RUSSELL HOBAN, 86, RIP


Depressed to hear of the death last week of the American writer and illustrator, Russell Hoban, who had a unique career, exhibiting an eclecticism rarely paralleled in American letters. Though Hoban grew up in the States, he lived most of his adult life in London, where his output never really won him fame, probably due to the breadth of his oeuvre, which prevented him from finding a niche.

I am largely unfamiliar with Hoban's children's literature--the Frances books and dozens of others--but am indebted to him for two extraordinary novels, Turtle Diary in 1975 and Riddley Walker in 1980. Harold Pinter adapted the former into a film starring Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley as unlikely partners who free sea turtles from captivity with the assistance of a then unknown Michael Gambon. It's a lovely rendering, unfortunately unreleased on DVD, though I have a videocassette in my collection. The cast is exquisite and more than does justice to Hoban's themes, though the trailer makes the film seem more of a comedy than an insightful study of character and relationships.

Hoban's masterwork, though, has to be Riddley Walker, a book I recently offered to my AP students amidst a selection of apocalyptic, dystopian novels. No student selected it. It has been largely forgotten, except as one of a small group of works, a la Clockwork Orange, famous for creating a language unique to the text. Riddley Walker is set 2,000 years from now amidst the detritus that used to be Canterbury in England. The novel exhibits the tensions between rulers and slaves (not unlike that in H. G. Wells's The Time Machine). Riddley Walker, the protagonist, rebels against the authorities, and in his adventures learns a great deal about the civilization that existed long ago, one whose language remains vestigially. The government is known as "the Pry Mincer" and the atomic energy that fueled the destruction of civilization goes by the appellation "Littl Shynin Man the Addom." The obituary in The New York Times cites Benjamin DeMott's review of the novel, in which he acknowledges Hoban's debt to both Bosch and Beckett. Rarely have I read a work that is as creative with sound. Below is a clip with Hoban discussing the rhyming elements and songs in the novel and parallels in nursery rhymes.

I believe Hoban's lifelong work as an illustrator informed his work as a narrative artist. He was able to blur the line between children's literature and adult fiction so that the reader could sense the indebtedness each had to the other. Though the book was labeled science fiction, it belongs in the same expansive realm of Clockwork Orange, Fahrenheit 451, A Canticle for Leibowitz, 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaid's Tale, and The Time Machine. Below is the American dustjacket for Riddley Walker, bedecked with blurbs, as well as a brief interview with Hoban that captures his spirit. He will be missed.