cover image Hopeful Monsters

Hopeful Monsters

Nicholas Mosley. Dalkey Archive Press, $21.95 (550pp) ISBN 978-0-916583-85-9

Hopeful monsters? ``They are the things born perhaps slightly before their time; when it's not known if the environment is quite ready for them,'' explains Max Ackermann, the Cambridge-born physicist whose exchange of letters and shared reminiscences with Eleanor Anders make up this huge, intellectual Baedeker of a novel. Mosley ( Catastrophe Practice ) takes as his subject nothing less than the curve of social and scientific thought in the 20th century and traces its path against a backdrop of political upheaval and madness. The main characters are ideally positioned to enlighten these complex issues: Max is the son of a stern, classical biologist and a Bloomsbury psychologist; Eleanor's parents are a gentle physicist father and a communist mother. Mosley's meditations on (and portraits of) Lysenko, Einstein, Wittgenstein, Brecht and others are brilliantly turned and, as Eleanor says of a Brecht play, ``representative of something happening and being demonstrated at the same time.'' The magical lurks beneath the relentless grind of the real throughout the book: a recurring theme has Max wandering into blasted landscapes where disfigured, enchanted children perform mysterious rituals. Max and the half-Jewish Eleanor maintain an irony-clad love affair from their first meeting in 1929 ; their intellectual and emotional journeys are sustained by the ambiguities of the modern era--the pursuit of the bomb for peaceful ends, which brings the couple to New Mexico, for example. Mosley's book is a perfectly realized exposition of notions integral to the Western mind. The Magic Mountain is cited at a key juncture, and it is apt: this novel, winner of the 1990 Whitbread Award, is equal to Mann's in grandeur of theme. (Nov.)