Out of the Drawer at Last: Nicholas Mosley’s A Garden of Trees

NM GoT

It is unfair at this late date to introduce Nicholas Mosley as the son of Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists. Mosley the younger has forged a life wholly unlike his father’s. He served the Allied cause in World War II and several terms as a Liberal member in the House of Lords. He worked against apartheid in South Africa as part of the Community of the Resurrection. And he is a gifted writer, as evidenced by novels like Impossible Object, which was shortlisted for the 1969 Booker Prize, and Hopeful Monsters, which won the 1991 Whitbread Award. Yet the specter of his father’s radicalism has trailed Nicholas Mosley all these years. The extent of the elder Mosley’s commitment to Fascism is unclear. His son has speculated that he enjoyed the spotlight but was committed to a different way of life. He sought to prevent Britain from entering World War II, preferring instead to direct Germany’s aggressions toward Russia. His father never liked Hitler, Mosley says, and that he had no ties to high-ranking members of the Nazi party. Late in the war, Churchill even arranged for Oswald and his wife to live under house arrest. Nicholas was allowed to visit, a liberty which assumes little threat on the part of either party.

If he hadn’t practiced such an uncompromising style of writing, Nicholas Mosley’s name might be less closely linked to his father’s sins. The scholar Shiva Rahbaran calls him “one of the most controversial contemporary novelists in the English language.” His experimental tendencies no doubt limited his readership. In Impossible Object, one of his finest books, Mosley foregoes conventional narrative structure in favor of loosely related vignettes. The reader may discern links, but as Mosley has said, “The reader could, and would make whatever he wanted of it.” He speaks to the fluidity of the novel’s separate narrative threads in his memoir, Efforts and Truth, when he writes, “The fifth story of Impossible Object is about a man (the narrator of the fourth story?) who has got fed up with the sort of life he has got stuck in and goes off to look for a new girlfriend.” His more experimental offerings have been linked to the anti-novel/nouveau roman strains of fiction which emerged from Europe. Others, including the newly released A Garden of Trees, are tied up with questions of faith and doubt – questions of substance, to be sure, but something apart from the main thrust of contemporary English language fiction. Never one to back away from unconventional ideas, Mosley has described his experience writing novels as “forward memory.” That is to say, he writes about an event in a fictional context, only to watch it unfold later in his actual life. His other theories of the novel are more accessible. “There is a sense,” Mosley writes in Efforts at Truth, “in which novels are a smokescreen put up to deal with the near-desperate pains of reality: there is a sense in which they are not-quite-so-desperate efforts to break through the smokescreens that seem to be put up by reality itself.”

A Garden of Trees arrives from Dalkey Archive with Nicholas Mosley’s reputation as a writer fully formed. This is a curious state of affairs; he wrote the book in 1949 and 1950. It is natural enough for a writer to look back at early works, both published and unpublished. James Salter revisited his second novel, The Arm of Flesh, after forty years of dissatisfaction with it. He made such extensive revisions that the result, Cassada, was practically a different book. Peter Mathiessen took three novels (Killing Mister WatsonLost Man’s River and Bone by Bone) he had published over a span of ten years and pared them down to a single volume, Shadow Country, which was awarded the National Book Award in 2008. In Mosley’s case, A Garden of Trees was to be his second novel, but it was received coolly by publishers. David Garnett of Rupert Hart-Davis read the book and pronounced it a failure. The conversation was “bad and dead,” the story rambling, and that “publication in its present form would be a mistake.” The book was finally accepted by Weidenfeld & Nicholson after what Mosley describes as a “lengthy round of publishers.” Both author and publisher were lukewarm about the novel by that time. Mosley was far along on his next book, Rainbearers, and chose to direct his energies there. A Garden of Trees went in the drawer, where it remained until now, when it is finally between covers – handsome ones – thanks to Dalkey Archive. There is no evidence to suggest that Mosley has fundamentally altered the original text. In a postscript to the book, he writes that, “Perhaps now, in this overt age of celebrity, there might be some recognition of the strength of inwardness rather than clamor.” It is an admirable aim, but also a very generous reading of the novel in question.

