The Books: “Hopeful Monsters” (Nicholas Mosley)

n128983.jpgDaily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

This will be my third excerpt from Hopeful Monsters, by Nicholas Mosley.

First excerpt

Second excerpt

It’s been a couple years since I’ve read Hopeful Monsters and I’m really enjoying leafing through the book, reminding myself of it … my favorite sections and events. This book has the potential to remind me of what is important to me, my essence, what matters … much of it is 100% cerebral, but so am I, most of the time. What are my intellectual concerns? How do I see the world? What is the role of chance? Do I experience life as random chaos or is there a pattern? Mosley is all about that. His characters are scientists, researchers – they look for patterns in the chaos. And who knows what might mean something and what might not … This scientific level of inquiry is used in the experience of personal life as well, love, and friendship, and competition. And so through the book great themes of connection are woven between all of these elements – love, socialism, philosophy, college life, physics, theatre (yes! even theatre!) – and Max and Eleanor revolve through it, entering and re-entering each other’s lives … but why? Why is there a connection? What happens when they first meet? And why is it so important?

In the third chapter of the book Eleanor takes over the narrative. This is a long chapter, with many different sections to it. She’s basically filling Max in on what happened to her in the couple of years before they met for the first time. Eleanor goes to school. She becomes best friends with a giggly crazy girl named Trixie (how I love Trixie) and a snarky funny boy named Bruno, who is probably gay. They are three peas in a pod. They have all kinds of adventures – some that border on illegal. It’s the mid 20s in Berlin. The world Christopher Isherwood described so well. Decadence, unbridled. The three teenagers decide to have an adventure – so Trixie and Eleanor dress up, so they will look older, and go to a bar frequented by fat cats and prostitutes – a bar where there is a phone at each table, so you can call up someone you are interested in, and make a proposition. Eleanor and Trixie are “acting”. Acting like they are grownups. Just for the fun of it. There is a love between them, too. They drink too much, and sit at their table and suddenly start kissing each other. This, naturally, gets the attention of someone who calls their table. But Eleanor and Trixie are not prepared to go “all the way” – they were just in it for the laughs. There are a couple of episodes of such shenanigans. Eleanor, Trixie, and Bruno hover on the edge of the abyss – that is Germany before the 1930s. There is something unleashed in the air – they all can feel it … nobody is sure what is coming, but everyone knows something is. And yet, life goes on. Nothing has stopped yet. And childhood is gone. Eleanor loses her virginity to Bruno. She then goes off to university – the University of Freiburg. Sometimes Trixie and Bruno come to visit her, but things have changed. Their old careless intimacy is different now. Eleanor gets caught up in the world of the fraternities at the university – there are German fraternities and Jewish fraternities – and these groups of guys are always fighting duels – a way to let off steam, I suppose, but also a way to express the underlying tension between the two groups. Eleanor thinks it is all foolish, but at the same time she recognizes that these duels are rituals, and man obviously needs rituals. She befriends and has a crush on a girl named Minna, a German girl like an Amazon, who has no fear. Minna is a nudist in her spare time. The students have campfires and Minna takes off all her clothes and dances around. Eleanor also befriends and has a crush on a German guy named Franz (a marvelous character who will end up being very important later). Franz is suicidal. Eleanor tries to save him. They have long conversations about the meaning of life. And what it is they all are really doing. What is life, what is love …

Around this same time, Eleanor becomes interested in the work of Heidegger – who I believe is at the University at the same time she is studying there. His philosophy revolves around silence – and the fact that “certainty cannot be put into words”. In the same way that Einstein, in the first chapter, provided the basis for how Eleanor experienced and interpreted her life … so Heidegger, and his theories, provide the basis for Eleanor here. When is there a value in silence? When are words inadequate? All around her is chatter – people arguing and fighting and discussing. But it’s meaningless. It’s just noise. When is it important NOT to say anything?

