Hanging Around Reality's Stage Door

by Johnny De Falbe

Nearly twenty years ago, as an undergraduate, I went to a meeting of some literary society that had the imagination to invite Russell Hoban to speak. At a previous occasion, A.N.Wilson had addressed us and I had to stand. When Hoban visited, there were so few people that we moved to a smaller room. Were there 20 of us? I doubt it. I recall him reading from something to do with Orpheus and Eurydice. He mumbled about the head of Medusa, the Kraken … It was very obscure, and yet I listened, rapt, because he was the author of Riddley Walker, which I still believe to be a masterpiece. First published in 1980, it is hard to see how it could date, unlike many futurist novels. Set in the remote future in an England that has reverted to an iron age after some nameless apocalypse, the story is told in a language (re)created from the fragments that remained.

Russell Hoban is one of the most celebrated modern children’s authors – The Mouse and His Child and the Frances books are acknowledged classics. The film of Turtle Diary is known to many, as is The Second Mrs Kong, an astonishing opera that he collaborated on recently with Harrison Birtwistle. Nor am I sticking my neck out in praising Riddley Walker: critical acclaim for it was lavish. But few are aware of the extent of his work, while some suppose him to be of interest only to weird cults. Even his publishers have been guilty of this. I recall the Jonathan Cape rep subscribing Fremder to me, one of my favourite Hoban novels. It was tucked right at the end of that month’s fiction and he skipped over it, knowing nothing about Hoban himself and taking it for granted that I (a bookseller) would not be interested. Since then (1996) Hoban has fortunately switched publisher to Bloomsbury, who appear to be trying to reach a wider audience with their promotion of Angelica’s Grotto and Amaryllis Night and Day.

In each of Hoban’s novels a strange world has been imagined with detail and conviction. In Riddley Walker, part of what characterises the world is the language, and this is sustained with breathtaking energy and invention. At the start, you might be forgiven for thinking that ‘The woal thing fealt jus that littl but stupid’, or put off because of the difficulty. But you quickly get the hang of it, and it is just another aspect of the linguistic fertility on display in Fremder where (to pick at random), in describing the spaceport on Badru in the Fourth Galaxy, he tells us, ‘There are a mini-cine and a cybercade in the spaceport but my favourite night spot on Badru is the Q-BO SLEEP that beckons in purple neon, SLEEP & SHOWER 10 CR. PER HOUR’. Sometimes, as in these two novels, the setting is futuristic. In Pilgermann, where the narrator is a disembodied consciousness, it is historical – action occurs during the First Crusade – and a sense of the past imbues all the work: ‘The dead are with me in the ordinary moments of every day – sometimes I see my hand lift a cup of coffee or sign my name and I feel ghost hands moving with mine, lifting their no-coffee, signing their no-names’ (Fremder). More often, however, the novels are set in a very recognisable contemporary London, complete with bus numbers and the tube at Fulham Broadway. But it is still Hoban-land. Uniting all the books is his distinctive vision, where the strange and disturbing are natural bedfellows with the wry and romantic. “Trust me, I’m a weirdo,” says Amaryllis in Amaryllis Night and Day, and of course the narrator does, for who could resist such disarming frankness?

In the same novel, the narrator remarks, “…if reality had a stage door I’d hang around there and see what came out after the show,” which would do very well as a statement of intention for Hoban himself. Likewise in Fremder, after our hero has been found tumbling unprotected through ‘the black sparkle of deep space’, the irresistible Dr Caroline Lovecraft tells him, “Reality is for squilches. The real thing is what comes through the cracks when you fall apart… I can feel your terror and I want to be in that terror with you.” This ‘real thing’ is often reached through vivid mythic resonances. Some of these have their origins deep in a shared culture, such as the figure of Orpheus, or Vermeer (Hoban was alluding to the girl with the pearl earring long before Tracy Chevalier). Others – owls, lions, the word tawny, the Kraken – seem to be have special significance in Hoban’s personal cosmology, and they suggest some nameless threat, or the presence of a primeval force which is to be found inside people as well as in the world outside. This dreamlike, mythical element often accompanies a modern, robustly banal situation, and derives great force from the tension. Angelica’s Grotto is a pornographic website that the aged narrator has wandered into. “You’re a tiger from the neck up, Professor, ” she says when she meets him, and this remark coexists easily with his worries about the absence of his ‘inner voice’. The eponymous Amaryllis and her narrator spend a lot of time in a shared dream (‘glim’) aboard a paper bus to Finsey Obay. On one trip, they check in at a motel with a print of Edward Hopper’s Gas on the wall. A page later we read a typical Hoban throwaway line, ‘I was confident that the mattress would be damp.’ The predictable spices up the weird here, instead of the more usual opposite. As ever, there is a pervasive sadness, an awareness of lurking horrors, which is redeemed by wry humour and the comforts of the ordinary.

The weirdness and the sense of connectedness that is present both in the text and as an essential element of Hoban’s vision make him a natural cult author. But it would be a mistake for anyone interested in fiction to suppose that his appeal must therefore be limited: he is a brilliantly inventive, often very funny novelist, an original who stretches your head in surprising ways . Different people favour different books. Some find Riddley Walker heavy going, but I have always been amazed by its readability. I find Pilgermann difficult, and Hoban lost me with a couple of books after that, but one of these (The Medusa Frequency) appears to be the favourite among Hoban’s web fans, while a very straightforward reader told me the other day that he liked Pilgermann best. Fremder will be abhorrent to those who despise sci-fi, but, though I read no other sci-fi, I think it is delightful. I became a loyal admirer on the strength of his first three books, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, Kleinzeit (a man pursued by sheets of yellow paper) and Turtle Diary, but I suspect the best place to start now is with one of his two most recent books. Both are accessible, and both are vintage Hoban.

Johnny De Falbe, a longtime Russell Hoban fan, runs the John Sandoe bookshop off the Kings Road in London and has reviewed Russell Hoban's Her Name Was Lola and Come Dance With Me for the Spectator magazine. The above piece was originally published in the Summer 2001 issue of Susan Hill's (now defunct) magazine Books & Co.

Orpheus by Roelandt Savery

Orpheus (detail)

Roelandt Savery

(c) National Gallery













































Gas by Edward Hopper


Edward Hopper



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