Nicholas Mosley likes the language of science. “‘Hopeful Monsters,’” he tells us in his autobiography, “was a term used by biologists in the 1940s to describe mutations that were on the edge of going one way or the other—either to extinction or, if some change in the environment that suited them happened to coincide, to the establishing of a new strand of life.” Mosley used the term as the title of his most well regarded novel. Hopeful Monsters (1990) is laced with references to the uncertainty principle and to the building of the first atomic bomb. Its characters are physicists, biologists, psychoanalysts, and philosophers of science and language, and are often shown exploring in their conversations the nexus where religious belief and evolutionary theory meet.
Mosley’s Catastrophe Practice series of novels, which culminates in Hopeful Monsters, owes its title to catastrophe theory, a branch of chaos theory that explains unexpected, decisive (catastrophic) change in physics and biology. In the introduction to the series Mosley suggests that it might be possible for the human race to practice for such “sudden jumps” in evolution, to “prepare the ground” for the growth necessary to survive catastrophe.
The 1965 novel Accident is the sudden jump in Mosley’s writing—the mutation that established for Mosley’s novels a new strand of life. Until Accident’s publication Mosley was known as the author of four fairly conventional novels,1 in which one encounters a portentous, at times breathless style (“Sally was welcomed at one of the tables and the people all stood up for her and they were bright and laughing and I was introduced to them by their Christian names and they kept standing up and sitting down until a chair was found for me”), which Mosley attributes to Henry James and Proust and Faulkner and which comes off not unlike L. P. Hartley’s; as an English aristocrat whose maternal grandfather, George Curzon, had been the viceroy of India; and perhaps most notably, and unfortunately, as the son of Oswald Mosley, founder and leader (until his imprisonment at the outbreak of World War II) of the British Union of Fascists. Oswald Mosley and his second wife, Diana Mitford, were married in 1936 in Berlin, at Joseph Goebbel’s house. Hitler attended the wedding.2 When Nicholas Mosley was preparing to publish his first novel, in the late 1940s, he was asked if he planned to publish under his own (his father’s) name. Mosley had fought in the war (in the British army), and when he explained that he had never had a problem with his name while a soldier, he was told, “The literary world is not like your nice soldiers.” Some will find ironic the idea that the literary world is somehow less nice than the military. In any case the comment was prescient. Mosley has had his successes: In 1967 Accident was turned into a movie directed by Joseph Losey with a script by Harold Pinter; the 1968 novel Impossible Object was shortlisted for the Booker Prize; Hopeful Monsters won the 1990 Whitbread Prize. But Mosley has never achieved the kind of success that would enable him, for example, to find and keep a mainstream publisher in the United States for his technically accomplished, intellectually stimulating opus. He doesn’t seem to fare much better in England.3 If Mosley’s novels are hopeful monsters—mutations of the form dependent for survival on a favorable environment—one would have to say they have struggled, and survival is not assured.
It is possible to summarize Accident in the traditional language of book reviewing. One could talk about characters and plot (an Oxford logician, his writer-friend, two students; a romantic triangle, a car crash). Such an examination would not convey the novel’s satisfactions. The mutation, or innovation, of the novel—what is most interesting about it—is a kind of demonstration of how catastrophe theory might manifest itself in prose.4 Mosley breaks, or staggers, or jumps into the progress of the narrative by interpolating thoughts that go against the grain of dialogue, or have only a tangential or associative relation to the story. The march of plot through the paragraphs—what Mosley calls “the simple ‘what-happens-next’ narrative language”—is interrupted by sudden, conventionally superfluous sentences. These interruptions come in various guises. There is a degree of Joycean stream-of-
Francesca and I were getting ready to leave the restaurant. There were some actresses with red hair in a corner. I said “Let’s go somewhere else.” Francesca said “Where?” To Marrakesh. Timbuctoo. Camels like skeletons. Turrets. We turned into the street.
There are moments of writerly intrusion by the narrator, a philosophy professor and would-be writer who comes across as a Mosley stand-in in cleverness, in self-consciousness, and in language awareness: “I write in the present because there seems something timeless about this scene—two people loving and irritated with one another.”5 More unusual is Mosley’s use of a device by which the narrator is able to interrupt the flow of a scene to express thoughts that comment on goings-on and bring to light the strained relationship between what one is willing to say and what one is thinking. These thoughts are introduced by a speech tag—“I thought”—followed by a dash. They are often placed between bits of dialogue. The effect is typically humorous. Here the narrator’s writer-friend relates a story of seduction that the narrator both wants and doesn’t want to hear:
“She said, Would you like to stay? I said I wouldn’t mind. She said, You go upstairs. I went upstairs. There were two children. In a cot. With teddy bears.”
