Mosley's aesthetics stem from a youth already conditioned by his father's resistance to the status quo. He was born in London on 25 June 1923, the offspring of two distinguished aristocratic families. His father, Oswald (Tom) Mosley, was a popular orator, parliamentarian, and womanizer who eventually founded and led the British Union of Fascists just before World War II, a position that made him infamous ("beyond the pale" to some) and for which he was incarcerated for much of the duration of the war. Nicholas's mother, Lady Cynthia (nee Curzon), served as a Labour Party member in Parliament, and her family was known for her father's service as Viceroy of India at the turn of the century. The elder Mosleys held extravagant garden Parties, traveled around the world, and enjoyed all the perks of their social status. They summered in Antibes, motored through France, and fished with Franklin Roosevelt on his yacht. On his mother's side, Nicholas Mosley inherited the title of Baron Von Ramsdale, and from his father he inherited a baronetcy.
Oswald Mosley was a larger than life figure for his son. Charismatic, energetic, and handsome, Oswald was impatient with the usual government techniques for economic reform during the mass unemployment and social unrest of the 1930s. An aristocrat who believed he could speak for the interests of the common man, Oswald had difficulty settling on one party affiliation. He served first in Parliament as a Conservative, then as an Independent, and then for Labour. After his proposals for addressing unemployment met with little success, he resigned from Parliament and led the British Union of Fascists in 1932. Clearly iconoclastic in his political views, he visited with Mussolini and consulted with Ghandi. Through large Hitleresque rallies and emotional speeches, Oswald generated much attention and excitement, but most British citizens shied away from electing members of his party to official office, and after World War II, the Fascists went into a swift decline. By the 1950s, Oswald turned to race-baiting in his speeches to try to regain the media attention he once enjoyed.
Though Oswald led a colorful and public life, Nicholas's earlier childhood was sheltered. As an infant, Nicholas often went for walks in London parks with his nanny and his sister Vivien, who was two and half years older. When he was seven, he developed a stutter, a trait that he later characterized as a form of resistance to the easy flow of other people's words. In the spring of 1927 his family moved to Savehy Farm, a large Elizabethan farmhouse in Denham, and Nicholas enjoyed playing by the Colne River, camping out in a thatched cottage, and observing his parents' weekend garden parties, whose guests included celebrated authors, politicians, and the haut monde of the era. When he was nine years old, Nicholas's mother Cynthia abruptly died from complications after undergoing appendix surgery. She was only thirty-five.
As a young man Nicholas got along well with his father and his new wife, Diana Guinness. Mosley attended Abinger Hill school and later Eton, where the students were more interested in the fancy car that came to pick him up than in any political affiliation of his father's. In May 1940, after World War II began, Oswald was imprisoned for over three years because his Fascist affiliations were seen as a threat to national security. Nicholas Mosley visited his father in prison, where they would drink brandy and have ambitious intellectual discussions about Nietzsche, Goethe, and the nature of divine providence. These conversations would later find many equivalents in Mosley's fiction.
Though Nicholas Mosley's career went in a very different direction, there is no doubt that Oswald was a strong influence. After he had written many novels, Nicholas was still considered merely "Oswald's son," and his career a footnote to his father's notoriety. Nicholas saw how his father successfully manipulated people through the use of language and emulated that through writing, but his work was sensitized to the self-serving, amoral rhetoric of power. Just as Oswald made a side career out of adulterous liaisons with other politicians' wives, adultery also became a chief theme in Nicholas's fiction. Later, Seeker & Warburg decided to publish the noncommercial Catastrophe Practice and other novels on the condition that Mosley would write his father's biography after his death. So either in reaction against or in agreement to, Oswald's cult of personality casts a long shadow over his son's career.
Ironically, given his father's outspoken protests against the war, Mosley joined the army as an officer of the Rifle Brigade in 1942 and served as an infantry platoon commander in Italy. He accepted his place in the war as a necessary absurdity and duty. During the winter of 1943-44 in the mountains of Italy, German soldiers staged a raid on Mosley's company, capturing him and his men. He managed to escape, but was almost killed when a German soldier took aim at him. Luckily, one of his friends, Mervyn Davies, shot and killed the German soldier with freakish accuracy from about two hundred yards away. In 1944, after being awarded the Military Cross, Mosley left the armed forces. He briefly studied philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford, but then decided to marry Rosemary Salmond and devote himself to writing full time. His mother's family's trust fund provided him with a livelihood, and he moved with his wife to a country farm in north Wales.
Soon after the move, Mosley began writing and publishing his first series of novels: Spaces of the Dark (1951), The Rainbearers (1955), and Corruption (1957). While these novels contain thematic correspondences with his later work, they are hampered by their conventional postwar emphases on existential despair, nihilism, and romantic self-preoccupation. Stylistically, they owe a strong debt to the works of William Faulkner, Henry James, and Marcel Proust in their tendency to analyze nuances of character in ornate detail. Thematically, they reflect a young soldier's bewildered return to the role-playing and career expectations of British upper-class society. Mosley admired Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury for its ability to focus on "what's happening now," but the overwrought Faulknerian sentences in Mosley's earlier novels demonstrate how he had yet to find his voice. Later, Mosley would drop the decadent prose for a more fragmented, suggestive, and cinematic style.
Spaces of the Dark (1951) draws its title and some of its bleak tone from the T. S. Eliot poem "Rhapsody on a Windy Night": "through the spaces of the dark/Midnight shakes the memory/As a madman shakes a dead geranium" (14). In the novel Paul Shaun, an army officer, comes home from the war depressed by the secret knowledge that he had to kill his best friend, John Longmore, when John's judgment became impaired and he proved dangerous to his company in battle. Paul begins dating both the murdered man's sister, the bourgeois Margaret, and the more bohemian Sarah Thorne, but is tormented by his inability to truly love the sister of the friend he killed. The novel ends unhappily when Paul sacrifices his life to save Margaret from getting run over by a lorry. In his biography Efforts at Truth Mosley admits the novel can be faulted for its "operatic style of tragedy" (12) and "love-and-death romanticising" (13). One can sense Mosley struggling to find his voice and subject matter within the tragic conventions of the story. At one point Paul muses, "I only write about myself from the outside. That is no good. I want to write about the world from the inside. I can't do that yet" (193).
Mosley's second novel, The Rainbearers, explores the nature of romantic obsession and the various ways that married couples manipulate each other, themes that will find fuller expression in such later novels as Impossible Object (1968) and Natalie Natalia (1971). The plot of The Rainbearers concerns Richard, a young married man, who has an affair with the emotionally fragile Mary, who suffered in a French concentration camp during the war. His wife Elisabeth reacts by taking up with Martin Sykes, an older anthropologist. Once Richard finds out about Sykes, he goes with Mary to the Mediterranean so they can pursue their love affair in sun-drenched leisure. In Efforts at Truth Mosley describes Richard's affair with Mary as an attempt to live more authentically, freeing Richard from the superficiality and conventionality of his marriage to Elisabeth (45), but the affair becomes increasingly oppressive and contrived the longer they remain together. Still scarred by her experience in the concentration camp, Mary vacillates between happiness and misery until Richard finally decides to return to the relative emotional stability of Elisabeth. As in the case of Spaces of the Dark, the novel ends on a stilted, despairing note. Richard has to sacrifice Mary's happiness in part due to his inability to break out of the social role he has adopted for himself.
Mosley's third novel, Corruption, also concerns romantic obsession. Mosley explains that the title refers "to the way in which people choose to feel at home in self-laceration and confusion rather than to look for what might involve them in acceptance of responsibility and care" (Efforts at Truth 78). Written in the first person and given to more ambitious shifts between time and place, the novel chiefly concerns young Robert Croft's extended fixation on mysterious, headstrong Kate Lambourne, who comes from a wealthy, prominent side of his family. He first gets to know her as a child when he is invited to her estate. Then, as a teenager, Kate runs off with a young suitor and creates a scandal in the English press. Later, Kate and Robert share an impromptu passionate tryst in the depths of a cave, but Kate immediately leaves him to marry another man and have a Child. Later, she agrees to spend a weekend with him, which, he learns later, she uses as legal evidence for her upcoming divorce.
