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Hopeful Monsters

(Catastrophe Practice #5)

4.13  ·  Rating details ·  509 ratings  ·  56 reviews
-- A sweeping, comprehensive epic, Hopeful Monsters tells the story of the love affair between Max, an English student of physics and biology, and Eleanor, a German Jewess and political radical. Together and apart, Max and Eleanor participate in the great political and intellectual movements which shape the twentieth century, taking them from Cambridge and Berlin to the Sp ...more
Paperback, 550 pages
Published May 1st 2000 by Dalkey Archive Press (first published January 1st 1990)
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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. Thus the explanation given by Max Ackerman in this huge sweeping panoramic novel. His definition doesn't form a perfect fit with the origin of the phrase which stems from the controversial evolutionary biologist Richard Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt's theory of the hopeful monster placed that which is different, changing and monstrous at the heart of evolution ...more
Jul 04, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Nothing at all like I had anticipated and the most pleasant literary surprise I've experienced since Iain Sinclair's Downriver . Incredibly precise and measured, thoughtful almost to the point of ponderousness, philosophically heavy and deft at the same time, working its peculiarly compulsive and latticed progress through a pair of peripatetic and enigmatic souls in the interwar period—Eleanor Anders and Max Ackerman—who experience what might be termed gravitational love, the interlinking of ...more
Jan 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: british
Let’s start with the chronological fact that this novel, the author’s recognized masterpiece, is the prequel to four other novels written earlier. The child is father to the man kind of head-twinger. So don’t expect this review to be linear.

There are dozens of characters including cameos by Einstein, Rosa Luxemburg, Heidegger, Wittgenstein, Jung and all the scientists who worked on the atomic bomb. So there are journeys into physics, biology, evolution, and psychoanalysis, as well as the politic
MJ Nicholls
Dec 25, 2012 rated it really liked it
The final instalment (but first in the chronological sequence) of Mosley’s Catastrophe Practice series is also the 89-year-old Baron and Baronet’s masterwork. Chris has written one of those perfect reviews where no more need be said about the book, suffice to say I found Mosley’s stylistic tics often repetitive and his structuring not 100% lucid, hence the withering four stars. On the whole, I agree with Chris’s summary and regret that my take on this sweeping panorama of early 20thC thought is ...more
Feb 19, 2018 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: science, philosophy
Idea novels or conceptual novels are seldom literary gems. That is certainly the case with this book. Mosley has been smart enough to process a nice love story in his book, and to evoke very dramatic historic periods of the 20th Century (especially the rise of Nazism and the Second World War). The passages that revolve around these themes are the easiest to read. But Mosley has given priority to the ideas and concepts, not to the story.

Sometimes this is to be taken literally: the book contains
Vit Babenco
Mar 14, 2015 rated it it was amazing
“The music had made my mind go blank; I had thought – If I were a snake, yes, I would be being drawn up out of a basket.”
Hopeful Monsters is a book of ideas: some ideas complement each other and some ideas collide…
“Nothing is that which makes possible the revelation of what is.”
At first there is a war of ideas, then there is a war of ideologies and then there is a total war…
“You can run towards love and perhaps bump into it and you can watch it running away: but when it is there it is like two p
Jun 17, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Novel of ideas, patterns and levels. Though the plot itself is engaging, the big skill on display is his making complex ideas clear. The coincidences would sink the book if the characters themselves were not aware of the coincidences, to the point, yes, of making coincidence and pattern a topic of study. The repetition of certain prose mannerisms would sink the book (being that 2-3 narrators share the same verbal tics) if there weren't different levels of interpretation operating. This is a book ...more
This is one of a handful of books that will accompany me to the end of my days. I've read it three times and will continue to read it. It encapsulates a lot of what I hold dear and believe in. A few days ago I was rumagging a box with old correspondence and in one of the letters this quote turned up. I feel it's a luminous synthesis of what this whole story and indeed what life is about.

"... During the years that followed, Eleanor and Max were sometimes together, sometimes apart: but always, th
Jan 26, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: men, england, fiction, english
Good Heavens, so how about a book that relates a German Jew girl, an English boy, atomic bombs, Einstein, Wittgenstein, Franco, Hitler, homosexuality, Communism, Fascism, Schrödingers Cat, fission, pilgrimage, prostitution, war crimes, diamond trade, Hitler, Stalin, Kammerer, genetics, lizzards, Oedipal conflicts, triangular love relations and weird sexual fetishism? And even more? Welcome to 'Hopeful Monsters'. Welcome to one hell of a ride.

