In 1991, Nicholas Mosley resigned from the judging panel for England's prestigious Booker Prize when none of his choices made the shortlist. Writing about the affair in The Times of London, Mosley related that all of his choices were rejected because they were 'novels of ideas, or novels in which characters were subservient to ideas.' He went on to opine, in a statement that seems to apply as much to his Whitbread Prize-winning novel 'Hopeful Monsters' as to his view of his Booker choices: 'My point was that humans were beings who did have ideas, who were often influenced by ideas, to whom ideas were important. If they were not, then there was some lack in being human.'
'Hopeful Monsters' is a novel where character development is subservient to ideas, where narrative action takes place against big historical events. While it ostensibly tells the story of a life-long romantic relationship between Max Ackerman, an English physicist, and Eleanor Anders, a German-Jewish anthropologist, the romance is as much a vehicle for the promulgation and exploration of ideas as it is a tale of a man and a woman in the twentieth century.
'Hopeful Monsters' begins at the end of World War I. Max is ten years old and lives outside Cambridge, England. His father is a biologist who specializes in genetic inheritance and his mother is a woman of seeming artistic interests who had been 'brought up on the fringes of what was even then known as the Bloomsbury Group.' His parents have had long ties to the Cambridge University community. Eleanor, too, lives in an intellectual milieu, one in which ideas predominate. Eleanor lives in Berlin, where her mother is a Marxist and follower of Rosa Luxemburg and her father is a lecturer in philosophy. From such beginnings, novels of ideas are made!
From this starting point, 'Hopeful Monsters' narrates the story of Max and Eleanor through the rise of Nazism in Germany, the post-Lenin rise to power of Joseph Stalin, the Spanish Civil War, and the development of the Atomic Bomb. It does this while, all the time, interweaving Darwinism (and its Lamarckian heresy), Marxism, quantum physics and the uncertainty principle, Freudian psychoanalysis, Jungian archetypes, and even suggestions of Jewish mysticism. It is a story that runs from 1918 until the 1970s and continually challenges the reader to think about the ideas, the opinions, the intellectual sensibilities and feelings of Max, Eleanor and the books other characters. It is a magnificent and challenging novel of ideas, a novel that deservedly won the Whitbread Prize in 1990.
If 'Hopeful Monsters' has any shortcomings, it is that ideas and historical events predominate at the expense of character development. It also suffers, at times, from a somewhat turgid prose style. In particular, Mosley is fond of introducing statements by Eleanor and Max with the clauses 'I said' and 'You said'. It is a construction that helps the reader follow long spoken exchanges, but gets a bit tedious. Mosley also tends to write sentences as statements with a question mark at the end. This, too, can be annoying, suggesting a rising inflection by the speaker that can hardly be the intent. These are, however, relatively minor failings in a novel which is majestic in the breadth and depth of its intellectual suggestiveness, a really big modern novel that deserves to be more widely read.