because, sex aside, there is something innovative in the make-up of Days of the Comet. And I must say I feel justified in putting the sex aside. This is a singularly unsexy novel, especially given that its vision of Utopia involves everyone becoming, in effect, a swinger. But when I put it like that you can see that I'm misrepresenting Wells's project. It is true that he sees utopian jouissance in erotic as well as sociopolitical terms, and indeed that is true of most of what he writes in the first decade of the 20th-century. But I think In the Days of the Comet styles sex less as intercourse and more as a kind of existential cleanness.

Part of this is the zeal of the recent convert to practical promiscuity, as Wells was at this time: the desire to assert forcefully that sex is not, as the prudes say it is, dirty. This, I think, is why Nettie is called Nettie; not (as Chris Fern argues) because she functions as a kind of ‘net’ or trap for Leadford; but on the contrary because Wells thinks her desire for him, and his for hers, clean.

But part of this is a more interesting interrogation of the correlation of property and (sexual) propriety. Leadford's murderous fury in Part 1 is entirely a function of his sense, shown throughout the novel to be both wrongheaded and pathological, that he owns Nettie. And the passage from grubby Before to Utopian After in the novel is marked by literal bonfires of vanities, the vanities in this case being the myriad shoddy items of personal property that define 20th-century us. This is the new ceremony of Beltane, the ‘ten great rubbish burnings that opened the new age’:
Young people nowadays can scarcely hope to imagine the enormous quantities of pure litter and useless accumulation with which we had to deal; had we not set aside a special day and season, the whole world would have been an incessant reek of small fires; and it was, I think, a happy idea to revive this ancient festival of the May and November burnings. ... Endless were the things we had to destroy in those great purgings. First, there were nearly all the houses and buildings of the old time. In the end we did not save in England one building in five thousand that was standing when the comet came. Year by year, as we made our homes afresh in accordance with the saner needs of our new social families, we swept away more and more of those horrible structures, the ancient residential houses, hastily built, without imagination, without beauty, without common honesty, without even comfort or convenience, in which the early twentieth century had sheltered until scarcely one remained; we saved nothing but what was beautiful or interesting out of all their gaunt and melancholy abundance. The actual houses, of course, we could not drag to our fires, but we brought all their ill-fitting deal doors, their dreadful window sashes, their servant-tormenting staircases, their dank, dark cupboards, the verminous papers from their scaly walls, their dust and dirt-sodden carpets, their ill-designed and yet pretentious tables and chairs, sideboards and chests of drawers, the old dirt-saturated books, their ornaments—their dirty, decayed, and altogether painful ornaments—amidst which I remember there were sometimes even stuffed dead birds!—we burnt them all. The paint-plastered woodwork, with coat above coat of nasty paint, that in particular blazed finely. I have already tried to give you an impression of old-world furniture, of Parload's bedroom, my mother's room, Mr. Gabbitas's sitting-room, but, thank Heaven! there is nothing in life now to convey the peculiar dinginess of it all. For one thing, there is no more imperfect combustion of coal going on everywhere, and no roadways like grassless open scars along the earth from which dust pours out perpetually. We burnt and destroyed most of our private buildings and all the woodwork, all our furniture, except a few score thousand pieces of distinct and intentional beauty, from which our present forms have developed, nearly all our hangings and carpets, and also we destroyed almost every scrap of old-world clothing. Only a few carefully disinfected types and vestiges of that remain now in our museums ... I have mentioned, I think, the part my own boots played in the squalid drama of my adolescence. I had a sense of unholy triumph over a fallen enemy when at last I found myself steering truck after truck of cheap boots and shoes (unsold stock from Swathinglea) to the run-off by the top of the Glanville blast furnaces. [Days of the Comet, 3.3.1]
This does have, I think, an uncomfortably Pol-Potian ‘Year Zero’ quality to a modern reader, but what I'm suggesting here is that it needs to be read as a conscious parallel to the passages with which the novel opens, and in which Leadford itemises in exhaustive, and -ing, detail the crappy things he used to own:
Let me describe this room to you in detail. It was perhaps eight feet by seven in area and rather higher than either of these dimensions; the ceiling was of plaster, cracked and bulging in places, gray with the soot of the lamp, and in one place discolored by a system of yellow and olive-green stains caused by the percolation of damp from above. The walls were covered with dun-colored paper, upon which had been printed in oblique reiteration a crimson shape, something of the nature of a curly ostrich feather, or an acanthus flower, that had in its less faded moments a sort of dingy gaiety. There were several big plaster-rimmed wounds in this, caused by Parload [the landlord]'s ineffectual attempts to get nails into the wall, whereby there might hang pictures. One nail had hit between two bricks and got home, and from this depended, sustained a little insecurely by frayed and knotted blind-cord, Parload's hanging bookshelves, planks painted over with a treacly blue enamel and further decorated by a fringe of pinked American cloth insecurely fixed by tacks. Below this was a little table that behaved with a mulish vindictiveness to any knee that was thrust beneath it suddenly; it was covered with a cloth whose pattern of red and black had been rendered less monotonous by the accidents of Parload's versatile ink bottle, and on it, leit motif of the whole, stood and stank the lamp. This lamp, you must understand, was of some whitish translucent substance that was neither china nor glass, it had a shade of the same substance, a shade that did not protect the eyes of a reader in any measure, and it seemed admirably adapted to bring into pitiless prominence the fact that, after the lamp's trimming, dust and paraffin had been smeared over its exterior with a reckless generosity.

The uneven floor boards of this apartment were covered with scratched enamel of chocolate hue, on which a small island of frayed carpet dimly blossomed in the dust and shadows.

There was a very small grate, made of cast-iron in one piece and painted buff, and a still smaller misfit of a cast-iron fender that confessed the gray stone of the hearth. No fire was laid, only a few scraps of torn paper and the bowl of a broken corn-cob pipe were visible behind the bars, and in the corner and rather thrust away was an angular japanned coal-box with a damaged hinge. It was the custom in those days to warm every room separately from a separate fireplace, more prolific of dirt than heat, and the rickety sash window, the small chimney, and the loose-fitting door were expected to organize the ventilation of the room among themselves without any further direction.

Parload's truckle bed hid its gray sheets beneath an old patchwork counterpane on one side of the room, and veiled his boxes and suchlike oddments, and invading the two corners of the window were an old whatnot and the washhandstand, on which were distributed the simple appliances of his toilet.

This washhandstand had been made of deal by some one with an excess of turnery appliances in a hurry, who had tried to distract attention from the rough economies of his workmanship by an arresting ornamentation of blobs and bulbs upon the joints and legs. Apparently the piece had then been placed in the hands of some person of infinite leisure equipped with a pot of ocherous paint, varnish, and a set of flexible combs. This person had first painted the article, then, I fancy, smeared it with varnish, and then sat down to work with the combs to streak and comb the varnish into a weird imitation of the grain of some nightmare timber. The washhandstand so made had evidently had a prolonged career of violent use, had been chipped, kicked, splintered, punched, stained, scorched, hammered, desiccated, damped, and defiled, had met indeed with almost every possible adventure except a conflagration or a scrubbing, until at last it had come to this high refuge of Parload's attic to sustain the simple requirements of Parload's personal cleanliness. There were, in chief, a basin and a jug of water and a slop-pail of tin, and, further, a piece of yellow soap in a tray, a tooth-brush, a rat-tailed shaving brush, one huckaback towel, and one or two other minor articles. In those days only very prosperous people had more than such an equipage, and it is to be remarked that every drop of water Parload used had to be carried by an unfortunate servant girl,—the “slavey,” Parload called her—up from the basement to the top of the house and subsequently down again. Already we begin to forget how modern an invention is personal cleanliness. It is a fact that Parload had never stripped for a swim in his life; never had a simultaneous bath all over his body since his childhood. Not one in fifty of us did in the days of which I am telling you.

A chest, also singularly grained and streaked, of two large and two small drawers, held Parload's reserve of garments, and pegs on the door carried his two hats and completed this inventory of a "bed-sitting-room" as I knew it before the Change. But I had forgotten—there was also a chair with a "squab" that apologized inadequately for the defects of its cane seat. I forgot that for the moment because I was sitting on the chair on the occasion that best begins this story. [Days of the Comet, 1.1.1.]
This clutter externalises and embodies all that must be swept away, destroyed by fire, for the new Utopia to come into being. Society must be de-propertied to become clean enough for the new order, and all these petty things are objets-petit-a to the grand A of sexual possessiveness. We need, Wells is saying, to break the habit of feeling possessive about things so that we break the habit of being possessive about people, because once we reach the latter condition we shall have Utopia.

We're entitled to doubt that last idea, I think; although I don't know—maybe there's something in it. Still: that lengthy passage from the opening chapter of the novel I just quoted points us down a more interesting avenue of interpretation than whether Wells's Utopian speculations were correct or not on the level of content: towards a reading that considers the form of this novel. This may be its most interesting aspect.

