Friday, 2 February 2018

Babes in the Darkling Wood (1940)


‘A Novel of Ideas’ says the subtitle, and the heart sinks, just a little, at the phrase. Is this lengthy work (399 close-printed pages) really yet another turgid semi-dramatic novelisation of undramatic ideation? As if there aren't enough of those sorts of books in the Wells backlist already? In his preface Wells does not set our minds at rest:
This present story belongs to a school to which I have always been attracted, and in which I have already written several books ... the dialogue, written or staged, is one of the oldest forms of literary expression. ... The Socratic Dialogue produces character after character to state living views, to have them ransacked by an interlocutor who is also a character subject to all the infirmities of the flesh. Plato's dramas of the mind live to this day.
It's a long preface, actually, and manifests a degree of bristling defensiveness. Wells knows what he's done: written a novel in which two main and several minor characters expatiate and lecture at one another in a variety of places over various topics. But, here's the thing: once you adjust to the form the novel takes, and ramp down expectations of the nuance and richness of some of Wells's earlier novels, this becomes really quite an engaging reading experience. Of course, maybe I'm only saying that because this is Wells's last fully-accomplished novel and I want it to be worthwhile (he published two more fiction titles before his death, but 1940's All Aboard for Ararat is a novella and 1941's You Can't Be Too Careful is, frankly, a misfire).

The novel is fourteen lengthy chapters, disposed into four books, with a ‘tailpiece’ coda. In Book 1, Stella and Gemini are staying in a friend's cottage, having lots of sex and exploring the countryside. They go past the house of the famous sculptor Kalikov, and see him in his garden: ‘a great lump of a man, with a frizzy, non-Aryan coiffure and ears that you would have thought any sensitive sculptor would have cut off or improved upon years ago’.  Kalikov is contemplating a huge block of alabaster in his garden, running his hands over it, and thinking about it. ‘One day he will get his chisels and hammers and things and begin to hew it out,’ says Stella; and Gemini seizes on this as a metaphor for life itself: ‘Clumsy block of a world, monstrous, crushing the grass, bloodshot, and yet in it there is a world to be found, a real world, a great world ... our job is to realise the shape in the block, to get the vision of it clearer and clearer in our heads and then to set about carving it out’ [1.1.2]. Off they wander, these two idealistic young lovers, unmarried but caring not a rag for 1940s social convention. Self-styled revolutionaries.

 The vicar, Morton Richardson, comes to tea. He's modish enough to be almost not shocked by their cohabitation, although he tells them he can't approve it. He tries for smalltalk, but he's in quite the wrong novel for that sort of thing. Instead Stella and Gemini harangue him about the decline of his church: ‘empty pews, silent pulpits—sermons cut to nothing. Yet preventing anything else from taking its place. Why is it, Sir? Why does the Church have nothing definite to say for itself?’ demands Gemini. ‘Our generation is drifting away,’ he tells the Vicar. ‘[We] are reading these sceptical writers, Kentlake and Shaw and Bertrand Russell and Joad, the two Huxleys, Hogben, Levy, J.B.S. Haldane—in preference to any orthodox authorities—[and] mathematicians—mystical mathematicians—Jeans and Eddington for example, Captain Dunne and Whitehead.’ [1.2.2].

They can't see what purpose the vicar serves. He stresses his parish duties (‘births, marriages and deaths. The coal club, the rummage sale, the choir, the bell-ringers, the charities, the school treat and the church wardens. The constant calls for advice, temporal as well as spiritual. The sick and dying in need of consolation’) but Stella refuses to concede that any of this is really church-work: ‘some of that is civil administration; some might be better done by a medical or psychic or educational adviser—or a parish clerk. Or a glorified community schoolmaster’. What about faith? Religious faith? But Richardson can't speak to this (‘the vicar opened and shut his mouth’ [1.2.3]) so Stella and Gemini engage in a lengthy metaphysical debate between themselves about Monism, Freudian psychology, and the need to repudiate the matter-spirit dichotomy.