I thought — This is terrible. Why is he telling me this?
I said “What happened?”
Charlie said “Nothing. Morals aren’t an exhortation, they’re a fact.”
I laughed. I thought — This is a good story after all.
The device slows the progress of the scene, stresses the push and pull between external and internal life. It also creates an opening, within the proper confines of Mosley’s standard first-person narration, that allows Mosely to get beneath the surface of any character with whom his narrator is interacting: “I thought — He’s trying to think I’ve landed him in this.”
Accident still reads well—better than many novels of the 1960s by Mosley’s more renowned peers. Its prose has a freshness and an ability to surprise that redeem the slight story and, in the end, its dubious resolution. The narrator and his writer-friend feel they have something to hide as a result of the accident. Policemen ask questions. There’s an inquest. The too-conventional nature of such considerations is beside the point. Mosley seems to sense this. With a wave of the wand he makes plot concerns vanish: “I was going back to the college for the last meeting of term. Everything was cleared up now and accepted.”
Two books later (in 1968) Mosley takes his dismantling of what-happens-next narrative to a whole other level. “The novel was called Impossible Object,” Mosley writes in his autobiography, Efforts at Truth (1994), “and consisted of eight stories ostensibly separate but to be connected in a reader’s mind inasmuch as he or she became aware that they were about the same people. The stories were told by different or the same characters about different or the same incidents in their or each other’s lives.” Not the statement of a writer overly concerned with the conventional tracking of plot and character.
Impossible Object is nevertheless engrossing. Mosley’s finest moments as often as not trace the course of a seduction or an affair, or capture the breaking point of a marriage. He has a sense of the (simultaneous) glory and absurdity—the impossibility, he would say—of love. His style is as if perfected for revealing the self-deceptions of partners, not least thanks to the “I thought —” device whereby his narrators can explore the paradoxes of love: “I thought — If I had asked her to stay then she would have said she had to get to work or else feel guilty, but now she is staying and we feel guilty anyway. There is no solution; opposites are infinite.”
The stories in Impossible Object, gothic in incident (an electrocuted girl, a wife assaulted by a soldier, a suicide attempt, a baby drowned at sea), have a classical coolness—a feeling of never allowing one to be quite swept up in the action—due to that constant internalizing voice Mosley relinquishes henceforth only in his nonfiction. Also the breaks in the narrative, the little narrative asides, have a distancing effect: “The girl, as always, was sensual. She had taken her coat off. There is a girl in a Moravia story who is very young but when she takes her clothes off has the voluptuousness of an older woman. This girl was like that.” “I forget what Hippolyta told me about her childhood; someone had been neglectful, someone weak, someone cruel.” James Salter is a writer who does this kind of thing well (“She was conceived after much difficulty—I do not know if this is significant—and born in the fall of 1944”), exhibiting like Mosley an offhand attitude toward certain details in the lives of characters, the effect being to reassure the reader that he or she is getting the stuff that truly matters.6
Italicized passages inserted between Impossible Object’s stories are surreal, dreamlike, occasionally illuminating and mercifully short. One movingly recounts Nietzsche’s descent into madness in Turin—and foreshadows Mosley’s adoption of the concept of catastrophe practice: “What Nietzsche had said was not that man had to surpass himself but just that if he did not then everything was over.” But the true interest is within the eight stories, and in the way the stories are woven into one another. Partially tracking one thread from story to story might give an idea of the intricacy (impossibility) of the novel’s construction. The nameless male narrator of the first story, “Family Game,” seems to be the narrator of the third and sixth—“A Hummingbird,” “Suicide”—and one of the subjects of the fourth, “Public House,” and the eighth, “The Sea.” He is shown as a lusting, then jealous husband (one/three), then in mid- and post-adulterous affair (four), then again in the midst of the reconstituted affair (six), before appearing in the final story (eight) with his children, with whom he’d played a deadly game of hide-and-seek (one). Thus in the final story, when such a game is mentioned to the father and sons, the female narrator (who may be the woman from the affair described in “Public House” [four] or “Suicide” [six] or both) notices that “there was a sort of silence between them”—a silence the narrator passes over quickly and, one assumes, unknowingly, but which in a satisfyingly subtle way the reader registers as a possible link to the earlier tragedy. The elusiveness of the characters’ identities from story to story—the sense of uncertainty, and then occasional illumination—offers an overarching duplication of what goes on within the stories, where love is always paradoxical, quixotic, not quite graspable: “I thought I should explain how she must not fall in love. Of course I wanted her to fall in love. I did not want commitment. I terribly wanted this.” Played straight, this kind of thing—the ongoing depiction of the torments of heightened romantic passion—can come to seem precious or can lead to bathos. Mosley leavens such rising emotionalism by being on occasion funny, and cruel: “My wife does not like my driving fast; so sometimes I drive fast for a moment and then slow violently and say—Sorry!”