Look again at the passage: wallpaper and chairs and tables and slop-pails and toothbrushes and shaving paraphernalia, all minutely itemised. That particular textual strategy is drawn directly from the traditions of nineteenth-century Realist writing. It's the sort of thing that we find all the time in Zola's novels, for instance: Zolaesque; the novel offers great scads of closely observed and specific detail about the world, and thereby troweling-on a sort of thickness of verisimilitude (it’s one of the things Joyce parodies so nicely in Ulysses). One example from many: this passage from Chapter 3 of Zola's Le Ventre de Paris in which seafood is unloaded for sale at Les Halles:
The deep-lying forests of seaweed, in which the mysterious life of the ocean slumbers, seemed at one haul of the nets to have yielded up all they contained. There were cod, keeling, whiting, flounders, plaice, dabs, and other sorts of common fish of a dingy grey with whitish splotches; there were conger-eels, huge serpent-like creatures, with small black eyes and muddy, bluish skins, so slimy that they still seemed to be gliding along, yet alive. There were broad flat skate with pale undersides edged with a soft red, and superb backs bumpy with vertebrae, and marbled down to the tautly stretched ribs of their fins with splotches of cinnabar, intersected by streaks of the tint of Florentine bronze—a dark medley of colour suggestive of the hues of a toad or some poisonous flower. Then, too, there were hideous dog-fish, with round heads, widely-gaping mouths like those of Chinese idols, and short fins like bats' wings; fit monsters to keep yelping guard over the treasures of the ocean grottoes. And next came the finer fish, displayed singly on the osier trays; salmon that gleamed like chased silver, every scale seemingly outlined by a graving-tool on a polished metal surface; mullet with larger scales and coarser markings; large turbot and huge brill with firm flesh white like curdled milk; tunny-fish, smooth and glossy, like bags of blackish leather; and rounded bass, with widely gaping mouths which a soul too large for the body seemed to have rent asunder as it forced its way out amidst the stupefaction of death. And on all sides there were sole, brown and grey, in pairs; sand-eels, slim and stiff, like shavings of pewter; herrings, slightly twisted, with bleeding gills showing on their silver-worked skins; fat dories tinged with just a suspicion of carmine; burnished mackerel with green-streaked backs, and sides gleaming with ever-changing iridescence; and rosy gurnets with white bellies, their head towards the centre of the baskets and their tails radiating all around, so that they simulated some strange florescence splotched with pearly white and brilliant vermilion. There were rock mullet, too, with delicious flesh, flushed with the pinky tinge peculiar to the Cyprinus family; boxes of whiting with opaline reflections; and baskets of smelts—neat little baskets, pretty as those used for strawberries, and exhaling a strong scent of violets. And meantime the tiny black eyes of the shrimps dotted as with beads of jet their soft-toned mass of pink and grey; and spiny crawfish and lobsters striped with black, all still alive, raised a grating sound as they tried to crawl along with their broken claws.
In his recent The Antinomies of Realism (2013) Fredric Jameson discusses these sorts of great itemisations of things as ‘the new autonomization of the sensory’ which ‘here first emerges in Zola’; a particular moment in the later 19th-century when ‘the realm of the visual begins to separate from the verbal’ and ‘to float away in a new kind of autonomy’ [Jameson, 55]. Wells is doing something akin to this, by using the mass of textually described quotidiana as an index to a kind of low-rent reification of lived experience in order to destroy all such autonomization in a new Utopian mode of the authentic sensory life.

Now Jameson's book (which, incidentally, I discuss at length in this series of posts) positions its whole, wide-ranging argument on the distinction it establishes in its first chapter, ‘The Twin Sources of Realism: the Narrative Impulse’. Jameson distinguishes between récit and roman, the former a ‘tale, whose events are already over and done with before the telling of it can begin’, the latter defined via Sartre as re-establishing ‘the open present of freedom, the present of an open undecided future.’ [Jameson, 9] And that's quite a useful way of thinking of the relationship between the pre-comet and post-comet portions of Wells's novel: instead of choosing between between roman and récit it does both, associating the clogged dissociation of roman with the pre-Comet world and shifting register to a cleaner récit for the passages about Utopia.

I'm not pretending Wells's experiment works, exactly; but I do think it is an experiment worth undertaking. What tangles it, I suspect, is (to return to what I was saying earlier) the sex. Because howevermuch Wells thought he yearned for clean unencumbered sex—for, we might say, sex-as-récit—human beings are actually much more invested in the roman of their sex lives than they are in the mere mechanics of doing it. That roman may be cluttered, over-long, it may even be conflicted or buried or Henry-James-opaque, but that's still where we are invested, erotically and emotionally. It's also surely true that this sort of erotic sensibility connects with our understanding of time, narrativised or otherwise. In saying so I'm picking up from the way Jameson connects his two modes, récit and roman, to two particular modes of time:
... to distinguish two kinds of time, two systems of temporality, which will be the basis for the argument that follows. The distinction is one between a present of consciousness and a time, if not of succession or of chronology, then at least of the more familiar tripartite structure of past-present-future. [Jameson, 24]
It's not that Jameson thinks that ‘consciousness’ exists in some magic space outside past-present-future, but rather that there is an apprehension of time, accessible in art, that transcends the mundanity of clock-time, an open-ended expression of being that generates what Jameson calls affect: a feeling ‘nameless and unclassifiable’ [33] that is somatic (‘the senses are mobilised' [33]) although one which ‘seems to have no context, but to float above experience without causes’ [35]. Jameson aligns this with ‘impressionism and post-impressionism in painting, the Wagnerian revolution in music’ [42]. Old fashioned récit-based emotions are like Beethoven’s sonata form, he suggests; affect is like Wagner’s sonic chromatism.

Now, as I've argued elsewhere, this strikes me as largerly a matter of reinventing-the-wheel, a version of Frank Kermode’s ‘chronos’ and ‘kairos’ from Sense of an Ending (1967)—and what a great book that is, always worth a re-read. So: chronos is Kermode's term for mundane time, ordinary time, time as one-thing-after-another; and kairos is his word for the right time, the special or transcendent moment, the Wordsworthian spot-of-time or Joycean intensity.

My point here is that the main reason sex matters to so many of us is because it gifts us moments of kairos in lives otherwise determined by chronos: the school run, the job, clocking on, clocking off, fifty weeks in the year. Nor would I wish to underestimate the importance of that. And it connects with Jameson's point about affect and Le Réalisme: Madame Bovary is an immeasurably sexier novel, after all, than anything by Smollett; Tolstoy's Natasha vastly more desirable than Richardson's Pamela. Human sexual desire cannot stand too much cleanness, is the truth of it. It's the old Woody Allen joke: ‘my analyst asked me if I thought sex was dirty. I told him: only if it's done right.’

The formal structure of this novel pulls hard against Wells's sexual utopia: because In the Days of the Comet, counter-intuitively, defines its pre-Comet dystopian world in terms of a kind of dark kairos of murderous quasi-erotic intensity, where the post-Comet world falls back into a bland chronos of logical improvements to human quality of life, and social cleanness and rational sexual openness. And when you think about it, that really is the wrong way about. In the Days of the Comet is a novel front-loaded with Jamesonian affect that shifts abruptly into a novel of chronos that drains away all kairos intensity at precisely the moment when the project of the book needs it most. It makes you want to say: Bertie, récit down, you're rocking the boat. Or not rocking it enough.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

In the Night of the Comet (2017)

In the Night of the Comet

A Sequel to H. G. Wells’s In the Days of the Comet

1. How I Came to the Greenhouse

How I came to the Greenhouse is less of a mystery than how, or why, and whether advertently or not, I shut the Greenhouse door behind me after entering. That I did so is fortunate, no doubt—though it seems almost blasphemous to speak of good fortune in these latter days. All good fortune has vanished into the last night of humankind, and the only luck that remains us us poisoned. Still: here I am.

It has taken me several days to piece back together the torn-up fragments of my human mind, and several days more to resolve to write down what I can remember. For whom? I know not. But it is better to be occupied, most especially at night, when I interleave writing (by the light of the lavatory) with peering through the glass at the darkness without.

I do not intend to waste the little paper I possess on a detailed account of my early existence. My father, who recalled the years before the coming of the comet—before, that is, the coming of the first comet—spoke of the dark ages as dreadful but interesting, and contrasted them with the world remade into which I was born and in which I grew to manhood: a place of endless possibilities, sane and healthy and clean in ways that had never been true before in the whole history of humanity—yet, uninteresting, at least to a storyteller. The old stories, which the people of my generation read as historical curios, are full of incident, and drama, and conflict; and after the comet came all that dissolved away, and people lived together in harmony.

No longer.

More relevant to this story are my immediate memories of the coming of the second comet, and here I fear I shall disappoint, for it is hard for me to recall, and what I can recall is too horrific to be speakable. Suffice to say: I was a composer, among other things (as all our people distributed their energies into many things) and was overseeing the performance of an oratorio in the Great City of the Midlands. The second comet had been seen in the skies for many weeks, of course, and its arrival greatly anticipated. If the first comet had produced such miraculous changes in the ways of human society, then what might the second bring? I knew people who anticipated actual transcendence with the second comet: that our souls would sublime out of their mortal sheathes, that we should become as gods, or move to inhabit a purely spiritual dimension. Most took a more pragmatic line: there was no chance this second comet would pass as close to the Earth as the first, they said—the odds against a second close-approach, give the randomness of cosmic gravitational physics, were so vast as to be beneath notice. No: the consensus was that this second comet would miss the Earth by a wide space, and pass away on through the shoreless infinite.

Of course, we were wrong. It passed by as close as the first comet, and, as with that first comet, its tail mingled its gases with our atmosphere. The effect of this second encounter on the world, though, was quite different to the first. Whatever the ingredient that the first comet’s tail added to our collective atmosphere, this second comet brought something new, and it altered us all in quite another manner.

