Nicholas Mosley, Look at the Dark
'There was a time when I was drawn to the Hindu idea that in old age a man should hand over earthly power and possessions to younger members of his family; that he should leave home equipped with little more than a begging bowl and go out onto the highways and byways to watch the world go by.'
This seductive opening of Moseley's first-person narrative promises much, but the novel runs aground in the middle and ends with rather a whimper. The first sentence quoted above suggests that the reader is in the presence of a man pondering over his past with some regret at the way things have turned out, ideals having disappointed. The tone is intimate and confiding, inviting reader participation; for me it recalls Wordsworth's `There was a time when every meadow, grove and stream' and `There was a boy, ye knew him ...' from The Prelude. The brooding, philosophical note is developed in the second sentence with `By thus casting off mundane attachments he might gain spiritual power; which at the approach of death should be of more use to him anyway.' The narrator then moves from the general to his present situation of living in comfort in the here and now, giving the reader facts about his present life as a retired academic living in London, supporting himself by giving occasional radio talks and television interviews, watching the box and being looked after by his second and younger wife, thinking about language, lies and truth. In the first few pages, in dialogue with his wife he emerges as clever, cynical and strange. `Towers fall by the force of gravity: God is the force of levity.' Thus is the sort of language conundrum our narrator loves.
Gradually the past begins to take over, Valentina, the present wife, is supplanted in the story by the past wife Valerie, who is still alive and gradually comes to occupy centre stage. The similarities in the names strike him as they do the reader, but there are other coincidences and soon the reader is in Africa as the storyteller relates his experiences, elaborating on one in which he makes love to a one-legged woman simply because she wishes it. The dialogue is blunt, matter-of-fact and shorn of speech direction.
In some ways Look at the Dark is an anti-novel, for cause and effect are frequently arbitrary. Children appear and disappear for no obvious reason, except that life's like that, a lot stranger than fiction. Both narrator and reader frequently find themselves catching up with `what happened' after the event, and even then neither is sure of the facts or the truth. One important fact is that the reader comes to trust the narrator not necessarily to tell the truth but to be faithful, as far as he can, to his perceptions. The two Vals seem to be more sensible and reliable, providing the reader as it were with a sheet anchor in the teller's drifting sea of adventures. When he takes the children to the zoo, for example, he `arrived home on my one leg and one crutch' and begins to tell his wife about it, but he finds it `so unlikely that I found myself saying `I don't suppose I'm getting all the details right.'" The zoo metaphor then takes over in his mind while his wife talks of a party for a book launch she'd like him to attend. `It struck me that this might not be so different from a trip to the zoo, though it seemed not worth working out why.'
Exactly! As in life appearance and reality are forever at odds, things have to be suggested rather than defined, the dark is always there, but while for me the zoo metaphor works well, as does the image of darkness and lameness, long before the end the overused turn-turtle metaphor begins to pall. Our engaging narrator is becoming just a bit too clever, and the minor characters have failed to interest or come alive, dwarfed as they are by the teller of the ragged tale, this Shandean cock and bull story.