The Nazis have already begun their rise. It is the late 20s. They are not yet omnipresent, but occasionally Eleanor runs into a group of them. She talks about it with her father. Her father and mother have split up, by the way. Her father has moved to Heidelberg, and her mother stayed in Berlin to continue on her work in left-wing political circles. Eleanor says:

I had not come across Nazis much at this time. Hitler’s first attempt to get power in 1923 in Munich had failed: he had gone to jail. Afterwards not much was heard of him till the first Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg in 1927. Then I had said to my father ‘But what is it that makes them different from other right-wing groups?’

My father had said ‘They are the only political party who are honest about what they want.’

I had said ‘What do they want?’

He had said ‘To kill everyone who is not like them.’

I had said ‘But what are they like?’

He had said ‘They are like people who want to kill everyone who is not like them.’

I had said ‘But then surely other people will kill them first.’

My father had said ‘No, because they are politicians and no one believes them.’

Franz, Minna, Bruno and Eleanor go to the big youth conference in the Black Forest. It is filled with young German kids, setting up camp, having sing alongs, putting up tents. There are certainly Nazi groups, but they are not the only ones. Bruno and Franz get into philosophical arguments over the campfire. Bruno is Jewish. Franz is German. Bruno demands of Franz why he isn’t a Nazi. Franz says “Because on the whole I would rather be dead.” Minna is the goddess around whom they all circle. Bruno wants to sleep with her. Franz wants to sleep with her. Eleanor wants to sleep with her. Minna remains vaguely oblivious of all of this, like every good goddess.

There is a play that is going to happen at an old castle in the Forest. Goethe’s Faust – part 1 and part 2. Part 1 on one night, Part 2 on another night. Mosley’s description of that play – and how it was put on – and what it meant to Eleanor, watching … is extraordinary. One of my favorite sections in the whole book. It makes me wish I was there. Eleanor realizes that what she is seeing on the stage is a reflection of all of humanity … and that all of us are looking for something, our counterpart, our mate … she feels that the actors, when they turn to the audience, are saying, inside, “Is it you? Is it you?”

And so, of course. It is in between Part 1 and Part 2 when Max (who is also there at the youth conference – he came with Hans, the young German exchange student who had stayed with his family) and Eleanor finally meet.

Here is that excerpt. Notice how once the conversation begins, Eleanor stops calling him “the boy” and switches to “you”. She’s talking to Max, reminiscing about their first encounter. And as they speak, they realize that they have the same set of symbols, thought-processes … they have come to them separately, this is their first meeting … but they realize they think in exactly the same way. And what can be said about that? How can it be put into words?

EXCERPT FROM Hopeful Monsters

Back in our camp, Franz collected firewood and Bruno made the fire and Minna and I prepared food we had got earlier in the village. In the camp next door the two boys who spoke English seemed to have had a quarrel. The younger one, who was like a faun, had walked away and had come and sat with his back against a tree between his camp and ours. I thought — There is a painting like this: a girl is lying on the ground; there is a faun at her head: I have the impression that I should be part of this painting.

The other boy, who was like a large white dog, came and knelt by the boy who was like a faun. He said in English but with a German accent ‘You are angry with me because of what I told you about your mother.’

The boy who had his back against the tree said ‘I don’t care a damn about you and my mother. What I am bored with is Faust. In fact I think you and my mother are quite like Faust.’ Then he turned and looked at me.

I thought — Hullo, it is as if you remember me?

The boy said ‘Oedipus is boring, Faust is boring, Mephistopheles is boring. And Nazis and Jews are boring. If we think them evil, we only encourage them. Nothing is going to change unless we think such things are boring.’

The boy who was like a dog said ‘Come and have supper.’

The boy who was looking in my direction said ‘Seen any good child-murders lately?’

The other boy said ‘Be quiet, people will hear you.’

The boy who was looking at me said ‘That is why I am speaking English, lest people might understand and be saved.’

I thought I might say — I understand you.

The boy who was kneeling said ‘You asked me to talk about your mother.’

The boy who was like a faun said ‘What would be interesting would be a play about the people who are sitting and watching and loving that sort of stuff. Then at the end they could go off, yes, happy, and blow themselves up.’

I thought I might say – But it would still be boring to have to watch them blowing themselves up.

