Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Pessimistic Idealist

Have you ever ordered a book on a whim, where something about the book - a review, a mention in a novel - catches your eye and you think Hm, I'd like to read that? That is how I ended up with The H. G. Wells Reader. I found it in my cubby just before I left for WLA and wondered why it was there. Had I really requested this? I'd already read "The Time Machine" and "The Invisible Man," years ago, and we'd seen "The Island of Doctor Moreau" at Taproot Theater. I considered myself well and truly finished with H. G. Wells. And yet, the Reader was in my cubby, my name on the Hold slip. I checked it out, took it home, and thought no more about it.

I was tidying up the living room on Thursday and discovered the Reader buried beneath a pile of National Geographics. Oh. Right. I picked it up, still puzzled over why I'd requested it. It wasn't until I looked at the table of contents that all was made clear. I couldn't remember exactly where I'd read about it, but somebody, somewhere, had included the Wells novelette "A History of Mr. Polly" (publ. 1910) in a list. The list had intrigued me - I have no idea why - and this title in particular had stood out as a must-read. The only KRL copy of the novelette was within the Reader, so that's what I ordered. Mystery solved.

I finished "A History of Mr. Polly" in two bedtime readings. H. G. Wells is an enigma to me. How could someone write so pessimistically and yet with such humor and hope? The story follows Mr. Polly from childhood through early middle age. Some passages were heavy going with long, convoluted sentences, the sort that one thinks what? and must reread to capture the point. I'll admit right here that I skimmed a bit along the way but it was a surprisingly good read. Wells captures human nature so poignantly, especially when the character is deeply conflicted about his dreams and the reality he's actually living.

This may seem odd, but I was reminded of Twain and Wodehouse while reading about Mr. Polly. There were unexpected and perfect phrases, understated descriptions that said much more than was actually written. An example: "...Mr. Polly went out early and reappeared with a purchase, a safety bicycle, which he proposed to study and master in the sandy lane below the Johnson's house. But over the struggles that preceded his mastery it is humane to draw a veil." That second sentence says everything and nothing, letting me fill in the blank, having already been given an understanding of Mr. Polly's history and personality. Alas for Mr. Polly.

There's another bit that made me laugh. Mr. Polly ends up at a riverside inn and stays to help the landlady. Uncle Jim is an outlaw family member whom the landlady fears. Jim shows up and warns off Mr. Polly: "I jest want to have a (decorated) word wiv you. See? Just a friendly word or two. Just to clear up any bloomin' errors. That's all I want. No need to be so (richly decorated) proud..."

See how funny that is? Who needs asterisks? I never knew H. G. Wells could write like that.

There are a couple of other excerpts and short stories in this Reader. Once I've read those, I shall consider my time with Mr. Wells complete.

Overheard on Twitter: Why is it the only men who have their phones attached to their belts are the ones who don't need extra attention drawn to their waistline?

Next time: still pondering WLA. Stay tuned.

No comments: