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Old 20th Feb 2005, 11:04   #1
John Self
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Default Russell Hoban

Russell Hoban breaks the usual writer's mould in several ways: he's written dozens of books, including 60-odd children's books, without ever really entering public consciousness; his late start (his first adult book was published at the age of 48) is tempered by his prolific habit since then (seven of his thirteen adult novels have been written in the last nine years, between the ages of 71 and 80); and his books are frequently very, very strange. Here is a list of his adult novels, taken from a brilliant site devoted to him:

The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz (1973)
Kleinzeit (1974)
Turtle Diary (1975)
Riddley Walker (1980)
Pilgermann (1983)
The Medusa Frequency (1987)
Fremder (1996)
Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer (1998)
Angelica's Grotto (1999)
Amaryllis Night and Day (2001)
The Bat Tattoo (2002)
Her Name Was Lola (2003)
Come Dance With Me (2005)

I had been aware of him for years without ever reading his books, mainly from picking them up in bookshops (they always seemed to be there every time I went back), thinking they sounded fascinating but not being flush enough to take the risk on them. They were slim, with odd titles. To get a commission from a first book with a name like The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, you must have a hell of a lot of compromising negatives. Or a damn good manuscript and a children's classic (The Mouse and his Child) under your belt.

I eventually bought his most famous book, Riddley Walker, in a bargain bookshop a few years ago for a pound, but never read it. It's a first person narrative told in a strange dialect by a youth in a post-apocalyptic land (anyone who's actually read it, please correct any errors in that summary), reputedly 'difficult' but 'rewarding.' I opted to pass up the rewards. Only when he entered his late (or even later) phase of prolific production did I buy into the Hoban thing, with Angelica's Grotto. It turned out to be a mildly eccentric and entirely charming confection, about an ageing man who entered the world of cybersex and chatrooms with a mysterious muse called Angelica. It is not remotely sleazy - as you might expect from such a synopsis of a book by a 73-year-old man - but blends tangy tastes of love with an interest in abstruse systems of belief.

I liked it enough to pick up his next, Amaryllis Night and Day. This turned out to be more or less a rewrite of Angelica's Grotto: the older man-younger woman thing done without salacity; the kabbalistic references; the dreamy let-the-story-go-where-it-may plotting and elegant, pleasing language. I read reviews of his next, The Bat Tattoo, which seemed to confirm that this was a trilogy of sorts: or a man with a keen devotion to recycling:

Quote:
Recently widowed and increasingly lonely, Roswell Clark's life had arrived at the point when he felt he needed a tattoo. His ideal image was that of a bat featured on an eighteenth-century bowl in the Victoria and Albert Museum, but strangely, on a visit to the museum, he encountered a woman called Sarah Varley, who was clearly compelled by the same bat. What did it mean? Sarah dealt in antiques and Roswell soon ran into her stalls in Chelsea and Covent Garden. His calling, which grew out of an obsession with crash-test dummies, was a bit harder to explain. It led from the invention of a popular children's toy to lucrative commissions from a Parisian sybarite for wooden working models with very adult moving parts. Both Roswell and Sarah had lost their spouses and were still grieving in their different ways. And then Christ started putting a hand in - literally - when a fragment of an ancient crucifix fetched up in one of Sarah's antique lots. Between some compulsion conveyed by this hand and Sarah's natural urge to make improvements in people, Roswell's work took a surprising new turn...
- and decided to pass on it. His next novel, Her Name Was Lola was either, according to reviewers on Amazon, either

Quote:
More of The Same (like the last book and the one before) ... the characters, treatments, motifs, observations have all been used before
or a book where

Quote:
in the same way, I think, that a great musician re-explores avenues he has traversed before, Hoban is trying to get to the bottom of something it is perhaps not possible to articulate. We have no language for what he is doing, but someone has to try. And no one does it better than Russell Hoban.
Come Dance With Me, his new novel, just published as he turned 80 earlier this month, sounds ominously similar from the description:

Quote:
Elias Newman is a diabetologist who meets Christabel at a Royal Academy of Arts exhibition. Fascinated, he's keen to know her better. She's attracted to him but afraid of what might happen if she lets herself fall in love. Christabel and Elias are complicated people. Via Symbolist paintings and German ballads the narrative flows from the River Lea via a haunted woodland bog out to the crash of the Pacific surf on Kahakuloa Head in the Hawaiian Islands...
No doubt charming and lovely when you're there, but possibly with a familiar aftertaste. So I got to wondering what he was like before the late-late period, with all those books I used to look at? His entire back catalogue has now been reissued by Bloomsbury, and I was particularly keen to read Fremder, which I had read good things about on publication in 1996 but which never made it to a paperback edition until now. When I looked at it on Amazon, other reviewers recommended a reading of The Medusa Frequency (1987, his last novel before a nine year hiatus) for better comprehension. And so I picked up that one as well.

