When a recent paperbound book from England or America makes its way to Malaysia, the back cover is littered with blurbs extracted from home-country reviews. The local reviewer can hardly avoid reading them.
A publishing company is out to make money on a novel and feels no shame in advertising it as luridly as it can. Any new novel with the least literary pretensions is "major," "the best since..." whenever, and otherwise qualified by enthusiastic superlatives.
It is not true that no one knows, at sight, a
masterpiece; but whether a book is truly "major" or not is a question
best left to the world of readers, whose consensus is the final
In the case of Hopeful Monsters, the puffs on the back are little help to the person in the bookstore, and something of an injustice to the book. The title could well be cause for confusion. To glance at the cover, Hopeful Monsters might seem to be an upbeat thriller about a creation like Dr Frankenstein's. What's this novel about? "Hopeful monster" is in fact one of the long running metaphors in a novel whose main pleasure is the skilful weaving of metaphors.
Some readers will find this intelligent and quiet narrative to their taste; they will relieved not to be jostled or carried away by the book's historical setting, which remains, at last, background, and they will be happy to overhear the characters' discussions without being manoeuvered by the author into drawing snap solutions.
In form, Hopeful Monsters is a double memoir composed by the two main characters for each other. Eleanor Anders is the daughter of a German philosophy professor and his wife, a Jewish communist activist in the early part of this century. Max Ackerman is the son of British academics, his father a professor of biology at Cambridge specializing in genetic inheritance, his mother a psychoanalyst.
Max studies nuclear physics at Cambridge, Eleanor
gravitates to anthropology. Most of the other characters are also
connected with the academic world. Einstein, Wittgenstein, and
Heidegger make brief appearances. You need not be frightened off by the
intellectualism. Mosley's characters do not believe that their
intellects are divorced from their fates as ordinary human beings. Max
and Eleanor live full lives of the mind, and they naturally share
concerns with one another in their letters.
Mosley begins his story immediately after the
first World War. Eleanor narrates the turmoil of revolution in Berlin
from a young girl's point of view. Max in the following chapter relates
the story of his own boyhood in a rather "hothouse" England.
In alternating chapters Eleanor and Max record their experiences for one another. Eleanor passes through the InflationPeriod and the decadent times of the Weimar Republic. The Nazi movement begins. At length, Eleanor and Max meet at a performance of Goethe's Faust in a ruined castle near the Black Forest.
From that time, Eleanor and Max understand that
their lives are connected. Mosley writes their attachment delicately,
with none of the conventional romance. The two lovers hardly meet, and
they remember each other across long distances of time and space.
Politics forms their lives, as if they are unwilling subjects of inscrutable experiments. Max goes to Russia. Eleanor---half a Jew---flees to Switzerland on the night of the Reichstag fire and later goes to West Africa on an anthropological expedition. In a well contrived coincidence, both meet in Spain during the civil war and return to England before war breaks out.
Love and War are the stuff of long and sensational pulp novels. Pulp fiction pretends to let us participate in "epic" events carried on by characters of putatively heroic stature, as if they were really doing something, as if history really meant something. Mosley here writes on exactly the opposite assumptions. Thus, Eleanor talks with her father after the inflation ends: 'But how can money be stabilised, or whatever it is called, just by knocking eight or nine noughts off?'
He said 'Well, just as it might suit people to have chaos for a time, so it usually suits them suddenly to stop.'
I said 'Why?'
He said 'They get bored.'
I said 'No one controls it.'
He said 'No, no one controls it.' Then---'I think one can have a feel for it.'
People suffer a history that appears destructive
and nonsensical. At best they are forced into hideous accomodations.
The only decent way in which thinking people can respond to history is
to contemplate it.
The thoughtful response to history is the
substance of Mosley's novel. Max, as a youth, experiments with breeding
salamanders, trying to verify a German scientist's claims that acquired
characteristics can be inherited. To Eleanor and Max it seems that the
human species is badly adapted to the conditions it has itself created,
that it is bent on its own extinction. There must exist, they believe,
many mutants among the billions of human animals alive, some whose
genetic material better fits them to survive and create, they believe,
a more peaceful world.
Eleanor speculates at one point that "the ground must be broken up before new seeds will grow." By the end, Mosley implies, this Action, a quality so dear to fascists and communists, changing the world by violence, is a dead end. As Eleanor says goodbye to an old German physicist friend as WW2 begins, he hints that he will do his best to misdirect German research into nuclear fission.
"Why should not a state of consciousness be the environment that might favour a mutation?" Max writes. By the epilogue of the book, the constant thinking has melted away, and Mosley leaves us with a state of consciousness that is love.
Early on in the novel Eleanor hears the story of the Seven Just Jews, on the surface ordinary, poor men, unknown to each other, whose secret purpose in existence, which they do not know, is to justify the world's continuance. The obscure and loving people are the metaphorical "hopeful monsters" of Mosley's title, in whom the world's survival lies.
Mosley's short bio in the front of the book says
that Hopeful Monsters is the last in the five volumes of his Catastrophe
practice series, and the reader would probably get most
understanding and pleasure out of it after reading the first four
novels. On its own Hopeful Monsters
is eminently readable and humane, and well deserved being awarded the
Whitbread Prize for 1990.