I cannot guess how long I was like the others. I think back to that time only with difficulty, and to do so requires me to overcome a profound sense of revulsion at what I did—at what I became. Perhaps it was a week: my clothes, though certainly torn and defiled with dirt, are not so decayed as would perhaps have been the case had the time-period been longer. I can recall a confused sense of purely animal drive—a bestial fear of the city, a bestial hunger for human flesh. My memory is a bewildering succession of stimuli that present themselves to me as having happened all at once, but must have involved chronological development. Fleeing the city with a dread deep in my stomach at that place—fleeing along with the thousands of human beings, leaving its electric lights and clean streets empty. Human beings? No, no. Human beings no longer. Dispersing, as all of humanity did, into the countryside—to copses and the shrubland, to woods and the deep forest. And here the chaos of memory is even hard to sort into logical succession: I was hunted by others, and fled in terror, prompted by an atavistic sense of self-preservation. I hunted others, and pursued them with a doggedness bred of a deeper sort of hunger than any I had felt before. In my mind as I think of it now, the two experiences are somehow the same experience—though of course they must have happened at different periods. I recall grappling with a larger individual, male or female I could not say, grappling for my very life, and escaping with gashes to my arm and neck that are still visible to me as I write. I recall hiding, panting, in shadow-tangled undergrowth beneath an indifferent moon. I recall tearing with my nails and biting with my teeth, chewing living human flesh with a terrible avidity. I recall how sweet it felt to have those juices wet my face, and how the screams of the victim added piquancy to the meal.

I do not recall why I came to the Greenhouse, but I daresay I was drawn by its illumination. The bright lights of the city repelled me—I know not why—as did the hideous solidity of the buildings, the artificial cañons of the streets, spires reaching up to prick the sky itself. All that filled me with a nameless terror, and I fled, as did we all. But there was something about the gleam of the lights from the Greenhouse, out on the edge of the woodland, that drew me. It was night, I think. The glass shone with a green-tinted glow that made me think not of the horrors of artificiality but of a new daylight. At any rate, like a moth I came, and smacked against the glass, and somehow found the door, and not only came through it but (mirabile!) closed it behind me. And here my human memories begin, like unto waking from a troubled sleep.

For a long time I lay. Eventually I was able to sit up. I tried to piece together where I was, and what my surroundings meant. I saw the ranks and ranks of growing plants and a tremor of the old terror passed through me, for these reminded me of city streets. I saw the tendrils of the tomato plants and the great globed scarlet fruit that depended from them, and—just for an instant—I saw giant skeleton fingers dropping vast droplets of blood. And then my sight adjusted, and I saw the dimensions of my sanctuary, and the blameless food being grown therein.

I tried to calm my breathing—to gather myself. But how widely scattered had been the pieces that once construed my consciousness and memory, my morals and humanity! It took a while. The hammering of my blood through my inner ear settled to a rhythmic slush, my heart caught hold of its gallop and slowed to a trot. The distinct hum, as the automatic machinery soothed me. The lights overhead fizzed faintly.

Out of the chaos of recent memory came a sense of myself as a person again—a man. A young man. The recollection of music returned to me, and the faces of my family, and with them a sense, as of a mode of memorious neuralgia, of the savagery I had been recently committing. Was the whole of humanity reduced abruptly to the level of unthinking cannibal brutes? Had the second comet truly affected such a change? It was nightmare to imagine it, and worse than nightmare to return to it in memory.

2. Life in the Greenhouse

After a while I returned enough to myself to be able to explore the facility. It was clean, and efficiently laid out, powered by one of the newer deigns of generators that our recent age of Utopian harmony had developed:—lit through the night to double the productive capacity. Automatic trimmers shaved overgrowth from the rims of the various tubs and beds, and a system of overhead rails indicated where the the automated punnets would run to effect the harvest. There were, nonetheless, signs everywhere of neglect—places where the lack of the hand of a human gardener was manifest, the want of this, the irregular presence of that, various spots of disease or other absence. How long had it been since a human being had walked these aisles? Weeks? Or months?

I found a toilet facility and examined my face in the mirror—filthy, chin blood-caked, hair a wild array—before washing and tending to my clothing as best I could. Exploring further disclosed the power plant, the chemical tanks that dosed the greenhouse air with this or that additive, and the filters. It was these latter, I assumed, that maintained the air inside at the same quality as the air before the coming of the second comet; or perhaps, I pondered (and I had a long time to ponder) some combination of filter, and the cancelling effect of some other chemicals, or combination thereof. I do not know.

What I do know is that when I tried to leave, I instantly felt the difference. Other greenhouses were visible through the wide glass, shining in the sunlight, and it did not take many days of habitation in my greenhouse for me to conceive the desire to explore them as well. My house grew tomatoes and peppers, and there were grasses and tubers growing in the soil to fertilise it that also were edible. But I began to crave variety, and wondered what other plants were in the other buildings. And so, like a fool, I went to the main door, and opened it, and peered across the distance from greenhouse to greenhouse as if I might sprint it. But at once I felt the difference in the air. I did not draw a lungful of the stuff—I only sniffed at it, as a dog might. But instantly I felt my core humanity dissolve, like a cube of sugar held between the fingers and dipped into the scalding circle of liquid at the tea-cup’s lip. It was as I imagine drunkenness must have been, in the days before the first comet came and cured humanity of such vices. The beast inside expanded, flowed down into my arms and legs, swelled my heart with a craving for raw flesh—with a hatred of the geometric shapes of the city and a yearning to roam the wildness and seek out my kind. My inner Grendel took possession of me, and I do believe that, had I not stumbled slightly as I held the door open, leaning inadvertently against it such that it swung smartly closed, I would have abandoned myself to that monster life again—gone out again into the world like a wolf to slay until I was slain.

After this small misadventure it took a half hour, by the greenhouse clock, for me fully to recover my humanity. It proved to me that I could not leave my sanctuary.

I cannot call it a prison. The design of the place included no overnight facilities for staff, but I was happy enough sleeping on a bed of folded tarpaulin. I was not cold, and indeed during the day the space grew tropical in its heat and I went naked. During the day the lights turned themselves off, and after two nights of uneasy sleep beneath the brightness of the night lights I sought out the control panel and turned them off at night as well.

It occurred to me that if I, in my former bestial state, had been drawn through the darkness by this gleaming arborial illumination then others of my kind might come afterwards, and for days I debated with myself concerning this possibility. Company would be most desirable, for I was soon acutely lonely; but would I survive the hour (let us say) it would take for an outside monster to be transformed, by breathing unadulterated air, into a companionable human being? On balance I decided not: the creature would kill and devour me before it could become again a man or woman.

Greenery curtained the windows on every side. I would part this and wipe the condensation from the glass to peer out. Indeed I spent long hours doing this, although I saw very little. The edge of the forest; the other greenhouses blazing through the night and sitting implacably during the day. Sometimes I saw animals—antelope, foxes, many birds—and twice I saw other humans, if the wraiths I saw could be so described. Ragged, bestial, one running using the heels of his hands as a gorilla might, the other pursuing on his hind legs. Through the glass I watched them, and over the hum of the machinery, I could clearly hear their howls and yelps, though they passed two hundred yards away. The denouement of this chase was, mercifully, obscured from me by bushes and undergrowth, although the rising intensity of howling, the shrieking and rending noises, suggested that the hunter had been successful.

I thought long and miserably about cosmic cruelty—the hideous arbitrariness of events, the monstrous injustice, the incalculable waste of human potential and beauty. Mankind had struggled through imperfect social structures for thousands of years, painstakingly raising itself from savagery, and erecting at last a pyramid, rotten, mostly crushing and oppressive, inefficient and often cruel. And then the first comet had come, and in an instant everything had changed—humanity had, for the first time, lost its selfish and competitive sickness, and had come together. Out of the ramshackle edifices and unplanned cities of the past we remade glorious and enduring monuments, glorious conurbations, drawn on the untapped potential of the species to advance science and technology. And now this second comet had come, and all that was cast onto the waste-heap of posterity, blasted and destroyed. How could it be? How was it fair?

But this was childish of me: for no obligation is laid upon the universe at large to be fair. Such was not the logic by which the planets orbit a star, or galaxies spin their millennial wheels. Had I believed in a God, as humanity did in the dark ages before, I might have railed against Him for His capriciousness. But all such superstition had passed from the world after the first comet came. There was no meaning to it. The dice of Reality had rolled and come up doubled-six, and now had rolled again—snake eyes I believe the phrase to be.

At night I would lie and listen. Beyond the hum of the machinery I could sometimes hear: rain stroking its million particles of freshness across the roof like unceasing applause. The hoots and moans of birds. From time to time the shrieking and howling of human beings—of what had once been human beings, bellowing like wolves. The French word loup is much more evocative of this sound than the English one. Long leashes of sound.

When I first came to the greenhouse I heard these ghastly sounds often; but the longer I stayed the less frequent they became.

Man preyed on man. Say (and as a musician I had, of course, been trained in mathematics) the population halved each night: all men Grendels chasing down and murdering their fellows, but out of each fighting pair only one survivor. Some hunts would be unsuccessful which would reduce the fraction below a half—but then again, I thought, some hunts would lead to fights in which both parties died, and that would bring the numbers back up. So: estimate a one half reduction each night. How many nights before the billions of human beings that populated our globe shrank to a mere handful? And, as I remembered from my own experience: without the intellect to care for themselves, and craving no food except other human flesh, those few left over by the cull would soon starve.

