Paradoxes of Peace or the Presence of Infinity

By Nicholas Mosley


One of Britain’s very few genuinely experimental writers, Nicholas Mosley has been publishing for six decades. A remarkable stylist, with a visionary sense of language, history, psychology and human relations, his many novels and works of non-fiction have made an oeuvre unique in British letters. Never properly credited in the UK for his achievement, he is now published with vigour and great enthusiasm by the extremely important and influential Dalkey Archive Press in the US. This following extract, detailing several of his encounters with cinema, is taken from his latest autobiographical volume

During the previous two years, following the success of the film of (my novel) Accident, I had been working on and off with Joseph Losey on a script for a film of my novel Impossible Object. The novel had been on the short list for the first Booker Prize in 1969, but had been considered too experimental. Losey had become enthusiastic about the book and now my script, though he saw it might be difficult to raise money for a film. The script echoed the enigmas of the book: one of these being – no one ever quite does get the best of both worlds, but if one has a shot at this one might, in spite of potential or even actual catastrophe, achieve – what? Could one ever quite say? What life was meant to be? At least lively?

I had kept in touch with Losey while I was out of action from my accident, but any film of Impossible Object still awaited funding. Then when I was back in London Losey telephoned to say that he had a contract to make a film about the assassination of Trotsky, but he had not yet been able to get a decent script for it. The obvious writers he had tried had littered their scripts with unactable Marxist jargon. Now that I was back in London but still laid up, would I like to have a go at it? I was the least politically-minded writer that he knew, he said, so I should at least avoid the jargon. But did I know anything about Trotsky?

I said that I had read and much admired his autobiography, so yes, I would like to have a go. And it seemed to me anyway that Trotsky was not an orthodox Marxist, or why should Stalin have wanted to assassinate him? So I was offered a contract to write a script; a proviso being that a first draft would have to be done and looked at within three weeks, or Losey might lose the stars who had provisionally committed themselves to the project and who were vital to the funding. So I sat up in bed and read Isaac Deutscher’s three-volume biography of Trotsky by night, and by day I wrote several pages of script; and every evening a huge American car would arrive and take my pages away for perusal. And at the end of three weeks Losey told me that he, the Hollywood producer Joseph Shaftel, and Alain Delon – the vital star who was to play the part of the assassin – all liked the script, and so the whole project was under way…

accident-joseph-losey.jpgAccident, 1967

Losey and I worked together to expand and elaborate my script. The story takes place when Trotsky is an old man in Mexico City with Stalinist agents pursuing him to kill him. Political background had to be put into the script to explain who Trotsky was and why Stalin wanted to kill him. It seemed that the best way to do this was by flashbacks to the time of the Russian Revolution when Trotsky had been Lenin’s right-hand-man; then Lenin had died and Stalin had taken over. These scenes were worked out carefully – to be shot in grainy black and white as if they were from contemporary newsreels. Losey and I drank whisky in the evenings; he reminisced about the time when he had been a Stalinist in America in the thirties and had been in touch with contacts in Russia…

…The time came when the organisation of the Trotsky film moved from London to Rome, where there were studios which could be used for some of the interior shots. I was needed for possible further re-writes on the script, so I was flown out first class and put up in a five-star hotel…

I tried to make up later for my lack of commitment by volunteering to go out at my own expense to Mexico City when filming began there. I had been told that a bunch of Mexican Trotskyites had got hold of my script and were objecting to the contents of a work which, they had realised, had been written by a Mosley (i.e., ‘fascist’; editor’s note: Oswald Mosley was NM’s father) and was being directed by an ex-Stalinist. Some of the outdoor sets had begun to be picketed. When I reached Mexico City I told Losey that I would go and talk to the Trotskyites. Losey was sceptical about this: he said, ‘But the point of you is that you are a political innocent!’ I said ‘Exactly.’

So I went off by taxi one evening to an address in Coyoacán – the suburb where Trotsky’s house was in which he had been murdered – and there I found a group of stern middle-aged Trotskyites sitting round a table. We argued for a time in guarded but hostile English about whether or not my script conveyed an acceptable portrait of Trotsky’s politics; then I said ‘Well tell me exactly what you think I have omitted and should not have done.’ They conferred among themselves; then said ‘Equal pay for blue-collar and white-collar workers.’ I said ‘You really think I should get Trotsky, an old man in Mexico in 1940, suddenly exclaiming – ‘“Equal pay for blue-collar and white-collar workers!?”’ After a time they laughed; then someone produced a bottle of Mexican brandy; and then for an hour or so we had what I might call an appropriate political conversation, because we got drunk. When I got back to the hotel I found Losey waiting up for me like an anxious parent. He said ‘We thought you might have been murdered!’ I was recalling – At the time of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky said that everyone except the Bolsheviks were drunk.

