Thursday, October 4, 2007


The novel for class last week was H.G. Wells' Tono-Bungay (1909), a long, rambling tale of rise and fall: in the marketing of a "tonic" that is actually harmful (but which sells exceedingly well thanks to aggressive advertisement); in the fortunes of its inventor; and in the fortunes of his nephew and chronicler (and part-time aeronautics inventor) George. As you can tell from that brief description, the novel is busy, busy, busy (and I didn't even mention the Conrad "take-off" of a trip into Africa to abscond with some radioactive material called "quap"). Wells seems to believe that a story is interesting so long as it keeps moving. It's not that the narrative doesn't pause to reflect -- George is often reflective and the novel is at its best (because so very timely) in his comments on the changes in English class and in commercial society and in science that he notes in his lifetime -- but there's too much of a breezy kind of narration that never gets under the surfaces of things, nor really does much to create feelings, emotions, sensations, tastes, pleasures, regrets, passions or much else that the novel, not as action but as representation, is able to pack in.

So the whole affair is rather pallid and tepid. Brimming with a kind of "can-do" assertiveness that sometimes becomes an almost melancholy questioning ("what have we done?"), George is mercurial enough to keep me reading, but not nearly interesting enough to sustain devoted attention. And that trip into Africa ... talk about the packaged tour! George even kills an African -- supposedly (I guess) to make us question what kind of "savagery" is at work in the work George is committed to (saving his uncle's commercial empire / British Empire) at all costs -- but the scene is so amateurish, so lacking in anything like real drama or even symbolic mystery, that it demoralizes (by clumsily pointing out a lack of moral basis) what is otherwise an acceptable yarn about getting ahead and inventing the terms by which the public will buy in.

There is also much-too-much about George's affairs of the heart: for the most part the female characters are lacking much compelling interest, but at least there is an earnest effort on George's part to show that he doesn't understand women. However, it's in the postmortems of failed romance that I was struck by one of George's insights into what he calls "romantic love":

it does seem to me that this way in which men and women make audiences for one another is a curiously influential force in their lives. . . . I had lived for work and impersonal interests until I found scrutiny, applause and expectation in Beatrice's eyes. Then I began to live for the effect I imagined I made upon her, to make that very soon the principal value in my life. I played to her. I did things for the look of them.

This passage is not that important to the overall themes of the book, but it leapt out at me with a certain profundity. While Wells' style of writing is about as far from James or Proust as one could imagine, here he does indulge in a bit of what could almost be called Proustian self-consciousness. The idea that romantic love doesn't simply boost one's ego, or make one self-regarding around the beloved because one is driven by desires and affections, but rather creates a relation based on both parties being an audience to the other. That the source of the romance is in the fact that one wants to see and to be in the presence of the beloved, while also that the beloved must "look," must fix attention on oneself. Romance makes us players in each other's films.

I believe that Wells is trying to offset this showiness with something more real, but in terms of interpersonal relations, he doesn't arrive at anything. Tono-Bungay is very forwarding-looking in its grasp of the New Age, but doesn't bring into play moving pictures -- as perhaps it should. In any case, perhaps this "romance as mutual spectacle" idea nods at where things are tending. As George says: "I began to dream more and more of beautiful situations and fine poses and groupings with her and for her." Eventually, we'll dream ourselves into starring roles in the private film we act out together. Love, we might say, comes with looking and being looked at.

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