An Interview with Nicholas Mosley

In dear remembrance of Nicholas Mosley, Dalkey Archive is offering this interview in entirety for the first time on the internet. You will find an excerpt below, and can read the full interview here.


A Conversation with Nicholas Mosley By John O’Brien

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

I: Let me give you a quotation from Mallarmé and see whether you think it describes your conception of fiction, though he is speaking about poetry: “To name an object is to do away with three-quarters of the enjoyment of the poem which is derived from the satisfaction of guessing little by little; to suggest it, that is the illusion. It is the perfect handling of the mystery that Constitutes the symbol: to evoke an object little by little in order to show a state of mind or inversely to choose an object and to disengage from it a State of mind, by a series of unriddlings.”

NM: The Mallarmé quote. Yes. Exactly. At the back of all this is the feeling that what language is fitted for is the saying of what things are not rather than what they are. I think this has been suggested by various philosophers, linguists, etc., at various times. It connects with the theologians’ point that you can say what God is not, but not (easily) what. He is. So when Mallarmé says that to name a thing is to do away with the enjoyment of a poem, this can be elaborated into the fact that you can’t name the object of joy: there is something in the mechanism of the mind almost that simply prevents this: the “satisfaction of guessing little by little” is a description of the way in which the mind, in its use of language, does work: the riddling and unriddling—the process—constitutes the fact, as it were as well as the symbol. What has come to interest me more and more over the last years are descriptions of people who try to understand the workings of brain/mind. Poetry in this way seems a model of the way things work—of “truth.” Direct naming etc., seems like propaganda.

I: And let’s see what you can make of this quote from E. M. Forster: “We have entered a universe that only answers to its own laws, supports itself, internally coheres, and has a new standard of truth. Information is true if it’s accurate. A poem is true if it hangs together. Information points to something else. A poem to nothing but itself. Information is relative. A poem is absolute.”

NM: Forster’s quote I don’t think makes much sense. To say a poem is absolute is saying nothing because an ink blot can be absolute. Yet you put into it what you like. So it becomes totally relative. Once you claim a fiction “has a new standard of truth” (with which I agree–I mean I agree that a novel or poem “should” suggest a “new” standard of truth), once you bring “truth” in you are suggesting the relation of something (“language”) to something else (“experience”). But if your experience is not nameable, but a riddle, then what the poem or novel has to do is present the truth of the riddle. But this is still not “absolute.” It is a passionate effort to describe experience.

I: I do not quite know how to formulate this question. It might be the standard question of what were the origins of Impossible object, how did you first begin writing it, was it from the start a series of stories or did that method become imperative after having written the first story, etc. It is this question, I suppose, but it comes out of my complete awe at that novel’s process. That is, I know that this novel could not have been written, and yet it’s there. So, I am asking about the design of the novel and how that design was arrived at.

NM: Impossible Object. Ah. Well, there were two or three strands I think that came together to give the book its form. l) My coming across, quite by accident, the symbol of an Impossible Object—the triangle that can exist in two dimensions but not in three; this was in a short newspaper feature in the Observer (London Sunday)—”the feature was describing some work that had been done by two psychologists (one of whom was called Penrose I think) who had published a short paper in a learned journal. The image of the triangle excited me greatly and I went off to the library to look up the original learned article, which didn’t seem to be saying much except that these images could be created. The psychologists didn’t seem to be making any suggestions beyond this. Anyway–what had excited me was the idea that this visual image was a symbol of the other two strands that were moving around in my mind at that time 2) For a long while I had been obsessed with the idea (or the way of putting the idea) that to have a good life was “impossible” and it was only when one recognized the “impossibility” that it became possible. I think this sort of idea had been with me from the very beginning of my writing novels: my first three novels had fairly conventional tragic/romantic stories: the first about the impossibilities attendant on war, the second about those attendant on romantic love; in both the protagonists were doomed to tragedy, whatever their good intentions. In the third novel, Corruption, there was an effort to break out of this conventional pattern: but still, life could only “work” through renunciation. After these three novels I gave up writing novels for a time; I was dissatisfied with romantic doom, yet didn’t see much way around it. I became something of a Christian, specifically in an effort to find out something of all this. But it was in my process of getting out of conventional Christianity, rather than getting in, that I got hold of the idea that all right, life is impossible, but once you know it’s impossible, all right, it mysteriously isn’t. I put this into two books I wrote at this time: Experience and Religion, a sort of long aphoristic essay, and The Life of Raymond Raynes, which was a biography of an Anglican monk who had much influenced me and was the only holy man I have ever met. It was through him think that there came the idea of life being impossible/possible.

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