I can hear protest coming my way by now. "But Science
Oct 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
“If we are to survive in the environment we have made for ourselves, may we have to be monstrous enough to greet our predicament?”

These are the Hopeful Monsters, born before their time, Englishman Max Ackerman and German Jewess Eleanor Anders, in the struggle between the two wars, the rise of Nazi Germany and the Spanish Civil War, in a sort of romantic quantum entanglement. At times so brief together, more likely far apart, but like particles borne of quantum mechanics, they are linked and fore
An eloquent and complex novel of ideas - I remember finding this stimulating and enjoyable but would need to read it again to review it properly.
Quinn Slobodian
Jun 24, 2008 rated it really liked it
Something about this book validates at the same time the savant-like intuitive wander and the time-clock slog to some version of omniscience. To say it's a dark Forest Gump narrative is to give it the highest compliment. Who didn't wish that Gump went darker? We are in the bedroom when Rosa Luxemburg visits, at the Hotel Adlon as the Reichstag burns, in the Russian countryside as the peasants starve, in North Africa when the officers revolt to begin the Spanish Civil War. But it's all lived in a ...more
Anne Earney
Dec 01, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Recommended to Anne by: brian huelsmann
A fascinating novel of ideas, depicting the early lives of two characters, Max and Eleanor, in an almost epistolatory style, with each of them narrating alternate chapters, addressing the other as "you." The story takes place in Europe in the 1930s, a time of unrest (Nazi Germany, the development of the atomic bomb, the Spanish Civil War). Max and Eleanor make their way as best they can, exploring ideas and nurturing their love. The ideas are the main focus of the novel and it is through their i ...more
Dec 10, 2013 rated it it was amazing
I loved this book. I first read it many years ago after picking it up in an English-language bookstore in Milan, and I've probably read it a half a dozen times since. Something about the prose is hypnotic. The history is fascinating. The philosophical backdrop is riveting. The romantic student movement that led up to the Nazi regime is something I knew nothing about. And the author's cold-eyed analysis of everyone - Nazis and socialists alike - feels so very true. Finally, I am so, so intrigued ...more
Jan 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I picked this up from one of those book-share shelves because I liked the title. It's a book that does everything I want a novel to do; tell a compelling story with pace, while constantly raising challenging questions and pursuing political and philosophical arguments. Mosley does all of this to an extraordinary standard in this novel, tracing the lives of its characters from the 1930's through the war beyond. Investigations into the characters' interests in science and politics never get in the ...more
Jacob Wren
Dec 22, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Nicholas Mosley writes:

Sometimes I walked with Peter Reece as he went about his business in the parish. He would go about on foot: he had a theory that people should normally go about on foot; then there might be time for things to sort themselves out.

I said ‘You believe things do sort themselves out? I mean you do what you have to do, and other people do what they do; and what happens is likely to be all right?’

Peter Reece said ‘What else is God?’

I Said ‘You mean “God” is a word for the fact th
Feb 03, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: england, 2016
Too many oblique poetic flourishes for my taste.
Sep 30, 2010 rated it did not like it
A book of towering ambition so I am sad to say I found it to be an indigestible lump of cellulose, ink and paste and the most I got out of this book was the joy of finally put this prententious dreadful rubbish behind me.