Disillusioned but still hopelessly infatuated with Kate, Robert moves to bohemian London and strikes up a relationship with Suzy, who juggles male admirers and comically carries her large bed from relationship to relationship; she provides a breath of fresh air to Robert's lugubrious fixations. Suzy and Robert leave London for Venice with its air of Jamesian corruption, and once there, they run into Kate, who is living in a palace with a wealthy playboy. When Robert and Suzy attend one of Kate's parties, Robert gets drunk and jumps out of a window into a Venetian canal, a form of baptismal escape that will find its counterpart later in Natalie Natalia when the main character drunkenly rides a child's bicycle into a swimming pool. In effect, Robert attempts to elude the gothic trappings of the novel, an act which humorously deflates Kate's mystery. Corruption ends with Kate explaining to Robert that he is the father of her child, the result of their encounter long ago in the cave, but by then Robert has begun to move away from his fixation on her, just as Mosley had begun to tire of this conventional strain of romantic fiction. Perhaps because all three novels earned respectful critical recognition and not much in the way of sales, Mosley took a break from writing fiction for four years.
During this hiatus in his fiction writing, Mosley turned to nonfiction projects. Earlier in the 1950s, a friend introduced Mosley to Father Raymond Raynes, the superior of the Anglican Community of the Resurrection, an order of monks. Under Raynes's guidance, Mosley converted to Christianity. As a consequence, between 1958 and 1960, Mosley edited an Anglican monthly magazine called Prism, writing articles on topics such as the moral implications of the hydrogen bomb, "What's Wrong with the Church," and "Fatherhood." Mosley used the publication's forum to explore ways to reconcile his largely modernist aesthetics with Christian belief and morality. For instance, he consistently found the same sort of paradoxes in Christian belief that he found in his theories about the nature of identity in his fiction, although Christian notions of free will found little expression in contemporary fiction. His enthusiastic review of J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey (1961) spelled out his aesthetic differences with much of the zeitgeist of the time: "The importance of this story is that it is about free will, and the way in which one person can touch another, profoundly, when that person needs to be touched. Most clever novels nowadays are about determinism, and the way in which no one has any hope of touching anyone ever" (qtd. in Lewis 537).
Mosley also wrote The Life of Raymond Raynes (1961), a biography of his spiritual mentor, and it remains one of his most engaging works of nonfiction mainly because Raynes's character, his humility, self-sacrifice, and moral example as a high-church official are persuasively dramatized. Raynes had the impersonality of a saint for many who knew him, but he also liked to drink and tell jokes, and he was very good at raising money for churches and organizing schools for Africans in Johannesburg. He conveyed to Mosley the benefits of prayer and his belief that divine providence would work out all human quandaries and entanglements, including the paradoxes of identity. Even though Mosley would later move away from organized Christianity, this period of exploration widened his sympathies beyond the more solipsistic world of his earlier novels. Moreover, his modernist aesthetics were Christianized during this period, becoming more optimistic, objective, deontological, and experimental as a result. Also during this time, Mosley journeyed through Africa with his novelist friend Hugo Charteris in an effort to observe others instead of writing so much from internal preoccupations, and this resulted in a memoir about his travels in Africa entitled African Switchback (1958).
Having refortified his aesthetics with these experiences, Mosley embarked on his middle period of writing fiction in the early 1960s. Dispensing with the extravagant prose style and exhaustive psychological analyses of his earlier work, these novels turn to more philosophical and religious ideas for their theoretical underpinnings, using syntactical fragmentation and vivid imagery reminiscent of the nouveau roman. Mosley focuses upon how true character shows itself in the choices made during moments of personal crisis, such as an auto accident, an extramarital love affair, or a kidnapping. In an interview with John O'Brien, Mosley characterizes his earlier novels as stories about "people basically trapped within the patterns of their psyches," while the later ones developed an aesthetic that tries "to deal with the possibilities of choice" (72).
Meeting Place (1962) reflects Mosley's life and aesthetics in transition. The novel concerns Harry Gates, a middle-aged man who works for a charity organization in London that tries to help juvenile delinquents. He comes from a wealthy background, but charity work strikes him as the only proper occupation. His wife Melissa has left him because of his infidelities and lives in America, and Harry struggles to look after his schoolboy son Richard in her absence. Compared to Mosley's narrow focus on just a few intimately connected people in the earlier novels, Meeting Place includes a diverse array of London characters ranging from a lord to adolescent street punks. Gates's mentor, Father Patterson, resembles Mosley's own mentor, Father Raynes, and Patterson's meditative notes show up the new philosophical direction Mosley's novels will take:
The fall of man into not evil but helplessness. A world which appears to have no meaning. The need to know the area within which meaning is experienced. When there is no meaning it is like a car out of gear: the engine moves but to no effect. When there is meaning this is experienced as movement in relation to the things outside it. What is the action that puts the car in gear? The need to know the point at which free will operates. (49)
Mosley must have known that he came close to Christian dogmatism in Meeting Place with this T. S. Eliotian line of inquiry, so he has Harry embark on a kind of secular quest for meaning in his efforts to help juvenile delinquents. Variations on this quest for the elusive "point at which free will operates" will characterize much of Mosley's subsequent fiction.
Ironically, given this movement toward interiority, all of the earlier novels' psychological analyses have been replaced in Meeting Place with external depictions of characters' movements and actions without explanation for their motivations. A newspaper slanders Harry with the unfounded suggestion that he has had homosexual liaisons with the boys he helps, and Richard, his son, is senselessly assaulted by teenage toughs in his home. The events seem random and unjustified, but there is a sense that a pattern is working out. As Harry points out, "It works.... You don't know how, but it does. Most of the time everything's in a muddle. Then it's like a light coming on"(181). In the end, Harry goes to America in search of a reconciliation with his wife. The novel exhibits a clear technical advance on Mosley's earlier work with its wider palette and its detached point of view, but the subject matter is too diffused to dramatically embody Mosley's newly refurbished aesthetics.
With his next novel, Accident (1965), Mosley finds his fictional voice, the first mature expression of his themes, his first successful film treatment, and substantial public recognition. The storyline concerns Stephen Jervis, an Oxford don who teaches philosophy. He has a wife and two children, but finds himself fantasizing about a beautiful German student named Anna. His married friend, a writer named Charlie, has an affair with her, but she then gets engaged to another student, William, an aristocrat. One evening, after visiting with Stephen and his family, Anna and William end up in a car accident near Stephen's house, a mishap which proves fatal for William and a potential scandal for all concerned. Anna seems to have been driving drunk and without a license, and Stephen is implicated by their social visit beforehand. As Anna lies suspiciously mute in a bedroom upstairs, Stephen and Charlie discuss what to tell the police. Eventually, they decide to do nothing and let events take their course, allowing Anna to get away with a crime. The police and the courts eventually come up with a false "official" version of what happened, which states that William, driving alone, wrecked the car himself. The novel, however, emphasizes the loose ends that are belied by the official reconstruction of the accident and the way events and characters resist easy interpretation and closure. Instead of becoming clearer, the accident develops more ambiguity and complexity as the novel progresses. There are hints, for instance, that Stephen may have been driving the car. As a result, the crime is never definitely solved for the reader. Filled with descriptions reminiscent of the French impressionist painters, philosophical theories, and edgy shifts in style, the novel calls into question the validity of ordinary summaries of experience. In his afterword to the 1985 edition of the novel, Steven Weisenberger places Accident in the same tradition as the work of John Hawkes and J. G. Ballard in the way that all three writers are "suspicious of received knowledge in all its effects on everyday experience," and the way these "experiences are rationalized, plotted, from the moment they slide away from us" (195).
On one level the novel imitates the structure of a whodunit, and this nod to conventional story structure contributed to its success. The accident occurs in the opening scene and the "truth" must be reconstructed after the fact. Yet, Mosley focuses on how the incident forces Charlie and Stephen to consider their motives, especially in relation to their lust for Anna, and make a difficult choice that will determine the story's outcome. The key moment of the story--their decision to say nothing--allows Mosley to explore how Stephen and Charlie can influence the outside world for good instead of succumbing to helplessness. As they mull over what to do, Stephen's wife prematurely gives birth to a baby that may not survive (but does), and this plot device of ending a story in terms of whether new life can enter into the equation will characterize many of Mosley's novels to come. As John Banks points out in his essay "Contrived Chaos: Catastrophe Practice and Godelian Incompleteness," "A thematic element common to much of [Mosley's] work is the religious story linking a man and two women, innocence and knowledge, and two births, one physical and one spiritual" (125).