Soon, I calculated, I would be the only human left alive.

Then again, if I had stumbled into a sanctuary, then surely some others would too. But what could we do? To leave the greenhouse would be tantamount to putting a noose round my neck and leaping into the void. I spent a few days examining the machinery that maintained the greenhouse, to see if I might construct a radio and search the aether for other survivors: but I did not possess the necessary components, and was wary of tinkering too profoundly for fear of upsetting the automation that was preserving my life. And what good would it have done? A few scattered survivors, bleating their loneliness at one another across the waste and unforgiving curvature of a depopulation world? Better, surely, to stay as I was. Better perhaps just to die.

3. I Explore the Other Greenhouses

I subsisted on tomatoes and peppers, growing swiftly sick of them and craving something more proteinous—I chewed some of the green peaks of the grassier weeds, hoping they would be in some degree or another akin to wheat, though they were little alike. It was little enough, and played havoc with my digestion, turning my stool to slurry, but there was no helping it. There were some few insects in the Greenhouse with me (although not many, for my Utopian society had succeeded in growing plants naturally resistant to predation by the all insects and most segmentata) and there were, of course, worms to be dug out of the soil. For a long time I held out against the idea of eating such abject food, but eventually, my body craving something that my diet was not providing, I did. It was hardly pleasant, and that prompted me to think again of essaying some bold voyage of discovery to the other Greenhouses. Perhaps they had in them crops of potatoes!—how my mouth watered at the thought of such fare. Perhaps carrots! Cabbages, who knew?

The sounds of human depravity and cannibal savagery had so far diminished during my nights that I began to think the human world had by now deleted itself from the pages of all history—falling each upon each other’s necks, mauling and killing.

I resolved to do it. It was evident that covering the fifty yards between my greenhouse and its nearest neighbour could only be effected if I took not the merest sniff of the general global air. I did not think, as in retrospect I clearly should have done, what would have been the case had I arrived to find the second Greenhouse’s air filtration faulty. At any rate I prepared for my dash by practising holding my breath, hyperventilating to fill my blood with air (and marveling at how quickly I grew dizzy, and how long my held-breath lasted, in that oxygen-rich environment) and then sprinting up and down the aisles of my domicile. When I felt confident in my ability to cover ground without drawing breath, as per the game of kabaddhi poplar in my youth, I filled my lungs as deep as possible, clamped hand over mouth and stepped outside.

I took pains to close the door behind me, lest I needed to return, and then ran in a steady lope over the intervening ground to the next greenhouse. I was inside before I felt any urgent need to breathe again, and congratulated myself on what I had achieved. Alas, the crop in this new building was all tomatoes and red peppers too, and with the flush of success still on me I resolved immediately to run to the next Greenhouse.

This was also tomatoes and peppers, and so was the next one along, and I had almost decided to give up this game of chasing and scrambling from door to door if the next house were the same again when I noticed some new heavy fruit dangling down on a long creeper at the far end of the building in which I had just arrived. Intrigued I went down the aisle, approaching the strange and pendulous object. So little did I expect what I found that it was only when I came within the last few feet that I realised what it was.

The body of a man, hanging by its neck, its arms at its side. Its tongue was out, huge and dark, like an untucked shirt-tail, and its eyes were black as asphalt.

I started back, my terror less rational than it was superstitious and instinctual. And now that I understood what I was seeing I could smell the sickly odour of his flesh beginning to turn to putrefaction. I stepped back again, stumbled into the side of the aisle and fell backwards onto the tomato beds.

There was something hanging from the hanging man, a fold of paper tied with thread and attached to his tunic by a fastener. I picked myself up, stepped forward, took hold of this and retrieved it. Call me fool, or child, but I could not read this missive standing close beside the hanging corpse: I retreated to the furthest distant point the Greenhouse permitted me, sat on the ground, and read.

4. What the Letter Said

I know not, the letter said, who might read this; nor do I have hopes that any will. But suicide according to the old pre-Comet customs—so long superseded and done away with—called, the surviving literature from that time suggest, for a note, and having no other pressing duties to prevent me writing something, I am content to produce one,

When the second comet came and reversed all the goodness that had been worked by the first, there were three of us in this Greenhouse, having worked our way along from site to site. Our duties completed, and all unwitting of the change that had been effected without, Gaston and Hetheridge went before me to walk on to the next facility, I staying behind upon some trifling matter of maintenance. This being completed, I walked to the exit door, and was stopped by hearing a strange noise of scuffle and distress, a bestial commotion of raised voices. Looking through the glass walls I saw, with a horror and disgust I cannot put into words, Hetheridge murdering Gaston, tearing chunks of flesh from his still living body in a spray of blood and loud dissonant howls of pain—and all the time, Gaston struggling and biting at his adversary, attempting to do the same to him. When Hetheridge had finished his hideous, Bosch-like and infernal assault, and Gaston lay lifeless on the ground, he turned, saw my face through the glass and ran directly at me as a rabid dog might—wholly unrealising, it seemed, that a transparent barrier stood between us. He collided against the glass wall with tremendous force, and fell back temporarily stunned. And now the worst portion of the entire horrifying episode—for Gaston was not dead, only mauled and dismembered in the most distressing way. Heedless of his terrible injury, he dragged himself over the turf until he reached the fallen body of Hetheridge and—I shudder to write the words—tore the supine body’s throat out with his bare teeth like a wolf. He feasted for a short time, but his own wounds were too extreme, and eventually he too lay still.

I shrank from the window, hid in the lavatory as the only place of refuge that occurred to me. I was shaking with terror and with a kind of profound revulsion. I knew immediately that something dire had happened—I knew this was more than merely a sudden and coincidental psychotic aberration. I gathered myself to test my knowledge, for such is the essence of the scientist—but opening the front door of the greenhouse by the merest crack, and sniffing the air outside only a little, all but collapsed my mind into bestial savagery. The first comet had altered our atmosphere, and made us better people. This second comet had evidently altered it again and made us much, much worse.

And you, whoever you are, reading my final testimony—there is one thing it is most important you understand: my partner, and the love of my life, is as astronomer. She monitored the coming of the first comet (although in those bad old days the fact that she was a women excluded her from the best equipment and professional astronomical positions). She has monitored the coming of this second one. She told me many times that the prodigious benignity of that original comet’s arrival rendered us curiously incurious about its provenance. Why interrogate such a question, when its coming had proved so beneficial to us all? Or, she whispered to me, was that one avenue of incuriousness
also part of the admixture of chemicals, the neurological or genetic defabrictors, or whatever the agent was that so changed the world? She grew suspicious. “We must not call it comet”, she said to me. “Comets, we now know, are balls of dirty ice, their tails the blasting of sublimed water vapour under the pressure emitted by the solar wind—blowing those tails back like windsocks. The comet that changed our world was a much more gaseous nebula, and it possessed two tails, a fact of which many are unaware since neither could be seen, because both were foreshortened as we looked up at the phenomenon: one was trailing directly towards us, and the other trailing directly away. But as my partner says, no comet ever observed has manifested such a thing.

I said to her: and what does this tell you about the comet—the comet that you say I should not call comet?

And she replied: that these tails are not being blown back by the solar wind, but rather emitted from the object itself.

And I said: but what does
that mean?

And she said: only that the object is being
steered towards us. The jet projected from the far side of the object is its propellant, and its orientation must mean that the object has been directly aimed at us. The jet angled towards us is an equal but opposite jet-force, designed to slow the object during its final approach.

As she said
aimed the whole truth of the matter came clattering home to me. This first comet, as we called it, was sent by intelligences—doubtless intelligences greater than ours, though surely as mortal, and alien—implacably other and alien. My love and I discussed often why these mysterious extramundials should have been moved to act as such notable benefactors to humanity. It was her good nature that spoke in her theory, that superior evolutionary advancement must lead to superior ethical wisdom and kindness. She monitored the coming of the second comet and speculated what new virtue it would bring to humankind.

And now we see the truth.

I have pondered long, in my lonely sojourn here, as to their motivations—those They, faceless and mysterious creatures of the outer cosmic wastes. This is my conclusion: that they sent the first comet (for so I still call it) to alter us so that we should cleanse the world, and improve it. So that we should tear down our shanties and slums and rebuild gleaming cities of light and splendour. So that we should mop up our pollutions and beautify again the wild spaces of the planet. And when we had done all these things, and rendered our planet a paradise—why, then they sent the second comet, and again altered us, such that in a short space we should retreat to the woodlands and tear ourselves, literally, bloodily, to pieces. And afterwards they will come and take possession of the beautiful homes and fine facilities, and walk the levelly and cleanly paved streets, and breath the sweet air, and enjoy this world as theirs, that we have prepared for them.

Infinitely less laborious for them, such a stratagem, than fitting-out our world themselves. By tweaking out minds with a carefully prepared cocktail of neurological activators, they handle us—as a beekeeper handles bees to steal their honey. And now They want us out of the way, disposed of, removed, such that they can come here and occupy the world they covet, unmolested by its aboriginal population.

