H.G. Wells: Aspects of a Life
by Anthony West
Random House, 405 pp., $22.95
A pseudonym is the briefest form of fiction. Fittingly, some pseudonyms seem to be fighting on fiction’s side against the disparagement and death wishes that have been directed at it at least since Jane Austen was stung into bursting through the conventions of fictional narrative and launching her classic riposte. In demonstrating that fiction, even in miniature form, possesses greater vitality and versatility than its enemies admit, the counterattacking pseudonyms also break conventions, if only those of real life.
The campaign probably began when Colette adopted her father’s surname as her own first and, indeed, only name for literary purposes and then gave the first name Colette to her real-life daughter. I noticed another initiative in the 1970s when I met (and, incidentally, liked) Sonia Orwell. Given that “George Orwell” was a pseudonym, marriage to its owner presumably made her Mrs. Eric Blair. After his death she became Mrs. Someone Else. Yet there Sonia Orwell was, a perfectly palpable phantom on the London literary scene, prudently using her nonexistent surname to announce her guardianship of the Orwell oeuvre and reputation. Sound authority, though not her own, has it that in her phantom name she proposed a writer to receive an Arts Council award and, in the space for the proposer’s status normally filled by “novelist,” “critic,” or what have you, spiritedly entered “veuve distinguée.”
Even that is nothing in comparison with the case of Rebecca West. Whereas Orwell is the real-life name of a town and a river, Rebecca West was a fully fledged fictitious character, in Henrik Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm, a quarter of a century before her name was taken by Cicily Fairfield as her pseudonym. The appropriator had an affair with H.G. Wells, a writer and married man twenty six years her senior, and in 1914, during the very hours when the First World War was breaking out, bore him a son. Grown up, the son followed both his parents into the profession of authorship, which he practices under the name Anthony West—evidence indeed of the staying power of a literary imagination, though whether his mother’s or Ibsen’s is hard to tell.
His new book is, according to the list at its front, his ninth. He calls it “aspects of” his father’s life. That is not all there is to it, but the description is just, although “episodes from” might have even better conveyed his episodic treatment of a life that appears to have been episodic well beyond the book-a-year requirements of popular writing. Mr. West begins with his own birth and works both backward and forward in time from there. The method makes for fluent reading but also makes it difficult for the reader, unless he has perfect arithmetical pitch or reads with one of those gadgets in hand for clocking up the rows in knitting, to keep an eye on where he is in history as he goes through the book. Still, it spares him that variant …