A Garden of Trees is not Mosley in experimental mode. That came later, and the authority with which he presented those experiments was formidable. He is far less commanding here. A searching quality pervades the book. Perhaps this is to blame for the novel’s callow feel. The reader could view that same quality as a reflection of postwar England’s need to reorder priorities, to go from a daily life rich with moral purpose to a less remarkable, more stable existence.

The novel centers on a group of four friends: the unnamed narrator; Peter and Annabelle, who are brother and sister; and Marius, who exerts a powerful attraction over the other three. He particularly appeals to Annabelle, with whom he has a brief affair and fathers a child. The narrator is drawn into their circle after encountering Marius at a political rally. It is unclear how involved Marius is in the proceedings, but the narrator follows him and eventually strikes up a conversation. Marius is a powerful, mysterious presence. He reveals little of himself in conversation. His occupation is unclear, though his circle of friends and acquaintances readily offer, among other things, a place to sleep. Peter is glib and tortured, disaffected with everything from the time he spent at Oxford to organized religion. His experience in the army is rewarding in that he finds “simple people doing simple things that are supposed to be unpleasant.” If that sounds condescending, he’s less tedious than the description suggests. In fact his is the best dialogue in the novel, consistently witty, occasionally weighty and delivered in the proper dosage.

Mosley concedes that the dialogue is often dead, but reading it is no easier for that admission. Take an excerpt of a conversation between Annabelle and the narrator:

The world is not dead to us.”

Of course not.”

What is this hopelessness?”

Mixing eternity with the future. The future is what will happen, beyond our control, beyond our living. That is what is the world to those who work. Eternity is what might happen, what is in our control, what is in our dying. We can create it.”

Hopelessness is hunger and drudgery,” Annabelle said, “it is nothing else.”

With hunger and drudgery there is the future. There is always hope. Where there is no hunger or drudgery there is also the hope of the present. This is the same as eternity. There is only hopelessness when drudgery looks to the present and idleness looks to the future.”

These dense, artificial passages are still more glaring thanks to a number of clever exchanges and pithy, even aphoristic observations throughout the book. Marius’s wife, wasting away in a hospital bed, remarks that, “It is easier to talk than to believe.” On another occasion, Marius tells Annabelle, “Suffering is when you can’t even die.” Annabelle says, “How pompous, darling.” Marius, untroubled, says, “Yes,” and though Mosley doesn’t say so, it’s hard to imagine the remark coming with anything but a smirk.

Mosley does create a spell, albeit a fragile one, via the narrator’s three friends and their efforts to establish a world apart. But his insistence upon keeping Marius, the center of their little group, so cryptic and mysterious, robs the narrative of much needed momentum. They separate and confront, each in their own time, questions of faith. This brings Father Jack Manners to the stage, and while he is central to the group’s spiritual development, he lends a bloodless feel to the proceedings. The book’s final pages are all the more remarkable for that. Mosley gives us a thrilling picture of Marius’s last days, one in which he appears charismatic and noble. It suggests an appeal only seen in fragments throughout the book, one so strong that Marius could credibly be the pole star for many lives.

This novel was unmistakably a step in Mosley’s progression as a writer, but it’s clear he simply doesn’t trust himself here as fully as he did later. He treats the titular image and metaphor subtly for much of the book, allowing his young protagonists to tinker with the discrete worlds they attempt to create. Gradually he draws closer, allowing the narrator to remark that, “A fruit tree…is where it all started, I suppose, in a garden of trees.” Later he goes further still, when Peter’s father remarks to the narrator that, “It seems to me you are obsessed with the Garden of Eden. You insist on trying to recreate it and at the same time insist on making the original mistakes.” These false notes are particularly hard to ignore given Mosley’s elegant prose and the basic soundness of his conceit here. A Garden of Trees is not the best of Nicholas Mosley, but that’s not to say it’s wholly without merit. The best of Mosley is a high bar indeed.

– John McIntyre

All original content copyright John McIntyre, 2013.

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