Hopeful Monsters by Nicholas Mosley

Mosley, Nicholas - Hopeful Monsters

At the time of writing, Prime Minister May is in France to commemorate the 75th Anniversary of the D-Day landings. By the end of the week she will have resigned, after a relatively short premiership dominated by Brexit.

At the D day ceremony a 90-something veteran tells a BBC reporter that it took so much to bring Europe together, it seems a shame to tear it apart now. That more or less sums up why on 26 June 2018 I put my cross in the box marked ‘Remain.’ When you’re born into the longest period of peace between Europe’s main powers in  modern times, you can start to take it too much for granted.

Hubby, on the other hand, points out that the UK has been involved in plenty of conflicts in the last 50 years: Oman, Yemen, Nigeria, Northern Ireland (though the EU was instrumental in the Good Friday agreement), Iceland (if you count the Cod Wars), the Falklands, Lebanon, Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and Syria.  It’s a long, frightening list.

And even the utopian vision of a Europe so co-dependent that any kind of military clash is unimaginable, is not immune from the law of unintended consequences. The flip side to a single currency and freedom of movement (a good thing in my book) is the largest surge in support for far-right populist parties since the 1930s, prompted by fears of job insecurity, loss of national identity, and Islamic fundamentalism.

OK, enough. But ruminations on war and peace are especially relevant to Nicholas Moseley’s Hopeful Monsters, which won the 1990 Whitbread Book of the Year Award, and charts how in the 1930s ‘the politics of Europe went freewheeling downhill towards hell’.

Max, who is English, and Eleanor, a half-Jewish German, meet at a Festival of Students and Youth in 1928 at Schloss Rabe castle in Germany.  Max is nearly 18, about to study biology or physics at Cambridge; Eleanor is 19, studying medicine at Freiburg. They connect at once.

Circumstance and their separate interests contrive to keep them physically apart, although they are never far from each other’s thoughts and ‘in some sense…are together all the time’. The book is narrated alternately by Max and Eleanor in a series of letter-like soliloquies.  Max moves from his Cambridge home: in the North of England he sees deprivation, in London, a Russian spy, in Spain, the Civil War.  Back in Cambridge, he researches nuclear fission. In Germany, Eleanor witnesses her mother arrested as a Communist and Jew, flees to Switzerland, conducts anthropological research in West Africa, crosses the Sahara, and is caught up in fighting in North Africa.

“Hopeful monsters”, we learn, was a term coined by the German geneticist Richard Goldschmidt, who hypothesised that all new species are created by large evolutionary leaps, rather than by gradual mutations. The most common objection to his theory was simply: how does a hopeful monster find a mate?

By chance, I guess, or fate. Max and Eleanor meet up unexpectedly from time to time: Max helps Eleanor escape from Germany to Switzerland; Eleanor effects Max’s release from a prison in Spain. In many ways they are ciphers as much as characters. They are ‘minds, matter, flying apart, coming together again’ trying to understand the ‘connections between the inside and outside worlds’. Everything, for Max and Eleanor, exists in ‘levels’. This is why Max sees no contradiction between developing the A-bomb and marching with CND.

Confession time. Reading Hopeful Monsters proved to be a bit of a challenge. It’s long (470 pages in my Eland paperback 1990 copy) and complex, encompassing ideas and theories as diverse as evolution, particle physics, relativity, chance, fate, communism, fascism, the nature of love…I could go on. I needed more than my allocated month’s reading time to explore and assimilate them. Even having an Atlas to hand would have helped, given Max and Eleanor’s frequent country hopping – a shame, actually, that a map wasn’t included at the front of the book. All in all, I’ll admit, Hopeful Monsters mostly went over my head.

Despite that (or perhaps because of it) I would agree with the book jacket that this is “a major novel by any standard of measurement”, which is why I’m glad I tackled it,  and will, maybe re-read it someday – perhaps when I’m retired with more time to linger!

Rating: ** Worth reading

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