I have now read The Medusa Frequency and I feel a little like Lucoid did with Les Grandes Meaulnes. How to classify a work so resolutely unclassifiable? To call the book strange or eccentric really does not begin to do the job. In truth, though, it has much in common with the later books which started to seem so formulaic. There is a middle-aged man, Herman Orff, a writer of comics who wants to be a proper novelist:

Quote:
My first novel, Slope of Hell (Mumchance Press, 1977), sold 1,731 copies before being remaindered. The Times found the writing 'a little slippery;' The Guardian noted that the story was 'a downhill sort of thing.' My second one, World of Shadows (Readham & Weap, 1978) sold 1,247 copies before the publisher went into receivership.
He meets a woman, Melanie Falsepercy, for whom he develops a strong attachment, and is disturbed by a voice called the Kraken coming from his computer in the middle of the night. Cramped with writer's block, he goes to a friend to have his head treated with some EEG-type instrument, as a result of which he begins to find the head of Orpheus everywhere he goes, talking to him. And that, with a little Vermeer, filmmaking and other diversions, is pretty much that. At 143 pages it could probably not have been any longer without trying the patience of the uninitiated. For every charming flight of fancy there seems to be an undercurrent of self-indulgence, so you end up torn between How does he do this? and How does he get away with it?

In the end I think Russell Hoban's books are best read very infrequently - much less frequently, that is, than he writes them. Then they would stay fresh and welcoming, instead of risking the familiarity which breeds contempt. However I still have Fremder to read, which as it's set in space, must surely break the formula. And what can Col, who I know has read a lot of his earlier stuff, tell us about the likes of Kleinzeit, Pilgermann, and indeed the lion one? Or anyone else for that matter?
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Old 20th Feb 2005, 12:29   #2
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Having browsed a bit on Amazon and the Russell Hoban site above, I have gleaned the following about the earlier books:

The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz: a fable-type story set in a near future where lions have become extinct.

Kleinzeit: the first example, by the sound of it, of 'typical' Hoban: quirky and skittish and with inanimate objects talking to people, also reputedly his funniest book.

Turtle Diary: his most naturalistic book, telling of two middle-aged single people who are brought together over a shared love of exotic turtles. Gets high plaudits by many as their favourite Hoban, gets called moving etc., and apparently was a film starring Jeremy Irons.

Pilgermann: Set in the 11th century and (I'm forgetting already) something to do with Christians and Jews. Apparently his most difficult work after Riddley Walker.

Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer: I remember this one coming out actually, and like Fremder it never had a paperback release until Bloomsbury picked it up a couple of years ago. Some sort of Faust-sounding tale where a young man makes a deal with a devilish figure.
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Old 20th Feb 2005, 18:14   #3
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I have read Pilgermann, Turtle Diary, Kleinzeit, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, Angelica's Grotto, Riddley Walker and The Medusa Frequency, as well as The Mouse and His Child (one of my top books for children) and some of his other lesser known children's books. I have Her Name Was Lola on my to-read pile downstairs.

However what I remember of them is another case entirely. I read them mostly in my late teens, apart from the latterly published ones of course and they *are* some of the strangest reads I know (they sit next to my Richard Brautigan volumes on the shelf, which are models of sanity and comprehensible discourse in comparison).

I recall Kleinzeit being my favourite, and also Pilgermann having good things to say - but what they were has gone. I would agree that Hoban's later books have tended to focus repeatedly on the relationship between a quirky older man and a younger woman - it is something he does remarkably well and usually without seediness - and a recurrent theme is that of Orpheus and the Kraken, most evident in The Medusa Frequency. As I have a particular research interest in Orpheus, and Eurydice, the depth of the meanings in TMF - the 'wide mercy', the female principle divided in myth by Eurydice and Persephone and Hecate, the self-hood of Eurydice and the eternal (failing) poet of Orpheus - was impressive and mind-boggling.

