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Rereading Russell Hoban

February 3, 2012

I should really be posting this tomorrow (Saturday the 4th of February) because it’s Hoban Day, the birthday of one of my favourite authors, Russell Hoban, who died in December. Were he still alive, he would be 87 tomorrow. But tomorrow I shan’t be anywhere near an internet connection so I’m doing it today.

Russell Hoban is probably best known for Riddley Walker, a science fiction novel set in post-apocalyptic Kent and narrated by its eponymous young hero in a broken down, phonetic version of Kentish English. It won several awards and prompted Anthony Burgess to opine, “This is what literature is meant to be.” Hoban is also known for his classic children’s book The Mouse and His Child, which was published in 1967 – incidentally, the year I was born. (Apparently there was an animated film version released in 1977, but I’ve never seen it.)

He wrote many other books for adults and for children, as well as essays, at least one play, scripts and narration for two short animated films by David Anderson, and even an opera libretto. All these works were produced in a room crammed full of teetering piles of books, videos, CDs, artworks, and other reference materials. He called this room and its contents his exobrain. He was culturally omnivorous, and his books reflect this. Vampires and gorgons, Orpheus and Eurydice, museums and bookshops, Bach and Barry Manilow, Punch and Judy, Möbius strips and Klein bottles, Maiden Castle and Beachy Head, Vermeer and Redon, Wallace Stevens and H.P. Lovecraft – all these and many more inspired his stories, and appear in them. Hoban’s style and voice are highly idiosyncratic and, as an author, he’s impossible to pigeonhole. I’ve seen him compared to Kurt Vonnegut, and I can see that, but he also reminds me occasionally of Borges or Eco, Woody Allen or Alasdair Gray. Dark and disturbing or funny and whimsical, but always playful and witty, his books are full of heavy themes handled lightly. Hoban fan Dave Awl set up a site called The Head of Orpheus, which will tell you everything you need to know and plenty more besides. Or, of course, you could read the books. And that’s precisely what I intend to do.

For a quarter of a century or so I’ve loved Russell Hoban’s work, and eagerly anticipated each new book’s publication. There are still things to look forward to, because he wrote two children’s books which are due to be published later this year. However, there will be no more crazy, brilliant novels. And so I’m planning to reread all sixteen of his novels this year, in order of publication, starting with 1973’s The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz. I’m halfway through it already, and I’ll report back when I’m done.

If you’ve never read a book by Russell Hoban, I urge you to try one. Riddley Walker is rightly regarded as a masterpiece, but it’s not entirely representative of his work and Fremder or Amaryllis Night and Day would also be interesting places to jump on board.

It seems appropriate to sign off this post in Riddley Walker style. So:

Theres my tel
Keap you wel

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