The Books: “Hopeful Monsters” (Nicholas Mosley)

n128983.jpgSecond excerpt from Hopeful Monsters, by Nicholas Mosley. My first excerpt, and my post about the book itself and what it means to me is here.

It’s difficult to talk about the book (although I did manage to post 17,000 words about it) – and Ted is my main partner-in-crime in terms of this book – although it is nice to know many more people love this book. It did win prizes, but I suppose it is not a book “for everyone” – It’s not a book I would recommend to just anyone. It has to be someone who I think would already like a book like this. Because it’s challenging, daunting, and isn’t immediately accessible. It’s a workout. And I’ve read it maybe 10 times? And it’s always daunting. But I find myself lulled into the gentle persistent questioning mode of the narrative … and slowly I find my brian opening up to the implications, the questions being asked … It’s a contemplative intellectual read, with moments of searing violence and fear – the world is falling apart, dictators are on the loose, Europe is in flames. But it’s not a “cold” book. It’s not unemotional.

There’s another book, which I will get to shortly, by Harry Mulisch – called The Discovery of Heaven – and it is a purely intellectual exercise, that book. It has a ton of interest to me – thoughts on mathematics, religion, the convergence of religions in Jerusalem – and there are three main characters who do not really “live”, or come to life … The book is about the intellectual side of it. It’s fascinating, don’t get me wrong – but I can’t remember one of the characters’ names, and I had to let go of my idea that I was supposed to care primarily about them as I read it. No. I had to care about the ideas in the book. And I do.

Hopeful Monsters is different. Although it is a book about ideas (as they are encapsulated in war, physics, genetics, anthropology, myth, psychoanalysis, politics, revolution) – it is also a book about Max and Eleanor, two characters who, like I mentioned before, split up the chapters, taking turns … but there is not a discernible difference between their two voices. They have separate interests/questions – but eventually, they converge – and you realize they’ve been asking the same questions, just in different fields. They are two halves of a whole. The questions Eleanor was asking about Einstein’s theories reflect the questions Max has about genetics in the next chapter. They haven’t even met yet. It will be a couple of chapters before Max and Eleanor meet. But they are already talking to each other, and sometimes they do so directly – saying, “You were wondering this about Einstein? Well, and so I was wondering this about such and such …” It’s not a tricky book. It’s not trying to reveal itself slowly, or not play its cards, or hide things from the reader … It’s all out there, at once. The point is not to figure it out, and wait for something to happen … The point is to let yourself fall into the prose, with its questions and theories … and to take on the ideas put forth in the book. You don’t need to sign up with anything, you don’t need to ‘agree’ … Just take the ideas on, see what that does for you.

Max and Eleanor are all about fate masquerading as coincidence. There are some moments of stunning coincidence in the book (one, in particular, that takes place at some palatial dinner in Spain in the middle of the Spanish Civil War – always brings tears to my eyes, no matter how many times I have read it) – and Max and Eleanor, in their pursuit of one another, stop being surprised by coincidence – although sometimes it is unbearable. “It is everything making sense that is so unbearable” one of them says at one point. I don’t want to make this sound like a highbrow Richard Bach book because it’s not (although right now I am reminded of this excerpt). Max and Eleanor are scientists, both … (well, they’re not in the opening chapters of the book because they’re just kids or teenagers – but later on) … and they look for chance openings in their work, random connections that might not be so random, a “coincidence” that leads to a giant transformation … the things of scientific inquiry. And why should not that play itself out in our personal lives? And also in world politics and war? Max and Eleanor, racing around Europe and Russia – trying to continue their work, while avoiding the war which appears to be breaking out everywhere, they cannot escape – ask those questions repeatedly. If something appears to be a coincidence … might there be something else going on underneath? But what??? That is the question.

The first chapter begins with Eleanor asking the question:

If we are to survive in the environment we have made ourselves, may we have to be monstrous enough to greet our predicament?

She writes that from the perspective of being a German-Jewish girl in the early 1920s, the beginning of the decadent Weimar decade – and all its nasty uneasy undertones. She is overwhelmed by the thought that something, something monstrous, might be around some corner … she just can’t see it yet.

The next chapter, Max takes over the narrative, and he begins with a reply to Eleanor’s original question:

If we are talking about an environment in which the acceptance of paradoxes might breed, then this can happen in an English hot-house, I suppose, as well as in a melting-pot of Berlin streets.

Then the products might come together, as a result of what it seems you call ‘gravity’?

Max is two years younger than Eleanor, and he grows up in Cambridge – “the centre of the intellectual and cultural life of England” at that time. His father is a biologist, whose main interest is genetic inheritance. And Max’s mother grew up “on the fringes if what was even then known as the Bloomsbury group”. She is a troubled woman, with no boundaries – she emasculates her young son, she is overly close with him, mainly because her husband is a prick who doesn’t pay attention to her. She sits around reading fairy tales and books on Freudian analysis. In the same way that Eleanor’s father’s interests in physics and Einstein seep down into Eleanor’s consciousness – the questions of genetics as well as Freud and the use of myth and fairy tale in our lives – seeps down into Max’s consciousness. Max writes:

There was a good deal of controversy in the area as he grew up; orthodox Darwinists were under attack; it was difficult for them to explain how evolution could have occurred simply through chance mutations and natural selection. There seemed to be too many coincidences required for the emergence, by these means, of complex organic forms.

