A Remembrance of Russell Hoban 1925-2011
While I lived in Spain I adopted the flag of convenience when it came to superstition about the 13th day of the month. If it fell on a Friday, I would adopt the Spanish custom of fearing Tuesday the 13th and if a Tuesday the 13th came along I could take refuge in the Anglophone superstition of Fridays. This past December 13th was a Tuesday and one that was indisputably ill-starred as it saw the passing of one of the most imaginative writers I have ever read.
Russell Hoban, who died in London on Tuesday December 13, 2011 at the age of eighty-six, was variously described as a “cult writer,” a “maverick writer,” a “science-fiction writer” but those phrases do not come close to doing justice to the strange breadth of his craft. Along his way he served in the US Army in World War II, worked as an illustrator, wrote advertising copy and was, strikingly, a successful writer of books for both children and adults that are sui generis. His best known children’s books concern the eponymous Frances, a young badger who behaves refreshingly like a real kid. She employs every possible delaying tactic when going to bed, gets jealous and nasty when her little sister has a birthday and exasperates her parents by restricting her diet to nothing but bread and jam. These are not didactic books that try to teach some received idea of model or moral behaviour. Instead they celebrate the wholeness of childhood just as Mr. Hoban’s books for adults also capture a magical oddness that always percolates just under the surface of perceived reality, something he called the “unwordable.” Even in the guise of more conventional Science Fiction like Fremder, his writing stretches the limits of genre.
Born in Pennsylvania in 1925, to Jewish immigrants from Ukraine, Russell Hoban eventually settled for good in London in 1969. If there is an urban palette for his work it is London – sometimes in real identifiable physical details and sometimes just the feel of it, beautifully and evocatively insinuated in the background or in the corners. However, his most well known work takes place in a broken blasted world of harrowing imagination where an especially gloomy Hieronymus Bosch got to do the landscaping.
Riddley Walker (1980) is set in a post-apocalyptic Britain catapulted back to primitivism by a nuclear catastrophe. Two thousand years after the disaster, society has just about dragged itself up to a loose collection of New Iron Age hunter-gatherer-scavenger communities held together by the political muscle of hardman types and the cultural glue of the official Punch and Judy show that visits each settlement. Punch and Judy shows are the agents of the powerful Ardship of Cambry and the keepers and purveyors of official history. They perform the quasi religious retelling of how the nuclear apocalypse came about: The Eusa Story. The book tells itself in a twisted and broken down English that is stunningly well thought out: the whole mess was brought about by “Eusa” splitting “Addom” and now things are run by the “Mincery” and the “Ardship of Cambry” – USA splitting the atom; Ministry; Archbishop of Canterbury. Anthony Burgess said of this work that is was “what literature was meant to be” and the critic Hugh Kenner reviewed it thus: “Russell Hoban has put many things right, just right, in a book where at first sight all the words are wrong, and at second sight not a sentence is to be missed.” The broken language is not at all daunting and much demystification can be done by reading it in the voice of your favourite Eastenders character until you get the hang of hearing it in your head. It is well worth the effort. But it was not how I first came across Mr. Hoban’s work.
Introducing me to Russell Hoban is the best thing that Brand Loyalty, Happenstance and the Brick n Mortar Bookshop have ever conspired to do for me. It was 1983 or thereabouts. I was in Eason’s in O’Connell Street, Dublin. I had in my hand whatever it was I went in there to get. On my way to the cash register a book caught my eye. It was published by Picador. I knew Picador. They did the tattered Best of Myles that I had discovered one rainy day in my grandmother’s house. They did The Third Policeman. They knew what they were at. The book had an odd name and a strikingly stylised cover depicting an underground train and some sheets of yellow paper on the platform. I opened it and read the first few pages:
“I exist, said the mirror.
What about me? asked Kleinzeit.
Not my problem, said the mirror.”
The book was Kleinzeit. I was hooked. The book created a world unto itself of playful inventiveness that lured me into an odd liminal place where sheets of yellow paper could dictate what should be written on them and the hero gets hospitalised for tests on his hypotenuse and diapason and Hospital, it seems, has been waiting for him. Any story in which a character who is reading Thucydides is followed down the street by Hoplites who may or may not be real was just the kind of jolt I needed to revive an interest in books and reading that had just about survived the arid rigours of the Leaving Certificate.
Since that first encounter with Mr. Hoban I have revelled in everything he has written: from the pyrotechnic genius ofRiddley Walker to the fascinating essays of The Moment Under the Moment and, through my own child, the Francesbooks and the magnificently odd short story The Marzipan Pig. Even works that do not entirely captivate me contain moments of such arresting crystalline creativity that they are worth going along for the journey.
As the author aged he did not shy away from the modern world but embraced it with the drive to understand, fascinated by looking inside the watch of existence to see where in its delicate workings the magic might reside. In Angelica’s Grotto(1999), Klein, a 72-year-old art historian, has lost that inner voice that stops us from saying inappropriate things. He becomes involved with the owners of the pornographic website that provides the book’s title and seems to have been set up just for him. In Linger Awhile (2007), the aging Irving Goodman falls in love with a long-dead starlet from old cowboy movies and enlists the help of an esoteric friend to resurrect her from a video tape. They succeed in bringing her back but she exists only in black and white and it just gets stranger from there. These are not the works of someone phoning it in for the latter part of his career.
Forever trying things out, taking risks, Russell Hoban seemed to write because he could not and would not stop. Writing was his flywheel and it kept him sharp, inventive and adventurous to the end; an enthusiastic and joyful embodiment of Mr. Beckett’s, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” The act of creation was what was important. In this way he was a writer’s writer- playful but also fearless and adventurous.
Everywhere in his writing there is humour, humanity and a strange otherness conjured by the careful selection of the cleanest, most apposite words for what hovers on the edge of being indescribable and ungraspable. For a reader his work is the rare gift of getting to see our world through a lens that makes you re-see it stripped of the patina of workaday disenchantment and rereading it is like seeking the comfort of a dear old friend. For a writer his work can be a mixed blessing: so good it seduces and contaminates; so vibrant and inventive it almost moves you to despair but then so adventurous and assured it inspires you to go out on a limb, make a mess, step off the edge without a plan and work it out on the page.
Though I never met him, Russell Hoban was the best kind of teacher. Obviously he never instructed me in how to write but he certainly made me want to do it better. His talent is a large part of why I ever started to write and why my copy of Kleinzeit, the comforting companion through so many ‘flus over the years, is falling apart. It is because of that thrilling surprise hrumpty-murff years ago that I still insist on visiting real Brick n Mortar Bookshops to see what Happenstance might push off the shelves at me. For that and for all the brilliant “unwordable” moments, thank you, Mr. Hoban. Safe travels.