As for me—I have spent the last few days watching furtively through the windows of this Greenhouse, and seeing, from time to time, what humanity has been reduced to: feral monsters tearing one at another with their very teeth. I have seen this carnage happen, in among the trees and on the edge of the forest, with my own eyes. And the worst of it is I know that my beloved is now such a beast—if, indeed, she still lives, which is unlikely. And
that is the knowledge, more than anything, that propels me to this action. If another human being reads this, then I beg you: pity me. And if one of the Others discovers and deciphers it, makes some sense from what must be, to Them, alien sigils and hieroglyphs, then I only say: the people whose brains you poisoned, first to make them build a better world, and then to make them murder one another and leave it blank for your coming—those creatures were living and feeling and thinking beings, each one a whole universe of love and hope, and you have annihilated them with remote and cruel wickedness. I only pray that Cosmic Providence bring some Karma upon—but I lack even the energy to write a sentence motivated by resentment and despair, and grounded in no truth. It is enough, Or too much. Goodbye.

3. They Come

I could not stay in that corpse-hung place. I fled, holding my breath, to the next greenhouse along, and sat, the sight and stench of where I had come from lingering with me. And the strangest thing of all is that—for a time—I felt a sensation akin to relief. I can hardly explain it, except that perhaps it speaks to the sense that what I had taken to be mere random cosmic ill-luck was revealed as having purpose behind it, and that human beings are so constituted as to find purpose, even an evil purpose, more bearable than pure randomness.

But despair soon threatened me again. I took the dead man’s stylo and, now, in this place, I have found some paper and over the last few days I have written this brief account of my time. And all the while the image of his motionless dangling body has hovered before me, urging me like the Nightmare Life-in-Death, to imitate his desperate action and end my life.

I shall never leave this place.

At night I put out the lights, no longer because I fear I might attract the attention of feral humanity, for surely now all human beings on the planet are dead; but so as to allow me to see more clearly through the glass. I watch the skies, night after night. When I began, in my fit-and-start manner, to write this account there was little enough to see, but clouds, and the moon, and the immemorial spread of bright stardots against the velvet cold. But latterly there have been motions in the firmament. Three days ago I would have called these motions meteors, or aurorae, or perhaps some magnetic atmospheric manifestation. Tonight, though, as I sit in the lavatory, writing these words by the light of this room, it is clear what these lights are. I watched moments ago, and as I watched they coalesced into structures, and those structures sank through the darkness towards the Earth. I saw a great palace of brightness, coloured white and shining green with an undertint of glowing deep blue—saw it descend and settle onto the ground over behind the wood.

They are here—and—

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Kipps (1905)

1. Shyness

This ‘Story of a Simple Soul’ is the first bona-fide masterpiece of Wells's comic-pathetic mimetic mode. Lower-middle-class Kipps is a draper's assistant in Folkestone. His life is going nowhere until it is transformed by an out-of-the-blue inheritance of a house and £26,000, and the bulk of the novel explores his various funny and touching fish-out-of-water experiences as he tries to adjust to being so abruptly rich. The funniest and most touching of these involve his hypergamous desires (one of Anthony Burgess's favourite words, that: hypergamy is ‘bedding a woman from a class superior to one's own’). When still a draper Kipps took a woodcarving class on Thursday nights, and fell deeply and hopelessly in love with the young woman who taught it, the beautiful and refined Helen Walshingham. Now that he is rich, and since Helen happens to be financially distressed, he finds himself in a position to propose marriage. She accepts. Kipps is taken in hand by a small circle of the higher-class Folkestonites, in particular a man called Mr Coote, although there is little they can do to raise the tone of Kipps's exuberantly lower-middle-class speech, manner and being.

Kipps is divided into three ‘books’. Book 1 details Kipps's schooldays and his time as a draper's assistant ending, at Chapter 6 ‘The Unexpected’, with his inheritance. Book 2 follows-through into Kipps's new life of wealth and his betrothal to Helen Walshingham; Book 3 is rather disproportionately shorter than the first two, and ties-up the story as (spoiler!) Kipps, feeling increasingly malapropos and miserable, jilts Helen and instead marries his childhood sweetheart and social equal Ann. He then loses almost all his money (the solicitor who had been handling his financial affairs, Helen's younger brother, has speculated it all away) and sets up a little bookshop with what's left. The novel ends happily, with the Kippses new parents, happier as shopkeepers than they ever were as wealthy types, although there's a sort of double-twist, when money Kipps had foolishly put into a theatrical play turns out unexpectedly to have been a golden investment, and he becomes rich again.

But plot-summary really does nothing to convey the flavour of the novel, and it's that flavour that carries the whole: precisely observed, beautifully written, often genuinely funny, touching, charming. Wells renders not one but two whole social milieux out of a weave of specific detail and incident, and has a marvellous eye for the way incongruity parleys embarrassment into a sort of superposition of hilarity and existential agony. Kipps goes through the novel hideously self-conscious and always overwhelmed by the thought of what other people will think of him. In the first third he is worried what better-bred people will think. In the second two thirds it gets worse: he worries what his new friends will think, what Helen will think and what servants, waiters and so on will think of him.

I'd argue this is one of the most remarkable things about Kipps. Quite apart from how droll the book is, how effectively illustrative it is of the social mores of Edwardian English life, how vivid is its characterisation—all those ‘well-made novel’ qualities over which Wells manifests such impressive control—quite apart from all that is the centrality the novel gives to shyness and boredom. I can't think of a better portrait of shyness and boredom in literature. Indeed, when I think how hugely important both those qualities are in most people's lives (my own early existence for instance) I'm rather boggled by their absence from capital-L Literature. I suppose the general bias towards can-do ‘relatable’ heroes and action adventure drowns all that out. But surely the majority of us are not like that. The young Kipps, pre-legacy, is bored by the endless routine of his job in the draper's shop, but even more bored on the days he doesn't have to work.
On Sundays he was obliged to go to church once, and commonly he went twice, for there was nothing else to do. He sat in the free seats at the back; he was too shy to sing, and not always clever enough to keep his place in the prayer-book, and he rarely listened to the sermon. But he had developed a sort of idea that going to church had a tendency to alleviate life. His aunt wanted to have him confirmed, but he evaded this ceremony for some years.

In the intervals between services he walked about Folkestone with an air of looking for something. Folkestone was not so interesting on Sundays as on week-days, because the shops were shut. Sometimes the apprentice next above him would condescend to go with him; but when the apprentice next but one above him condescended to go with the apprentice next above him, then Kipps, being habited as yet in ready-made clothes without tails, and unsuitable therefore to appear in such company, went alone ... He would sometimes walk up and down the Leas between twenty and thirty times after supper, desiring much the courage to speak to some other person in the multitude similarly employed. Almost invariably he ended his Sunday footsore.

He never read a book; there were none for him to read, and, besides ... he had no taste that way. [Kipps, 49-50]
Money ought to alleviate this tedium; but in a way only makes it worse. Kipps's agony at having to make social calls and go to parties, as his fiancée insists he does, is beautifully and painfully rendered. These sections remind me, rather, of Stevie Smith:
Into the dark night
Resignedly I go,
I am not so afraid of the dark night
As the friends I do not know,
I do not fear the night above
As I fear the friends below.
How many of us feel that way! Where are the discussions of shyness as a cultural and personal reality, anyway? Who are the shy heroes of literature? Build that critical and cultural discourse, and maybe Kipps will be recognised as the first great masterpiece of a ubiquitous phenomenon. Towards the end of book 2 Kipps, now rich, and having booked himself into a luxury hotel, is too shy to get himself lunch. The whole scene a masterpiece in the painful comedy of social awkwardness.
He would have liked something to eat very much now, but his inbred terror of the table was very strong. He did at last get by a porter in uniform towards the dining-room, but at the sight of a number of waiters and tables, with remarkable complications of knives and glasses, terror seized him, and he backed out again, with a mumbled remark to the waiter in the doorway about this not being the way. He hovered in the hall and lounge until he thought the presiding porter regarded him with suspicion, and then went up to his room again by the staircase. [Kipps, 312]
He decides to go to an outside restaurant instead, but that plan goes no better.
He tried to find a place to suit him soon enough. He tried to remember the sort of things Walshingham [his well-bred brother-in-law to be] had ordered. Before all things he didn't want to go into a place and look like a fool ... He drifted on to a neat window with champagne bottles, a dish of asparagus and a framed menu of a two shilling lunch. He was about to enter, when fortunately he perceived two waiters looking at him over the back screen of the window with a most ironical expression, and he sheered off at once. There was a wonderful smell of hot food half way down Fleet Street and a nice looking Tavern with several doors, but he could not decide which door. His nerve was going under the strain. [Kipps, 313]
Of course, if Kipps were nothing more than this sort of endlessly shrinking violet he would get pretty wearing, and more to the point would be too passive and uninteresting to make for a great character. Wells is much cannier than that, threading Kipps's acute, sometimes crippling shyness and embarrassment with strands of a more bumptious, thrusting youthful energy. There are just enough glimpses of this flipabout assertive Kipps (the last thing he says in the novel is: ‘I don't suppose there ever was a chap quite like me before!’—although he does then qualify that with ‘Oo! I dunno’) to ratify Jonathan Frantzen's famous claim, in Purity, that a combination of moral absolutism and a sense of superiority ‘is so often the secret heart of shyness’. The best critical book on this topic that I know is Christopher Ricks's Keats and Embarrassment (Clarendon Press 1984), although it doesn't mention Wells at all. But I'll return to Ricks after a digression on cutting.