So there it is. “Too many coincidences required.”

During the time of Max’s childhood, a Viennese biologist named Kammerer comes to study at the University. He studies Lamarckian inheritance – which will become very important in later chapters, when Max goes to Russia to study for a semester – and the biology department of the university is all ablaze with the ideas of Lysenko (if you’ve studied Stalinist Russia, you know about him). So there are connections here – Kammerer was discredited – and committed suicide (an event which comes up in Hopeful Monsters). Max has many moments with Kammerer, who comes to visit their house in Cambridge – and he becomes very interested in creating an experiment of his own – having to do with salamanders. Kammerer was able to keep his salamanders alive under unnatural conditions far longer than his colleagues – and this was cause for great resentment. Max wonders about this. Max’s father and mother have a lot of stress about Dr. Kammerer. Max’s father thinks he’s an asshole, and says derogatory things about him at the dinner table. Max’s mother appears to have a crush on Kammerer, and defends him. It is obvious, from these exchanges, that Max’s parents’ marriage is not just bad – but toxic. Max is naturally aligned with his mother – his father is too much of an asshole to side with, also he’s gone a lot on lecture tours … so Max decides (for all kinds of reasons he doesn’t understand) to try to duplicate one of Kammerer’s experiments, with salamanders. He wants to see if he can keep the salamanders alive, too. Max’s mother is all into the Freudian stuff … and Max, even as a young boy, realizes that, in some way, he is in competition with his father for his mother’s love – and maybe he will beat his father, if he “wins” at the salamander experiment. But also, you can feel the budding biologist here. Max is only 11, 12 years old … but he is devoted to his experiment. Max wonders if perhaps Kammerer could keep the salamanders alive because he loved them. Was that the difference? Is that why he was so ridiculed? Max isn’t sure. But is love what makes the difference, even in something like natural selection? Okay, so you can see where Mosley is going here.

There are other forces at work here, too. It is 1925, in England. Scientists from Germany have been flocking out of the country, perhaps feeling which way the wind is going there. Many of them wash up on the shores of Britain. So already there is a thin thread of connection between Max in Cambridge and Eleanor in Berlin. A German exchange student named Hans stays with Max’s family for a while. It is obvious that he is fucking Max’s mother. He also makes a pass at Max. Max finds it all vaguely ridiculous and embarrassing. His main concern is his salamanders – and also “getting” his father, who is a horrible man. Max begins to wonder about Lamarck – which is what will (4 chapters from now) get him to Russia – where his ideas are still in favor. But Hans ends up being the connection with Eleanor – it is through Hans that the two finally meet. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Max sets up his salamander experiment. Here is the excerpt. Some important themes established here – not to mention the introduction of the idea in the title of the book itself. The bit about creating a framework “in which love could operate” kills me. That’s what I’m trying to do right now in my life and man. It is not easy.

EXCERPT FROM Hopeful Monsters, by Nicholas Mosley.

I discovered that my mother had kept her own small heap of newspaper cuttings about Kammerer: they were in a drawer of her desk: she seemed to have got some psychoanalyst friend to send her them from Vienna. Some of them gave details of Kammerer’s private life (I could put to good use here the German I had learned from Hans). The cuttings referred to Kammerer as a Don Juan, a Byron, a Lothario: he ahd left his wife, married a painter, and then later his wife had taken him back. There were innumerable women, the writer suggested, who were dying for the love of Kammerer: how terrible it was to let oneself be loved thus by women!

I thought – Well, what is all this about death instinct; life instinct, was it not Kammerer’s salamanders that had been able to stay alive, and other people’s that were dying?

I tried to talk to my mother about this. I could not let her know that I had been going through the drawers of her desk.

‘Did you ever see Dr Kammerer again?’

‘No, why do you ask that?’

‘I expect a lot of people fall in love with him, don’t they –‘

‘Why do you say that too–‘

‘I remember your saying that you thought his salamanders must love him.’

‘What I think I said, surely, was that he must love them.’

‘What do you think he does to make things love him?’

‘Perhaps he just makes people think he loves them!’

‘But then why do people talk about dying for love –‘

‘Hey, hold on, what have you been reading –‘

My mother had become dreamy again; glowing, as if she was listening to music round some corner.

I thought – Dr Kammerer himself couldn’t have sent her those cuttings from Vienna?

Then suddenly – She couldn’t have been meeting Dr Kammerer in London?

She said ‘Perhaps what you think is love isn’t true. Or perhaps sometimes you love, or want to love, and then there is no set-up, or framework, in which you can.’

I said ‘I see.’ Then — ‘Can’t you make a framework?’

She said ‘How?’

I said ‘I don’t know.’ Then — ‘Do you think Dr Kammerer made one?’

