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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Nicholas Mosley

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Accident

Title: Accident
Author: Nicholas Mosley
Genre: Novel
Written: 1965
Length: 198 pages
Availability: Accident - US
Accident - UK
Accident - Canada
Accident - France
DVD Accident - US
Accident - UK
  • With an Afterword by Steven Weisenburger
  • Accident was made into a film in 1967, directed by Joseph Losey, with a screenplay by Harold Pinter and starring Dirk Bogarde, Michael York, and Jacqueline Sassard

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Our Assessment:

A- : captures the personal (doubts, in particular) very well

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/4/1966 Martin Levin
Sunday Telegraph . 10/1/1965 Isabel Quigly
Sunday Times . 10/1/1965 Michael Ratcliffe
The Times . 14/1/1965 .
TLS . 14/1/1965 M.Seymour-Smith

  From the Reviews:
  • "It is an experience -- rather than a report on -- domesticity. (...) (W)hat is most interesting, most delicate and altogether most impressive about the novel is the way it handles the joy and tediousness of family life." - Isabel Quigly, Sunday Telegraph

  • "It is about the difference between twenty and forty, between 1946 and 1965, about the dread of automation and the end of usefulness, about the feared death of the spirit. (...) He writes particularly well the prose of shock, of the dead, small hours; and he also writes, as few can, of pain and the purpose of marriage." - Michael Ratcliffe, Sunday Times

  • "(A)n infinite amount of patience and forbearance is required to appreciate all his qualities. Accident is not an easy read." - The Times

  • "(T)he theme of Accident, an ambitious one, is the difference between aspirations and action. (...) Technically, Accident is remarkable. (...) The texture of the writing itself is deliberately simple; the complexity arises from the way in which the parts are put together (....) A slightly manufactured, homiletic air pervades this fascinating and original novel, like a whiff of anaesthetic, chiefly because one feels, Mr Mosley has tried to push back what really preoccupies him into the background." - Martin Seymour-Smith, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Accident begins with the fatal car crash at the heart of the book. Narrator Stephen Jervis, a fellow at Oxford, teaching philosophy, is not involved, but two of his students are, William and Anna, and they were on their way to see him. Stephen comes across the scene, finding an intoxicated Anna who had apparently been behind the wheel (unlicensed), and dead William; he takes Anna to his house and calls the police -- but isn't then entirely forthcoming about the scene as he found it. The impression the police are left with is that William was driving, and alone.
       The moral dilemma he faces -- whether to reveal Anna's part in the accident -- hangs heavily over his account. The accident and aftermath bookend the novel: only towards its conclusion does he return to the night in question and its aftermath, including the obligatory (but then also perfunctory) inquest. But most of the novel is devoted to the lead-up, basically describing the time from when Stephen first met Anna, and the various relationships between the characters: Stephen and his family (his wife and two children); Anna and the men vying for her attention -- Stephen, to some extent, but also William, whom she is engaged to when he dies, and Stephen's friend Charlie -- "my greatest friend" --, who was having an affair with her; and the three men, Stephen and his student William, Stephen and his close friend Charlie, and Charlie and his rival William.
       There's an immediacy to much of the narrative, from the vivid opening scene, but late on comes the acknowledgement that this is being recounted from:

