Skullscape

Jonathan Coe

  • Hopeful Monsters by Nicholas Mosley
    Secker, 551 pp, £14.95, June 1990, ISBN 0 436 28854 0

In the first place, let’s try to forget the word ‘experimental’, which has always been one of criticism’s more useless bits of terminology. There is really only one distinction to be made: between those novelists who think carefully about form, and those who do not. If there is anything new to be said, after all, the chances are that there will have to be found new ways of saying it, and yet nothing seems to send readers running for cover more quickly than the suggestion that they are to be thrown in at the deep end of the novel’s liquid possibilities. Perhaps this explains why one of this country’s more ambitious fictional enterprises has, for the last 11 years, been taking shape more or less under cover of secrecy. Nicholas Mosley’s Catastrophe Practice, published in 1979, was the first of a series of five highly intelligent novels, ostensibly concerned with the shifting relationships of a small group of characters, and linked less by narrative than by a patchwork of recurring images and thematic obsessions. The first book introduced the protagonists by the roundabout means of three plays and a short novel: it also included some polemical essays which took pains to set out the rationale behind the project very clearly. They stressed the need to devise new structures of thinking and language which would ‘provide for both art and science an encompassing covenant’: the need for a new literature of self-consciousness (‘the theatre has been accustomed to observe how people behave; what might now be observed is people’s observing’); and the need for new literary forms which jettison the dishonesties of tragedy and comedy in favour of a more explicitly liberal, optimistic and humanist position (this in the wearied knowledge that ‘to suggest working optimism in a sophisticated world is to be thought presumptuous’). The second novel, Imago Bird, followed the London-based adventures of Bert, a mixed-up 18-year-old who – like Mosley himself – happened to be related to a famous politician and afflicted with a nasty stammer. Serpent, the third in the series, was set almost entirely on an aeroplane carrying Bert’s sister Lilia and her husband Jason to a film location in Israel. The eponymous heroine of Judith was a young actress who became, at various points, the lover of each of the male protagonists. And now we have the concluding volume, Hopeful Monsters, which surprises both in the density of its intellectual lumber and in its comparatively straightforward way of unloading it onto the reader. In tracing the love affair of Max Ackerman (previously referred to as ‘the Professor’) and Eleanor Anders (often identified in the earlier novels by her pudding-basin haircut) it manages to take in most of the scientific and political highlights of the Twenties and Thirties: unrest in Berlin, the rise of the Nazis, the Spanish Civil War, the splitting of the atom – it’s all here.

Some might interpret this as a concession, a loss of nerve: Mosley has moved towards a more conventional kind of fiction, in which the characterisations are psychologically fuller, the periods and locations are made specific, and the author (using his characters as mouthpiece) spells out those pet theories which the other novels put forward with tact and playful obliqueness. But it should also be stressed that the entire sequence, on one level, can now be seen as a continuous narrative about the evolutionary process of writing: the characters who in Catastrophe Practice were mere seeds, scattered in the dark, have grown to something like maturity and fruition in the final instalment. (This is very much how Jason, revealing himself as ‘the correlator of these stories’, puts it towards the end of Hopeful Monsters.) It’s true that we’ve had it up to here with self-referential novels about the writing of novels, and Mosley’s ambitions are grander than that: but the one thing which holds the sequence together, all the same, is its portrait of the author’s mind engaged in a sustained act of creation.

Mosley seems to intend these novels as a model of the active mind much as B.S. Johnson, in House Mother Normal, stepped off the final page and declared that the whole book was ‘a diagram of certain aspects of the inside of his skull’. Catastrophe Practice began with a play, ‘Skylight’, set on a mountain where the ground was ‘grey and gnarled like the surface of a brain’: although the action which followed was unmanageably obscure, certain patterns became evident and by the time of the third play, ‘Cell’ – set in ‘a cellar in a town’ – it was clear that we had embarked upon a journey to the interior. The three plays corresponded to the three levels of learning which Mosley outlined in one of his essays. The third level, he claimed, ‘is that which may be necessary for survival ... It is the chance for a man to see not just the patterns of his behaviour but also the patterns of his ability to see – and by this, not just to be free of patterns, but possibly to influence them.’

Hopeful Monsters finds the characters still in pursuit of this objective. While working as an anthropologist in Africa, Eleanor finds herself asking: ‘Might there not be an anthropology in which the observer is seen as part of what he observes: in which his observing is taken into account as affecting what he observes?’ This idea is hammered home in the novel’s imagery (particularly its image of ‘the hand that draws a hand that is drawing itself’), and it underpins Mosley’s interest in ‘wit’: he admires characters who are ‘witty’ because wit involves not only saying clever things but being able to stand back and recognise their cleverness. ‘Wittiness,’ he once said in an interview, ‘I think is kind, and does not have the cruelty of laughing at people who cannot experience the funniness of themselves.’