The vicar doesn't do what any of us would in this situation and slap them both hard. Instead he politely takes his leave. Next up is Stella's choleric uncle Hubert Polydore Hopkinshire (‘he was a Black and Tan and he's never got over it’, says Stella) who writes to say he will come the next day to horsewhip Gemini for debauching his niece. This throws the couple into disarray. Gemini proposes marriage but Stella reminds him ‘we agreed we didn't believe in marriage’; so it looks, in the teeth of the world's hostility, that they're going to have to separate.

Gemini worries about the shallowness of sex: ‘I am head over heels in love with you, I have been making love to you for a week, I am going to make love to you again just as soon as you stop pretending to comb your hair ... [but] what's it got to do with anything, Stella? What's it got to do with the rest of life?’ [1.3.3]. Stella thinks he's being too compartmentalising:
‘What has this love-making to do with anything else, you ask. Well —everything. Sex is not irrelevant to the other side of life. Love, love-making, is as important as hunting, shooting, ploughing, making things, and it's nearer to vital reality. See? Nearer. More than the other side of a coin. Of course it is nearer and closer! Society is built upon sex—more than it is built on any economic or practical necessity. If that is the left hand, sex is the right. The first societies were families and then tribes, the Children of Israel and so on. They were not plantation gangs or trade unions. ... Gemini, can you draw a line between all these linking feelings, between friendship, preference, affection, love, intimacies, caresses? Can you?’ [Babes, 1.3.3]
At any rate, Uncle Hubert arrives with his horsewhip, and so does Gemini's hyper-correct father, a London Police Magistrate, to whom Hubert had written alerting him of the couple's shameful cohabitation. There's a hot-tempered conversation about propriety, and Mr Twain Senior lectures Stella: ‘“do incontinence, fornication, deception, disobedience, then, mean nothing to you? Have you never heard of fallen women? You are living in a Christian country under a definitely Christian moral code and my son there”—he pointed —“has persuaded you to outrage it. And you have done so. Don't you begin to realize your present position? Do you know nothing of the social pena1ties—?”’ [1.4.3] When Gemini refuses to repudiate the relationship, his father bars him from the family home, which interdiction Gemini accepts promptly, promising to live life on his own terms in London. Hubert prevails upon Stella to come home by saying her mother is very sick, and needs her.

In Book 2 the lovers are living apart. Gemini writes to Stella (‘I have been duly turned out-of-doors and I am installed in a shabby apartment in Duluth Crescent near St Pancras Station. It is not very nice’ [2.1.1]). This letter is less a love epistle, and more, pompously enough, a memorandum of their mutual beliefs:
Firstly, we have agreed that it is not true, as my father believes, as the parson believes, as Uncle Hubert believes ... that the present moral, religious, political and social system is an inevitable, irreplaceable growth ... Secondly, we have agreed that in this gross, confused, moving and dangerous mass of a world as it is, there is hidden the possibility of a human existence of general happiness. We believe that by a strenuous readjustment of mental and social life, a good, lovely and continually progressive world could be carved out of this enormous dreadful world of today, as a sculptor carves loveliness out of his block. This means that you and I are revolutionaries, to the fullest meaning of the word’ [Babes, 2.1.1]
Gemini walks around London on he brink of war: ‘with the stir of the I.R.A. outrages and the intensification of the Air Raid Preparations ... blimps floating in the air far above the house roofs and a string of lorries of men in training’ there is, he is pleased to note ‘a definite feel in the air’.

Stella, meanwhile, is at home with her intelligent, repressed, slightly hysterical mother, who has never really got over being deserted by her husband, Stella's flighty artist father. For this first time, Stella realises ‘with deepening dismay’, that her mother has ‘a powerful, negative preoccupation with sex’. She lectures him about the beastliness of the male (‘I want you to understand what men are before it is too late’ [2.2.2]). Gemini picks up work as a copy-editor, easing a book by ‘Cottenham C. Bower’ into readable English (it is so full of obscure technical terminology, he writes to her, that it's ‘halfway to Jimmy-Joyce-land!’) which leads to tender love notes from him to her of this sort:
He is using and developing the language of this new Behaviourist conception of life, which, when you come to work it out logically and completely, is in fact an absolute reversal of ideas which men have considered fundamental ideas from the very beginnings of It is no less than that. It is coming into human thought like a still small voice, and it means a revolution far profounder—than Darwinism for example. Pavlov and Watson unfold their ideas with a certain obscure elaboration and hardly seem to realise the astounding quality of their implications. That is where Cottenham C. Bower is so important ... [Babes, 2.2.4]
Honestly, why nobody slaps him, I don't understand.