     A long way away. I am doing this two years after. Looking back on it.
       There's an awareness of (fictional) arrangement in the narrative as well, from how philosopher Stephen grapples with his many issues to the occasional more direct acknowledgement of what he is doing, or trying to, as when he recounts: "I remember one Sunday about this time (what is a story ? a sequence ? a meaning ?) when I went with my wife Rosalind and the children [...]". And in the closing passage comes the surprise that this very personal account is apparently not, directly, Stephen's at all: "Charlie is the writer: he will write this book" -- suggesting, too, that the connection between the two men is closer even than one might have gathered from the account itself. (A nice aside, long before readers are made aware of who is actually doing the writing, has Stephen noting: "I do not know how to write about Charlie".)
       Of similar age -- Stephen is forty -- and both with wives and children, they and their actions suggest the two main alternatives as far as life choices go, with Stephen the dutiful don, tempted by Anna but ultimately true to his wife, while besotted Charlie -- always a more free spirit -- abandons his family and has a passionate affair.
       Stephen seems to be suffering from a midlife crisis even before Anna becomes his student. He's used to domestic life, but worn by it. The passion has drained from his marriage; he is devoted to Rosalind and the children but misses what once was. It is also a matter of the current age -- the 1960s --, and the (new) generation: one of his issues is that he see how separate he is from these. Now he sees himself mostly as tired and cautious, in ever-unchanging Oxford, with even his academic work dominated by committee meetings and the like rather than thought. There's real nostalgia to his feelings, too:
     Rosalind was a soft flame in this hard world. Something so strong, beautiful. A pain in my heart at so much beauty. My hand shakes as I write this. There is so much sorrow, death. I adored Rosalind. The dream is more real. The perfect flower.
     We are not like this now. What I remember are the physical surroundings of love: snow, heat, the edge of the sea. I remember myself as being involved in something separate; a child, a foundling with no parents. I lay in the lap of the earth and cried. I do not remember much else. And yet there was the whole landscape; a detail would show a different world. The towers, the terraces. Now we watch the next generation of William and Anna. The old green thing. The touch of it.
       He is close to both William and Anna, but there is that separation of generations (and of personal ties and duties: he is weighed down by his family; they are unencumbered). An early lesson Stephen has with Anna touches upon attitudes towards the idea of existence, Stephen differentiating his from her generation's:
     I said "Once it was all dreams, any old nonsense. We were obsessed by this. Now we know. And it's a good thing we do, because now it would be too dangerous. It's reason, at least, that keeps the world going."
     She said "It may not keep going."
     I said "Oh that !" I jerked my head.
     She said "What ?"
     I said "Well yes, but at least now we've got choice. Before it was just accident."
     She said "It can still be accident."
     I said "Your generation is obsessed by this. You think the world's going to blow up. That life has been unfair to you. I don't feel this. I feel responsibility is better."
       The question of personal responsibility (and duties) is a major one in the novel, and despite what he says, Stephen clearly is torn -- and clearly jealous of Charlie's irresponsible behavior. But he's grounded, in a way that Anna's nuclear-holocaust-fearing generation is not, and he recognizes how much of a chasm that makes for between these generations.
       Stephen's wife was pregnant with their third child at this time, and it was a difficult pregnancy -- conveniently also taking her to her parents' house, leaving the family home empty. She gives birth prematurely, and for quite some time the infant hangs between life and death. Mosley times the birth to coïncide with William's death -- but doesn't immediately make clear whether death will indeed be balanced out by new life. Only when matters are resolved is there indeed affirmation in/through new life.
       Accident is a deeply introspective work. Stephen notes early on already that: "We analyse ourselves too much; we know all this", but Mosley handles Stephen's soul-searching exceptionally well. There's a drift to many of the thoughts -- and especially memories -- but without ever becoming too obscure; Stephen's world may be all turmoil, but there's also a plodding certainty to his steps and thoughts as he navigates his issues. Even at his (and the narrative's) loosest, there is structure and progression:
This is a story about free will. We are all in fragment, disjointed. We have moments when it means something. I know nothing of Anna. We have a choice. The familiar things of my room, books, alarm clock, tumbler. Rosalind's coat. Her dressmaking dummy in the corner. I am half a person. A millionth. We think too much: stare at it.
       The story is framed as that of a moral dilemma -- whether or not to tell the truth about the accident, a consequence of which would likely be the ruining of Anna's life -- and, as Stephen says when he and Charlie, who becomes his co-equal/conspirator in the aftermath of the accident: "This is too difficult. Morals are too difficult". Ultimately, they allow the matter to resolve itself essentially through inaction -- a path of least resistance that seems to be agreeable to everyone, from William's mourning parents to the Oxford authorities.
       This too drains Stephen -- indeed, despite the two-year distance he allowed himself (and/or Charlie) before turning back to these events, the account is suffused with the weight of this moral (in)decision. Stephen is often tired in his account, but then he's generally world-weary: his marriage is the most obvious manifestation of this, but it's all of a piece. When he eventually states: "We can none of us feel anything any more" it reads as though there's almost wishful thinking to it.
       Accident is nominally about a moral dilemma, and that is an important part of the novel, but where it really impresses is in its portrayal of everyday family life, perfectly, exhaustedly captured through Stephen. Beyond that, it is also a fine portrait of academic and specifically Oxford life, neatly portraying also Anna and William's generation, and class (yet another factor in the story, with Charlie of working class background, and Stephen keenly aware of William and Anna's upper class backgrounds). Mosley's style of introspection impresses, too, and though in some ways rooted in the 1960s -- both in its story and in the writing -- Accident holds up very well even half a century later.

- M.A.Orthofer, 18 December 2019

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Accident: Reviews: Accident - the movie: Nicholas Mosley: Other books by Nicholas Mosley under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British author Nicholas Mosley lived 1923 to 2017.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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