Then you said to me ‘Do you understand English?’

I said ‘Yes.’

After a time the boy who was like a dog stood up and went back to his fire.

You were sitting with your back against that tree. There were millions of pine-needles on the ground like forks in pathways. I thought — We can pick them up; move them this way or that. After a time you looked away.

I said ‘But it would still be boring to have to watch them blowing themselves up.’

You said ‘Yes.’

I said ‘So what would you do?’

You said ‘Something quite different, I suppose.’

You were staring in front of you as if you were expecting to be shot with your back against the tree.

I said ‘What?’

You said ‘I’ve thought it would be something to do with just what turns up.’

I said ‘I’ve thought it would be to do with what you’re talking about and what is happening, happening at the same time.’

You said ‘But there would have to be some sort of code.’

I said ‘Why?’

You said ‘Because otherwise it would go away.’

I said ‘But if you know the code, you would know the message.’

You said ‘We should know the message. We don’t have a code.’

People from our two camps were calling us to come to supper. They were saying that there were only a few minutes before we would have to leave for the performance of the second part of the play.

I said ‘Do you want to see the second part of Faust?’

You said ‘No.’ Then — ‘I think what is happening now and what we are talking about is the same.’

I thought — Also there is indeed this that has turned up: we are sitting beneath the trees.

I said ‘What is your name?’

You said ‘Max.’ Then — ‘What is yours?’


You said ‘Helena?’

I said ‘Eleanor.’

You said ‘This is absurd.’

The others were saying that they were setting off to see the play; we could join them later if we liked.

We seemed to sit for a long time in silence beneath our trees.

I said ‘You mean, there is some pattern in what turns up?’

You said ‘I have thought sometimes that it would be like being in the inside of a painting.’

I said ‘Yes, this is absurd.’

You said ‘Why?’

I said ‘Because I have thought that it would be like –‘ Then — “But I suppose if I say it, it will go away.’

You said ‘I see.’

It was as if we were on some plane that might at any moment tip over: if I moved towards you, you might go away; if you moved towards me, I might fall.

I said ‘How old are you?’

You said ‘Nearly eighteen.’

‘I’m nineteen.’

‘You are at a university?’


‘I am going to Cambridge next year.’

‘What are you studying?’

‘Biology or physics.’

‘I am studying medicine.’

You said ‘You see, this is almost unbearable, unless there is a code.’

I said ‘Unbearable for ourselves?’

You said ‘Oh, and for others!’

I thought – But, I mean, we have got some sort of code.

Then – We are like two people stuck on a rock-face connected by rope: cut the rope and one of us dies; don’t cut the rope and both of us may die, or live.

I said ‘Are you staying here long?’

You said ‘We go tomorrow.’

I said ‘Will you give me your address, so that I can write to you?’

You said ‘Yes, and will you give me yours?’

I said ‘I will put it on a piece of paper; then I can swallow it.’

You said ‘Or you can put it down the lavatory. Or in a bottle to float on the sea.’

There was the faint sound of people acting, orating, further down the valley. I thought – You mean, other people might hurt us: we might hurt ourselves?

I said ‘You know the image of Plato’s about the two halves of something, that look for each other?’

You said ‘Yes.’

I said ‘That is too obvious–‘

You said ‘I can’t think of anything better to say.’

There was the sound of clapping from further down in the valley. I thought – Perhaps it would be easier if one of us took a short walk. Perhaps it would be easier if we were in circumstances of danger.

I said ‘What happens to Faust and Helena in Part II, do you know?’

You said ‘They have a child.’

I said ‘What happens to the child?’

You said ‘It flies too close to the sun. It falls into the fire.’

I said ‘I don’t think I should have a child.’

You said ‘You don’t think you should have a child?’

I said ‘Do you?’

After a time you said ‘There are enough in the world.’

You seemed to have been listening to the sounds that were coming up from the valley.

I said ‘But what is it that makes Faust finally say “Stop!”?’

You said ‘I thought he never did. I thought he only said “If I were to say ‘Stop!–“‘

I said ‘I thought it was when he was reclaiming a new bit of land from the sea.’