Matters hang fire for a while. Stella resumes her studies at Cambridge, even though her uncle Robert, who is a don, assures her that universities are all rotten and in need of radical reformation. The sector's only function, he insists, is as a kind of initiation into the university caste itself (giving ‘the young Anglican gentleman all the advantages he needs over the illiterate, a sense of superiority, a class freemasonry, a code of behaviour’). In a rather stiletto-in-the-ribcage throwaway comment, Robert adds that all university does is ‘produce such men, little T.S. Eliots by the hundred, as a rotten caracass produces blowflies. Without an effort. Mental blowflies.’ [2.3.3]. Miaow!

Gemini, meanwhile, has decided he needs to do something more active with his life. He joins the Soviet war-effort. Stella travels to Tilbury docks to see him off, and they have sex one last time. ‘The things they did have been done a billion times,’ Wells notes, ‘but such is the magic of sex that it seemed to them that nothing so full pride and loveliness, so brave and exquisite, had ever happened upon earth before’ [2.3.4], which captures something of the star-eyed nature of our early sexual experiences. Off Gemini sails, hoping to reach the USSR via Sweden.

Germany invades Poland on the 1st September and actual war breaks out. Stella, anxious for Gemini's well-being, has a vivid dream of wandering in a dark forest, and encountering a Great Unseen that says to her: ‘I am the Guide who will never fail you. I am the Friend who will never desert you’. She tries to get get closer.
The secret of courage, the essence of faith, something deeper than thought was coming to her. The ebony darkness about her became positive. It became an intensity of vision that transcended sight. Something immensely wonderful seemed to be pouring into her mind, and at the same moment she realised with dismay that she was dreaming and on the verge of awakening. She felt that something ineffable was slipping from her and she struggled in vain to retain it. [Babes, 3.1.2.]
She hears nothing from or about Gemini until man called Gavin Peters knocks on her door. He tells Stella that he was with him when the two of them were caught up in the invasion of Poland. He explains that ‘Jimmy’ saved his life, and relates some of the martial chaos they both experienced, a little bit of fighting and then a long desperate retreat eastward:
Dust pits in the middle of the trail round which the cart-tracks skirted, dust pits that would become foul morasses as soon as the rains returned. Dead animals occasionally. Once a dead old woman. A sprawl of rags and grey hair. At places they found recent tracks of light tanks, probably German tanks. The houses would be deserted and empty, or dark figures lurked defensively in them. ... In one isolated house there had been a massacre; ‘God knows why. Perhaps they were Jews’; and peering in on the chance of food, they found a stinking mass of rags. They were turning to go. ‘My God!’ Gemini had cried: ‘there's something moving!’

‘It might have been a rat,’ said Peters, ‘but we looked again and saw it was a hand. We both tried to get it out and do something, but it died. It never moved again. It might have been a boy or a girl with dark hair. You see—. Things had happened to the face. It left us empty with horror.’ When they were starving they stole a chicken. A pale gleam of amusement appeared in Peters' face. ‘What would you do with a chicken, if you didn't know how to get its feathers off or how to clean it, and you hadn't a pot to cook it in, or a fire? When we caught it, we thought of roast chicken, beautiful roast chicken. We dragged that bird along with us for live or six kilometers and then—well, we tore it up and gnawed it raw. And it made us ill. But we were almost always ill, disgustingly ill. Filthily ill. We'd eat half-ripe berries and gnaw bits of bark. One place we found a lot of Swedes. Everything we ate seemed to disagree with us. We'd lie up in the woods. No one to look after us. Getting iller and filthier and filthier. He'd never been ill in his life before without somebody tucking him up in bed. He thought that happened to everyone. I suppose it does in England. If it hadn't been for the drive in him, I should be lying in those woods now. Just a sprawl of rags and bones. Dragged about by birds and things. It was he made me go on.’ [Babes, 3.2.2]
(I wonder if Wells bases this on that section at the end of Zola's La Débâcle (1892) where Jean and Maurice trek, ill and desperate, through the post-battle wasteland, at one point stealing a small sack of flour with the hope of baking some bread—but of course they cannot, and end up packing their mouths with raw flour and making themselves ill.)