With Accident, Mosley arrives at a hybrid epistemological aesthetic invested as much in patterns of thought as in what characters experience or do. As William and Charlie put it:
"Why is it," William said, "that modern novels have to be different, they can't just be stories of characters and action and society?" Charlie said, "We know too much about characters and actions and society." William said, "Then why write novels?" ... "This is the point, we can now write about people knowing." (72-73)
Mosley, then, posits a type of fiction that highlights its self-conscious awareness of the ways in which characters (standing in for readers) apprehend other characters, actions, and society. How we form myths to explain ourselves to ourselves comes to matter more to Mosley than the spinning of a conventional story. In his autobiography Mosley quotes Wittgenstein to justify this approach: "One thinks that one is tracing the outline of a thing's nature and one is merely tracing round the frame through which one looks at it" (Efforts at Truth 105). Until the writer focuses on the patterns of perception, writing unknowingly traces around the frame of the narrative. This theory explains Mosley's interest in conveying internal states of mind--its hesitancies and choices before it settles on a course of action--just as one finds in the late novels of Henry James and Virginia Woolf. It also explains why Accident uses nineteenth-century French impressionist painting as a model for its descriptions. The impressionists were concerned with the way people perceive light and color before they apprehended the shape of the objects before them. Through these techniques, Mosley focuses on the way people initially understand each other only in terms of certain patterns and stereotypes and on how these preconceptions must be broken apart in order to glimpse something new in the interstices.
After Accident's publication, the British dramatist Harold Pinter asked Mosley for permission to write the screenplay of the novel for director Joseph Losey, who was fresh from his success in making Pinter's The Servant (1963), Mosley was overjoyed to have such prestigious craftsmen interested in converting his novel into a film. However, Pinter found himself unable to dramatize the key scene in the novel when Stephen and Charlie discuss what to do about Anna. This scene worked against Pinter's talent for depicting people who talk, but do not really communicate, so he altered the story so that the two men's key decision is de-emphasized and Stephen sleeps with Anna. While the film was well-received, boosting Mosley's profile as a novelist, his work did not really suit the film medium. Since Mosley sought to explore the cognitive processes that underlie action and how one's actions do not necessarily reflect one's identity, actors playing roles in his movies were often, quite naturally, at a loss. One could say that Mosley's work seeks to criticize the whole acting profession, since his novels depict much human behavior as "acting" according to one's social background, gender, race, age, etc. In his autobiography Mosley claims life should be a matter of "learning how not to be an actor" (Efforts at Truth 203). He later develops this theme in his "Plays for Not Acting" in Catastrophe Practice (1979).
Meanwhile, Accident received more positive critical attention than Mosley's previous novels. The Times Literary Supplement described the central question of the novel as, "Can anything of significance be salvaged from the kind of situation that has come into being an entirely random manner, through a mixture of deliberate self-indulgence, lust and irresponsibility?" Apparently so, because the reviewer went on to describe Accident as "far more successful" than "Mr. Mosley's four previous novels" in making "a fully coherent attempt to achieve a new form" ("Exploiting Anna" 21). Adrian Mitchell described Accident as a "prose poem" written by a "writer who can be visionary without being vague" (82). Demurring slightly from the general praise, Time described Accident as a "fictional design of subtlety and distinction," but also as a "literary jigsaw puzzle with perhaps some extra pieces belonging to another design slipped in" ("All about Knowing" 313).
Soon after Accident was published, Mosley summarized his earlier writings for Prism with an aphoristic exploration of Christian themes in his book Experience and Religion: A Lay Essay in Theology (1965). The book begins with the premise that artists consistently fail to adequately portray the ordered, purposeful, productive sides of people's lives in favor of depicting a more meaningless, deterministic view of human experience. As Mosley phrases it, "there is an enormous amount of joy, energy, order, significance in the world that does not get expressed by artists and thinkers of any subtlety now" (17). To combat the notion of human life as meaningless, the book draws on Christian apologetics, adds some of the teachings of Freud and Jung, considers the responsibilities of marriage and having children, discusses the effect of the hydrogen bomb on society, and professes a faith in an underlying order. A meditation on ethics that looks forward to his next series of novels, Experience and Religion attempts to make sense of religious faith in secular terms. Mosley later characterized the book as a "signing-off" from his "commitment to organised religion" (Efforts at Truth 173), even though his subsequent career is full of attempts to achieve a synthesis between religious/philosophical inquiry and narrative.
In contrast to Experience and Religion, Mosley admitted that he was trying to produce a best-seller when he wrote Assassins (1966). The novel begins with a great narrative hook: the privileged fourteen-year-old Mary takes off on her horse for a joyride away from her father's estate and accidentally runs into a Peter Ferec, a young would-be assassin trying to kill an oppressive Eastern European ruler named Korin. Mary's father and Britain's foreign secretary, Sir Simon, have been hosting Korin's visit to work out a diplomatic deal. When Peter kidnaps Mary, Sir Simon's first concern is with his public image rather than with the safety of his daughter. Not surprisingly, given her family dynamics, Mary finds she has a closer affinity with Peter, perhaps because of their youth, than she does with her father. As she and Peter gradually fall into a romantic intrigue, Mary brokers her release by telling the authorities that Peter has actually rescued her from her kidnappers. This ruse allows Peter access to Korin, and he tries one last assassination attempt, but gets killed by security guards in the process. An awkward blend between a Tom Clancy best-seller and an experimental novel, Assassins was influenced by President Kennedy's assassination in that the murder attempt at the end of the novel is broadcast on television.
With Assassins, for the first time Mosley shows off an insider's knowledge of the behind-the-scenes manipulation of power. Underneath Sir Simon's rhetoric and face-saving photo-opportunities, there's a cynicism about what underlies political posturing. Instead of a traditional sense of right and wrong, politics requires what is useful, and evil people can be as necessary to the cause at hand as those whose intentions are more ethically sound. Sir Simon describes this "more subtle battle" as one which "beat[s] the devil by using him" (81). So even though Korin's regime is responsible for vicious forms of torture against dissidents that includes "electric shock to the genitals," "near-suffocation by drowning," and "the insertion of hot liquid into the anus" (80), Sir Simon still tries to deal with the man through diplomatic means. Ethics in his schema is a mere means toward a political end, a conclusion that Mary revolts against.
The philosophical doubts surrounding the car accident in the previous novel get further complicated in this one by the distortions of the media. One can see this in Sir Simon's speech to his daughter when he tries to explain the novel's political intrigues: "We may never know what really happened. People don't, you know. We imagine we know what's at the back of things, what makes things happen, but we don't. Often, when we look too closely, there's just darkness and confusion" (244). Given this underlying uncertainty, Sir Simon turns to constructing his own false narrative, which he conveys through the newspapers and television. In this way Assassins foreshadows Wag the Dog and other stories about media manipulation.
Despite the novel's narrative drive and vivid depiction of political maneuverings, Mosley was dissatisfied with the plot, since it followed a sequential thriller framework that worked against its philosophical conundrums. He also felt that the characters of his thriller lacked the multidimensionality that he had already created in Accident. Critical reaction to Assassins was mixed, with reviewers intrigued by the story, but repelled by the detachment of the prose. The Times characterized it as "interesting but infuriating" ("Wise Child" 974), while Eric Rhode, writing for New Statesman, found the writing too controlled and flat to convey the "darkness and confusion" that Sir Simon hints at (553).
After Assassins, Mosley wrote one of his most well-received books, Impossible Object (1968). Reflecting a vision of identity and perspective as fragmented, but shot through with traces of self-awareness, the novel is structured as eight interconnected stories that depict the different stages of an adulterous affair viewed from various angles, as if through a kaleidoscopic lens or a cubist perspective. Mosley introduces each story with surrealistic, hallucinatory prose poems that supply ironic variations on such Mosleyan themes as war, God, cruelty, and Nietzsche. The overall structure of the novel stresses Mosley's view that language's sequential nature distorts identity, which is better seen as a network of paradoxical relationships. As a result, the novel breaks off into interrelated fragments that find their correspondences in the multiple loyalties of the adulterous affair. Even though many of the stories are self-sufficient, they refer to each other obliquely, sometimes with characters from one reappearing in others, sometimes with parallel stories built within them. Mosley meant for the reader to become engaged in reconstructing a coherent narrative out of all of them.