My next involvement with the film was when the editing had moved to Paris and I heard on some grapevine that Losey was cutting all the flashback scenes from Leninist and Stalinist days; this would leave the politics and indeed Trotsky’s presence in Mexico unexplained, and so would render the film unintelligible. When I telephoned to Losey he at first didn’t want to talk; then just said that the flashbacks had proved to be unworkable in cinematic terms. I went to see him in Paris; there was a new entourage around him – brisk and bossy Frenchmen who I took to be Stalinists, and who were not susceptible to charm as the Mexican Trotskyites had been. And Losey was now putting blame for the changes on inadequacies in my script. Much later, when I was on reasonably good terms with him again, he said that when he was in Paris he had been telephoned from Prague by one of his old Stalinist ‘contacts’ of the 1930s, who had said to him ‘Joe, what’s all this about a film of Trotsky? We’re watching you!’

I went to the producer, Joseph Shaftel, and said that what Losey insisted on cutting from the script would ruin the film. He said there was nothing he could do about this, because Losey had artistic control. But if I objected to what was happening then he, Shaftel, would commission me here and now to write a ‘book of the film.’ However it would have to be done in six weeks in order to be out in time for the premier of the film. I said ‘No one can write a book about Trotsky in six weeks!’ He said ‘But you haven’t asked what money I’m offering you!’ I was about to say – Oh I don’t really have to worry about that. But I said ‘How much?’ And when he told me I said ‘All right I’ll do it!’

It wasn’t a bad little book. It was dismissed as irrelevant by some home-grown Trotskyites, but I found myself invited and welcomed to some Workers’ Revolutionary parties.

assassination-of-trotsky-joseph-losey.jpgThe Assassination of Trotsky, 1972

My dispute with Losey – he had written to me to try to stop me doing the book – meant that it was no longer feasible for him to try to set up a film from my Impossible Object script. But the success of the film of Accident, and now optimistic rumours of the forthcoming Trotsky, had made my name known as a writer in the film world. And then while the editing of Trotsky was being further delayed by various disputes, a big-name director from Hollywood, John Frankenheimer, arrived in London. He had recently made excellent big-budget films such as The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May, and had come to Europe on the look-out for a script from which he could make an unmistakably ‘art’ movie. My agent Anthony Jones heard of this, and sent him my Impossible Object script, saying – This is the art-movie script to end all art-movie scripts.

I was summoned to have breakfast with Frankenheimer in his suite at the Connaught Hotel. He was a tall youngish man, fierce and energetic. He said – I want you to explain to me not the story, such as it is, but why you wrote it like that… (he) paced up and down, occasionally pausing to glare at me. Breakfast was wheeled in and out, scarcely touched. When I had run out of steam Frankenheimer just faced me and said ‘I’ll do it!’ And soon he was going off to raise the necessary several million dollars and enrol good stars.

nicholas-mosley.jpgNicholas Mosley 

When in due course there began to be readings of the script and rehearsals, it became apparent that neither Frankenheimer nor most of the actors had taken on board much of the idea of the difference between what is acting and what is not. Or perhaps it is impossible for even expert actors to act what is not acting. And just then there was the premier of Trotsky in Paris, which Natalie and I attended; and although I was impressed with what Losey had done with what was left of the script, the whole thing made little sense – who was this old man blathering on in Mexico City – and the film got mostly bad notices in the papers. Frankenheimer took note of these. And then concurrently there was a savagely hostile review by Philip Toynbee in the Observer of my written-in-six-weeks Trotsky book, saying – How could I, a spoilt and decadent Englishman, have the cheek to write about some of the greatest affairs of the twentieth century and treat them with such lack of portentousness?

So, having been a flavour-of-the-month as it were in the film world I became overnight something of a pariah; and it was becoming clear that any views I expressed about the making of the film of Impossible Object would carry as little weight as had my views about Trotsky. So Frankenheimer and I fell out...

This is edited and extracted from Paradoxes of Peace, or the Presence of Infinity, published, as all Mosley’s books are, by Dalkey Archive Press ( Many thanks to Sophie Lewis and Danielle Dutton.