Anyway: though Gavin Peters got out, he believes Gemini was arrested by the Soviets as a suspected British spy. The next we hear of Gemini is that he has been incarcerated in a Swedish insane asylum. Stella goes over to recover him, but finds him in a catatonic state: ‘in the clinic of Dr Olaf Bjorkminder Gemini lay inert, recognizing no one, answering no one, a Gemini so withdrawn from life that he seemed to want neither to live nor die. He was curved up, [Stella] thought, like an embryo, and the most she saw was a scrub of hair and a very red ear’ [3.3.3]. Pausing only to ventriloquize, awkwardly and uncharacteristically, a lengthy disquisition on the puerility of Freudianism through Stella's mouth, Wells moves us into the fourth and final section of this long novel.

Now Gemini's psychological convalescence begins: ‘one sunlit day in early March, Gemini became aware of himself in an extremely comfortable bed in an extremely comfortable room’
Someone had come in. One of them. One of those people who were trying to put over a lie upon him, who were trying to stand him up again for no good at all, for another overthrow from this malignant, pitiless, hideous universe that had already proved itself too much for him altogether. All his retractions and resistances intensified. One of those people had come in. Presently something would be said. Or they would begin carrying him about somewhere. Lately there had been a lot of carrying about. Airships and sailors and that railway train.....
Then nothing began to happen. Nothing began to happen with a quite positive emphasis. Someone had come into the room, and now there was such a stillness. Yet it was a fact that there was someone in the room. [Babes, 4.1.1]
The someone is Stella's uncle, Dr Kentlake the ‘psychotherapeutist’ (Wells's awkward term) in whose London house Gemini now is. Stella and her mother visit often. They don't entirely succeed ‘in piecing together a consecutive story of his experiences’, but a mosaic of traumatic moments emerges:
‘Stank,’ he said. ‘Stinking rags. It stank; it stank and it was alive and someone had stamped on its face ... children in bits, like rabbits torn to pieces and thrown about by a giant lunatic! Good old Providence sitting up aloft! ... Little... bloody... oozy... bits of human bodies ... Joints. Choice cuts. Bones I knew the names of. The acromial process; the femur, symphysis pubis. Funny to meet 'em lying about in the street. The blasts seemed to have peeled the flesh off. Omo-sternum, exactly like the joint out of a butcher's shop, and that—that squashed woman. Ugh! that woman, wrong way up. Bah! Who would want to have anything to do with a woman again after that? Love! Just playing about with entrails? Bloody entrails.’ [Babes, 4.1.2. Ellipses in original]
He is especially disillusioned by Stalin's Russia (‘filthy fraud of a world. Planes over! Russian planes. Planes from the Land of Promise setting the proletariat of Finland free and bombing them to hell. Run! Run! Run!’), and his piecemeal account of being trapped without food, shelter or proper clothing in a winter wood as the Germans advanced literalizes Stella's dream (and Wells's title). His convalescence takes a long time. When he sleeps ‘unpleasant dreams’ assail him (‘he was confronted by Stella Kentlake and she was deriding him because he was impotent’ [4.1.2]).

Uncle Robert's theraputic approach mostly consists of unloading lengthy Wellsian-y lectures upon his patient, bloviating about Freud, Christ, Stalin and many other topics. It's extraordinarily prolonged, this section, and even though it's only paying Gemini back in his own pompous-lecturing coin it starts to feel egregious—until, that is, Wells bowls us a narrative googly. Gemini starts to improve, but ‘just at this turn of affairs, the blind ruthlessness that flows beneath events in this world decreed that Uncle Robert should die. His death came as a devastating surprise to everyone, including himself’ [4.2.1]. He's knocked down by a van in the street. Wells does at least grant him a death-bed scene in which he can lecture at length one last time.