2. Cuts

It took a long time for Wells to stitch Kipps together. He started writing the first version in 1898 under the working-title The Wealth of Mr. Waddy. According to Harris Wilson, who has examined the complicated MSS held in the Wells Archive of the University of Illinois Urbana: ‘the six-thousand-odd sheets written intermittently over a period of seven years’ contain ‘literally scores of false starts, digressions, and abandoned episodes.’ Part 3 is half the size of Part 1 and a third the size of Part 2, a disproportion that can in part be explained by the fact Wells cut an 11,000-word episode of pretty undiluted political and utopian speculation from this last potion, a reminder that he was working on the final draft of Kipps at the same time as writing Mankind in the Making and A Modern Utopia. ‘Wells, in this episode,’ notes Wilson, ‘slips into the discursive and didactic; his characters are almost forgotten as they expound his own social ideas and criticism’. So we can be glad Wells had the sense to bin the whole lot.

Now, we could take this protracted and repeatedly revised and cut-about genesis as evidence of Wells's looseness of aesthetic construction: chucking, as it were, stuff at the wall of the novel and seeing what stuck. In the Experiment in Autobiography Wells says surprisingly little about Kipps, although it does come up briefly in a section titled ‘Whether I Am A Novelist’ that is mostly given over to a more-or-less self-deprecating account of discussions he had with Henry James over the novelist's art. James, says Wells, had high standards for their respective work: ‘he thought of [the Novel] as an Art Form and of novelists as artists of a very special and exalted type’. Wells insists that he always thought of it on the contrary as a mode of communication, of reaching and teaching people. Indeed he reports that James regretted he found himself unable to take Wells's novels ‘in any aesthetic or “literary” relation at all’, and Wells concedes the point:
Tried by Henry James's standards I doubt if any of my novels can be taken in any other fashion. There are flashes and veins of character duly “treated” and living individuals in many of them, but none that satisfy his requirements fully. A lot of Kipps may pass, some of Tono Bungay, Mr. Britling Sees It Through and Joan and Peter and let me add, I have a weakness for Lady Harman and for Theodore Bulpington and—— But I will not run on. These are pleas in extenuation. The main indictment is sound, that I sketch out scenes and individuals, often quite crudely, and resort even to conventional types and symbols, in order to get on to a discussion of relationships. The important point which I tried to argue with Henry James was that the novel of completely consistent characterization arranged beautifully in a story and painted deep and round and solid, no more exhausts the possibilities of the novel, than the art of Velasquez exhausts the possibilities of the painted picture. [Experiment in Autobiography, 414]
The case for Kipps is made on the basis of its characterisation; and I've mentioned on this blog before the old academic-critical prejudice that prefers James ‘the artist’ to Wells the journalist and sciencefictioneer. And, as before, I'm going to make the case that the long gestation of Kipps indexes not slapdashness but on the contrary, is evidence of a conscious literary artist honing and perfecting a very tightly constructed work of literary art. Regardless of what Wells himself might say.

This tightness of construction depends upon the deployment of a network of thematic and symbolic patterns and textual structures that underlie what seems, on the surface, to be a peripatetic set of narrative episodes loosely accumulated around the central character of Arthur Kipps himself. There are, I would say, five sets of these symbolic-representation nexuses, and I could write a blog post as long as this one (no! please! I hear you cry) about every one of them. I could for instance talk about the theatrical trope, in which scenes from the vulgar theatre, and Chitterlow's ridiculous play about a Beetle, are artfully juxtaposed with the concept of well-bred society as an endless quasi-dramatic performance, the script of which is too complex and baffling for Kipps to learn; or about the way the bicycle is used to trope class consciousness, mobility and power throughout; or about the way the novel uses carefully mapped-out liminal spaces, from basements and side-doors to the beach itself, from hotels to unbuilt houses, to develop its themes; or on a different level I could talk about the way Wells works with a cleverly understated quasi-Joycean set of language games, in which Kipps's non-RP pronunciation is mirrored in, for instance, the Anagram Tea to which, to Kipps's great terror, he is invited.

This repeated mode of estranging words, of turning them from lucid token of communication into baffling blanks, finds its wonderful apotheosis in the novel's conclusion, in which Kipps who doesn't read books ends up a bookseller, and the narrator of Kipps can boast that his novel about Kipps is for sale in Kipps's shop, and Kipps doesn't even realise this because Kipps never reads.

In each of these four cases I would argue that Wells very carefully positions references and allusions not only to unify the text longitudinally, as it were (that is, from the start of the novel to its end), but also to run them in parallel and connect them; such that each nexus of symbolic representation, in its way, combines collectively to adumbrate an overarching theme about, broadly, restraint, obstruction or artificiality on the one hand, and freedom, flow and motion on the other. In each of case, as with the larger texture of the whole novel, there is such a wealth of incidental detail in novel, so many specific qualia invoked in order to create a sense of verisimilitude, of a thickness of representation in the matter of lived experience, it is striking to think how un-random all these details are. He knew how to write, did Wells.

That said, instead of talking in greater detail about those four I want to spend a little time on a fifth unifying principle: the cut. It may be that ‘cutting’  is the key trope by which the novel provides for its own architectonic wholeness, linking the other four previously mentioned and focussing the main force of what the novel is trying to say. Let me explain what I mean.

In a literal sense cut means severing or slicing something, cutting it in half or cutting it open. The word, of course, has other meanings that are relevant to the story of Kipps. Most obviously, to ‘cut’ someone, socially, is pointedly to refuse to engage with them, to snub them, to perform a sort of social exile upon them because they have, in some way, violated the codes of society. These two main meanings of ‘cut’ are joined by a third, which I'll come to in a little while, and together these three coordinate the symbolic narrative of the novel.

Kipps starts with one of its most iconic moments, as adolescent Kipps and his childhood sweetheart, Ann Pornick (literally the girl next door) plight their mutual troth by cutting a sixpenny-piece in two such that each holds half as keepsake of the other (when David Heneker adapted Kipps as hit musical in 1963 he actually renamed it Half a Sixpence). Then early in the novel there are two significant episodes that both involve cuts. First Book 1 chapter 3, at the Woodworking class where Kipps meets and falls in love with his teacher Miss Walshingham, and where, clumsily opening a window, he cuts his wrist.
He turned dolefully. “I'm tremendously sorry,” he said in answer to the accusation in Miss Walshingham's eyes. “I didn't think it would break like that,”—as if he had expected it to break in some quite different and entirely more satisfactory manner. The boy with the gift of wood-carving having stared at Kipps' face for a moment, became involved in a Laocoon struggle with a giggle.

“You've cut your wrist,” said one of the girl friends, standing up and pointing. She was a pleasant-faced, greatly freckled girl, with a helpful disposition, and she said “You've cut your wrist,” as brightly as if she had been a trained nurse.

Kipps looked down, and saw a swift line of scarlet rush down his hand. He perceived the other man student regarding this with magnified eyes. “You have cut your wrist,” said Miss Walshingham, and Kipps regarded his damage with greater interest. [Kipps, 74-75]
This scene extends, drolly enough, for some time; and characters later in the novel refer back to it. Then the next chapter introduces the actor-dramatist manqué Chitterlow, who, riding his bicycle, literally collides with Kipps, knocking him over and cutting open his trousers: ‘“Here's the back of my trouser leg all tore down,” said Kipps, “and I believe I'm bleeding”.’ [91]. Chitterlow invites Kipps back to his digs ostensibly to sew up this cut, although the cut never gets sewn; and this leads directly to Kipps discovering that he has inherited money. In the second half of the novel these physical cuts are replaced by emotional ones. Having randomly acquired enough money to win Miss Walshingham (because of her financially-straitened circumstances), Kipps struggles to fit into her higher-class circles: his accent is still too common, and his fancy new clothes evidence him trying too hard. Walshingham takes it on herself to ‘educate’ him on these matters; Kipps has come calling wearing a fancy silk hat of which he is particularly proud, and for him the best word to describe the experience is cutting:
“And then there's dress,” said Helen, taking up her thread again.

Kipps became pink, but he remained respectfully attentive.

“You don't mind?” she said.

“Oo, no.”

“You mustn't be too—too dressy. It's possible to be over-conventional, over-elaborate. It makes you look like a shop—like a common, well-off person. There's a sort of easiness that is better. A real gentleman looks right, without looking as though he had tried to be right.”

“Jest as though 'e'd put on what came first?” said the pupil, in a faded voice.

“Not exactly that, but a sort of ease.”

Kipps nodded his head intelligently. In his heart he was kicking his silk hat about the room in an ecstasy of disappointment. [Kipps, 243]
She perseveres with this task, to Kipps's continuing, if hidden, distress.
She took him in hand in perfect good faith. She told him things about his accent, she told him things about his bearing, about his costume and his way of looking at things. She thrust the blade of her intelligence into the tenderest corners of Kipps' secret vanity, she slashed his most intimate pride to bleeding tatters. [Kipps, 260-61]
Poor old cut-up Kipps! It's after this, and with a proleptic glimpse of the direction the story is going, that the narrator reverts to the society meaning of the word ‘cut’, with a finely judged gentle comic irony:
Charitable as one may be, one must admit there are people who do things, impossible things; people who place themselves ‘out of it’ in countless ways; people, moreover, who are by a sort of predestination out of it from the beginning, and against these Society has invented a terrible protection for its Cootery, the Cut. The cut is no joke for anyone. It is excommunication. You may be cut by an individual, you may be cut by a set or you may be—and this is so tragic that beautiful romances have been written about it—‘Cut by the County.’ One figures Coote discharging this last duty and cutting somebody—Coote, erect and pale, never speaking, going past with eyes of pitiless slate, lower jaw protruding a little, face pursed up and cold and stiff. [Kipps, 280-81]
‘It never dawned upon Kipps,’ the narrator adds, deadpan, ‘that he would one day have to face this terrible front, to be to Coote not only as one dead, but as one gone more than a stage or so in decay, cut and passed, banned and outcast for ever.’ And as this inevitable catastrophe approaches, Kipps is cut again physically (‘Kipps got up late, cut his chin while shaving, kicked a slipper into his sponge bath and said, “Desh!”’ [300]). He realises he doesn't love Helen, does love Ann, and in a panic he rushes off to London—he cuts and runs, we might say.