The stories in Impossible Object depict an almost continuous plotline that moves from the first stages of a frustrated marriage with children through the tumultuous scenes of an affair with a married woman who also has children. The later stories deal with the fallout of the romance when the two families are reshuffled together. Much of the underlying context is not explained until the last story, which again puts emphasis on "what's happening now" and the necessity for the reader to search for an all-inclusive interpretation. The first story, "Family Game," dramatizes the genesis of the adulterous impulse--the married narrator finds himself lusting after his son's girlfriend just before they play a "lights out" game in the basement of his house with his other kids. During the course of the game, the girl gets fatally electrocuted by a light socket, and the narrator finds himself bending down to try to resuscitate her while simultaneously being aroused by her. The situation puts him at a discordant extreme. On top of the horror over her sudden collapse, he also feels a vicarious thrill of lust. In this way the story establishes the risk and the lure of the man's fantasy world with its sometimes deadly material consequences.
The second story, "A Morning in the Life of Intelligent People," concerns a young married couple's sensual cruelty and game-playing with one another one morning before work--the level of deceit than can arise within a "reasonable" marriage. The story mocks the rational approach to a relationship where sexuality should be guided by "man's intelligence and control" (39). The more they try to control themselves through reason, the angrier they become. As the couple conspires to get back at each other in the midst of everyday resentments and misunderstandings, they resort to sex or a cutting remark during breakfast or fantasies of elopement to Italy, all to no avail. The effect is darkly funny, but their level of misery justifies the adultery soon to follow.
In the centerpiece story of the collection, a scholar surreptitiously observes a young couple, obviously in love, meeting in a pub, only the two are not married to each other and they both have children with their respective spouses. The scholar reacts with a mixture of fascination and jealousy. The lovers seem so much more alive than the other clientele surrounding them, but they depend upon the display of their love to remind them of its continuing existence. Later, the same scholar sees the two enter with their respective spouses, in part for nostalgic reasons, in part to exorcise the affair from their marriages. Eventually, the scholar runs into the original couple together on vacation, and he learns that the man has written a story that reads much like the one Mosley placed him in; in narrative terms, this is an "impossible" situation--a character meeting his creator. When I asked Mosely about the stories and their kaleidoscopic effect, he suggested that he was going through an affair much like the one depicted in the novel (he had several children by that time, and the woman he was in love with also had children), and his constant shifting between being in love and watching himself being in love led to the overlapping characters within the novel.
The last story of the collection, "The Sea," concerns a couple who have divorced from previous marriages and pooled their respective children together for a vacation on a north African beach. While most of the children in tow come from their previous marriages, the wife has a baby with her new husband, and they decide to take out all of the children on a rented boat beyond the surf. When they have difficulty coming back over the crashing waves, the ship capsizes, and the man and woman lose their child, a portentous accident that ends up condemning their whole union to a kind of sterility. In an interview Mosley emphasized that he didn't want to end with this bleak conclusion, but rather leave open the possibility of the baby's survival, which he does with hints planted elsewhere in the text. Mosley characterized the way one interprets the conclusions of narratives as indicative of one's personality: "those who like unhappy ends can have them, and those who don't will have to look for them" (O'Brien, "Interview" 70). Again, the reader who engages in solving the puzzle of the novel can look beyond the negative, tragic conclusion to a sense of a larger and more benign design. The fact that we can look upon the suffering with a measure of detachment redeems the tragic circumstances of the baby's death.
Impossible Object uses a trope for understanding identity in the figure/ground images that can be looked at properly in two dimensions, but not in three, as in the prints of M. C. Escher. Mosley describes the metaphor toward the end of the novel (the italics are his):
I wanted to write you something impossible, like a staircase climbing a spiral to come out where it started or a cube with a vertical line at the back overlapping a horizontal one in front. These cannot exist in three dimensions but can be drawn in two; by cutting out one dimension a fourth is created. The object is that life is impossible; one cuts out fabrication and creates reality. A mirror is held to the back of the head and one's hand has to move the opposite way from what was intended. (218)
In the same fashion as these drawings, Mosley posits that "to have a good life was `impossible' and it was only when one recognized the `impossibility' that it became possible" (O'Brien, "Interview" 59). This obliges his fiction to show identity as fragmented between the self that acts and the self that observes itself acting, with the latter side ultimately hinting at the whole. In Efforts at Truth Mosley describes these impossible objects in terms of one's life: "it is life itself that does not seem quite to fit together; but in so far as you can look down on the ways in which you seem to be in pieces then perhaps you are not; and by virtue of this, things fit together. One cannot avoid the tragedies and absurdities of life; but by seeing them, there can be seen, or made, a pattern" (241). To suit these theories, Impossible Object fragments into competing perspectives, even when that means splitting one character into several fictional personae.
While critics admired Impossible Object, they were also puzzled by the relationship between the surrealistic essays and the stories. The Times Literary Supplement described the novel as a kind of "crossword puzzle" where the "generalizations are huge, not well managed" ("Cross Words" 1171). Writing for the New York Times Review, Saul Maloff describes Mosley as a "formidable writer, with a rare, unforced sense of the uncanny," but decries the novel's "felt absence of dramatic center." As he writes, "Unfortunately, without some notion of causation however complex or multiple--necessarily complex and multiple, Impossible Object quite literally, begins dissolving before one's eyes" (35). In a more positive vein, writing for Saturday Review, Robert Scholes wondered why he had not heard of Mosley before, given the "mastery" he shows in this novel. While other critics lamented the novel's lack of coherence, Scholes speculates that "Mosley uses his perspectivist fables as a way of generating an emotionally charged field of ideas and attitudes which then cluster around the situations in the `real' stories, illuminating them with a fabulous phosphorescence" (31). Scholes elsewhere characterizes Mosley as a "brilliant novelist who has received nothing like the recognition he deserves--either at home in England or in [the United States]" (Rev. of Natalie Natalia 48).
Mosley's next novel, Natalie Natalia (1971), is the culmination of his second phase of novel writing. The story concerns Anthony Greville, an MP of the House of Commons, and his resistance to what he considers the deranged role-playing of politics. (Mosley himself briefly joined the House of Lords, but found that he had little interest in or talent for taking sides in parliamentary debate or serving on committees.) While he increasingly looks for a way out of politics, Greville carries on an affair with Natalie, his moody mistress, who is married to yet another MP named Edward, who also fools around on her. These layers of duplicity lead to some farcical scenes in which Greville slips out of Natalie's house to avoid her husband or worries over whether people will recognize him at parties with her and send the word back to his wife Elizabeth.
In terms of style, the first half Natalie Natalia's style is hard to describe--a hybrid that free associates playfully back and forth between a satirical take on Greville's political schedule and surrealistic imagery reminiscent of the essay interludes of Impossible Object. These fantasy sequences hint at Greville's growing derangement (or, given the artificiality of his political world, increasing sanity), and they hint at mythic substructures underlying the action of the novel, a technique reminiscent of the beginning of Ulysses when Stephen Dedalus's thoughts keep breaking into the Flaubertian third-person-limited point of view. Waking up at night burdened by the phantasmagoria of his political and personal life, Greville meditates in a Dantean vein:
Riding through a dark wood in the middle time of life I came upon a provenance of charlatans and witches. Women sat round cauldrons and told men where to go: men, in the steam, rubbed off on trickery. I thought--Success depends on deception: you pick a berry; become a toad; then the foot of the giant misses you. Survival is in appearances being different from what occurs. You bang in knuckledusters; these become the nails of saints. (85)
Using a melange of fairy tale, religious imagery, and medieval legend, Greville tries to describe the mythological substrata of his social world. The Londoners and constituents who surround him take on a grotesque, hallucinatory quality (with shades of Eliot's The Waste Land). Implicitly recognizing how his wife and mistress manipulate him like witches around a cauldron, Greville has to rely on subterfuge to get his way, playing a game while simultaneously resisting hardening into the character created by his role-playing.
During the course of Greville's peregrinations, an oppressive government in central Africa imprisons a suspected revolutionary named Ndoula. Since Greville visits Africa as part of a fact-finding mission, he has the opportunity to turn a diplomatic visit with Ndoula into a chance to pass on some secret information to him for help with his escape. While Greville knows that as an MP this kind of conduct is inappropriate, he can do some good for Ndoula and thereby escape politics altogether. After successfully getting Ndoula the secret, Greville gets drunk during a party at the African governor's mansion and rides a girl's bicycle into a swimming pool. This public act of what seems like lunacy allows him the freedom to go on a retreat into the mountains. There, he reconsiders his life and writes a series of letters to his wife, mistress, and friends, sending the novel off into a metaphysical expository style of writing similar to that of Saul Bellow's Herzog.