Things have now broken down completely between Gemini and Stella, and though she still loves him, she kicks him out (she has inherited the house on Uncle Robert's death). ‘“Go!” said Gemini. “Where?” “Is that my affair?”’ [4.3.1]. After a lengthy conversation, or mutual-lecturing-at session, she changes her mind and suggests instead that they marry, even though, with Gemini's impotence, it would be a sham marriage: ‘Did you ever read a book by D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley's Lover?’ she asks. ‘A stinking book if you like, but true. That would be our story’ [4.3.2]. Gemini agonizes that, if he's to be Lord Chatterley, who her Mellors could be: ‘he'd get a pistol and kill that lout.... and her’. But of course he won't. They do get married, too, but ‘she never touched him. She never came within three yards of him’.

They honeymoon in the same cottage where the novel opened, the scene of their former erotic bliss. Instead of having sex they lecture at one another at length. They chat again to the vicar, from whom they learn that the sculptor Kalinov has been interned as an enemy alien. When they visit his boarded-up house they find the huge alabaster block still in the garden—weirdly, it chooses just that moment to fall off its wooden supports and roll over, a motion they find tremendously auspicious.

Gradually Gemini becomes more like his old self, and declares his love for Stella: ‘I do now understand everything. Stella dearest, you have brought me back to self-respect. You knew what you were doing and you did it. Thank you’ but no sooner is the I love you out of his mouth than he's back to lecturing, taking the metaphor of the alabaster block as his theme. Will the war crash human civilisation, will ‘some crippled outcome of man's seed, hobgoblins and fairies, Morlocks and Eloi, emerge at the other side of this great débâcle’? Or will humanity finally carve the block?
I can see a world before me, Stella, as full of peace, order, beauty and variety as a well-kept garden, and as full of life, freedom and energy as—there's nothing with which to compare it. All that is still latent in the block. And still it will be Man's world, our world, far more than this world of to-day. Because you see, Stella, eye hath not seen yet, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the heart of man to conceive, what this world might be like were every human being in it fed and lovingly educated—well educated—educated out of its inferiority complex and its spites and arrogance—and put to the job in which it could realise its powers. There is scarcely a human being alive now who couldn't do something well, if you could find the thing for it to do, and presently, when maybe the creatures are more deliberately born, though there will still be infinite variety, there will be no longer anything you will be able to treat as all—round inferiority. The possibilities of breeding and bettering men that are coming within reach of us. They stagger my imagination. [Babes, 4.3.5]
That breeding makes me suspect Wells, even in his late seventies, hasn't wholly given up his youthful eugenic ideas. But at any rate, Gemini resolves to join-up properly to fight the Nazis, not for the now but ‘for the world of, let us say, 1960 or 1970’ [4.3.6]. 1970 eh? A rubicon indeed. Specifically, Gemini thinks the present power-structures will cling-on to a kind of status quo until ‘about 1970 or 80’, when there will be ‘a reaction’ and a World State finally established in which ‘The Right Thing to Do will be the real dictator for adult mankind’. So. Anyhow, Gemini enlists in the Royal Navy (he crews a mine-sweeper) and Stella becomes a nurse, their marriage still sexless but their hope rekindled for the possibilities of the future.


There's a rather heartbreaking moment in Anthony West's biography of his father, H G Wells: Aspects of a Life (1984) where West describes Wells's last days. The whole tenor of the volume is a little ... I don't know: uneasy-making, somehow. West hero worships his famous Dad, explains-away or more aggressively defends every aspect of his life, every dubious decision, inaction or hurtful episode, and paints Wells's lover Rebecca West, Anthony's own mother, as an evil witch. But the impression the volume gives is that Wells simply didn't return his son's urgent adoration. Wells was mostly an absentee father to his illegitimate son (West's own novelisation of his childhood, Heritage, shows this more clearly): financially fairly generous but emotionally always distant. Anyway: towards the end of his father's life, adult West was in London, working for the BBC. Wells had a nice house overlooking Regent's Park, and West was living in a separate mews flat at the bottom of the garden, known, though I don't know why, as ‘Mr. Mumford's’.

