Issue 209, Summer 2014
I’ve touched on this unusual man Oliver Lodge before: he gives two crucial talks in a story I wrote called “The Ether of Space.” Still, I don’t seem to be done with him and at various times have contemplated stories involving his relationship with his aunt Anne, or that visit to Montreal and his tour through Yellowstone, or the balloon game he played with his children, his connection with Ruskin, his boat journey home from Australia at the start of the war, the séances during which he tried to contact Raymond. Really, he seems to demand a full-scale biography, or a big biographical novel along the lines, say, of David Lodge’s A Man of Parts, which is about a similarly public man, H. G. Wells, during a similar span of years. It’s easy to see the possibilities of a fiction about someone so much at the center of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century science; so accomplished and so contradictory; so perfectly poised at a moment of change and such a vigorous writer himself that he left behind, in addition to popular-science books, textbooks, treatises, and letters, an extensive autobiography as well as several books ostensibly about other subjects but deeply entwined with his personal life.
Part of me wants to write that novel, but another part very much doesn’t—and what I’m trying to figure out here is why I don’t reach out and pick up what seems to be waiting for me, wrapped and tied with a bow. Why am I actually repelled by that idea, even though I’m fascinated by Lodge and his work and his world?
I don’t think my resistance has to do with the scope of his life, the difficulty of his scientific work, or the overlap between his experimental rigor and his belief in psychic phenomena, which even at the time was thought peculiar and now seems downright bizarre. For a while, I thought it maybe had to do with how fully his life, as one of England’s great public figures, is documented. Records exist for virtually every talk he gave, every lecture and demonstration, every course he taught, not to mention all he wrote about his own life. There are so few gaps in the record that I can’t find room to imagine him. And I know that what I don’t want to write is a novel marching through all the key events of his life, dutifully amplifying and explicating.
Biographical fictions are fashionable now, and have been for a little while; turn around in a bookstore and you’ll find novels about Tesla and Copernicus, Darwin and Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost and Tolstoy and Cleopatra, this person’s lover, that person’s wife. A new novel in the voice of Lincoln, I Am Abraham, came out as I started writing this; also a new set of stories about Franz Kafka, Forgiving the Angel. I found examples everywhere, as soon as I started looking: some good and some tedious, some so close to the biographical end of the spectrum as to seem like biography lite, biography relieved of the need for footnotes. Some claim attention by offering a new perspective on an already famous protagonist: Stephen Crane, say, in his last days, imagined as writing a novella about a boy prostitute. Others try to expand our knowledge of the central subject’s life by exploring a real but sidelined figure: Darwin’s manservant, Hemingway’s housemaid, Louise Brooks’s chaperone. Many are interesting as books but not, exactly, as fiction, as if their dutiful adherence to the life-as-already-recorded paradoxically keeps their characters from feeling really real in the sense of Jane Eyre or Anna Karenina or Dorothea Brooke or Huck Finn.
Lodge’s densely documented life seemed bound to suffer this fate. Or so was my first, careless, thought—until I remembered the obvious examples that make hash of this argument. Wonderful novels come to mind from long before this genre became popular: Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, framed as a letter to Marcus Aurelius and published in 1951; John Williams’s novel Augustus, also epistolary, published in 1972; John Banville’s Doctor Copernicus, published in 1976 and followed in 1981 by his Kepler; Bruce Duffy’s The World as I Found It, about Wittgenstein, published in 1987. Since then we’ve had the pleasures of Pat Barker’s Regeneration, about Siegfried Sassoon; Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Blue Flower, about the German poet Novalis; Joanna Scott’s Arrogance, about Egon Schiele; and Colm Tóibín’s The Master, about Henry James. Most recently, and brilliantly, we have Hilary Mantel’s celebrated novels about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, which are alive in every aspect. And as if these were not enough to contradict my careless thought, we also have wonderful stories about well-known figures—think of Raymond Carver’s gorgeous “Errand,” about Chekhov’s death; Eudora Welty’s “A Still Moment,” about Audubon; or, more recently, Robert Cohen’s long story, “Klopstock, or the Distant Sound,” about Kafka’s last days in a tuberculosis sanatorium.
Even one example means the problem is solvable; it’s like getting one message from the dead. The fault lies not in Oliver Lodge’s heavily documented life, not even in his long autobiography, but in my own inability to imagine a fresh way to approach that material.