Upwardly-mobile men out of Wells

June 26, 1998

TRESPASS. By D. J. Taylor. 223pp. Duckworth. Pounds 15.99. - 0 7156 2825 9.

For my father, with love (and thanks, H. G.)" reads the dedication to this, D. J. Taylor's fourth novel. But even without the pointer, the reader familiar with Tono-Bungay by H. G. Wells would soon realize that Trespass is a contemporary reworking of that mordant 1909 portrait of money and power in society. Here is the unexpectedly successful entrepreneurial uncle who, from nowhere and nothing, builds up a financial empire and is linked with the mightiest in the land, and who falls, to die an outcast with no help from his eminent associates. Here, too, is his nephew, unpromising in youth, who becomes the great man's aide-de-camp and is thus involved in his collapse. Uncle and nephew even have the original Wellsian names: Teddy (Ted) and George. As in Wells, the uncle sees himself in Napoleonic terms, but quits this life pathetic with the delusions of brain fever. And in both novels, the nephew is the narrator, his voice and what it recounts suggesting that a fortune is Dead Sea Fruit in a world as selfish as ours - as epitomized in his loveless career with women.

The scheme behind Trespass is a clever one, for it is apt for the period in which it is largely set. The 1980s, and the frustrations of the 70s out of which they arose, offer themselves for comparison with the glutted, unequal, imperialist England where Wells was both luminary and scourge. Taylor takes over Wells's form, the pseudo-autobiography, with a sureness of touch, and an aphoristic panache quite worthy of his master - and with greater verbal economy and more developed artistry of design. Trespass operates, seamlessly, a threefold narrative method: recollections of the past up to Uncle Ted's death; evocations of the narrator's uneasy, stalked present; and question-and-answer sessions between George and a ghost-writer, attempting an overview.

Ted and George Chell, despite the discrepancy in their ages, emerge from the same background: the housing estates of Norwich's West Earlham, depicted as cultureless, joyless, heartless, repressive to libido and soul alike. Small wonder that upward mobility becomes a spiritual as well as an economic imperative. Small wonder that, with such a background, these over-motivated arrivistes should lack the moral and intellectual resources with which to sustain their attainments, or even enjoy them.

The differences between Tono-Bungay and Trespass, however, are significant and illuminating. In Wells's novel, the uncle has a galvanic quality that makes him the book's centre of gravity; the nephew-narrator is far less persuasive. In Taylor's, it is the other way round. Uncle Ted doesn't convince as a commanding figure of power; only in obscurity does he have proper fictive life. Nor does one feel that Taylor's know-ledge of the domains Ted conquers exceeds that of any intelligent reader of serious journalism. Wells, by contrast, personally craved and obtained influence and public prominence; he could therefore invest Uncle Ponderevo with some of himself. With nephew George, it is another matter. Though for me his earlier London life has a certain anachronistic ring, Taylor's depiction of this character is informed by our own mal de si cle. When we meet him, he is living, virtually in hiding, in a miserable hotel in a dispiriting Suffolk seaside resort, his existence perfectly connoting the aftermath of Thatcherite boom-and-bust: enforced self-diagnosis, sense of loss, despondency.

An important reason for the success of George over Ted is surely that, appearances to the contrary, our society (even in Thatcher's heyday) cannot believe in money, just as it cannot believe in progress. It may put its hopes on both, but faith eludes it, as it didn't the Wells who wrote Tono-Bungay. Hence the late utter despair of his Mind at the End of its Tether (1945).

Taylor is the author of a thought-provoking discussion of the novel in the last half-century, After the War (1993). In Trespass, he is attempting to live up to its axioms, that fiction should have the inclusiveness, the outwardness, the intellectual toughness of the great Victorians and Edwardians. In the famous quarrel between Henry James and H. G. Wells, he would (I assume) take Wells's part (as E. M. Forster did), but at his own showing, he would be mistaken. What is strongest in this absorbing book - George's dreadful marriage, the gloom of the Caradon hotel - comes, as so frequently at this time of crisis in literary confidence, from the Jamesian within, which the author knows thoroughly, not from the Wellsian without, for which he has to rely on secondary sources.

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