Mosley’s transitional (pre-Accident) novel Meeting Place (1962) features Harry Gates, aristocratic Good Samaritan. Harry works for a church-sponsored organization, a kind of combined suicide help line and juvenile-delinquent rescue service. In the innovative novels that follow, there are occasional religious references, some direct talk about God (as in one of the brief italicized passages in Impossible Object where there’s a riff on Nietzsche’s proclamation that God is dead), and one or two scenes set at religious institutions (matins in church in Accident; a church-run sanitarium in Turin in Impossible Object). Mostly, however, God comes in metaphorically: “He wanted to shout against God, like an unbelieving victim”; “[a]rriving home after a time abroad you are like an angel fallen on an earth that has forgotten God existed.” Mosley uses figurative language liberally and well—his metaphors can be startling and uncannily apt, elaborate, or simply joyful: “Those who run the place have the good faces of people changing sex. Monks are delicate as birds: nuns strong as Roman emperors”; “I moved through the house like someone bankrupt before the bailiffs arrive”; “I could not make out how drunk I was. A footman had been coming round with wine like a man bailing out a boat.” In this aspect of his writing Mosley brings to mind the inclusive ease of Virginia Woolf’s tropes (“The impetuous creature—a pirate—started forward… squeezing eel-like and arrogant in between, and then rushing insolently all sails spread up Whitehall”) or the poker-faced hilarity of John Cheever’s, as when Cheever recalls a visit to a psychiatrist: “I thought our third interview, this one, would be like the end of a musical comedy. We would embrace, kiss on the threshold of his office, and tie on a can after the children had gone to the movies.” One does begin to understand, however, that Mosley is being more than literary when he puts God, and angels, and Jonah and Jesus, in the metaphorical picture. He’s frank about his religious feeling. He speaks of it readily in interviews, and details in Efforts at Truth his conversion to Christianity in the early 1950s under the guidance of Richard Raynes, the superior of an order of Anglican monks, about whom Mosley later wrote a biography. Religion becomes central to the conception of the Catastrophe Practice series if not to the action within; and in his novels since, Mosley revisits religious questions over and over.
Mosley’s is a most undogmatic Christianity. It seems to allow for quantum mechanics (discussed by characters throughout Hopeful Monsters), the mystical teachings of Islam (as manifested by the Alevis, a Turkish sect that plays a pivotal role in Mosley’s latest novel, Inventing God), Nietzschean (anti-)theology, and of course evolution, an aspect of which has been central to Mosley’s writing for a quarter century now. The idea of practicing for catastrophe—of preparing to evolve properly—has, one comes to see, a spiritual aspect, and studied from a certain angle takes on a kind of apocalyptic menace as well, reminding one of the preparations of groups of believers massed in San Diego or Jonestown, say, ready to hasten the end of the world. There’s a cultish ashram described in Judith (1986), fourth novel in the Catastrophe Practice series, whose leader is known as “God” and whose home is known as the Garden. God’s teachings have to do with avoiding apocalypse, or preparing for it by changing patterns of belief: “[E]ither humans will make a leap, a quantum leap,” God says, “in their consciousness of the world and of themselves—or they will not. But this time if they do not, they will be destroyed.”
At about the same time as Mosley made his leap, in Accident, into a revivified approach to fiction, he produced a volume of religious meditations, Experience and Religion (1965). Falling fifteen years or so after his conversion, at a time when he was moving away from organized religion, it touches on all Mosley’s coming concerns—the place of art and science in everyday life, the pleasures and difficulties of love and marriage, the importance of free will. It’s a gently reasoned work, optimistic and evenhanded, and promulgates a compassionate morality exemplified by this nice rebuke to those who seem determined to legislate morals under cover of religious principles:
It’s true… that every now and then Christ said that fornication and adultery were wrong; but what he also said (and what his whole life and the whole story of the bible seem to be about) was that this sort of wrongness (whatever this may mean; which from Christ’s words and actions is complicated) did not seem on its own much to matter. What did matter much more was something like, for instance, being a religious bigot—even specifically in the matter of sexual morality. The real sin was to be thinking that other people’s sexual doings should automatically come up against one’s own active judgment; it was this, in the story of the New Testament, that made Christ angry.
In other words there’s something distinctly not compassionate (if undeniably conservative) about a willingness to throw the first stone.