One could say that these philosophical letters arrive at the truth of Greville's condition, but there is also the sense that the storyline proper has ground to a halt. Earlier in the novel, Greville mentions how the impulse to "talk about life as if it had any meaning" had become "taboo in the way sexuality was once taboo" (34), which justifies Mosley's brand of defiantly metaphysical aesthetics, but Greville's letters become increasingly abstract and all-encompassing in their attempts to get a fix on the problems with describing identity:
Writers have written about free will but not described it--not only its effects, but its experience. Writers, in cutting themselves off, describe life as determined: or describe themselves alone, which is the same. Freedom, the experience of it, is the ability to move between the two. We live this, but can't describe it. The mechanisms of description are to do with what is pinned down. Perhaps I could get some style for all this; which could be used, even if not simply to do with description. I need a style that is saying two things at the same time: both to move between, and--to acknowledge my behaviour! (187)
Here Greville hits upon a central tenet of Mosley's subsequent aesthetics. The problem is how to find a style that combines the open-endedness of free will with the description of it that might otherwise seem determined or fixed, both the "Natalie" and the "Natalia" of one's split identity. Mosley takes on this challenge in the third phase of his novel-writing career. This binary split also sets up a quandary for the critic who has to take on a multiplicity of perspectives of the self rather than a single, if necessarily falsified, sense of character.
Natalie Natalia went on to receive much critical acclaim after its publication. Writing for Commonweal, Saul Maloff noted how "More than anything else ... Mosley is concerned to catch and somehow record the most tenuous states of consciousness; the bisecting lines where world and mind meet and dissolve.... To sustain the sense of `perpetual anxiety' is a difficult achievement; and to evolve a style that seems its natural voice is Mosley's impressive gift" (Rev. of Natalie Natalia 316). Other critics celebrated the maturity of Mosley's prose. The Financial Times praised how the novel "Demonstrates [Mosley's] full ingenuity and intensity ... an exhilarating performance by one of our most considerable novelists." While Robert Scholes proclaimed the novel a "unique and powerful achievement" (Rev. of Natalie Natalia 48), Clive Jordan, writing for New Statesman found that "As a political parable the book is remarkable, divining and channelling some of the deepest undercurrents of our time."
In the midst of finishing Natalie Natalia, Mosley was in a severe auto accident while driving to a rock concert, breaking most of the bones on one side of his body. He spent his slow recovery writing a screenplay for director Joseph Losey's idea for The Assassination of Trotsky. As The Assassination of Trotsky was being filmed, Mosley was asked to write a nonfiction book on the same topic, which he agreeably cranked out in about two months. The subject of Trotsky appealed to him in part because he was an influential figure during his youth. His mother had gone to visit Trotsky at a small island near Istanbul. Also Trotsky embodied some of the same contradictions as his father: both men had a chance at large scale power and both ended up not getting it due to personality quirks, perhaps to maintain the "purity of their legend" as Mosley phrased it in his autobiography (Efforts at Truth 230). The movie and book were released nearly concurrently in 1972, and both received mixed reviews, the film in part because Joseph Losey had edited out many of Mosley's flashback scenes that explained Trotsky's behavior just before dying in Mexico City. Around this same time, director John Frankenheimer took the screenplay for Impossible Object out of Mosley's hands and dramatically changed it, eventually releasing it as The Story of a Love Story (1973), again to mixed reviews. Because of these two cinematic disappointments, Mosley became disenchanted with the filmmaking business and returned to writing fiction.
As Mosley began to write the plays that would evolve into Catastrophe Practice, his wife's mother bequeathed to her the family papers concerning Julian Grenfell, a young aristocratic man who had died early in World War I. Mosley saw in these papers another example of a man's self-destructiveness coupled with ironic self. awareness and so began the biography called Julien Grenfell, His Life and the Times of His Death, 1888-1915 (1976). The book remains one of Mosley's best biographies because it carefully depicts upper-class society's self-destructive mind-set of that era and explores the contradictory nature of Julian's many talents amid his bloodthirsty suicidal reveling in the theater of war. Mosley would go on to explore other correlatives to this self-destructive mentality and attempts to resist it in the third phase of his career.
Catastrophe Practice (1979) is Mosley's most esoteric, difficult, and theoretical work, mixing together three discursive introductory essays with three dramas and one novella. Describing the plays is not easy because Mosley's attempt to use Brechtian dramatic techniques led him to create six characters who adopt three different personae each in the three plays. Mosley continually frustrates any sense of narrative continuity because he wants to portray characters trying to understand themselves on the stage, and, in the process, acknowledge their complexity in a way that drama had never done before, hence his subtitle "Plays for Not Acting," a kind of critique of the fakery and one-dimensionality of acting. The six characters embody different age groups: Eleanor and Max are both elderly, Jason and Lilia are middle-aged, and Judith and Bert are both young. The characters frequently stop and stare out at the audience as if to acknowledge the artificiality of their acting, and there is little sense of continuity in their actions, as if they are experimenting with possible roles and activities. The three plays take place on symbolically charged stage sets. For instance, the first, called "Skylight," is set on a terrace of a house in the mountains, but the ground looks "grey and gnarled like the surface of a brain" (23). "Cell" takes place in a cellar that takes on the schematic appearance of a brain, with the bottom half representing the subconscious, the upper consciousness, as if all of the characters are produced by a creator's brain, and the plays seek to dramatize how the patterns of the mind works. By the last novella, entitled "Cypher," Lilia has given birth to a baby that all the characters seek to protect from the rioting and disruptions going on offstage, so ultimately Mosley's dramatic goal is finding for his characters a means for survival in an increasingly violent and suicidal age, as the title Catastrophe Practice implies.
Given the obscurity of the plays and the novella, one can turn to the much clearer essays in Catastrophe Practice for theories that help shed light on Mosley's aesthetic method. He wants to show that while people play out dramas determined by their upbringing, class, gender, and surroundings, what matters is what goes on offstage, somewhere else, and this can be hinted at only indirectly. Moreover, he discusses the way much contemporary writing focuses on death--how people have grown used to a diet of death in the popular media and the need for a new kind of art to resist that. He points out how literature often leans toward a bleak, deterministic, despairing vision that falsifies how much of life for most is an "ongoing concern" that doesn't give in to this downward arc, that perhaps art does this to cheer people up with depictions of how bad things can be for others. To get away from such self-destructive thinking, art needs to supply a means of escape, a way of thinking that frees people up from self-determinism. One such escape can be found in twentieth-century developments in science that can supply metaphors for understanding identity. Another escape can arise from tracing the patterns of thought, dramatized by myths, that underlie our behavior.
Mosley hit upon the mathematical catastrophe theory as one way to make sense of what he was trying to accomplish. As he explains it:
The title Catastrophe Practice arose partly from a mathematical theory (Catastrophe Theory) of the 1970s--which suggested that in the life sciences evolution, change, might be seen to take place in sudden jumps. But the title also arose from the idea that just as there was falsity in the imposition of patterns in writing, so there was a danger in the imposition of conventional patterns upon life: the human race had arrived at a point at which the activity of old patterns might blow it up. What was required for survival was a recognition that life grows from seeds: what humans can do about seeds is to prepare ground on which new life can grow. (Catastrophe Practice 339)
One example of these "sudden jumps" would be the evolutionary period in earth's history immediately following the comet that wiped out the dinosaurs. Suddenly, a space was cleared for mammals to evolve new species very quickly. In the same way, scientific developments in the twentieth century have arguably evolved more rapidly than humans can adjust to them. Mosley sees the theory as being equally valid for understanding human consciousness and how people's consciousnesses can change in fits and starts after fallow periods. Catastrophe Practice was meant to develop a new frame of reference that constantly resists convention: with knowledge of one's destructive tendencies, one can learn to transcend them.
