Thursday Fiction Corner: A Conversation with Nicholas Mosley

Nicholas Mosely

“[O]n the whole, now, I feel very much a loner. There are the few who have something of the same style, and there are the few who have something of the same feeling about life which they want to express; but I don’t know of anyone who’s so involved with connecting the one thing with the other.” – Nicholas Mosley

We are proud to be distributing Dalkey Archive Press, one of the leading publishers of avant-garde fiction and literature in translation! One of the most exciting aspects of working with Dalkey Archive is the opportunity to work with their rich backlist, which includes books by some of the most interesting writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. One of the most notable of these writers is Nicholas Mosley, author of (among many other works) Hopeful Monsters, Efforts at Truth: An Autobiography, and Metamorphosis, which will be available in September. In today’s Fiction Corner, we are happy to present an excerpt from a conversation between Mosley and Dalkey Archive Press founder John O’Brien which first appeared in the Summer 1982 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction. You can find the conversation in full on the Dalkey Archive website.

A Conversation with Nicholas Mosley
By John O’Brien
From The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Summer 1982, Vol. 2.2

This interview was conducted by mail over a two-year period during 1977 and 1978.


JOB: I think that you will agree that the concern, both thematic and technical, at the center of your work is that of “opposites.” Do you become conscious of such a concern “after” you have written? That is, I am assuming something here about the creative process: you do not begin with “ideas.” At what point do you discover that this is what you are working with?

NM: Opposites. Impossibilities. I think that this is answered in my long digression for your third question. At some stage in my life I got this obsession with “impossibilities,” not in the first place as an idea but as an experience: love as both creative and destructive: peace being what people said they wanted, but being boring: happiness being what one aimed at, but which could not be held. And together with this, what seemed to be the fact that literature (“good” literature) could only easily deal with life being to do with “failure”—not with life as a successfully going concern. And this being not because writers are perverse, but because there is something deep here in the nature of language. And language of course is representative of something about the way in which “consciousness” or the powers of description of consciousness work. So the effort of imaginative writing becomes that of trying to “say the unsayable.” What else are we trying to do? And what better?

JOB: I have been trying, without much success, to “place” you in a tradition with other moderns. A few names come to mind—Ford (“The Good Soldier”), Flaubert (“Bouvard”), Joyce, O’Brien, Firbank, Henry Green, John Hawkes, Jean Rhys. This may be a question about influences; or, it may be asking you to identify writers with whom you feel in company. I am stuck by the fact that the writers you have mentioned in your letters do not seem similar to you—Fowles, Salinger, and Patrick White.

NM: When I was young William Faulkner was my great love, not just because of the density of style, but because he seemed to be dealing with the question not of “what will happen next” but “what is happening now.” The first Faulkner novel I read was “The Sound and the Fury,” which I got hold of when we liberated a POW camp in Italy in 1944 and I liberated the Red Cross Library. I was about twenty. I had never heard of Faulkner and the book was a knock-out; I’d never heard of anyone writing like this. Not only the style, but the way in which you don’t exactly know what on earth has happened or is happening till about page two hundred—then it all becomes apparent in a blinding flash. The whole book. This seemed to be not only intensely exciting (the wondering for two-hundred pages was exciting) but to be exactly like life. What in god’s name, after all, was I doing aged twenty in Italy in a war? After that I got hold of everything I could of Faulkner’s. On my early romantic/tragic level, I thought the perfect novel was “The Wild Palms.”

My other two loves which came slightly later were Proust and Henry James: Proust because of his specific idea about life being “impossible” except in terms of art and memory; Henry James because although in a way he is dealing with “what will happen next,” his constant subtleties of shifting of his, and his protagonists’, and his readers’ moral attitudes, make it into a question of “what is happening now”—I’m thinking of “The Awkward Age” or “What Masie Knew” or the end of “Wings of the Dove.” All these writers fed, and nurtured, my underlying passion; but I suppose were probably damaging to my style. I was haunted by Faulkner probably till “Meeting Place.”

Since then—yes, I see what you mean. I feel close to Salinger I suppose because in “Franny and Zooey” he was trying to describe someone influencing someone—consciously, by decision—Zooey trying to get Franny out of her state of “impossibility.” So this became some description of how, in life, an impossibility might be made possible. (In parenthesis—I don’t know how clear I make myself about this: my idea is that one cannot alter the impossibilities or tragedies of life; but by “standing back” from them—in art? in a state of mind within oneself of which art is a model?—one can make them possible; and thus life can be glimpsed for what it often is—a going concern.) But then, as you said yourself in an earlier letter, Salinger never got over killing Seymour in that first story—and then hadn’t provided himself with the form to bring him alive again—as I tried to do with the child in “Impossible Object”! Fowles I admire because “The Magus” was some sort of search, on a grand scale, for “what is happening now”: though of course in style he’s totally different from me. Joyce of course had an enormous influence on my style; especially “Portrait of the Artist” and the early Stephen Dedalus bit of “Ulysses.” Also the last few pages of “Finnegans Wake” which do seem to me to be a marvelous and almost unique statement of life as a going concern. But still—90% of the book is unintelligible. It’s almost as if he was saying this—Look, this can’t be said, but you’ll find one or two diamonds among the gravel here and there. But one must be able to do it in a more readable way than that. I suppose I don’t think much about Joyce now because the influence just sank in, and stayed there quietly.

Firbank, Green, yes; probably the same. But I’m often bored by Firbank. “The Good Soldier” I remember as being one of those books that I saw was very interesting (and good) but I didn’t much like. Perhaps it was too close to me for comfort? I don’t know.

Henry Green is just being reprinted here. I’m going to reread him. I think Green probably influenced me more than I admit or know. I remember “Concluding” coming out first when I began writing, and its making a great impression. Perhaps he was too close for me easily to remember!

But on the whole, now, I feel very much a loner. There are the few who have something of the same style, and there are the few who have something of the same feeling about life which they want to express; but I don’t know of anyone who’s so involved with connecting the one thing with the other.

Read the full conversation on the Dalkey Archive Press website.

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