Nicholas Mosley: Imago Bird. Minerva, 1991. 186 pages. $??
review by Otto Steinmayer
Novelists rarely take the trouble to rework their books, but Imago Bird is the revised version of what Nicholas Mosley first published in 1980. It stands as the second novel in his Catastrophe Practice series, which Hopeful Monsters, his latest (reviewed here last May), completes.
It may surprise most of us that "catastrophe" is in origin a literary critical term. It means "a complete turn-about." Aristotle, in his little book on tragedy, uses it to name the point in the plot of a play where events suddenly reverse themselves. The victim, for example, about to killed turns out to be a long lost brother.
Traditional novelists took pride in constructing plots with many and surprising such twists. The "catastrophe" in the title of Mosley's series seems to promise novels in such a vein. But time has led us to think literary reversals as the quiet norm. They seem to us (at least as readers) no catastrophes at all, but things we have long awaited and prepared for.
It's a cliche to say that the modern novel deals
with a fragmented and disordered world, a world that has stopped making
sense. Events around us take sudden new directions, and we cannot
discover the reason. When a novelist makes an honest attempt to
describe this world, the fragmentation of narrative generates literary
catastrophes of a modern type, literary discontinuities.
Then there are real catastrophes in the vulgar modern sense: wars, murders, disasters. These find their way into the background of almost all modern fiction.
Bert, the hero and narrator of Imago Bird,
lives with his uncle, a recent British prime minister, whom he refers
to only as "Uncle Bill," a politician with white hair and the pipe and
gait of a sea-captain. I am sure that Mosley makes many allusions to
pre-Thatcher British politics. I know nothing about them, so I leave
the details to those who can decipher them.
Bert is 18, between school and university. He
faces---like all of us---a discontinuous world, whose vague menace he
fends off with a stammer. Bert is an extremely intelligent young man.
If he cannot express himself through his tongue, he possesses an
extraordinarily rich interior voice as compensation.
The plot of Imago Bird is the texture of Bert's world. He is growing up. He must make sense of his past in his family, and of the strange things that go inevitably on around him as the member of a political household. Sometimes these things are sinister or tragic, though they are not the focus of the book, and Mosley develops them in a studiedly unconventional way, with sufficient suspense.
One of Mosley's points seems to me to be that the menace of the modern world lies much in its fragmented surface, its appearance. Bert manages his coming of age with skill. He finds intellectual or human satisfactions along the way. An elderly homosexual tries to pick him up in a railway station cafe, fails and leaves. Bert thinks: "if you just let things happen truly, at least you get a cup of coffee..."
"Catastophe" has acquired a new technical sense
in the past few years. Mathematicians have devised a catastrophe theory
as a method of explaining how sudden complete turn-abouts happen in
equations or in nature. The premis of the theory is that number and
nature love continuity. Events do not jump from one state to the next,
but must pass through some intervening stage. What seems to us a jump
may not be a jump at all.
Imagine a piece of wire twisted into a complex curve. If you close one eye and look at the wire, so that it appears to be a flat scribble, there may seem to be sharp kinks in it, points where its course reverses itself, as it were, instantaneously. Then if you open your other eye and look at the wire in three dimensions and rotate it in your hands, you see that the curve is smooth and continuous. It was your point of view that created the kinks.
In a recent article in the Times Literary
Supplement, Mosley explained his aims as a contemporary writer of
novels. It seemed to him that too many new novels merely took
fragmentation and discontinuity for given and intractable facts of
modern life, and that novelists wasted their time parading their
despair. Mosley thinks that like the traditional novel, the modern
novel too should try to say something about life, to explain, or
It is impossible, I think, to achieve this now in
a traditional way. The old literary techniques do not wholly suffice.
Yet Mosley's choice of catastrophe theory as a paradigm in writing Imago
Bird succeeds, and could teach other writers.
Bert is trying to discover the continuity that
appears as the kinks of the world he sees. It's not so much a matter of
putting order into things, but seeing the order that's already there.
Bert's tools are his sensitivity, his intellect, and metaphor. Both
"imago" and "bird" are long-running metaphors throughout the novel.
Mosley asks also for a reader patient enough to
open both eyes, so to speak, while reading his book, to rotate the
narrative through three and four dimensions---because time too is an
element of narrative and the world---and perceive the continuous whole.