As the author so originally states in the act of observing one changes the nature of what is observed. Looking at the enjoyment this book as brought other reviewers I can only layout what annoyed me so much about this book in the hope that my flaws as an observer become readily
Jun 18, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: literary-fiction
A very ambitious novel, part love story, part philosophical treatise. Takes on Darwinism, and Lamarckism, particle physics, the atom bomb, relativity, chance and fate, communism, fascism, creative and destructive forces in human nature, and of course, the nature of love. At times it drags, and the main characters' Freudian relationships with their parents were a bit annoying and heavy-handed. The last chapter tried to wrap up too many threads at once and came off a bit rushed and stilted. But ov ...more
Scribble Orca
May 16, 2015 marked it as to-be-consideread  ·  review of another edition
Mosley's Impossible Object sits on the to-be-consideread shelf presently and was included in Verbivoracious Festschrift Volume Three: The Syllabus as a text of unequivocal influence . . . but this work exerts a more onerous attraction. Shiva Rahbaran, who contributed to the VF V3, writes eloquently here on this work. ...more
Apr 20, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This remains my favorite book of all time. I loved it that much that I borrowed it 3 times from my university library and the fourth time I tried to borrow it again I was intent on asking the library to sell it to me but someone beat me to it. I cannot get into details of the content only that any intellectual mind will find it an outstanding read. It has the appeal of a modern day renaissance.
Carol Gregory
Mar 30, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This is one of those novels that, if you like it, should be re-read every five years.
Apr 09, 2020 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
DNF @ 56%
Boredom took over.
Feb 18, 2019 marked it as long-term
Shelves: from-real-shelf, 2019
Did not finish. It starts off superbly, but I soon got tired of the "I thought"s and the excessive em-dashes and too many rhetorical questions. We see the surface, and it's expansive; I need depth. I never felt that there was truly a significant conflict carrying the book along. Still, the first two sections are totally worth reading (airships, salamanders, and Einstein)! ...more
Feb 01, 2009 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Two notions haunt the characters in this story: the story of the 7 righteous Jews and the biological concept of the "hopeful monsters." Do the actions, choices, etc. of the main characters in facing the social, political, and moral changes occurring in post-World War I Europe mean they are part of the former story? Or are they and do they remain only the "hopeful monsters," creatures born slightly before their time when it's not known if the environment is quite ready for them. It's a clear mora ...more
Dec 11, 2015 rated it did not like it
Shelves: tried-to-read
I'm nearly 200 pages in but I'm giving up. This book is not my cup of tea. A few other reviewers have used the word 'pretentious' and I have to agree. Also, too calculated and constructed for my taste. It's hard to believe in the characters as real people. They seem like creations just to give the author a reason to lecture us on subjects like mathematical theory, philosophy, psychoanalysis, etc. Also, to run into and make mention of famous people, Freud, Heidegger, Wittgenstein. I am not going ...more
Apr 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This was truly one of the most beautiful books I've ever read. It slides effortlessly back and forth between to people who grow up between the two world wars, Eleanor, a half-Jewish girl living in Germany, and Max, who lives in England, both with sharply intelligent minds and a deep desire for knowledge and understanding of nature and humankind. As they come of age amidst chaos and horror in Europe, the way the process what they are seeing and experiencing is expressed through their internal dia ...more
Anna A.
Apr 26, 2020 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: m-fractions
This ambitious novel of ideas is a map of the science and ideologies – often difficult to distinguish – behind the major events in the first half of the 20th century. Albeit often tedious, it shows effectively how political events do not emerge in a neutral environment, but are triggered by the ideas that preoccupy society at a given time. In the story, the hopeful monsters are the mutants capable of genetically transmitting the mutated characteristics that helped them survive. We are all hopefu ...more
May 25, 2016 rated it liked it
Shelves: mosley
5-25 will begin this first from mosley for me.
5 jun 16 finished. i liked it. interesting reading about the "nature worship" in 20s/30s germany, how that was described, many of the other real-time events that are a part of this story. didn't have the same problem some readers had with the story, whatever the major complaint is, too this, too that, not enough this, none of that. whatever. i liked it. one scene in spain reminds me of hemingway..."do you want me to shoot thee, ingles? quierres? is
Rob Walter
Aug 13, 2008 rated it it was amazing
One of the best books I've ever read. The first two hundred pages are the greatest I've ever read. The rest is merely very, very good.

Wonderfully uncertain prose which give the events of the story an ambling lack of direction that reflects the philosophy the author is trying to convey. So this is what literature could be?
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Nicholas Mosley was educated at Eton and Oxford. He served in Italy during World War II, and published his first novel, Spaces of the Dark, in 1951. His book Hopeful Monsters won the 1990 Whitbread Award.

Mosley was the author of several works of nonfiction, most notably the autobiography Efforts at Truth and a biography of his father, Sir Oswald Mosley, entitled Rules of the Game/Beyond the Pale.

Other books in the series

Catastrophe Practice (5 books)
  • Catastrophe Practice
  • Imago Bird
  • Serpent
  • Judith

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