In addition to concerning itself with the nature of identity, the essays of Catastrophe Practice also focus on the inadequacies of language and how it distorts our notions of human identity. As Mosley pointed out in relation to Impossible Object, insofar as language moves in a sequence, it falsifies how life resembles a network of correspondences. Tragic/comedic plotlines also inadequately reflect reality, especially in the way tragic storylines harden into deterministic portraits that oversimplify the flexibility of identity, the way people can adapt to change and overcome their mistakes. All of these problems call for a new type of novel to help reflect these concerns. In his first use of these concepts, Mosley's theoretical apparatus proved more easily understandable than his fictional one. Finding an imaginative embodiment of his ideas became one of the chief goals for the Catastrophe Practice series, which extended over the next four novels.
Critics acknowledged the ambition behind Catastrophe Practice, but wondered whether it had attained its ends, sometimes deriding the novel's experimental inexplicability. Reviewing the book for New Statesman, Valentine Cunningham lamented that "Alas, Nicholas Mosley is no Stoppard: he just can't animate the ideas he's trying to dribble across the park" (171). Writing for the Sunday Times, Thomas Hinde found that "Reading Mr. Mosley is indeed about as frustrating as reading a long coded message to which you do not have the key" (12). John Naughton praised the prefaces of the "Plays for Not Acting," characterizing the one before "Landfall" as a "delightful essay which links the philosophy of Sartre, Husserl, Monod, Popper and Gregory Bateson in one imaginative sweep," but concluded that the book as a whole seethes "with nearly-inarticulated wisdom, but fails to make explicit the links which clearly exist in his [Mosley's] head; the result is a whole even more ambiguous than the sum of its parts" (895). It would take several years before academic reassessment began to look beyond the initial confusing impression of Mosley's experiment. In "Contrived Chaos: Catastrophe Practice and Godelian Incompleteness," John Banks rephrased the debate: "At first the Plays for Not Acting appear to be complete chaos; then later, caught up in a search for meaning, we recognize that they are a chaos artfully contrived between Mosley and his characters as a means of acquiring, exercising, and demonstrating the skill of making an order of chaos" (124). Catastrophe Practice would go on to provide many of the principal themes as well as the aesthetic framework for the subsequent Catastrophe Practice series.
Mosley makes the first of these novels, Imago Bird (1980), more accessible by shifting the point of view to Bert, a teenager who finds the adult world to be "mad" (1). Bert, like Mosley, suffers from a stutter. He lives with his uncle, the prime minister of England, and he moves between different strata of London society, which vary from rock-and-roll stars to young Trotskyites to politicians. Like Accident, Imago Bird begins with what seems like a conventional hook, in this case a mysterious gunshot in Bert's uncle's room, which, however, is not explained so much as used as a pretext for exploring dramatic conventions. Thus in a more subtle way, Mosley still explores his key ideas about language and identity, but now in the more interesting context of a young man exposed to sex, drugs, and political intrigue in London.
Imago Bird also dramatizes Mosley's theories about the inadequacy of language. While everyone is so fluent, people ignore the fact that "language is for arguing, attacking, getting protection, getting responses" (13). While Mosley characterizes the self as a network of relations, language functions sequentially, which ultimately falsifies the nature of things. As his character Bert phrases it:
Language is to do with protection; it's part of the system that filters what's coming in; it's suited to saying what things are not rather than what they are; it deals with disappointments. Even if people do know about life being a successfully going concern they can't easily talk about this; it doesn't sound right; language is to do with parts, with stories that have a beginning and a middle and an end, and parts are properly sad, because they have limits. What is successful is to do with the whole. (70-71)
Once one opens manifold narrative possibilities, reaching for a sense of the whole, how does one close the novel off? Mosley admits to having difficulty concluding his novels because of this factor. The sequential nature of narrative oversimplifies or denies altogether people's working relationships with the world around them. Mosley continually adjusts the style of his novels to try to get beyond these inherent drawbacks in language. Writing for the Times Literary Supplement, Craig Brown found Imago Bird a "much clearer, more assured work than its predecessor" that will continue to explore Mosley's recurrent theme--"the poverty of language as a means of understanding the world and the happiness within it" (1012).
Mosley's next novel, Serpent (1981), as the title suggests, takes as its focus the nature of evil. The surface story concerns Jason, a screenwriter, and his wife Lilia (two of the six characters from Catastrophe Practice) on a jet with their son and a group of filmmakers en route to Israel. Jason rides in the first-class section of a jet while his wife and son fly coach. The filmmakers decide to play a cruel joke on the wife by having the director's assistant attempt to seduce her in the bathroom; he does this by placing a ring on his penis and persuading her to help him get it off through an odd form of philanthropic fellatio. Meanwhile Jason shows off to the filmmakers his screenplay, which concerns the mass suicide of Jews in the fortress Masada in 73 A.D. Almost a thousand Jews had decided to kill themselves en masse rather than be imprisoned by the Romans, and Jason uses the revolt of Josephus against this mass suicide as a kind of parable about resisting the self-destructive trends of the twentieth century. Josephus supplies the novel with another example of catastrophe practice: by finding a way to survive the suicide pact, ironically he gets to write the history of the uprising.
Serpent is innovative in the way it combines both suspense-filled action with subplots that comment symbolically on the major storyline on the plane. Mosley tries to unify the corrupt goings-on among the filmmakers in flight and the thematic concerns of Jason's screenplay with the adventures of another couple, the Kahns. David Kahn works as security for the contemporary shrinelike Masada, a massive cliff, where two men are climbing illegally on the rock face as some sort of political protest. In the cliffhanging conclusion to the scene, both men fall to their deaths and thereby enact a contemporary variation on Jason's script idea. Meanwhile, David's wife works for security at the Lod Airport in Israel, and one of the most powerful scenes of the novel occurs when she has to face down a woman who claims to have explosives in her backpack. The woman does not act right; indeed she seems to play with signifying her identity as if she were in one of the "Plays for Not Acting," and she consequently is killed by security guards. All of these scenes work in an associative way to show the possibilities of violence implicit in people trying to act "all-of-a-piece," and who are thus slightly mad (164). With its emphasis on terrorists and flight and its dramatization of ideological extremism in action, Serpent presciently anticipates the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center.
In 1982 the Review of Contemporary Fiction dedicated half an issue to an in-depth analysis of Mosley's oeuvre. While Mosley had always received many thoughtful reviews in magazines and newspapers, academic critics had shied away from the unorthodox complexities of his work until this point. The centerpiece of the collection was Francis Booth's overview of Mosley's ideas entitled "Impossible Accidents: Nicholas Mosley." Booth places Mosley's work within a less-acknowledged British tradition of the "post-realist, post-humanist novel" that emphasizes ways to adapt the form of the novel to questions about identity, but not to the extent of the French nouveau roman writers or American postmodernists, who took their level of experimentation away from considering the individual (87). Booth explores Mosley's ideas concerning the paradoxical nature of identity, the split between the interior perspective and the exterior world, the inadequacy of language to show these divisions, and the moral implications of all these themes. Booth found that as long as we do not recognize these complexities about identity and language, we fall into deterministic notions about who people are and what they are capable of. Once we can apprehend the patterns behind these complexities, Booth finds, Mosley wants us to see "love, joy, optimism, life" (115). The Review of Contemporary Fiction issue also contains a valuable essay about Mosley's use of language by John Banks entitled "Sleight-of-Language" as well as John O'Brien's extensive interview with Mosley, culled from two years of correspondence.
Meanwhile, Oswald Mosley died in 1980. The British publisher Tom Rosenthal, who published Catastrophe Practice, indicated that he would continue to publish Mosley's fiction as long as he committed himself to writing his father's biography after his father's death. Mosley happily agreed to this. When it came time to write the biography, his father's second wife, Diane, helped him unearth a massive quantity of old letters and papers from his father's files.
In the biography Rules of the Game; Beyond the Pale (1982, 1983), Oswald retains some of his larger-than-life charisma and charm even as Mosley itemizes the many wrong turns his father took politically and the occasional destructive effects of his philandering. Mosley strives to make the more reprehensible sides of his father's character more ridiculous than evil, and it is his sense of Oswald being more than the fascist stereotype that makes the biography work. Oswald not only survived Hitler, he could also learn from his years in prison, despite his return to race-baiting political grandstanding in the 1950s and 1960s. As in the case of Hopeful Monsters, Nicholas seems very comfortable writing about the era of the Second World War, as if its political and scientific complexities suited his interests more than the existential bleakness of the cold-war period.
