Paradoxes of Peace, By Nicholas Mosley
God's Hazard, By Nicholas Mosley
Friday 22 May 2009
It was hard to know which of these two books to start reading first. Paradoxes of Peace is a memoir, and Nicholas Mosley's life has an undoubted allure beyond his own success as a writer. He is the son of founder of the British Union of Fascists, Oswald Mosley, half-brother of Formula One's controversial head, Max Mosley, and stepson of the beguiling Diana Mitford. God's Hazard is a novel and Mosley, at his best, is one of our finest and most innovative writers of fiction. His Hopeful Monsters won the 1990 Whitbread Book of the Year award.
Mosley's novels, while ultimately rewarding, can make for challenging reading. Plot tends to take second place to ideas and structure, so in reviewing these two books I opted, lazily, for his memoir first - and lived to regret my choice.
Subtitled "the presence of infinity", Paradoxes of Peace takes up the story that ended in a previous volume, Time at War, with an account of Mosley's distinguished service during the 1939-1945 conflict, when he won the Military Cross. As the title suggests, he finds peace harder to cope with than battle.
His success as a writer, you might reasonably expect, should have helped but insights into his fiction are pretty few and far between, though this volume covers the years when he was publishing all 13 of his previous novels, beginning in1951 with Spaces in the Dark. Some don't even merit a mention. Missing, too, is any reference to his decision to quit the Booker Prize jury in 1991 because, reportedly, he despaired of the kind of fiction that his fellow-judges valued.
Most of the memoir is taken up with juxtaposing Mosley's discovery of God, through a priest at the High Anglican community at Mirfield (whose biography he later wrote), with his many romantic entanglements. Jesus, Mosley rightly points out, was not the puritan the churches insist on presenting him as - but one of his few remarks in the gospels about sexual morality castigates those men who put aside their wives in favour of other women.
Which is precisely what Mosley describes himself as doing to his long-suffering first wife, Rosemary, the mother of his first four children, whom he married in 1947. While the novelist is, he writes, struggling with "the first testing of strain of the paradox between freedom and fidelity", poor old Rosemary sounds like she was just getting on with raising the children.
Paradoxes of Peace is high-class kiss-and-tell mixed with apologia, but without that much apologising. "One of the aims of this story," Mosley writes, staking out the book's bigger purpose, "is to claim that without a sense of God, or of religion, humans have little chance of experiencing a sense of order or meaning apart from their own predilections or addictions".
Yet his own tale appears to prove that, even with a highly developed and much agonised-over faith (though it does wax and wane from his early days as a churchwarden to what sounds later rather like a one-man church with Mosley writing the rules), order remains ultimately elusive.
"Prayer", Mosley muses, after a visit to the Catholic shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, "was like covering fire; you still had to get on". It suggests that he sees something mildly heroic about his tireless engagement in the no-man's-land between God and revolving romances.
On more than one occasion, he presents it as a war. However, by the fourth or fifth time, he falls hopelessly in love and just can't help himself, poor thing. It all begins to sound pretty adolescent, an endless rehashing of what he calls "playing the field" but his father deems "flushing the covers".
Mosley père, incidentally, intrudes little into the narrative. His son has, in fairness, written two volumes of memoir about him already, so there may be nothing more to say. He does, however, provide a damning portrait of his stepmother's capriciousness, one day praising the first instalment of his life of his father, the next refusing ever again to speak to him because she dislikes what he has written.
He unequivocally rejects his father's racism and fascism as repugnant, and recalls how he eventually breaks with him in the 1950s as the former leader of the Blackshirts tries to rally his troops one more time on an anti-immigrant crusade. Oswald Mosley, in this account, is a rather pathetic figure. Thank God, his son remarks, that his father's obsession with seducing women left him too distracted to be an effective political leader.
The memoir's larger discussion about why essentially God-fearing men let women down so badly (Mosley admits, very unattractively, to having hit his second wife) might have had some value if it came to a conclusion, however tentative. Instead, Mosley offers only the following cliché: "all that I have learned of men is that they are composed of such a mixture of perfidy and nobility that I cannot hope to unravel".
By now I was wishing I had started with the new novel instead, not least because, when I did finally pick it up, it contained so many echoes of Paradoxes of Peace that I couldn't quite get my disappointment with that out of my mind. Somewhere towards the end of the memoir, Mosley writes that he clings to the belief that "God is a hypothesis that can in some sense be put to the test". His own life, he implies, has failed to provide that opportunity, but a novel is another matter altogether.
God's Hazard provides that test. It reads slightly like a version of the Book of Job – with a contemporary tale woven in to a familiar biblical narrative to add counterpoint. Through the eyes of a contemporary writer, Adam, who is married to Evie, we watch as God and his female consort Lilith observe the behaviour of the first Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Rather than God punishing Adam and Eve by ejecting them from paradise – as in the standard Christian retelling – Mosley portrays him as an anxious parent seeking a way to make his creations leave home for what, most of the time, he believes will be their own good. This endeavour is paralleled in novelist Adam's relationship with his own teenage daughter, Sophie.
In pursuit of that goal, of forcing Adam and Eve to leave Eden, God even seduces Eve. Again, it's a challenging twist on the Authorized Version and one, I couldn't help thinking, that could be considered within that paradox, set out in the memoir, between freedom and fidelity.
Highly individual in style and structure, God's Hazard is vintage Mosley fiction, the sort of novel that has you stopping on almost every page to make sure you are keeping up with the intellectual debate taking place within the overlapping narratives as the boundaries between story and storytellers, writer and characters, all begin to blur. And as they do, it elevates the reader to to another place where, with relief, I found that my memory of Paradoxes of Peace was finally fading. With some novelists, less is more when it comes to knowing the details of their lives.
Peter Stanford's most recent book is 'Teach Yourself Catholicism' (Teach Yourself Books)
Sir Oswald Mosley and his family
Sir Oswald Mosley was the principal founder of the British Union of Fascists. His extreme right policies, inspired by the Italian leader Mussolini, led him to be interned along with most active fascists in Britain in 1940. His then wife, Diana Mitford, whom he married in 1936, was also interned shortly after the birth of their son, Max. More than a decade earlier in 1920, he had married Lady Cynthia Curzon with whom he had three children including Nicholas Mosley, who wrote a biography on his father.
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