The Invisible Man

by Michael Coren,
ISBN: 0394223322

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Wars with the World
by Robin Britt

BIOGRAPHERS ARE competitive creatures, always delighted to unearth some tidbit of information overlooked in previous lives of their subjects, and positively ecstatic when developing a brand-new slant on an entrenched reputation. This latter phenomenon is the raison d' etre of Michael Coren's new life of H.G. Wells, wherein the author avows that "other biographers ... far too selective in their inclusions" have painted a far too positive portrait of a writer whose legacy is, "taken as a whole, pernicious and destructive."

The first question, of course, is just how selective previous biographers have been in suppressing what Coren sees as Wells's anti-Semitism, misogyny, and authoritarian political views. The two most recent full biographies, those of Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie (1973) and David C. Smith (1986), generally do ignore these aspects of Wells's personality - the Mackenzies are particularly concerned with playing down Wells's anti-Semitism - and so the issue then becomes a matter of evidence. Just how significant are Coren's revelations, and to what extent do they modify our view of Wells and his literary output?

The first part of this question is easy to answer. Although some reviewers have greeted The Invisible Man with "we-knew-it-all-the-time" pooh-poohing, the fact is that Coren is the first to have thoroughly documented - and, equally importantly, presented in a readable popular biography convincing proof of Wells's animus toward Jews, women, and other "contemptible and silly creatures." And it's not as if this material were obscure or previously unavailable; Coren has simply read all of Wells, the preachy political tracts as well as the still-trendy SF novels, and drawn the logical conclusions from the hard textual evidence. In the process, he's caught a number of self-described experts with their trousers down around their ankles, and the wails of anguish from injured egos have been as audible as they are entirely irrelevant.

Whether or not these revelations should relegate Wells to literature's deadletter office is another matter, however, and not one that Coren handles particularly well. He pays lip service to Wells as a "novelist of overwhelming abilities" but concludes that "there is a stain on his writing and on his character that is indelible." Concerning the character, yes, but with regard to the writing things are a little more complicated, given what many serious students of literature see as the necessity of separating authorial attributes from the nature of the work itself. In a century in which many important writers (Pound, Eliot, Yeats, Lewis) have often seemed morally as well as politically incorrect, simplistic correlations between authors and works often raise more problems than they resolve.

Effective and spirited popular biography though it is, The Invisible Man would have benefited from a firmer editorial hand. Page references to sources are not provided, and the bibliography is completely inadequate; misspellings abound, and there is the occasional glaring contradiction (Wells is described as having first met Henry James in both 1899 and 1913, for example); and far too much space is devoted to plot summaries of novels that play a very minor role in Coren's analysis. But despite these not inconsiderable deficiencies, The Invisible Man's refusal to call a spade a shovel and its vigorous narrative drive earn it a definite place among serious studies of the life and work of H. G. Wells.


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