Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Russell Hoban: R.I.P.

Sad News indeed. Russell Hoban, died last night at age 86.

From the Guardian with some personal comments from me:

Legendary cult author Russell Hoban, whose apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker was described by Anthony Burgess as "what literature is meant to be", died last night aged 86, his publisher has announced.

Hoban, born in Philadelphia, moved to London in 1969. He  first made a name for himself with his children's books; his series about Frances the badger and his novel The Mouse and His Child are acclaimed as modern classics.

Riddley Walker, set in Kent 2,000 years after a nuclear holocaust and told in a distinctive version of English, was begun in 1974 and published in 1980 to huge praise. It has since been included in Harold Bloom's survey of literature, The Western Canon.

Hoban joined the US army aged 18, and was posted to Italy during the second world war, where he served as a messenger, later awarded a Bronze Star for bravery in action. My father was serving on the front lines there as a doctor, and that's where they met for the first time. With extended family in common, a friendship ensued.  Hoban was the brother of world renown photographer and children's book author, Tana Hoban.

Russell Hoban worked as a freelance illustrator on his return to America, publishing his first book, the illustrated children's title What Does it Do and How Does it Work, in 1959.

As well as writing (and sometimes illustrating) more than 20 books for adults and children, Hoban's novel Turtle Diary was filmed with a Harold Pinter screenplay, and he also wrote the libretto to Harrison Birtwistle's opera The Second Mrs Kong.

In an interview with the Guardian in 2002, Hoban described himself as "simply an addict" to writing. "If I am kept away from writing I become physically unwell. It is art and the creation of art that sustains me. Things like Conrad's Nostromo or Schubert's Winterreise or Haydn's Creation or paintings by Daumier make me feel it is a good thing to be part of the human race," he said. "It gives me energy, and now I've got into this rhythm where Angelica's Grotto was followed by Amaryllis and then The Bat Tattoo. I don't want to miss a year. And besides, when the tank is getting empty I think you drive a little faster."

"It's very, very sad indeed," said Bill Swainson, Hoban's publisher at Bloomsbury. He described Hoban as a "shocking, funny and really imaginative" writer.

"Like most people I came across Russell through Riddley Walker, which woke me up to what he was doing," he said. "His wonderful imagination is a common thread in all his books. In his last, Angelica Lost and Found, a hippogriff escapes from a painting and lands in San Francisco outside the window of a Jewish gallery owner who has just dumped her lover. Russell always wrote with with such a light touch - he always had fun, and made you think that there's not a sentence wasted."

Death, Hoban predicted in 2002, would "be a good career move". "People will say, 'yes, Hoban, he seems an interesting writer, let's look at him again'," he said.


Priscilla said...

What a fascinating story. To be honest, I hadn't heard of him but you made his prediction about death come true. He sounds intersting. Perhaps I should take a look at him...

J F Norris said...

I don't know if that final paragraph is the saddest part or the best part. I am always ambivalent about people coming to discover a new writer simply because he died. I'm glad I can count myself among the privileged few who knew of Hoban while he was still with us. Few fiction writers these days are willing to be as daring and boundless in imagination as he always was.

Janet Rudolph said...

Well put, John..

Nan said...

I've read only the Frances books, and they are so wonderful. He brought much joy to my family.

Kelly Robinson said...

Riddley Walker is one of the best things I ever read. The invented language in it is like a puzzle, but once you crack it, it's simply gorgeous. I love that the same author enchanted me with Bread and Jam for Francis and then decades later with something for my grownup self.