‘Whilst this arrangement lasted,’ says West, ‘I would look in to see him almost every day. I would come in and find him sitting with a light rug over his knees, dozing at what had been his worktable, or, on sunny days, basking in the presence of a variety of potted plants in a big armchair that had been put out for him on the glassed-in balcony at the back of the house. We were sharing silences rather than talking by then.’ Rumours had reached Wells's ears (untruths, West insists) that Anthony was involved in some kind of pro-Nazi conspiracy at the BBC. I've no idea about the veracity or otherwise of these rumours, or how they started, but West talks about how ‘the nightmare cobweb of lies had fallen between me and my father whilst the flying bomb attack on London was at its height’. West says he planned to explain the whole situation to Wells, and put his mind at rest, but that his father was too ill to broach the topic. Then Wells's health rallied, and ‘it seemed wrong to break in on his euphoria with all that stuff’. But then his health collapsed again, and he sank towards death.
Sitting beside him one day, at once close to and utterly remote from him, and thinking him asleep, I fell into a passion of misery and buried my face in my hands. How long my spasm of pain lasted I have no way of knowing, but when its intensity slackened I suddenly felt that I was being watched. I looked up to find my father's blue eyes fixed on me with the light of his full intelligence in them. We stared at each other for an instant, until he said faintly, ‘I just don't understand you ...’ with that light fading from his eyes as he spoke. He had turned himself off, as it were, and had withdrawn into that absence in which he waited for his coming death. The last chance of communication had gone, and there was not to be another. [West, H G Wells: Aspects of a Life (London: Hutchinson 1984), 152-53. Ellipsis in original]
Wells died on the 13th August 1946. David C Smith, whose biography of Wells appeared whilst West was still alive, says nothing about the Nazi-sympathizer rumours, either because he considers them so groundless as not to need rebuttal, or else because there was something in them but he didn't want to get sued by West. At any rate, I just don't understand you is an almost breathtakingly thoughtless and cruel last ever thing to say to your son, given the cloud that was over the two of them.

Step back half a decade and the older generation's ‘I just don't understand you’ in the face of the younger's strange energies and baffling enthusiasms is exactly the tenor of Babes in the Darkling Wood. One of the things that works well about his novel is how it orchestrates that baffled noncomprehension both in terms of an in-text rigidity of moral or social-conventional reaction—as with Gemini's father's stiff-necked disapproval, or choleric Uncle Hubert—and in terms of an as-it-were out-text structuring, a story about and embodying a Great Unseen, and attempting to dissipate the cloud-of-unknowing that clings about it.

The Great Unseen in this novel is the mystery of the world as such, but it's more than that. This book—by an old revolutionary about a new generation of young revolutionaries that he doesn't understand—is, as a whole, a sort of glyph of warding about the ways the old misunderstand the young. The shape of the resulting fiction, in the largest sense is: young love, and especially the intensity of young mutual sexual desire, isolates Stella and Gemini into a bubble where the harshness of the world cannot touch them. Their astronomical names point to a kind of romanticised remoteness from things as they are, I suppose. From the third chapter onwards (that chapter's title is ‘The World's Harsh Voice is Heard Off’) the mundial intrudes into this astro-erotic remoteness, or more precisely the stars are forced to come down to earth. Parents are hostile, society is ostracizing and unhelpful, and when war breaks out the world as such reveals its Schopenhauerian ghastliness. The young lovers are revealed as too existentially and relationally fragile to survive this shock, and though with the help of a therapeutic regime Gemini is brought to a semblance of normal social function, the sexlessness of his final marriage to Stella leaves the novel hanging in a very strange place. Nazism must be defeated, but we can't say that the Stella-Gemini nexus has survived contact with reality.

According to the reading I'm proposing here, the multiple infodump-y lecturettes characters impose upon other characters are not, actually, Socratic attempts at laying a genuine dialogic exploration of ideas before the reader. They are instead an attempt to chuck huge quantities of explanation at the wall of the inexplicable in the hope that some of it sticks. Not much does, I have to say. But perhaps that's exactly the point.

Certainly, the portions of the novel that come most vividly off the page are the accounts of battlefield horrors and refugee misery from occupied Poland. That's to be expected, I suppose, in a novel in which very little vivid or memorable happens at all (even Uncle Robert getting knocked down by a van happens off-stage). Maybe the old-man's ‘I just don't understand you’ in this novel is a tacit: ‘I just don't understand how you can't see how unforgiving and brutal the real world is.’

