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Nicholas Mosley: Hopeful Monsters

This is generally considered to be Mosley’s masterpiece though, of course, there are some who hate it, not least because it deals with many of the main philosophical and political ideas that were current in Europe from the end of World War I to the latter part of the twentieth century. It is the fifth (and final) book in his Catastrophe Practice series, though it very much stands on its own. The two main characters are Eleanor Anders and Max Ackermann. Eleanor is the daughter of a German professor of philosophy and a Jewish communist. Max is the son of a professor of genetics and a psychoanalyst. The eponymous hopeful monsters refer to genetic mutations which may turn out, indeed, to be monsters but may lead on to something better, more adapted and, indeed, this is how life has evolved over the years, as Max’s father is happy to explain. But why did this genetic mutation take place? Statistical analysis was Professor Ackermann’s response. Much of the novel is concerned with this idea as a metaphor for change in the world and whether it is, indeed, a question of statistical analysis or can be somehow directed.

Eleanor and Max do have an intellectual attachment. Yes, they do get married but their relationship both prior to and during the marriage seems more intellectual than sexual. Eleanor studies anthropology and grows up in the years of the Weimar Republic and rise of Nazism. Max studies nuclear physics. They meet in the 1920s at a youth festival in the Black Forest. Though they are separated by the events of their lives, they meet up again in the Spanish Civil War. Eleanor’s escape from Nazi Germany and her journey to West Africa and Max’s involvement in the Manhattan Project are just some of the events that colour their lives. They also come across many of the famous people of that period – from Einstein to Franco and from Heidegger to Wittgenstein. But while the relationship, love affair between the two is paramount, Mosley’s achievement is to look, relatively dispassionately, at many of the key ideas of the period and he can do it through his protagonists, because of their backgrounds and interests. More to the point, he does it very well. Yes, a basic knowledge of these ideas and how they affected our world is probably essential to a full understanding of this novel but then this novel is aimed at people who will have this basic knowledge and will appreciate how Mosley has integrated them into his story. If you have read other reviews on this site, it will be no secret that the novel of ideas is, for me, the direction the novel should be taking and that many of the finest novels of this period are novels of ideas. This one works and deserves its reputation. It deserves to be better known.

Publishing history

First published 1990 by Secker & Warburg