Mosley’s religious feeling, which encompasses his belief in free will and in the importance of being open to change as a way of preparing for catastrophe, has colored his readings of his contemporaries. He finds little to like when he looks around him. In a review of J. M. Coetzee’s brutal and moving Disgrace, Mosley writes: “This intelligent, interesting and very readable novel is ultimately depressing, and thus is representative of much good writing today.” This seems on the generous side of Mosley’s opinions about his peers, an attitude that can’t have helped his standing. Indeed in an anti-career move of epic proportions he quite publicly resigned from the 1991 Booker Prize panel when he could neither persuade his fellow panelists to place on the shortlist the one novel he admired most (Allan Massie’s The Sins of the Father) nor stomach the six that were voted in, annoying if not antagonizing (to all appearances) his four co-panelists (Penelope Fitzgerald, Jeremy Treglown, Jonathan Keates and Ann Schlee) and the six nominees (Martin Amis, William Trevor, Rohinton Mistry, Roddy Doyle, Ben Okri and Timothy Mo).
It’s the “existential despair” that gets to Mosley, the depiction of “the terrible helplessness of human characters,” as he puts it in his autobiography. Mosley believes in humanity’s ability to, as he says in a recent interview, “learn from the world.” Evil can be learned from as well—may even serve a purpose. Mosley has shown a progressively expanding penchant for embedding in his novels discussions of this belief in the human capacity to use power of choice—free will—to practice, to learn. The tortured antagonisms of the heroes of Impossible Object turn to yearnings in Natalie Natalia (1971). In the second of the Catastrophe Practice novels, Imago Bird (1980), one senses its teenage narrator Bert actively seeking (through sex and love and psychoanalysis) a way to live positively. A typical Mosley protagonist is not unaware of randomness, or for that matter of the possibility that randomness is all there is. The mind finds patterns in spite of this, Mosley’s narrators frequently aver. “You have to make up patterns to live or die,” as Bert puts it.
By the time we get to the end of the Catastrophe Practice series, in Hopeful Monsters, the protagonists have a jaunty openness to experience that ranges across continents and decades, and infectiously drives the reader through Mosley’s lengthiest work as efficiently as the cleverest stratagems of suspense. The novel tells the stories of Eleanor Anders and Max Ackerman in alternating first-person chapters. It opens in 1918. Eleanor is a German Jew whose mother associates with Rosa Luxemburg and whose father is a lecturer in philosophy. Max comes from an English academic family. Max studies physics; Eleanor, anthropology and psychology. They are caught up in central movements of the time—Max in the scientific discoveries of the great physicists of the early twentieth century, Eleanor in the political and sexual turmoil of the Weimar Republic. Their paths first cross in the late 1920s at a youth festival at a castle in the Black Forest, where they fall in love in an unusually open-ended fashion. They spend most of the next decade apart. They travel, study, and move in and out of love affairs, always staying in touch. Chapters read like compilations of letters they have written to each other. Along with Rosa Luxemburg, there are guest appearances by Einstein, Wittgenstein, and Bertolt Brecht (“[h]e is a small man who smells”). Eleanor’s mother is killed by the Nazis; Eleanor’s father is taken prisoner by them. Her studies take her to Africa and, when she gets word that her father may be alive, she crosses the Sahara with a gunrunning Nazi associate and his lover. She ends up in Spain during the civil war, working as a nurse in a Fascist-held monastery near which, by coincidence, Max is being held prisoner, having become involved with the Republicans as a journalist and, somewhat inadvertently, as a soldier. The novel’s postscript, narrated by a “correlator” named Jason (a character from earlier Catastrophe Practice novels) summarizes the four decades of Max’s and Eleanor’s lives following their Spanish adventure. At novel’s end, Max is on his deathbed, Eleanor beside him, optimism intact.
Hopeful Monsters combines astonishing scope—in both the physical and intellectual terrain covered—and great narrative momentum. The treatment of history has none of the typical ponderousness of so much historical fiction—that grave, respectful seriousness expended on figures that are as likely to be petty and narrow (or to smell) as they are to be daunting. Mosley continues to use the “I thought —” device to uncover motivations and strategies underlying dialogue. And he makes his best use ever of repeated imagery, lending the novel a linguistic cohesion by recycling everyday phrases such as “bits and pieces” and such Mosleyan terms of art as “hopeful monsters” and “the hand drawing a hand that is drawing itself.” Such repetitions serve as a charming reassurance of playful authorial control.7 The primary love story (Eleanor and Max’s) provides a dramatic through-line. There are numerous interstitial affairs to keep things lively when the protagonists are apart.