Then, after the scene in the London hotel where he is too shy to arrange for his own lunch mentioned above, he comes to an understanding about his own desires. Instead of tying the knot with Helen he cuts it: jilts her and elopes with Ann. All this cutting reaches a kind of climax in the Book 3, after Kipps has married Ann, and just before he discovers he has lost all his money. Kipps goes for a walk in the rain wearing an elaborate macintosh and leggings, but by the time he gets into town the rainclouds have dispersed and the sun is shining brightly: ‘the right thing for such a day as this was a light overcoat and an umbrella’ and the various promenaders, to Kipps's huge embarrassment, look at him oddly. Then he chances upon Coote: his former chaperon into higher society now outraged at Kipps's desertion of Helen, a man whose very name is a variant on the word ‘cut’.
He already felt the most abject and propitiatory of social outcasts when he came upon Coote, and Coote finished him. He passed within a yard of Coote. Coote was coming along towards the Leas, and when Kipps saw him his legs hesitated about their office and he seemed to himself to stagger about all over the footpath. At the sight of him Coote started visibly. Then a sort of rigor vitae passed through his frame, his jaw protruded and errant bubbles of air seemed to escape and run about beneath his loose skin. (Seemed I say—I am perfectly well aware that there is really connective tissue in Coote as in all of us to prevent anything of the sort.) His eyes fixed themselves on the horizon and glazed. As he went by Kipps could hear his even, resolute breathing. He went by, and Kipps staggered on into a universe of dead cats and dust heaps, rind and ashes—cut! Cut! [Kipps, 429]
This reiterated physical and metaphorical cutting is the novel's way of driving home Kipps's disconnection from the corpus civile, at least as that latter quantity is defined by the hidebound old-fashioned pettiness of provincial English respectability. That Kipps is, in some existential, if comico-pathetic, way cut-off from his various dreams is the larger logic of the book. It's why working in a draper's is the ‘right’ way for Wells to start his character's journey,. After all: what does a draper's shop do, except is cut up cloth to sell?

What strikes me as really remarkable is the way this thematic of ‘cutting’ is so sedulously connected by Wells to the other nexuses of semantic-symbolic unity in the novel—so: Kipps's first encounter with the bicycle is when Chitterlow collides with him, cutting his trouser and leg; and the way the Anagram Tea consists of ‘cutting up’ and rearranging words (and the way Kipps himself is cut-up by the experience of it); and the way the landscape is sliced-through or cut-up in ways that actualise the narrative. Even Chitterlow's theatrical ambitions connect to this: for when he has wealth Kipps invests in Chitterlow's absurd play (not because he believes it will succeed but because he thinks he owes Chitterlow for alerting him to the fact of his inheritance). The twist is that right at the end of the novel the play becomes a huge hit, generating enormous amounts of money from which Kipps can then take his cut.

This may appear to you strained, but I stand by it. Quite apart from anything else, it speaks to Wells's decision to change the name of his protagonist from ‘Waddy’ to ‘Kipps’. Now you might believe, as I myself once did, that this name is an Anagram Tea version of [Dic]k[en]s' Pip, since Great Expectations is the ur-novel of the doomed attempt by a good-hearted lower-class lad to turn himself into a gentleman. But I now suggest a different derivation. Kip, kipp or kyppe (plural kips) means ‘the untanned hide of a young or small beast, such as a calf, lamb, or young goat’, and also ‘the leather made from such hide; kip leather’. That is to say it means a fabric that has been literally cut from the body of a young beast. Kip, the young draper's assistant, is named for an artefact of cutting.

There's more to say here, and it brings back the Christopher Ricks book on Keats I mention above. Because, of course, ‘cut’ has another meaning—an indecent one—a meaning also important to this novel: for it is, of course, an old English word for ‘vagina’, the part of the human body that is a sort of cut in the flesh (as opposed to the bulbous extrusion of the male genitals). In Twelfth Night Malvolio picks up the forged-letter he believes to have been written by his mistress Olivia, and declares: ‘by my life, this is my lady's hand: these be her very C's, her U's, and her T's, and thus she makes her great P’. It's not sophisticated humour, although that doesn't mean it isn't funny; and cut at least avoids the sheer aggressive unpleasantness of the word's modern derivative, cunt.

Kipps, as novel, is about a young man caught between the choice of two beautiful women, and it ends with him choosing one, marrying her and fathering a child. So it is, in one unavoidable sense, a novel about sex. But Kipps himself is, as per the code of lower-middle-class respectability, enormously inhibited about sexual matters. Although, at the top of this post, I describe the Kipps/Helen narrative as a drama of hypergamy, ‘bedding a woman from a class superior to one's own’, there is nothing of the bedroom whatsoever in Kipp's yearning after the beautiful Helen. They never kiss; they are rarely even alone together. She is in his eyes more angel than fleshly woman, and the longer their engagement goes on, and the closer Kipps comes to his actual wedding night, the more alarmed he becomes at the prospect. When, as a prelude to jilting her, he runs off to London and stays in the Royal Grand he is prudishly outraged by the ladies' evening attire in the dining room.
He felt he was getting on. He leant back after his soup, a man of the world, and then slowly brought his eyes around to the ladies in evening dress on his right....

He couldn't have thought it!

They were scorchers. Jest a bit of black velvet over the shoulders!

He looked again. One of them was laughing with a glass of wine half raised—wicked-looking woman she was—the other, the black velvet one, was eating bits of bread with nervous quickness and talking fast. [Kipps, 341-42; ellipsis in original]
Staring at the flesh these women are displaying ‘he found a waiter regarding him and blushed deeply. He did not look again for some time, and became confused about his knife and fork over the fish.’ Fish. Ah, OK. ‘His ears became violently red’. This awkwardness, the specifically erotic component of Kipps's vast shyness, is a piece of reportage, reflecting the actual sexual mores of the ‘respectable’ lower middle classes of 1905. It's more than that, though, in the pattern of the novel. It connects with the mystery of Kipps's mother. We gather, without it ever being spelled out in so many words, that young Kipps is raised by his elderly uncle and aunt because his mother (whom he, and we, never meet) had him illegitimately. Conceivably, connecting to the novel's thematic nexuses, she was an actress, which is to say prostitute; somebody living in the liminal spaces of polite society, someone who made her living with her cut. The novel's opening two paragraphs contain, really, all we are told about her:
Until he was nearly arrived at adolescence it did not become clear to Kipps how it was that he was under the care of an aunt and uncle instead of having a father and mother like other boys. Yet he had vague memories of a somewhere else that was not New Romney—of a dim room, a window looking down on white buildings—and of a some one else who talked to forgotten people, and who was his mother. He could not recall her features very distinctly, but he remembered with extreme definition a white dress she wore, with a pattern of little sprigs of flowers and little bows of ribbon upon it, and a girdle of straight-ribbed white ribbon about the waist. Linked with this, he knew not how, were clouded half-obliterated recollections of scenes in which there was weeping, weeping in which he was inscrutably moved to join. Some terrible tall man with a loud voice played a part in these scenes, and either before or after them there were impressions of looking for interminable periods out of the windows of railway trains in the company of these two people....

He knew, though he could not remember that he had ever been told, that a certain faded, wistful face, that looked at him from a plush and gilt framed daguerreotype above the mantel of the "sitting-room," was the face of his mother. But that knowledge did not touch his dim memories with any elucidation. In that photograph she was a girlish figure, leaning against a photographer's stile, and with all the self-conscious shrinking natural to that position. She had curly hair and a face far younger and prettier than any other mother in his experience. She swung a Dolly Varden hat by the string, and looked with obedient respectful eyes on the photographer-gentleman who had commanded the pose. She was very slight and pretty. But the phantom mother that haunted his memory so elusively was not like that, though he could not remember how she differed. Perhaps she was older, or a little less shrinking, or, it may be, only dressed in a different way.... [Kipps, 3-4]
The two ellipses, there, are in the original, indicatingwhat? Uncertainty? Hesitancy? As in David Copperfield (manifestly an important influence on Wells writing in mundane mode) the sexually alluring young mother is removed from the narrative early on, having been present just long enough to imprint one taboo erotic ideal on the straight male protagonist, which he then spends the rest of the novel working out, through a diremption of desire towards two objects, one pure and elevated and unsexy, the other closer to his own nature and sexy. [It's pretty much the same erotic dynamic as the one I discuss in my account of Love and Mr Lewisham] Perhaps the cut that haunts the cut-and-flayed Kipps throughout his life is the primal cut, the one that made him. A ‘Dolly Varden hat’ is a perfectly respectable style of lady's headwear, named for Dickens's blameless Barnaby Rudge heroine and very popular in the nineteenth-century; but ‘Dolly Varden’ was also cockney rhyming slang for ‘Covent Garden’, famous in the Victorian era for its prostitutes. According to Partridge ‘kip’ was also slang for a brothel.

