by Nicholas Mosley
"I was standing in the hall, the dead time, four o'clock in the morning. Nothing at the centre, not even pain. If only I could cease. Listen to the clock. A wind. The wind stops. I hear a noise like a breath expelled through a dry throat. Then nothing. I wait for it to be repeated. Nothing. Nothing about death." (p 164)
This is an obsessive short novel that opens with an accident. The narrator, Stephen Jervis - a don at Oxford, has come upon two of his students, Anna and William, who have just crashed their car. The story flashes back to the moment when Anna has just met Stephen, as he has become her Philosophy tutor. As a tutor in Philosophy Stephen seems conflicted. In order to hide from his emotions he focuses on his work. "The consolations of work are that you come from it tired at the end of a long day. A robot, with men working inside you. They pull levers; switch. You watch and move. At the end you have something to look forward to. You go home. To rest. The mechanism sleeps. The men open doors, windows. Look out into the air."(p 18)
In the first meeting with Anna he gives her a brief introduction to the nature of philosophy and how much she must learn about it - existence and persons. What makes a person an enduring entity? What is the real substance of existence and what is an "accident." In his discussion with her it comes to the point where "Now we've got a choice. Before it was Just accident."(p 31)
With this introductory moment we have the theme of the novel. There is the real and the accidents of our existence. These will be played out through the lives of Stephen and his wife Rosalind, lives that include infidelity and the games that Stephen plays with the lives of others; both his student Anna and, in London, Francesca. As he thinks about the events leading up to the accident he wonders: "At what point did the course of events go wrong?" He thinks, "An accident is different from reality."(p 61) But what is reality? Is it the truth or an accident? The novel provides questions, not answers.
The culmination of his affairs comes in the relation of various incidents to the accident of the title, one that is on more physical grounds and one where, another one of Stephen's students, a young man he really doesn't like, William, is killed. What role does Stephen play in all of this? Should he feel guilt or is he even guilty? During the course of the book Anna has exercised quite an influence not only on William, but on Stephen and his colleague, Charlie. And at the close of what has been a demonstration and a defense of free will, worrying about the questions of guilt versus responsibility, Stephen (and Charlie) are left to determine their own conduct. Mosley writes in a style that commands attention. It is allusive, controlled, and with ideas that are implicit. For those who love novels of ideas and their relation to human emotions this is a perfect short novel.
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