Inside a Two-Headed Era

HOPEFUL MONSTERS. By Nicholas Mosley Dalkey, Archive Press, 551 pp., $21.95

THE period between World Wars I and II was, to borrow Charles Dickens's phrase, the best and worst of times. Visions of a better society thrived alongside the specter of Fascism and Nazism. Dreams freely mingled with nightmares.

The achievement of "Hopeful Monsters," winner of Britain's prestigious Whitbread Prize for 1990, is that it so convincingly conveys the hope and anguish of those mercurial decades. To render the confusion of the times, Nicholas Mosley banishes the advantages of hindsight. He adopts a journal form, through which he is better able to represent the mental life of those who could only suspect the roaring apocalypse awaiting them in the fall of 1939.

"Hopeful Monsters" follows two young protagonists, Eleanor, the half-Jewish child of Berlin intellectuals, and Max, the offspring of a Cambridge academic couple, as they grow from adolescence to their early 30s. These are children of position and privilege. Through their parents, each is well acquainted with contemporary political and scientific issues, as well as with their famous spokespersons.

Eleanor, for instance, encounters both Rosa Luxembourg and Albert Einstein. At the age of nine, her father attempts to explain the General Theory of Relativity to her. Max is equally advantaged - and pressured. His mother, a student of psychology, and pal to the Bloomsbury group of artists and writers, presents him with a copy of Sigmund Freud's "Beyond the Pleasure Principle" when he is barely into his teens. With his father, Max discusses the subtleties of contemporary genetic theory, especially the ol d Lamarckian idea that individuals may sidestep the tedious pace of Darwinian evolution and pass along acquired characteristics to their offspring.

During the course of the novel, the lives of Eleanor and Max intertwine and separate as much as the controversies of the day do. For all their understanding of science and politics, and devotion to particular projects, their lives appear aimless and their passion seems painfully rhetorical. They fall in love in Germany, yet go their separate ways.

Eleanor does anthropological research in Africa, and Max explores the new order emerging in the Soviet Union. They come together in Spain during its Civil War, marry, and return to Cambridge. She goes back to Europe briefly to investigate German progress on the making of the atomic bomb, while Max initiates research that leads to his participation in the Manhattan project.

Their journals end at the beginning of the war, just after Germany marches into Poland. A long postscript, penned by the compiler of their journals, accounts for their lives from the postwar years to the Vietnam era.

The serpentine plot that propels these two pilgrims across the sinister flash points of the planet is less powerful than the trail of their inner thoughts and dialogue. Though British reviewers, and Mosley himself, have damned the novel with faint praise by dubbing it experimental, its execution is not as difficult or off-putting as the word suggests. Indeed, "Hopeful Monsters" is penned in the familiar style of the modernist avant-garde.

Readers acquainted with the plays of Harold Pinter, who turned Mosley's novel "The Accident" into a screenplay of the same name, will recognize the idiom. Mosley's characters, like Pinter's, are impounded in their subjective mental lives. Constantly aware of the slippage of language and the singularity of the individual, their sallies into conversation with other characters tend to frustrate them.

Admittedly, anxiety and alienation are themes that have worn thin with use in this century. And one must concede there are stretches in Mosley's novel where the symbolic structure becomes so unwieldy that it threatens to destroy the nuanced language through which the dizziness of the world's incipient derangement is expressed.

Nevertheless, the novel's strategies befit the enormity of the challenge faced by two characters trying to identify the locus of their personal and intellectual lives in a time of upheaval.

A vast work, "Hopeful Monsters" is held together by the teasing proposition first articulated in Max's discussions of Lamarckian theory with his father. Max and Eleanor frequently suggest that in the process of surviving enormous horrors - the war, for instance - individuals mutate in such a way that human nature is no longer capable of great evil.

Heedless as it may be to fly in the face of British criticism, which has found this notion so compelling, "Hopeful Monsters" succeeds only in showing that the light at the end of the tunnel is that of the oncoming train. Its forceful depiction of the moral disintegration of science and intellectual life in the 20th century reveals one route through which brutishness has repeatedly returned in the nearly 75 years since the war to end all wars.

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