Unfortunately, characters who are self-reflexive to this extent can finally come to seem freakish. This wasn’t a problem in the previous books, where we were never invited to regard the characters as having any degree of autonomy, but in Hopeful Monsters Mosley is walking a tightrope (another of his favourite images) between realistic and anti-realistic modes. At one point in Judith he wrote coolly and contemptuously of the guests on a television programme who ‘sat and smiled and turned this way and that: no one had noticed that they were clockwork.’ But ‘clockwork’ is a dangerous word in this context. If characters appear clockwork, it might simply be because the author isn’t interested in them, and so hasn’t bothered to flesh them out. This happens in the case of Rudi and Stefan, for instance, who travel with Eleanor across the Sahara desert and are put through various jerky motions of cupidity, aggression and sexual betrayal. ‘Could not the human race just get this sort of thing over and done with quickly instead of having to endure it through millions of years?’ Eleanor asks: but her exasperation is nothing compared to that of the reader, who is astonished to find these cursory mechanics held up as a paradigm of human behaviour. For the first time, Mosley seems to be trying to have it both ways: most of the characters remain pawns on a cerebral chessboard but are now also assumed to have an uncomplicated place in a ‘real’ world outside the realm of authorial control.

To negotiate between these two levels would require more formal ingenuity than Hopeful Monsters is able to muster. The features which distinguish Mosley’s fiction have remained fairly consistent ever since the early Sixties, and they are really very tentative departures from novelistic convention: the functional ‘I said’s and ‘He said’s which preface each fragment of reported speech, the unusual interrogative voice achieved by putting a question mark at the end of statements, the abrupt ‘I thought’ followed by a dash, which places a characteristic self-conscious distance between observation and observer. Mosley (a very Proustian thinker) has always seen habit as being one of the novelist’s worst enemies, and has repeatedly implied that in a world hostile to original thought – an ‘occupied country’, in fact – writers should talk in ‘code’. Not only are his own methods, however, starting to seem more and more a question of habit (‘Might we not simply be exercising the customs of our minds?’ Eleanor worries astutely), but they have never actually been far-reaching enough to solve the technical problems which he bravely sets himself. The problem of simultaneity, for instance, continues to defeat him. His interest in ‘What is happening now?’ rather than ‘What will happen next?’ is a byproduct of his interest in self-consciousness: ‘We are all of us creatures to which one thing happens after another: but knowing this is not one of the things that happens after another.’ How, then, is the novelist to do justice both to the characters’ experience and to their simultaneous perception of it, while saddled with a form which is irredeemably linear? A good example occurs at a party scene early on in Hopeful Monsters, where Max, Wittgenstein and some other Cambridge types gather at a friend’s house: there are undercurrents of sexual tension, scientific disagreement, espionage, and as Max says afterwards, ‘at that party, there were a lot of things happening all at once!’ But Mosley’s attempt to convey this sense of immediacy and multiplicity degenerates into clutter.

The philosophy articulated by Hopeful Monsters, and by the series as a whole, is not very striking. By the end of the novel Max has found room within his liberal thinking to embrace the nuclear deterrent: he sees ‘the existence of the Bomb without the use of the Bomb’ as ‘necessary for the human race if it was to survive or evolve; human nature having evidently such a propensity for evil that with all the technological advances it was only the existence of something so shocking as the Bomb that would prevent the evil from going into runaway, out of control’. (Nonetheless, he joins the Aldermaston march because ‘he had a great respect ... for the aims and especially the spirit of people in CND.’) What’s more impressive is Mosley’s intelligence in having noticed that liberalism does not lend itself to traditional literary forms (a fact that other liberal novelists would do well to bear in mind), and the energy with which he has – in the past, anyway – applied himself to thinking up alternatives. It remains unclear whether he has concluded his ‘Catastrophe Practice’ series exactly as planned. Certainly there are inconsistencies. In Judith, published only three years ago, Eleanor is at least twice referred to as Max’s ex-wife, while the tailpiece to Hopeful Monsters leaves the distinct impression that they remain happily married. The new commitment to historical specificity, right down to the naming of particular dates and the provision of walk-on parts for Einstein, Husserl and Wittgenstein, is also hard to reconcile with the defiantly non-specific and ahistorical earlier volumes. (Judith ended with the appearance of a two-headed, six-eyed sheep, but there is no place for that breed of hopeful monster here.) Mosley once candidly admitted that one of his novels, Assassins, was conceived ‘as an effort to write a best-seller’, and it’s possible that Hopeful Monsters marks the resurgence of this ambition. With its grand historical sweep, exotic shifts of location, long-running love story and litany of Big Themes, it’s the kind of novel which British publishers are a dab hand at marketing these days. But given his record of going against the tide, this is likely to be less a matter of calculation than one of those coincidences which his books have increasingly made it their business to celebrate.