Towards a definition of "Hobanesque"

Albert Bridge

As a Russell Hoban reader, I often find myself describing a situation as ‘Hobanesque’. Increasing instances of Hobanesqueness in my life may be due to nothing more than simply being a Hoban enthusiast, and therefore identifying a great deal with his characters and their situations. At times it could be true that I will myself into a Hobanesque situation, or a situation that is not Hobanesque at all into one that is considerably so.

But what does Hobanesque actually mean? And is it even a real word?

Dealing with the second point first, I’d say yes it is, for three reasons: firstly, because I’ve written it so often (not least in the first paragraph of this paper) that to deny its existence now would cause me grave anxiety; secondly, because, as a well-known linguistic innovator, Russell Hoban would surely approve of the coinage (although he might never use the word himself for obvious existential reasons); thirdly, as Hoban once said (in The Bear in Max Ernst’s Bedroom), “You can’t speak of a reality independent of the mind, the mind is the only perceiver of reality there is” — or, via a dialogue from Kleinzeit between the eponymous hero and Death:

“Go away, said Kleinzeit. You’re not real, you’re just in my mind.
IS YOUR MIND REAL? said Death.
Of course my mind’s real, said Kleinzeit.
THEN SO AM I, said Death.”

I’m now not entirely sure why I quoted these lines, which is somehow Hobanesque in itself. Thinking hard, it seems to me that because the word “Hobanesque” came from my mind, it must be real; but I could be wrong.

The fourth reason in this increasingly ill-named list of three is that, if the adjective doesn’t exist, it bloody well should, because Russell Hoban is a unique writer, a unique stylist, and if Salvador Dalí had Dalínian and Samuel Beckett had Beckettian and Bob Dylan has Dylanesque, I don’t see any reason why Russell Hoban shouldn’t have Hobanesque.

The fifth and final of these three reasons, meanwhile, is perhaps the most important, even if it might also be the most desperate: I’m not the only person in the world who knows what ‘Hobanesque’ means. Even if those other people are numbered in their thousands or even hundreds and are scattered all over said world, I take a lot of pleasure and reassurance in knowing that enthusiastic Hoban readers will always recognise a Hobanesque situation when they see one. And millions of other people have probably at some time experienced a Hobanesque situation without even knowing that it had an adjective to describe it.

In my painstaking research for this paper I have identified three principal levels of Hobanesqueness. Your basic Hobanesque situation (a ‘Level One’ occurrence, as it’s known) is one which is, I guess, simply ironic and funny. A ‘Level Two’ is also ironic and funny, but in addition delivers something to the experience that is unexpected, and, more often than not, bittersweet — if not simply crushing. A ‘Level Three’, finally, is the same as a Level Two, except it’s also enlightening in a profound, deep, or downright subterranean way. Sometimes, the three levels overlap slightly or contain other elements altogether, but I don’t have space for all 42 levels of Hobanesqueness here so I will confine myself to these three.

A typical ‘Level One’ occurs in Hoban’s 1987 novel The Medusa Frequency. Herman Orff sits up at his desk until the early hours listening to classical music on Radio Moscow, brooding over a lost love, having conversations with The Kraken and obsessing over Vermeer’s legendary painting Head of a Young Girl. At one point Orff attempts to write the “straight story” (that is, the one not backed up by any factual research) of how Vermeer came to paint the portrait. Taking his inspiration from a postcard of the painting, he writes the opening line “Vermeer when he painted this picture was forty-five”, and continues quite contentedly for four paragraphs — but when he’s finished he turns the postcard over and finds that Vermeer “only lived to be forty-three”. And there the scene ends.

This scene is highly Hobanesque in two ways — stylistically, by whipping the carpet from beneath a serious passage with an unexpected oneliner, and also existentially in its implication to Orff that it wasn’t just his opening line that was fundamentally mistaken but also the rest of the story and, by extension, his entire life.

How many times have you felt that?