As one reads the two-volume biography, one can see how Oswald shapes many of Nicholas's fictional themes. In reaction, perhaps, to Oswald's negative attitudes toward Jews and Africans, Nicholas focused on Africa and Israel in such novels as Natalie Natalia and Serpent, respectively. In reaction to his father's philandering, Mosley wrote about extramarital affairs as a way to probe the limitations of conventional marital roles and the need for something more authentic. While Oswald cheerfully used his rhetorical skills to sway mass audiences, Nicholas uses his writing to question the nature of language. Little wonder, given all of these influences, that Mosley's biography of his father would be so thorough and generous. Critics have pointed to the clarity of Rules of the Game in relation to the confusion that one feels when reading some of his more experimental novels, but Mosley explained this was so because what happened to his father was already settled, while his fiction was more interested in open-ended concerns about the choices that his characters entertain.
After the success of his father's biography, Mosley then wrote Judith (1986), the third novel of the Catastrophe Practice series. Judith explicitly refers to the biblical myth in which Judith seduces the enemy leader Holofernes and cuts off his head for the Jews. In the novel the main character Judith shares some of this seductive quality, bedding down with various men in bohemian circumstances. In fact, Judith makes explicit how she can share two men and so "split" one side of herself from another. Thus while she dates Desmond, the caustic writer of scandals for Die Flamme, a satirical magazine, she also sleeps with a young Trotskyite named Krishna. As in the case of Bert in Imago Bird, Judith's youthful delinquency enlivens the novel, this time with her drug-laced relations with a rich man named Oliver, who overdoses, perhaps to persuade her to live with him. Judith's interest in drugs runs parallel to her later interest in an Indian guru. In both cases she looks for a way to be whole: "Humans have this drive to commit themselves, to give themselves over, to a cause, a god, a fatherland, a lover. They join groups, parties, armies, treadmills; their aim is to become identified, loyal, fixed, all-of-a-piece. It is scarcely bearable to be something blown about on your own. To be alone and be yourself is to know some great hollow at the centre; this can be the terror that there is this drive to fill ..." (61-62).
After the drugged lifestyle runs its course, and Judith finds herself crawling out on the ledge to escape Osmond, Professor Max (another Catastrophe Practice regular) sends her off to an ashram in India for the second section of the novel. Here we are introduced to a joking, laughing guru, who plays with Garden-of-Eden stories and who has perhaps brought a follower back from the dead. In this middle section the ideas turn to the nature of God. On one level the novel attempts to explore a kind of mysticism that parallels Mosley's discussion of identity--the need to give over one's problematic self to some outside force, to engage in self-mockery as a function of this. Mosley seems split between making fun of the guru and allowing him to reflect on the book of Genesis and other biblical myths, an approach that blends the serious with the ironic. The result is comparatively fuzzy and borderline pretentious, bringing to mind Wallace Stevens's injunction that a "grandiose subject is not an assurance of a grandiose effect, but, most likely of the opposite" (186).
In the third section, Judith joins Bert and Eleanor at a nuclear-testing range out in the British countryside, where they look for Lilia's child. Again, with protestors filling the streets amid the sound of random explosions, there is a sense of the lead Catastrophe Practice players as refugees in a mad landscape, as in "Cypher," looking for connections as they enjoy the haphazard, non-everyday nature of their experience. Judith discovers Lilia's child taking care of a two-headed lamb surrounded by dummies inside a mock home designed for a crash site. The lamb combines aspects of nuclear mutation, the hopeful monster to be further explored in the next novel, the Lamb of God, the two-sided consciousness that characterizes Mosley's treatment of identity.
Judith attempts a synthesis of Mosley's themes, but his next novel Hopeful Monsters (1990), the most accessible of the Catastrophe Practice series, succeeds. An international love story between two precocious scholars, Eleanor Anders and Max Ackerman, during the political ferment of the 1930s and 1940s, Hopeful Monsters, perhaps influenced by the historical bent of Rules of the Game, blends intellectual and historical drama with a sweep and ambition unseen before in Mosley's oeuvre. Eleanor is a German Jew interested in anthropology and psychology, while Max is a British physics student involved in the intellectual milieu of Cambridge University. Both have a knack for ending up at the next political crisis in Europe or Africa before and during World War II. Hopeful Monsters has several cameos by such famous people as Einstein and Wittgenstein, who give lectures or hold forth at parties Max and Eleanor are such bemused intellectuals that Max eagerly seeks a piece of paper to write down a mathematical problem in the midst of a battle in the Spanish Civil War. Even after they get together, they soon separate so that Eleanor can pursue multiple degrees and Max can go help with the Manhattan Project Pre-1950s Europe seems to open up Mosley's creativity. During my interview with him, he discussed how people tend to prefer the stability and orderliness of his nonfiction, such as in Rules of the Game, to the more open-ended novels, and somehow the time period of Hopeful Monsters allowed him to organize his ideas more accessibly around political strife.
Hopeful Monsters happens upon the right mix of ideas and action by incorporating the political ferment of pre-World War II Europe. By having his characters hopping across the continent to the next big political theater, Mosley can have them reflect on questions of identity and have the reader satisfied with enough drama. In a strange way the senselessness of the action complements the thinking, as if to emphasize simultaneously the best and the worst of the era. The novel partakes of the speed of thought that Brecht wanted in his plays Mosley drops in summaries of the breakthroughs of philosophers, physicists, and evolutionary theorists so quickly that the reader does not have time to resist them, which in turn obliges the reader to consider a general inquiry when we are used to leaving such thoughts to specialists.
In 1991 Hopeful Monsters went on to win the coveted Whitbread Prize and many critical plaudits In his introduction to the paperback edition of the novel, Sven Birkerts raved about Hopeful Monster's ability to "protrude into the future": "as the 20th century slowly recedes, [the novel] will come ever more clearly into focus not only as a trenchant diagnosis of ideological struggles of the modern epoch, but also as a kind of prophecy of what being human may hold in store for all of us living in the post-atomic information age. On top of this--rather, inextricable from it--the novel tells one of the great modern stories about love ..." (v). Paul Binding praised the novel for its intellectual gymnastics: "There is an intellectual engagement here, a devouring determination to investigate, to refrain from judgment while never abandoning moral convictions, that is rare among British novelists--or, for that matter, among novelists of any nationality" (34). While Francis King, writing for the Spectator, criticized the novel for its lack of humor and the way the main characters resemble each other, he did find praise for the novel's "extremely impressive ... intellectual energy" and for "Mosley's gift ... for summarizing extremely difficult ideas in an easily intelligible manner" (202). Writing for the Review of Contemporary Fiction, John Banks admired the novel's "search for effective conceptual strategies. As life itself depends upon codes, our liveliness of mind--and in the end our physical survival, escaping an evolutionary dead end--might depend upon our learning a style of self-management, of consciousness" (Rev. of Hopeful Monsters 309).
As a follow up to the success of Hopeful ,Monsters, Mosley wrote his autobiography, Efforts at Truth (1994). Written to complement the autobiographical passages in Rules of the Game; Beyond the Pale, Efforts at Truth seeks to trace the prevailing themes in Mosley's many decades of writing. Like his fiction, the text is more preoccupied with ideas than with the descriptive details of his life, but it does serve to pinpoint the sources of his fiction--the several love affairs behind the middle period of novels, the importance of taking breaks from fiction to delve into the sciences or religion as a way to expand his base of operations. An invaluable help for this study, Efforts at Truth serves as the best all-around introduction to and explanation of the evolution of Mosley's aesthetic. As a supplement to this volume, the latter half of the biography of his father, Beyond the Pale, provides the best overview of Mosley's youth.
Mosley's two most recent novels, Children of Darkness and Light (1995) and The Hesperides Tree (2001), move beyond the characters of the Catastrophe Practice series while retaining many of their themes and questions. Children of Darkness concerns a middle-aged London reporter's investigation into a group of children who claim they have seen the Virgin Mary in the midst of what seems to be a nuclear accident near a small town in Wales. The Hesperides Tree again returns to a youthful perspective such as one finds in Imago Bird; here a young man travels with his parents in Ireland and runs into a beautiful woman who eventually holes up in an island monastery with him. Both novels are given to exploring multiple mythical connotations within any action, and both go off in unexpected directions. While The Hesperides Tree considers the dream nature of the Internet, Children of Darkness explores the effects of nuclear industrial pollution. Even as the storylines of the two novels have their difficulties finding closure, Mosley's intellectual search into questions about religion and identity goes on undiminished.