Having re-read TMF just this month, it's probably time to re-visit the others.
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Old 23rd Feb 2005, 14:51   #4
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An interview with Hoban from the Bloomsbury site, for the publication of Come Dance with Me.

Quote:
Come Dance With Me tells the story of a love affair that springs from a chance meetings. Why are you drawn to write about these chance encounters?

Not so much chance. Strange, yes. Sarah Varley and Roswell Clark [in The Bat Tattoo] have a strange meeting on the steps of the V&A where she sits crying about the estimated end of the world in 500 million years. She's come there for a fix on her favourite bat, the same one tattooed on her shoulder. It's on a bowl in the Chinese Ceramics room, which is where she and Roswell have their second meeting. He's come to the V&A looking for a bat to be copied in a tattoo for himself. I look for strange encounters because I never have a plot outline; a strange encounter offers good chances of character and action development and usually gets me moving along to whatever comes next.

Whether it’s tattoos or carving with an adse, or bats, or Klein bottles, there’s often some specialized pursuit explored within the fabric of each of your stories. Why is this?

Jachin Boaz [in The Lion of Boaz-Jachin & Jachin-Boaz], for example, is a mapmaker. This is a metaphysical occupation: Where am I? Where am I going? How do I get there? Look at the map. Maybe you have to make the map first. Riddley Walker [in Riddley Walker] is a connexion man. His calling is to interpret the travelling show and do a tel in which he finds the reveal that will tell his people what's what. Both of these specialities give the protagonist an interesting place to come from and many action options to explore. The Klein bottles in Amaryllis Night and Day are both metaphor and map for the involutions of the story. A careful observation of any specific widens out to take in everything. A classic example of this is George Sturt's The Wheelwright's Shop.

People have suggested that Riddley Walker may overshadow your diverse achievements. How do you feel about this?

The Frances books, The Mouse and His Child, and Riddley Walker are acknowledged as classics. My other books are not. I think death could be a good career move for me — after that my oeuvre can be viewed in its completeness and it may be that it will be collectively recognised as a fabric of ideas, imagery, and word action that is of permanent interest.

As you grow older you seem to be writing with more pace. Is writing more urgent for you these days?

Writing by now is an addiction, I can't stop. I'm writing faster because I keep seeing new things to do, better ways of using words. I get a lot of writing done because everything else is put aside and I am in arrears with all grown-up paperwork and business. I no longer have any orderly filing system, and the room where I work is such a shambles that from time to time I have to buy a book or video that I already own because that's more economical than losing a day looking for it. I hope to die in the middle of a new novel but on the other hand I'd like to finish the new one first. So I write as if it's a matter of life and death, which it is.

What is your opinion of the contemporary writing scene?

I have no opinion of this because I read scarcely any current writing; I don't want to get into a novel and find that someone else is developing an idea that I'm also working on.

London has shaped your novels for some time. Would you say the city has a hold over you?

London is where I wrote my first novel in which I dealt with men and women instead of anthromorphic animals and toys. For the last 35 years this is where it's been happening for me. As I've said before, specifics widen out to include everything, and when I make use of topography and locations I go out with a mini-cassette recorder, a camera with 400 film and one with 1600. Because God is in the details and I want to get them right. Certainly London has a hold on me. This town has been very good to me in providing settings for my stories. Because London has become the place of my heart I am encouraged to believe that it puts heart into the comings and goings of the people in my books. And of course I see it through a foreigner's eyes, taking nothing for granted and constantly responding with what might be called an innocent eye. I felt myself a stranger and an outsider in my own country, but being a stranger where I actually am a stranger feels good.

Your first adult novel, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin & Jachin-Boaz, was published when you were 48. Why the late arrival of novel writing in your life? And do you miss your previous artistic pursuits?

I didn't begin to use my personal experience until I was living in London in my second marriage. That was when I began to feel free to put everything down on paper. As for illustration and painting — the level that I had reached before giving it up depended on drawing and painting every day. When that stopped the whole thing stopped. I drew well from an early age, and my parents had laid it upon me that I was going to be a great painter. Once I gained a certain reputation as an illustrator I was able to get that burden off my back and give myself entirely to writing. I can't carry on two major lines of development and I have no time for minor ones.