She said ‘For whom?’

I said ‘For his salamanders.’

That autumn, in my evenings and weekends away from school, I set about preparing my experiment with my salamanders. My idea was: how can animals be expected to live – let alone reproduce; let alone be recipient of a chance mutation – if they are kept in glass boxes like those which contain sandwiches in a railway station. Kammerer had perhaps loved his salamanders: but what was love? I wanted to provide for my salamanders a suitable setting. Was it not something like this that my mother’s psychoanalysis books were suggesting too – that settings are important, but human beings for the most part are no good at providing settings for love: they liked running things down, displaying jealousy and envy. Well perhaps I did too: but if I saw this, could I not provide at least my salamanders with some setting in which love could operate?

I obtained materials from Miss Box and constructed a glass case that was larger than the ones in which she and my father had kept their salamanders. I went out each evening to gather objects which would be fitting for my salamanders’ setting. I found clean white sand and stones shining with crystals: I picked out sticks that were shaped and polished like ivory. I put on the sand some shells and even a starfish. I thought – Why should not landlocked salamanders have a glimpse of something outlandish from the sea? I collected red earth, and alpine plants, and one or two very tiny and expensive trees: I made a shelter of wire and bark and moss and leaves and coral. I constructed a mountain stream out of Plasticine and silver paper and a hidden electric motor and a pump: I bought (with money borrowed from my mother) a lamp that shone like the sun. I was aiming to produce for my salamanders a setting that would be surpassingly etherial and strange. I looked down on my creation from above. I thought – I think I am God, and this is my Garden of Eden.

The two salamanders that I was going to pick up when my garden was ready were another breed of lowland salamanders, known as Salamandra salamandra, or Fire Salamanders: their usual habitat was dark and damp woods. They stayed for the most part during the day under rotting bark or leaves; they came out in the evenings to get food. I learned what I could about them from books lent to me by Miss Box: my father, when he overheard me talking to Miss Box, would smile and look away (I thought – His feelings about Miss Box are what are called ‘paradoxical’?) My plan had been originally to make for these lowland salamanders something that could be called an alpine setting. But my enthusiasm had now gone beyond this: I wanted to make for them something beautiful like a setting for jewels, or the inside of a painting. Then I would see how my salamanders might stay alive! The inside of a painting, it seemed to me, was to do with what is immortal.

The breeding habits of these lowland salamanders were that they mated in the spring and then fifty or more tadpole-like larvae were born in water the following year. I had been told by Miss Box that the two salamanders designated for me had been together for some time. I did not know if they had mated: I assumed they were male and female. The point of my experiment had at one time been to see whether these lowland salamanders, in their new setting, might produce offspring in the manner of alpine salamanders – which was to give birth not to larvae but to two fully formed offspring. But this was what I had put out of my mind: my plan now was not to expect, but just to let things occur on their own. I thought – Things grow, develop on their own, don’t they; once you have provided a setting.

The day came when my garden (in the books it was called an ‘aquaterrareum’) was ready: I bicycled in to Miss Box to pick up my salamanders. They were two small bright lizards about six inches long: their skin was mainly black but had golden patches and hoops. They seemed to sit, or lie, or stand, completely still, even when I was transporting them in a cardboard box on my bicycle from the laboratory. And then, when they were in the bright fair world that I had constructed for them, they were, yes, like jewels! they were so beautiful.

I had set up my aquaterrareum in my bedroom: I wanted it here rather than in the room with my chemistry set next door because I wanted to be with my salamanders at night. I do not know why I felt particular about this. Perhaps I felt – What strange influences, chances, flit about beneath the moon at night.

My salamanders sat or stood or lay sometimes parallel, sometimes apart, something with their noses close together like an arrow. I hardly ever saw them move. They would be, yes, on the silver sand, by the stones like gold or diamonds, like things made immortal by a painting.

My mother came up to look at my aquaterrareum. She had that expression on her face that my father sometimes had when it was as if he could not make up his mind whether to be deprecating or impressed. She said ‘That’s beautiful!’

I said ‘Yes.’

‘What are they called?’

‘Adam and Eve.’

‘What good names!’

I said ‘I think they might also be what are called “hopeful monsters”.’

She said ‘What are hopeful monsters?’

I said ‘They are things born perhaps slightly before their time; when it’s not known if the environment is quite ready for them.’

She said ‘So you have made an environment that might be ready for them.’

I said ‘Yes.’

She put her arms round me and hugged me. She said ‘You are my hopeful monster!’

I thought I might say – But hopeful monsters, don’t you know, nearly always die young.

— Because the Gods love them?

Then — But was God ever with his mother, by that garden, looking down?

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1 Response to The Books: “Hopeful Monsters” (Nicholas Mosley)

  1. The Books: “Hopeful Monsters” (Nicholas Mosley)

    Next book on my adult fiction bookshelf: This will be my fourth excerpt from Hopeful Monsters, by Nicholas Mosley. First excerpt Second excerpt Third excerpt Max takes over the narrative in Chapter 4. He and Eleanor have met, and then…

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