It’s a little like the scene in The Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where Arthur Dent discovers that the question that prompted the “answer” to life, the universe and everything — which, as we all know, is 42 — is not the logical “What is six times seven?” but another sum altogether, the answer to which is some way short of that number. “I always suspected there was something fundamentally wrong with the universe,” Dent memorably observed.

A key example of Level Two Hobanesqueness is the main ‘resolution’ of The Medusa Frequency. Orff’s story largely revolves around his fruitless search for his personal Eurydice, a German beauty called Luise; unable to find her he instead finds himself travelling from his London home to The Hague to see Vermeer’s original Head of a Young Girl, which is on permanent display at the Mauritshuis museum. When he gets there, however, he finds the Mauritshuis closed for renovation, the collection transplanted to a temporary building and Vermeer’s Head of a Young Girl on loan to the US — and there that scene ends. The whole episode seems comically meaningless, or simply ironic — a ‘Level One’ in itself — at least until Orff goes back to his hotel, falls asleep, wakes up, has a shower, drinks a beer, looks out of his window and sees Luise passing in the street below. He rushes down and speaks to her, only to find that she’s now happily married and, therefore, like Eurydice to Orpheus, lost to him forever. Bang! ‘Level Two’ Hobanesque situations aren’t nice, they shake you to your foundations, but perhaps this is a good thing, because at least you know where you stand: Level Twos allow you to move on. Even if, at the thought that your long-lost lover is never coming back, the only place that seems like a good idea to move on from is a window ledge.

Level Three Hobanesqueness is more difficult to define, as it concerns the identification of an experience that is, by definition, mysterious. Hoban often refers to “the moment under the moment” — indeed he wrote a whole book with that title — suggestive of something deeper going on underneath life, the universe and everything cannot be worded. In Riddley Walker (1980), perhaps Hoban’s best-known novel, the titular hero spends much of his time literally finding things underneath other things as he uncovers the secrets of the world’s past, of his own identity and the essential mysteries of the universe (he should in fact have been called Riddley Digger). A fine example of a Level Three Hobanesque situation occurs in a key scene in Chapter 15, where Riddley walks to “Cambry” (Canterbury): he has little idea of why he’s going there but along the way his mind starts to fill with “al words and rimes and all kynds of jumbl of yellerboy stoan thots”. There comes to his mind a story which he calls Stoan, in which he describes a face:

Comes your time to ly down for ever then the stoan man comes to the top of the groun they think theywl stan up then. They cant do it tho. Onlyes strength they had ben when you ben a live. Theyre lying on the groun trying to talk only theres no soun theres grean vines and leaves growing out of their mouf. Them vines getting thicker and pulling the sides of the mouf wide and the leaves getting bigger curling roun the head. Vines growing out of ther mouf. Vines and leaves growing out of the nose hoals and the eyes then breaking the stoan mans face apart. Back in to earf agen.

This is only one of a number of situations in which Hoban’s heroes find themselves — a number perhaps disproportionate to that experienced by the average person in the mundanity of the everyday, but no less true for that. And who wants to read a book solely about the everyday? Perhaps the most Hobanesque of situations is one in which the awesome grows out of the mundane, like the vines and leaves growing out of the Green Man’s mouth.

However, I identify more with the comically mundane situations in Hoban’s work — Orff being accused by his current account of having no balls; Kleinzeit wrestling with the yellow paper to write page one of his novel; William G. in Turtle Diary fuming silently over Sandor’s refusal to clean the bath and cooker after himself.

Hoban has the ability to take almost any situation, no matter how ordinary or profound, and show it to you in such a way that, whether you laugh, cry or gaze on in awe, you learn something from it, whatever that might mean for you.

I suppose, in that case, ‘Hobanesque’ means whatever you want it to mean. Which seems a suitably Hobanesque, or not, way of closing this paper.

Dr Albert Bridge is currently Head of Orphic Studies at the University of Upminster.

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