There was a gap of nearly nine years between The Medusa Frequency and Fremder. What happened?

Between The Medusa Frequency and Fremder I wrote the libretto for The Second Mrs Kong [Harrison Birtwistle's 1994 opera]. Also The Trokeville Way plus two or three picture books for children, several short stories for Granta and Fiction Magazine, some stories for BBC Radio 4 and a piece for Radio 3 on the music of William Lawes (Perfect and Endless Circles). Also "Bury My Heart at Auschwitz" for Dimensions magazine. The rest of the time I must have frittered away.

You watch a lot of films, both good and bad. Do you feel you learn a lot from them?

They keep me mindful of some basic principles of storytelling: the characters should engage the reader's emotions and the story should make the reader want to turn the pages. Some films are benchmarks for me: The Princess and the Warrior (Der Krieger und die Kaiserin.), with its overlapping cross-referenced motifs and images, encouraged me to push the envelope more than I had before — I don't remember which book I was working on when I saw this picture. Tom Tykwer directed it. Franka Potente and Benno Furmann starred in it. Read My Lips (Sur Mes Levres), directed by Jacques Audiard, with Vincent Cassel and Emmanuelle Devos was a masterclass in character development and exploration. My novels are mostly character-driven, and this masterpiece of a movie shows what wonderful things happen when you let characters come fully alive and live their own lives. The best thing is when a character set in motion by you surprises you. That's what makes it worthwhile to get up in the morning and sit down at the word machine.

"We get such a little bit of time and it's so hard to find a life-story that works for us." Has yours worked?

Yes. I've had two lives, really: one in the U.S. and one here in England. Two marriages; two families; seven children, eleven grandchildren; fourteen novels (so far). I've been very lucky in many ways and I'm satisfied that I've done what I could with what I had.
The page it comes from also includes summaries of his books.
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Old 17th Jul 2005, 17:52   #5
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In London I picked up a copy of the currently-out-of-print Turtle Diary, Hoban's third novel, from 1975. I said above that from the reviews I had read it appeared to be his most naturalistic novel. It is: and yet, and yet... The notional plot of the book - two middle-aged (Hoban was in his early 50s when he wrote it), lonely people who team up to free the turtles from the aquarium and London Zoo - is really little more than tangential in the book itself.

It is more accurately a reflection of their desires to break out of the limits of their own lives, vicariously if need be. William G works in a bookshop and goes home to a bedsit at night; Neaera H is a children's author (like Hoban) who wonders if she can write another jolly animal-based book. Their first person narratives alternate, and they are distinct enough that I was able to tell them apart quite quickly without thinking consciously about whose chapter I was on: oddly, the most notable quality was that Hoban, in Neaera's voice, had the very ring of early Jeanette Winterson. That in itself may tell you all you need to know about Turtle Diary: plotwise there is not much going on; most of the narrative is made up with reflections by the characters on their daily lives, some of which can seem like little interests which sparked Hoban's attention on the day he happened to be writing that page. There are also his usual cultural allusions and references, from classical to contemporary sources, though the latter feel somewhat dated by the 30-year vintage of the book, as do the frequent references to the prices of things (in pence and half-pence). The book overall, too, has a melancholy air, as though seen through the slow green water of a turtle's enclosure, but Hoban's elegant writing and addiction to short chapters make it an effortless read, even if it's unlikely to become my favourite of his.
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Old 18th Oct 2005, 22:54   #6
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Just found this thread on the off chance that someone here would have an interest in Russell Hoban.

I almost gave my copy of Riddley Walker away the other day, but then I couldn't. It was almost a life-changing book for me, bringing into my head all kinds of ideas about the evolution of language and civilization. It's an amazing book.

Turtle Diary, BTW, was made into a small movie in the 80s starring Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson. It was shot as if through green glass and very evocative of the book.

I'm surprised Hoban has written all these other books. They're certainly not well publicized in the US. I love his quote in this thread about "death being a good career move at this point."
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Old 19th Oct 2005, 17:17   #7
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Ridley Walker is the only Hoban book I have read, although on the basis of this I am now intrigued about the others.

