- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 19, 2004


By Nicholas Mosley

Dalkey Archive Press, $34.95 cloth/$13.95 paper, 222 pages


The writer Nicholas Mosley, a.k.a. Sir Nicholas Mosley, Baron Ravensdale, has lived under the shadow of a father who, despite his many gifts, must be one of the most embarrassing parents of all time.

His father, Sir Oswald Mosley, achieved lasting notoriety as the leader of the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s. He and his second wife, Diana (formerly Guinness, before that Mitford) were jailed during World War II as security risks.

Unlike Diana, who remained an unrepentant fan of the Fuehrer until the day she died, Oswald, it seems fair to say, had not particularly admired Adolf Hitler (Benito Mussolini was more his man), nor was he personally a rabid anti-Semite.

Sir Oswald had started out very promisingly as a progressive politician in the 1920s, determined to do something about the deteriorating plight of the working man. Dissatisfied with the Conservative and Labor parties alike (he’d first been a member of the former, and later served as a junior minister in the latter), he founded his own New Party and began to attract a following.

He was a brilliant speaker, charismatic and full of ideas. Still, he couldn’t have been the easiest father for a child to have, and the malign trajectory of his political career was only one of the troublesome elements in this particular family background.

Nicholas Mosley was only 10 when his mother, Sir Oswald’s first wife Cynthia (a daughter of Lord Curzon), died, although Oswald had already been involved with Diana before then. Subsequently, the boy was brought up by his aunt Irene (one of the other two Curzon daughters, both of whom were also Oswald’s lovers).

And yet out of a background so melodramatic, so Byzantine, so unsettling, so fraught with extremes, what should emerge but a pleasant surprise: something — in fact someone — quite wholesome. Nicholas Mosley is a writer who can surely be described as sensible, decent, earnest, hopeful, even life-affirming, and — unlike his all-too-brilliantly plumed forebears — distinctly unshowy.

Over the course of a literary career spanning more than half a century, Mr. Mosley has gone his own way. Whether fiction or nonfiction, his writing seems to represent a kind of thinking aloud, an effort on his part to figure things out for himself.

Dating from the late 1950s to the 1990s, the nearly five dozen essays in this collection treat a variety of themes — literature, religion, philosophy, science, evolution, free will, morality and mortality. They are short pieces, most of them book reviews, along with about a dozen items written for “Prism,” a Christian magazine which Mr. Mosley edited in the late 1950s.

Also threaded through the collection is a previously unpublished six-part rumination, “Journey into the Dark,” written in 1998.

Book reviewing gives Mr. Mosley the opportunity to engage with a wide array of subjects and to move from the book in question into what might be called the higher realms of philosophical musings about life in general.

Reviewing Philip Roth’s novel “The Professor of Desire” in 1978, he observes: “Sexuality, to Roth, seems always to be a bondage and not a release: and indeed this is a not unusual experience. But also there is the realisation that this sort of predicament — enslavement — does seem to be a subject of much of world literature: it seems easier to write, and read, stories about helplessness than about freedom.

“And then there is the even more alarming thought that this also seems to have something to do with a condition of life — it seems easier to live in some sort of enslavement rather than to embark on the hard graft towards release. In enslavement you know where you are: you are at home, as it were, within the bounds of a comic or tragic story. In freedom, you are apt to be somewhat at sea.”

Mr. Mosley’s fondness for nebulous over-generalization is evident here, but the point he makes is certainly an interesting one, and since we know what he’s getting at, there’s no harm done.

When he gets onto other topics, like religion, however, his penchant for generalities and sweeping statements becomes a more serious problem.

Although fervently disclaiming anti-Semitism, he seems obsessed with the notion of the Jews as a chosen people — always a tricky position, especially in Britain where that appellation has been a code word favored by anti-Semites.

Thus, we find him making statements like this one in “Journey into the Dark, VI”: “It was when Jews seemed to feel that by being chosen for the experiment — by possessing the gift of some special aptitude of consciousness — they were not representative but set apart from the rest of humanity — not a nucleus but a separate cell — that something went awry …”

When? Where? What? To call this statement nonsensical would be too generous because it’s actually rather pernicious as well.

Indeed, whenever Mr. Mosley touches upon issues related to Judaism, Jews, the Holocaust and modern Israel, one finds him edging, very gingerly, with what he probably feels to be all due respect, towards nudging Jews and Israel — ever so gently — in the direction of “freeing” themselves from the historical burden of victimhood and taking up the challenge of striving to be “a light unto the nations.”

As to Jews in general, this wildly overestimates the extent to which most — or many — see themselves as “chosen,” and as to Israel, this ignores the actual circumstances in which Israel has been forced to operate, a state surrounded from the moment of its inception by “neighbors” not merely suspicious and unfriendly, but actively committed to its destruction.

And like too many “right-thinking” people these days, Mr. Mosley’s mode is exclusively self-critical, indeed, self-referential: If there’s a problem, “we” (the West? Americans? Britons? Christians? Jews? Israelis?) are the ones who must fix it by changing our approach and attitude.

This absolves everyone else from having to take any responsibility for changing themselves. It’s worse than patronizing. It seems almost racist: “They” (the other side, whoever they may happen to be) are assumed to be lesser beings, not quite capable of the making the inner-directed changes that Mr. Mosley elsewhere claims are the essence of being human.

“My efforts to sympathise with my father, Oswald Mosley, came to grief, as did so many people’s, on the rocks of his alliance with anti-Semitism.” So begins Mr. Mosley’s 1996 essay about his father entitled “What Price Political Idealism?” Mosley’s efforts to come to a clearer understanding of his parent as a person and as a politician bore fruit in two full-scale works of biography.

Here, however, in this brief piece, he hones in on a theme that recurs again and again throughout all his writing. Having an argument with his father in the 1950s on the subject of black immigration, he responds to his father’s rationalizations for restricting it: “When I said — This is all theory, words, it has nothing to do with people’s actual predicaments — he seemed not to accept the seriousness of such a suggestion. It was as if the power of words had bewitched his ability to look at or to feel about human situations.”

As an antidote to the perilous power of words, the dangers of becoming intoxicated — or numbed — by one’s own arguments, theories, or rationalizations, Mr. Mosley counsels an attitude of openness and attentiveness: “… one had to watch, and to listen to what turned up, rather than to talk, if one was to be in any useful partnership with how things in the world turned out.”

This, perhaps, is his most valuable insight in this uneven collection, the one verging most closely on wisdom.

Merle Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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