Thursday 23 December 2010

Penguin no. 151: The Invisible Man
by H.G. Wells

I approach reading the older Penguin books with some trepidation. They are difficult to replace and they are fragile, and this one is probably the most fragile of them all. It was published in 1945, and due to wartime restrictions it was published compactly on thin paper, without page breaks at the end of chapters. On the final page there is an encouragement to the reader to drop it off at the local Red Cross so that it can be sent to the sick and wounded of the Fighting Services.

As the photo shows, this one is in very poor condition, and certainly in worse condition that the other wartime books that I have. It was published in Australia, and clearly they had problems with quality control. The Australian-published wartime Penguins have paper covers, and are stapled. They have a font that is so small you need to magnify it to read it, horizontal grids that are crooked, spines that are too small for the book number, and margins of variable size. But it is like a small piece of history that has come down to me, and I wonder how it has survived for 65 years.

I must admit to having reservations about H.G. Wells. I think the belief in progress, faith in the benefits of science and technology and the search for utopia caused many problems in the 20th Century, and I really regret the rejection of accumulated knowledge and of history which is manifest in 20th Century ideas and values, architecture and art. I like the idea of knowledge accumulating and of always looking backwards to retain what has been learnt in the past. In many ways this blog is my small stand against this modernist way of thinking.

However, I still think this is a wonderful book. I love the way it is so scientific. It was written by someone who understood and applied scientific modes of thought. He starts with an original premise, he makes assumptions, such as that invisibility is an achievable physical property, and then within this constrained reality he logically explores the implications of his premise. He contemplates the advantages of being invisible, such as the ease of theft and of escape, but he also explores the disadvantages, such as the inability to shelter from the cold with clothing. And then there are the complications: footprints in the mud, the adherence of snow and pollution, the difficulty of walking on crowded streets, the widespread fear of something different.The essence of the problem is captured in a few lines from the book: "I went over the heads of the things a man reckons desirable. No doubt invisibility made it possible to get them, but it made it impossible to enjoy them when they  are got." And the book incorporates a didactic element when, in the course of a conversation between two scientists, he smuggles in a chapter explaining the the refraction and the reflection of light.

It is such an enjoyable book to read, with evocative prose and a wonderful structure. It begins with the Invisible Man desiring only to be left undisturbed, but subject to the attentions of the inhabitants of a West Sussex village called Iping. These villagers are caricatured mercilessly as yokels, and it adds a comic touch to the book encouraging some feelings of sympathy for the Invisible Man. But it soon becomes clear that any such sympathies are misplaced, as the novel becomes abruptly darker when we witness his lack of humanity towards a tramp, and hear his justification of the terrible crimes he commits against his father, his landlord, and various others who cross his path.

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