It's striking odd the way this novel, in effect, repudiates eros in its final sections. Wells, of course, is old by the time he writes this novel, and is winding down, so presumably his sex drive—so important to his make-up for so much of his existence—is not what it used to be. Still, he gets under the skin of young lust well enough in the early sections. I wonder if, in howsoever oblique a manner, he isn't working through his sense that erotic passion, by ruthlessly individuating our libidinal investment, doesn't actually work against the larger solidarity required by the global community spirit necessary to bring about utopia (in 1970—or whenever). Simply excising, through PTSD, the erotic fixation of Gemini upon Stella is a rather extreme way of addressing this I suppose: a kind of textual chemical-castration. But another way of looking at it, in a novel packed to the very gills with undigested chunks of philosophy, is to see this as Wells's gordian-knot intervention into one of the irresolvables of metaphysics as such. ‘Philosophy,’ is how Simon Critchley puts it, ‘has long been entangled between moral optimists like Kant’, who argue that the fullest individual self-realisation, including erotic self-realisation, is perfectly compatible with the claims of human solidarity, and ‘moral skeptics like Nietzsche and Freud’ who insist that ‘the desire for human solidarity dissimulates either the will-to-power or lidibinal drives’ [Critchley, Ethics, Politics, Subjectivity: Essays on Derrida, Levinas and Contemporary French Thought (London: Verso 1999), 86]. Wells, we could say, is feeling his way around that same conflict—the tension between the desire to turn inward to personal erotic consummation and the need to look outward, to the larger necessities of the world today—and, finally, simply writing-out the former option to leave only the latter.


  1. On the Anthony West/Nazis-at-the-BBC rumours: there were lots of this kind of rumour flying about, and not only to do with the Beeb—especially at the start of the war, these sorts of suspicions and rumours were not uncommon. Later in life West blamed his mother Rebecca West for spreading them out of sheer malice, but as Lynette Felber shows, adult West was motivated by an astonishingly intense and sustained hatred of his mother, and saw her malign influence in everything bad that happened, either to him or to his father.

    “Anthony's revengeful, triangular autobiographical projects were expressed through some ludicrous, wayward forms. Anthony told the story of his painful upbringing as the illegitimate child of famous writers to the tabloids: in 1976, it appeared in The Observer with family pictures and the embarrassing headline ‘Life with Aunty Panther’ which Rebecca threatened to challenge with a libel suit … Anthony's cruellest act came one year after his mother's death: she could no longer refute the charge which he published in the New York Review of Books that, ‘from the time that [he] turned fourteen she was minded to do [him] what hurt she could, and that she remained set in that determination as long as there was breath in her body to sustain her malice’.” [Lynette Felber, ‘Unfinished Business and Self-Memorialization: Rebecca West's Aborted Novel, Mild Silver, Furious Gold, Journal of Modern Literature 25:2 (2001-2002), 40-42

    Felber adds that ’late in his life, West even visited an exorcist to purge himself of his mother's influence’. Amazing stuff, really.

  2. Re: the characters' view of the world as a badly unfinished sculpture, I'm reminded of Sydney Smith imitating Francis Jeffrey's curmudgeonliness about everything: "Damn the solar system! bad light — planets too distant — pestered with comets — feeble contriviance; — could make a better with great ease."

  3. 'Felber adds that ’late in his life, West even visited an exorcist to purge himself of his mother's influence’. Amazing stuff, really.'

    Sounds like a donnee for somebody's novel, actually. How sad, too, as actual human self-created suffering.

  4. It's not just that word 'breeding' - look at the previous sentence.

    "presently, when maybe the creatures are more deliberately born ... there will be no longer anything you will be able to treat as all—round inferiority"

    I'm generally all in favour of children being 'deliberately born', but I don't think the view that unplanned children were per se inferior was widely held in 1940. (Prejudices along those lines were critiqued several years earlier by Sir Edmund of Gloucester.) The line only makes sense if we assume that family planning is going to be carried out wholesale, with children only being (deliberately) born to the right kind of people.

    It sounds as if this entire novel is one long, puzzled head-shake from an elderly and increasingly disappointed Wells - All this youth and vitality and (erotic) energy - it won't do, you know, it's not going to be enough... But if that's the case, why do young Pinky and Perky do so much speechifying themselves?