Nicholas Mosley's two chief popular and scholarly achievements were having his novel Accident adapted into a film directed by Joseph Losey and written for the screen by Harold Pinter, and winning the Whitbread Award for Hopeful Monsters. Yet reviewers tend to write wistfully about how he deserves more notice and popularity, though his work remains largely unnoticed by the wider public. In a literary era dominated by existential despair, Mosley writes about optimism and the possibility for people learning how to get over their self-destructive sides. In a period characterized by realism with some postmodern artifice, Mosley forges an aesthetic based on intellectual inquiry, the endless give and take between the interior and exterior worlds, the elusive quality of the self, and its refusal to be easily pinned down. Mosley strives to figure out the patterns of the way people think, the myths that underlie their behavior, as a way to eventually grow out of them. As a result, his fiction is teasingly indeterminate, open-ended, and resistant to easy summary. Not just concerned with describing what life is like, Mosley wants, as he puts it, "to explore what it might be like, people's efforts to change it." This sense of the manifold possibilities still to be found in life might be Mosley's most important contribution to literature.
"All about Knowing." Rev. of Accident, by Nicholas Mosley. Time 22 April 1966: 88-90. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Daniel G. Marowski. Vol. 43. Detroit: Gale, 1987. 312-13.
Banks, John. "Contrived Chaos: Catastrophe Practice and Godelian Incompleteness." Review of Contemporary Fiction 2.2 (1982): 124-27.
--. Rev. of Hopeful Monsters, by Nicholas Mosley. Review of Contemporary Fiction 11.1 (1991): 309.
--. "Sleight-of-Language." Review of Contemporary Fiction 2.2 (1982): 118-23.
Binding, Paul. "Thought Adventure." Rev. of Hopeful Monsters, by Nicholas Mosley. New Statesman & Society 15 June 1990: 34.
Birkerts, Sven. Introduction. Hopeful Monsters. By Nicholas Mosley. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2000. v-ix.
Booth, Francis. "Impossible Accidents: Nicholas Mosley." Review of Contemporary Fiction 2.2 (1982): 87-118.
Brown, Craig. "The Poverty of Language." Rev. of Imago Bird, by Nicholas Mosley. Times Literary Supplement 19 September 1980: 1012.
"Cross Words." Rev. of Impossible Object, by Nicholas Mosley. Times Literary Supplement 17 October 1968: 1171.
Cunningham, Valentine. "In the Wry." Rev. of Catastrophe Practice, by Nicholas Mosley. New Statesman 3 August 1979: 171.
Eliot, T. S. The Complete Poems and Plays 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.
"Exploiting Anna." Rev. of Accident, by Nicholas Mosley. Times Literary Supplement 14 January 1965: 21.
Financial Times. Jacket copy quote. Natalie Natalia. By Nicholas Mosley. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1996.
Hinde, Thomas. "Mosley's Mystery Plays." Rev. of Catastrophe Practice, by Nicholas Mosley. Sunday Times 1 July 1979: 12.
Jordan, Clive. Back cover quote. Natalie Natalia. By Nicholas Mosley. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1996.
King, Francis. "A Novel about Ideas." Rev. of Hopeful Monsters, by Nicholas Mosley. Spectator 23 June 1990: 30-31. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism. Ed. Roger Matuz. Vol. 70. Detroit: Gale, 1992: 201-02.
Lewis, Peter. "Nicholas Mosley." Dictionary of Literary Biography: British Novelists since 1960. Ed. Jay Halio. Detroit: Bruccoli Clark-Gale, 1983. 534-41.
Maloff, Saul. Rev. of Natalie Natalia, by Nicholas Mosley. Commonweal 17 December 1971: 283-84. Rpt. in Contemporary Literary Criticism Ed. Daniel G. Marowski. Vol. 43. Detroit: Gale, 1987. 316-17.
--. "Volleyball Portends Catastrophe." Rev. of Impossible Object, by Nicholas Mosley. New York Times Book Review 2 February 1969: 35.
Mitchell, Adrian. "Clear Cry." Rev. of Accident, by Nicholas Mosley. New Statesman 69.1766 (1965): 82.
Mosley, Nicholas. Accident. 1965. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1985.
--. Assassins. 1966. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1997.
--. Catastrophe Practice. 1979. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1989.
--. Corruption. 1957. Boston: Little, Brown, 1958.
--. Efforts at Truth. 1994. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1995.
--. Experience and Religion: A Lay Essay in Theology. 1965. Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1967.
--. Hopeful Monsters. 1990. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2000.
--. Imago Bird. 1980. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1989.
--. Impossible Object. 1968. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1985.
--. Judith. 1986. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991.
--. Julian Grenfell: His Life and the Times of His Death 1888-1915. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976.
--. Meeting Place. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1962.
--. Natalie Natalia. 1971. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1996.
--. The Rainbearers. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1955.
--. Rules of the Game; Beyond the Pale: Memoirs of Sir Oswald Mosley and Family. 1982, 1983. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991.
--. Serpent. 1981. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990.
--. Spaces of the Dark. London: Hart-Davis, 1951.
Naughton, John. "Changing Scenes." Rev. of Catastrophe Practice, by Nicholas Mosley. Listener 28 June 1979: 895.
O'Brien, John. "Interview with Nicholas Mosley." Review of Contemporary Fiction 2.2 (1982): 58-79.
--. "`It's Like a Story': Mosley's Impossible Object." Review of Contemporary Fiction 2.2 (1982): 142-48.
Rhode, Eric. "Chaos Implied." Rev. of Assassins, by Nicholas Mosley. New Statesman 14 October 1966: 553.
Scholes, Robert. "Life at the Highest Pitch." Rev. of Impossible Object, by Nicholas Mosley. Saturday Review 25 January 1969: 31.
--. Rev. of Natalie Natalia, by Nicholas Mosley. Saturday Review 6 November 1971: 48.
Stevens, Wallace. Opus Posthumous. Ed. Milton J. Bates. New York: Vintage, 1990.
Weisenberger, Steven. Afterword. Accident. By Nicholas Mosley. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1985. 193-98.
"The Wise Child." Rev. of Assassins, by Nicholas Mosley. Times Literary Supplement 27 October 1966: 974.
A Nicholas Mosley Checklist
Spaces of the Dark. London: Hart-Davis, 1951.
The Rainbearers. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1955.
Corruption. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1957; Boston: Little, Brown, 1958.
Meeting Place. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1962; London: Minerva, 1995.
Accident. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1965; New York: Coward-McCann, 1966; Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1985.
Assassins. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1966; New York: Coward-McCann, 1969; rev. ed. London: Minerva, 1993; 2nd rev. ed. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1997.
Impossible Object. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1968; New York: Coward-McCann, 1969; Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1985.
Natalie Natalia. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1971; New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, 1971; rev. ed. London: Minerva, 1995; 2nd rev. ed. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1996.
Catastrophe Practice. London: Secker & Warburg, 1979; rev. ed. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1989.
Imago Bird. London: Seeker & Warburg, 1980; Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1989.
Serpent. London: Secker & Warburg, 1981; rev. ed. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1990.
Judith. London: Secker & Warburg, 1986; rev. ed. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991.
Hopeful Monsters. London: Secker & Warburg, 1990; Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991; Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2000.
Children of Darkness and Light. Secker & Warburg, 1996; Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1997.
The Hesperides Tree. London: Secker & Warburg, 2001; Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 2001.
African Switchback. London: Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 1958.
The Life of Raymond Raynes. London: Faith Press, 1961.
Experience and Religion: A Lay Essay in Theology. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1965; Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1967.
The Assassination of Trotsky. London: M. Joseph, 1972.
Julian Grenfell: His Life and the Times of His Death, 1888-1915. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976.
Rules of the Game. London: Secker & Warburg, 1982.
Beyond the Pale. London: Secker & Warburg, 1983. Rev. ed. as one volume titled Rules of the Game; Beyond the Pale: Memoirs of Sir Oswald Mosley and Family. Elmwood Park, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1991.
Efforts at Truth. London: Secker & Warburg, 1994. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive Press, 1995.
ROY FLANNAGAN lives in Florence, South Carolina, and teaches English at the Governor's School for Science and Mathematics. He has written on John Hawkes for the Review of Contemporary Fiction and has forthcoming essays on Bret Easton Ellis and Mark Leyner for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, 21st Century Writers Edition.
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|Publication:||The Review of Contemporary Fiction|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2002|
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