December 15, 2011


Russell Hoban: dedicated to strangeness: Tim Martin remembers the brilliance of Russell Hoban, the author of Riddley Walker, who has died aged 86. (Tim Martin, 14 Dec 2011, The Telegraph)

"I myself would say I'm dedicated to strangeness," said Russell Hoban in 2005. "I find myself wondering what it is that looks out through my eyeholes, and I really don't know. It's this strangeness that I'm always pursuing in my writing, and it's this sorrow in each of us that I'm trying to get to and depict as accurately as I can."

Hoban died on Tuesday aged 86, leaving behind 16 wry, bittersweet and downright peculiar adult novels, and many more for children, that encapsulate the very definition of cult fiction. A unique worldview and style, coupled with some very specific obsessions, ran through almost everything he wrote, from the loss-laden Zen picaresque of The Mouse and his Child (the children's novel that Samuel Beckett never wrote) to the post-apocalyptic, language-crunching mysticism of Riddley Walker and beyond. Even Frances, the tiny and wilful badger who starred in his very earliest books for very small children, provided some classically sideways wisdom. "Your birthday," she soberly advised her imaginary friend Alice, "is always the one that is not now."

Hoban's books were endlessly quotable, with oddball wisdom lurking around the corner of each phrase even in the patchy later novels. For years, his dedicated fan club -- known as The Kraken, after one of Hoban's abiding favourite symbols -- celebrated his birthday in February each year by leaving typed passages from his novels on folded slips of yellow paper in public, an idea pillaged from his brain-knotting animist fantasy Kleinzeit (1974).

Russell Hoban, 'Frances' Author, Dies at 86 (BRUCE WEBER, 12/15/11, NY Times)

Mr. Hoban had several distinct careers. Trained as an illustrator, he wrote copy for advertising agencies and produced paintings for books and magazines, including several for Sports Illustrated and for Time magazine. His illustrations included a portrait of Holden Caulfield, the fictional protagonist of J. D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye," and cover portraits of Joan Baez and Jackie Gleason that the subjects, Mr. Hoban said, did not like.

He began writing children's books in the late 1950s. His first, "What Does It Do and How Does It Work?," featured Mr. Hoban's own drawings of dump trucks, steam shovels and other heavy machinery. But he didn't care for illustrating his own books, and his second title, "Bedtime for Frances," a gentle tale about the delaying tactics of a child being sent off to bed, was illustrated by Garth Williams, with Frances as a furry little badger.

In the six Frances books that followed, including "A Baby Sister for Frances," "A Birthday for Frances" and a poetry collection, "Egg Thoughts and Other Frances Songs," the illustrator was Mr. Hoban's wife, Lillian.

All told Mr. Hoban wrote more than 50 books for children of various ages, from tots to adolescents -- including "The Story of Hester Mouse Who Became a Writer," "What Happened When Jack and Daisy Tried to Fool the Tooth Fairies" and "The Mouse and His Child" -- most of them before he turned his attention to writing adult fiction in the 1970s.

Russell Hoban, cult author, dies aged 86: Author of post-apocalyptic classic Riddley Walker as well as numerous children's books described himself as 'an addict to writing' (Alison Flood, 12/14/11,

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. He 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.

My hero: Russell Hoban by Will Self: 'He was wry, gentle and wise - one of William James's "once-born"' (Will Self, 12/14/11,

Born in 1925 in Pennsylvania to Jewish Ukrainian immigrants, Hoban was the rarest kind of writer: his works displayed complete diversity of subject matter, allied to a compelling unity of voice. Best known for Riddley Walker, perhaps the post-nuclear-apocalypse novel sans pareil, he wrote 15 other adult novels and many more for children. In the 1970s when I was first beginning to buy books for myself, Hoban was a member of a distinguished list at Picador, whose larger format paperbacks with full-bleed graphic covers were the hip thing to have on your bricks-and-boards bookcase.

Last year I did an event at the British Library to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his masterwork, and met Hoban for the first time. He was wry, gentle and wise - one of William James's "once-born", notwithstanding a life that had had its fair share of emotional turmoil. He told the audience that while he was serving in the signals corps during the second world war, his sense of direction had been so poor that he was continually getting lost. "The Germans saw me going by so many times," he said, "they probably thought I was an entire company on the move."

OBIT: Russell Hoban: Russell Hoban, who has died aged 86, was a maverick writer of extraordinary imaginative gifts and highly original turn of phrase; although he was sometimes compared to Tolkien and to CS Lewis, he conformed to no obvious literary tradition and was neglected by academics.  (The Telegraph, 12/14/11)

His was a unique vein of magical fantasy, taking themes (the nuclear holocaust, the massacre of Antioch) that seem too devastating for contemplation, and turning them into allegories in which humour was combined with intense imagery and narrative momentum.

Each novel was a singular creation, often with a plot so surreal it defied synopsis. In The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz (1973), set in a time when lions are extinct, a boy conjures up the ghost of a lion to pursue the father who abandoned him. In Turtle Diary (1975) two lonely, embittered souls meet at the zoo where they watch green sea turtles swimming peacefully in a tank, and hatch a scheme to return them to the ocean.

There were certain recurring themes and images: the Orpheus myth; Vermeer's Girl with the Pearl Earring; the London underground system; the pump attendant from Edward Hopper's painting Gas; the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke; the legend of St Eustace; the lion; clockwork toys.

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Posted by at December 15, 2011 5:49 AM

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