It's doubtless dangerous to burrow too far down these sorts of rabbit holes. But we can at least agree that sex, in this novel, is simultaneously surface-unspeakable and a palpable below-the-surface force (as it is in a great many 19th- and early 20th century novels, of course). This aspect of the writing is magnified by the fact that Kipps is an unusually sexually immature and shy protagonist. The mere sight of naked shoulders makes his ears burn red. Only in the very last pages, as Kipps holds his new-born son in his trembling arms, does the narrator feel licensed to say: ‘the once rabbit-like soul that had been so amazed by the discovery of “chubes” in the human interior and so shocked by the sight of a woman's shoulder-blades ... was at last facing the greater realities.’ [Kipps, 464]. For most of the novel even the most oblique intimation of matters sexual make him blush fiercely.

I think we can say of Wells what Christopher Ricks says of Keats: ‘Keats as a man and a poet was especially sensitive to, and morally intelligent about, embarrassment’, which state Ricks defines as ‘constrained feeling or manner arising from bashfulness or timidity’ [Ricks, 1, 3]. As with Keats, there is I think something peculiarly English about Wells's apprehension of shyness and embarrassment (Ricks wonders ‘is embarrassment not only a nineteenth-century sentiment but a narrowly English one?’); and two of the larger points about Ricks's argument seem to me to apply particularly well to Wells's Kipps—that this is art that challenges the reader to experience embarrassment, and that the root of this shyness is less social than sexual. For Ricks it is a great strength of Keats that he is
one of the very few erotic poets who have come at embarrassment from a different angle of necessity: from the wish to pass directly through—not to bypass (however principled and perceptive the by passing)—the hotly disconcerting, the potentially ludicrous, distasteful, or blush-inducing. [Ricks, Keats and Embarrassment (1984), 68]
One of Ricks's key comparisons is the never-embarrassed suavity of Byron. There are plenty of blushes in Don Juan, Ricks notes, but ‘they never work upon us, as Keats's do, by implicating us in the hot tinglings of sensation; they are always seen from outside ...The limpidity and lucidity of Byron's style act as a cordon sanitaire against contagious embarrassment’ [Ricks, 83]. I'm struck that, mutatis mutandis, we could make a similar distinction between Wells and his friend Henry James. James sees an obliquity, and a complexity, in human sexual affairs, and in his novels such things very rarely run smooth; but we are never embarrassed on behalf of James's characters, I think. Like Byron, although in a different manner, the sheer suavity of his style acts as a cordon sanitaire against such blushing and cringing. Not so Wells: for him the path to his novel's core lies right through those embarrassments. He makes the most of them, and he makes his readers feel them, and he does both things brilliantly. Sexual desire is complex, I think; or it is often so; but embarrassment shares the epithet that characterises Kipps's soul in the subtitle Wells chose for his novel: it is simple.

So where are we? Kipps, whose name encodes having been cut. Kipps who is literally repeatedly cut in the novel, and whose whole social trajectory bends towards the metaphorical cut of higher-society exile. Kipps, whose love life stays true to the cut sixpence he shares with his childhood sweetheart. Kipps whose shyness and embarrassment, in this story of love, marriage, sex and childbirth, is haunted by the ‘cut’ of womanhood. Kipps the novel that took eight years to write, including many reworkings and many passages cut from the draft—most particularly the cutting out of an 11,000 word ‘Masterman’ episode from Part 3. Which is to say, Kipps the novel whose final form carries (in the reduced and chopped-about disproportion of Part 3) the evidence that it has been cut. It is, after all, worth remembering that whilst working on Kipps Wells was also writing A Modern Utopia, in which the vision of utopian possibility ends when ‘the botanist’ meets once again the woman who broke his heart and reverts to the painful truth of things, in which having been cut and its corollary is the very essence of our being-in-the-world: ‘what are we all but scars?,’ he cries, as the two of them tumble back into mundaneness. ‘What is life but a scarring? It's you—you who don't understand! Of course we are covered with scars, we live to be scarred, we are scars! We are the scars of the past!’ [Wells, A Modern Utopia, 301]. Cut to—

3. Tolstoy

An unsigned article in the Saturday Review for 22 April 1905, almost certainly written by Wells, begins: ‘Twenty years ago Tolstoy was hardly known outside Russia. We remember mentioning his existence to an American novelist of first rank, a great admirer of Turgenev, who did not seem inclined to believe that people would soon come to recognise the greater power of Tolstoy. Who has not heard of Tolstoy now?’ The American novelist of first rank must be Henry James, of course. Rosamund Bartlett notes that:
a year after this review was published, Wells would write Tolstoy a fan letter, telling him he had read everything by him he could find in English, about 18 volumes, and that, in his opinion, of all the works he had had the fortune to read, War and Peace and Anna Karenina were the “most magnificent and all-encompassing”. [‘Tolstoy Translated’, FT 8th August 2014]
I can't prove Wells had Tolstoy on his mind writing Kipps, but it seems to me overwhelmingly likely. What is Kipps, after all, except a lower-class, more respectable and sexually continent Pierre? (presumably it is the very blinding obviousness of this observation that has kept it out of the criticism, for I don't know any critics who make this point). Obviously Kipps's inheritance is not wealth on the same sort of scale as Pierre's, and obviously Kipps doesn't live through anything as traumatic as the Napoleonic invasion of Russia. But then again, Tolstoy's interest in Pierre is less to do with the specific nature of those sorts of externals and more with—precisely—the simplicity of his soul, which is delineated via the complex there-and-back-again of his reaction to his personal change in fortunes. It's stating the obvious to note that that's also what Kipps, as a novel, is interested in.

The notion that there is anything Tolstoyan in Wells's writing has, I suppose, gone out of fashion; but the fact that it used to be in fashion—that there used to be a time when books like Marinita Davis's A Study of Tolstoi and H.G. Wells as Educators (Stanford 1929) could be published with, as it were, a straight face—suggests that there is at least something in the comparison. At any rate, and despite the obvious differences in tone between Tolstyan epic dignity and Wellsian social comedy, I'd stand by the idea that Kipps is a Tolstoyan novel.

John Bayley talks about the ‘dynamic absurdity’ of Tolstoy's Pierre (distinguishing this from ‘the merely passive absurdity’ of the novel's non-Russian characters), and it's a good way of describing Kipps too. Like Kipps, Pierre works hard to fit himself into a system which can never be home for him, and one of the saving graces of his simplicity is that, on some level, he always knows this (think of the scene where Pierre is inducted into the Masons, and how awkwardly that goes—at the ceremony ‘a childlike smile of embarrassment, doubt and self-derision appeared on Pierre's face against his will’). But there's a larger Tolstoyan point which bears on Kipps as a novel. Bayley asks: ‘what are the elements of antagonism, as Tolstoy sees it, between French and Russians?’ And he answers:
The Russians represent a family; the French, by contrast, represent a system—the terrible it which Pierre becomes aware of when the Frenchmen whom he thinks he has got to know during his captivity are suddenly revealed as automata, controlled by some impersonal force which is pressing him towards destruction, a force which overrides humanity. [Bayley, Tolstoy and the Novel (Chatto 1966), 136]
This is a terrific insight, I think, and one that opens the whole of War and Peace to us. And it shines a light into Kipps too, I'd argue. The higher society into which Kipps is thrust is repeatedly characterised by Wells, often hilariously, as a fractal web of abstruse and counter-intuitive rules and conventions. Kipps hopes to navigate it with the help of Mr Coote, and also by poring over books with titles like ‘Manners and Rules of Good Society, by a Member of the Aristocracy’ (‘TWENTY-FIRST EDITION’) and ‘that admirable classic, The Art of Conversing.’ But of course Kipps struggles with these cryptic mazes of systemised behaviour.
Kipps returned with these to his seat, placed the two before him, opened the latter with a sigh and flattened it under his hand. Then with knitted brows he began to read onward from a mark, his lips moving. ... Kipps rubbed his fingers through his hair with an expression of some perplexity and went back to the beginning. [Kipps, 209]
The novel's comedy styles its hero's erotic dilemma this way: as the choice between an arbitrary and artificial system of rules and conventions—Helen—and the quasi-familial closeness of the girl-next-door and Kipps's own social class—Ann. Class in this novel is troped as family: Kipps's closest ally, beyond his actual blood relative uncle and aunt, is Sid, the brother of the woman he marries. It is Sid who finds Kipps wandering hungry through the streets of London because he is too shy to dare the rebarbative systemised rituals of expensive restaurants, invites him home and feeds him mutton. The book rewards spontaneity (like Kipps giving Chitterlow £2000) and deprecates all unspontaneous, regulated and systemised modes of living. We could say, in Tolstoyan mode, that Kipps is Russian, where the world of Helen, Coote and their ilk is French.

That's also a problem, perhaps. It's hard to avoid the conclusion that there is something quite intensely small-c conservative about Kipps's social message. Dickens's Pip is hardly happy after being remade a gentleman, but Great Expectations at least leaves him a gentleman, and permits him to make the best of things. Wells does the fort-da thing with Kipps's social mobility: sends him up only to return him back to where he started, and the novel's end strongly implies: he's better off where he is. But then Wells's radical ideology went hand in hand with some really quite small-c conservative attitudes. That's not uncommon amongst the political left, I'd say. It's also a pretty Tolystoyan combination of attitudes.