Mosley’s characters in the three post–Catastrophe Practice novels, while still involved in the usual sexual intrigues and engaged in an exploration of the applications of scientific concepts, are increasingly involved in investigations of modes of belief. God and religion come more than anecdotally or metaphorically into play. Thus the philandering journalist who narrates Children of Darkness and Light (1996) writes articles about children who have seen the Virgin Mary, and stops by a church on his walks home from work. The protagonist of The Hesperides Tree (2001) studies the ninth-century monk John Scotus Erigena while killing time between adventures. And Mosley’s current novel, Inventing God (2003), set chiefly in the Middle East, has at its center (or, rather, missing from its center, as he’s disappeared) an ex-professor who has come to be regarded as Jesus, if only on the Internet.
The new novel has an appropriately retrospective quality (Mosley is eighty). It echoes Impossible Object in the way it tracks its characters from shifting perspectives. In its concern with Arab-Israeli tension, it calls to mind Mosley’s politically slanted novels such as Assassins and Natalie Natalia. And in its duplication and reduplication of characters pursuing sexual satisfaction and transcendent meaning, it reminds one at once of all Mosley’s novels since the sudden jump into Accident.
Inventing God’s Maurice Rotblatt (how’s that as a name for an alleged Messiah?) is the professor who has disappeared during a visit to Beirut. His friend and colleague Richard Kahn teaches at the university there, and may be connected (via a London professor named Andros) to a Western intelligence agency interested in getting information about a biological weapon rumored to be in development in Lebanon. This trio of professors and their students and lovers and friends move about, pair up, and get into and out of trouble while carrying on running conversations about science and God and war and peace. The narrative (in the third person) shifts from character to character, providing views of all the principals in a kind of cumulatively cubist way as we see them first through their own eyes and then through one another’s. There are many of them—Arabs and Israelis, Muslims and Jews, a London contingent as well as the Middle Easterners—and Mosley handles his large cast deftly. The resolution is pointedly optimistic, and given that the novel ends on September 11, 2001, this is no small matter. This optimism—the will to want to learn from any experience, however tragic—is central to the belief system Mosley’s recent fiction adumbrates. The ex-lover of the Christlike Rotblatt, in a kind of eulogy for the absent professor, sums up these beliefs (and in a way describes Mosley’s novel as well as his ars poetica):
To make of your life an artwork you see it as a story. The human brain naturally makes stories: it also has the ability to distinguish good stories from bad. Good stories are not arbitrary; they are more than a recognition of cause and effect; they are not the triumph of either right or wrong, they are of the interplay between the two which conveys a meaning. They tell of coincidence, correlation, of the existence of various possibilities; of the style by which one possibility rather than another occurs. Such stories seem true. They are what make it natural for a human to be aware of the world of possibilities, and thus of an environment in which choice is valid. You can learn from your mistakes, but you do not choose mistakes because this would not be learning. You learn to choose, or perhaps that you are in league with choice, by recognizing its existence. It is like a relationship with a loved one.
Mosley takes as his epigram Voltaire’s “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.” He fills his novel with characters searching for God, for a link between scientific experimentation and religious belief. Rotblatt is reported (by his ex-lover) to have argued that an invented God can in effect be as real as, for example, gravity. Such points have been made in a number of Mosley’s preceding novels. Whether readers will care about such things to the extent that Mosley evidently does is another matter. Notions of belief have become increasingly central to the substance of his novels. And novelists often make shaky theologians. About D. H. Lawrence’s somewhat idiosyncratic beliefs, Denis Donoghue remarks that “in theory, it is possible to discount Lawrence’s metaphysic, and to assume that his recourse to the idiom of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is merely vulgar, a minor essay in blasphemy.” Terry Eagleton presents the same choice more starkly: “[E]ither you feel that [Lawrence] has a depth and intensity which puts every other writer in the shade, or his male supremacism and mystical ravings make you want to throw up.”
Mosley has engendered his share of nausea. He bravely quotes from a few outrageously negative reviews in his autobiography, and a review by Robert Potts in the Guardian called The Hesperides Tree “one of the worst novels I have read in the last 10 years,” and Potts found one passage worthy of the Bad Sex Award. It’s easy enough to make most fictional sex scenes (and many actual ones) seem ludicrous by examining them closely enough. It’s true that in recent novels Mosley has sacrificed his characters’ distinctness by having them repeatedly mouth the same beliefs. Yet these novels remain more than intermittently interesting (and Inventing God is the most involving of these). They are not, in any event, the novels upon which Mosley’s reputation will ultimately rest—are not, in Mosley’s term, the hopeful monsters worth watching. Accident, Impossible Object and Hopeful Monsters form the core of the oeuvre. They may be enough to assure its survival.