You said ‘Well perhaps we are reclaiming a new bit of land from the sea.’

I said ‘I suppose what is interesting is what Faust said to those terrible beings when he got to heaven.’

You said ‘Well what shall we tell them.’ Then – ‘I suppose we are in heaven.’

I said ‘Sh!’

We began laughing.

You left your tree and crawled towards me. It was as if you were pulling yourself along by a rope. To preserve balance, it seemed, I had to stretch out toward you. When we met, it was as if we had to become enfolded.

You said ‘It’s like a line in a play – “I’ve got to go in the morning!”‘

I said ‘But we might just stick it out till then.’

It was as if we were on – not exactly a tightrope: rather a pole that was balancing the earth which itself was on a tightrope: we had moved to the centre of the pole and had to stay very still; to hold on tight, or the earth would tip over.

I said ‘Are you comfortable?’

You said ‘Yes, very.’

I said ‘Do you think this is by chance?’

You said ‘Oh, I think chance might be to do with heaven.’

We got into a position like that of a circle divided into two shapes like tadpoles: these fit into each other to make the circle whole. I thought – Or the world is on the back of an elephant, the elephant is on a tortoise, the tortoise is on the sea.

I said ‘I am older than you.’

You said ‘I know you are older than me.’

I said ‘Hold on tight.’

You said ‘Or we shall go over.’

When the others came back up the hill from the valley they were having their arguments about the meaning of the scenes from Faust, Part II: why was Faust saved? was it just because of his ceaseless striving? And what of Helena, who had appeared and disappeared; what was the point? People were talking about these things as if there might be answers in words.

We had been lying very still. Oh yes, of course, we had from time to time used more words.

When the others were back I said ‘You’ve got my address?’

You said ‘Yes.’

I said ‘And I’ve got yours.’

I thought – I suppose we have to go down, like angels, do we, to the cities of the plain.

Franz and Bruno and Minna had been joined by the boys who had been with you; also by a few of the Nazi boys. They all came and sat round our fire. They bobbed to and fro; they drank wine and beer.

You said ‘We have to leave very early.’

I said ‘That does not matter.’

You said ‘No.’

The people round the fire were not paying much attention to us. I thought – We are too embarrassing: we have been into and out of the fire.

– Do not look at us and we are there: look at us and I suppose we go away.

Bruno was encouraging Minna to take off her clothes. The Nazi boys were clapping. I thought – She is like that child of Faust and Helena: she may be destroyed by the fire.

One of the Nazi boys put an arm round Franz’s shoulders. Franz looked at me. Then, when I looked at him, he looked away.

You had gone back to your camp and were sitting on your own by your fire.

I thought – Oh strange and terrible world, you should not be destroyed! There are people whom you can love: who love you –

– Just let us know, every now and then, what might be an ark.

One of the Nazi boys picked a flaming stick out of the fire and held it towards Minna. The stick seemed slightly to burn her. Minna was half naked, dancing round and round the flames.

Bruno called out ‘Nellie, come and join us!’

I thought – Oh but I am happy sitting here with my head in my hands, my cage –

– Or am I a child in a pram looking up towards the leaves, the sunlight?

The next morning you and your group had gone. I did not know whether or not I had heard you leaving. I had been having a dream. We were in the courtyard of a castle. There were ladies and gentlemen on the grass. Then the ground flipped over, and there were huts and watchtowers.

I thought – The dream leaves the dreamer: what is left to the dreamer of the dream?

I had the piece of paper with your name and address on it.

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3 Responses to The Books: “Hopeful Monsters” (Nicholas Mosley)

  1. Ken says:

    “Minna is a nudist in her spare time.”

    I predict this will end up in the lexicon of the salon, among the insane RUHTs, bourgeois apparatchiks, and not-even-TRYING CHiPs.

  2. red says:

    hahahaha What is the point of being a part-time nudist? You might as well just go all the way to full-time! But sadly Minna cannot sit in lecture halls in university stark naked – she concedes civilization that much – but at picnics, parties, whatever – off come the clothes.

  3. 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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