I found RW after an archaeological friend I admire a great deal suggested it as an archaeology of language, and indeed in many ways it can be read as this. Your understanding of the story and the events, which are never clarified directly, must come from working out the traces of todays language in the future portrayed in the book. We must work backwards. As I was a newly formed enthusiastic archaeologist when I read it, and a fan of linguistic puzzles, I enjoyed working it out. I'll have to look out some more one day.
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Old 29th Dec 2005, 13:00   #8
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A review of Hoban's latest novel Linger Awhile here.
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Old 28th Jul 2006, 9:25   #9
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I'm just twenty pages into Riddley Walker and already bored stupid with it. Stupid may be the operative word, as it's doubtless my fault and not Hoban's: the book's a classic after all, and Col, knovella and Digger have all enjoyed it. But does it really have that much to tell us about "the evolution of language" as knovella says above? The book is set (we're told in the surrounding materials, rather than the book itself) about 2,000 years in the future, and yet people still speak a highly recognisable form of English, with the same grammar and mostly the same words (many are spelled differently but otherwise the same, and there are only a few entirely new words). This, surely, is the height of implausibility, when you consider how much English has changed in the last six hundred years alone.

So far for me it's felt like a cross between the central section of Cloud Atlas, Sloosha's Crossin' an' Everythin' After (which it doubtless inspired), which I found unreadable and incomprehensible, and William Golding's The Inheritors, about the last generation of neanderthal man, and which similarly promised to be affecting but ended up too obtuse to reach far into the heart.

Sympathy is not encouraged by the introduction from Will Self, who refers to people who don't like the book as 'tosspots'...

The best I can say for it is that it's the only one of his books I've read so far which isn't exactly the same as all the others. And overall, it reminds me that of the six Hoban novels I've read, I haven't actually adored any of them. Time to move on?
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Old 12th Mar 2007, 10:09   #10
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I spoke too soon above. Susan Hill on her blog last week was recommending writers who she feels are unjustly overlooked: the first of these was Russell Hoban. As a result of that and the discussions that followed, I picked up his latest novel Linger Awhile, and the following is what I blogged about it...

Russell Hoban, who published his first adult novel in 1973 at the age of 48, has enjoyed an extraordinary late flowering. Of his fourteen novels, eight were published since 1996 (with another due later this year). I’ll have what he’s having. And yet after enjoying some of his earlier novels, I found that his later ones seemed to be developing not quite a formula - a writer as unpredictable as Hoban could never be accused of that - but what Detective Inspector Hunter in Linger Awhile might call “certain similarities.” Older men and younger women; cultural esoterica; technology and sex; and modern day London. So it was with hope and trepidation that I approached Hoban’s latest.



Hoban describes it as a “vampire farce” and that pretty much sums it up. The great revelation is that it tells a much more linear and straightforward story than most of his books - though ’straightforward’ might not be precisely the word for a novel where a group of three middle-aged to elderly men conjure up a dead star of Hollywood Westerns out of the electronic ether and she sets about a little light bloodsucking. Or as one character puts it to himself: “Nothing would be simple from now on, and I was wondering if I mightn’t be too old for reactivating dead women from videotapes.”

But it combines these welcome qualities with Hoban’s usual charm and likeability - even when he’s being a little too whimsical, you can’t help enjoying yourself - and produces dialogue that one would never have expected to see in a piece of modern literary fiction, such as this exchange when the man who brought actress Justine Trimble back from the dead tries to persuade his friend to join the conspiracy:
‘If you want to join the Justine club you’ll have to give her some of what it takes. As the fellow said, “The blood is the life”.’

‘And in return?’

‘You get what you’ve been craving for. Justine is a treat to look at when she’s been haematologically refreshed and she’ll be very affectionate, I promise you.’

‘My God, you’re pimping for her.’

‘Needs must when the Devil drives. You can take the moral high ground or you can follow your heart.’

‘My heart, for Christ’s sake!’

‘Or whatever part is leading you. We’re talking pragmatism here.’
If this all sounds a little silly, well, it is, but the book is also littered with Hoban’s deep literary intelligence, and gives us plenty on frustration, loss, late regrets and growing old disgracefully. It has a magical, winning tone which sets Hoban apart from pretty much anyone else now writing, and it seems truly rare - and almost guilt-inducing - for such a beautifully executed literary achievement to be as much fun as this.

Douglas Adams, writing about P.G. Wodehouse’s unfinished novel Sunset at Blandings, commented that “At the age of ninety-three, I think you’re entitled to have your best work behind you.” Maybe so: but Russell Hoban, eleven years younger, is still producing his best books.

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