80! - The Booklet of the Russell Hoban Some-Poasyum

Why we love Russ

Linda Whitebread:

1. Because “he dint do nothing randem he had tack ticks” (and because actually that’s not always true; what happens, delightfully, happens).

2. For his refreshingly subversive children’s stories.

3. Because the meaty main dish is always accompanied by a rich and piquant melange of references to art, music, literature, theology, history, science, London... Intoxicating, stimulating and decidedly moreish.

4. Because he’s so damned funny. 

Olaf Schneider:

1. To see the wheel of action in motion.

2. To see what’s beyond the wheel-biting. 

Alida Allison: 

1. Russ inspired me to go back to graduate school in my mid-thirties and get a PhD so I could teach children’s literature. Upon reading Chapter One of The Mouse and His Child in an undergraduate course, the cranial light bulb went on for me while simultaneously my jaw dropped: “This is children’s literature? This is stunning writing the likes of which I’ve never read before. A working life spent discussing books like this with students would be very satisfying.” And it has been, so thank you, Russ.

2. The Sea-Thing Child, La Corona and the Tin Frog, The Marzipan Pig, M.O.L.E., The Little Brute Family, How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen, The Rain Door, Monsters, The Mouse and His Child, The Trokeville Way, Jim’s Lion… thank you for all these, and for character names like “Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong”.

3. Thank you, Russ, for the interviews you have given me and many others, and thank you, Gundel, for your hospitality.

4. Thank you for your incomparable essays and for ‘The Raven’. The first time I read it was in your living room in 1989. I forgot to turn my tape recorder off while I read, so there were 20 minutes of no sound on the tape and then more no sound as I sat there speechlessly. What can one say of a story so profound? That experience — reading a piece or a chapter of Russ’s writing — often has that effect; one is both deeply moved and also silent. Food for thought, food for feelings, and later, perhaps, food for words.

5. Thank you for coming to California in 1990 for a speaking tour. Come back any time.

Theo Malekin:

There is a strain of deep humanity and even angry compassion that comes out, as much as anything, in the tone of voice. This leapt out at me the other day, from Moment Under The Moment:

It isn’t the world that is hostile... it’s the grey city of the world that threatens, the grey city of the failed children of the world, the dry thinkers, the juiceless minds, the poison skulls that dream in numbers and megadeaths. They run the world, these failed children; they speak in all languages and in all languages their speech is vile... Each one thinks the other is the enemy while the real enemy, the monster they have called up together, sings to itself outside the window.

Hard to think of a more apposite comment on the morons, criminals and fools that govern us. The world is run by failed children, but how could we have failed this badly? Because the monster isn’t out there, the monster is us.

p.a. morbid:

More than any other reason I can think of, and there are a lot of reasons why I love Russell Hoban, is for the depiction of love and loss in The Medusa Frequency — the cold November nights we’ve all experienced — the rush of the season as the wind strips the last of the leaves from the plane trees and the streets rise up full of darkness and cold. I’m a writer myself, but I know I could never put that feeling into words as clearly as Russ did in that book. Which is sad, but at the same time absolutely brilliant because if it proves one thing it’s that no matter how alone we think we are, we’re not.

Notes on contributors

Alida Allison teaches children’s literature at San Diego State University. She is on the Board of Directors of SDSU’s new Center for the Study of Children’s literature. Her academic writing has mostly been about the children’s books of Russell Hoban, I.B. Singer and refugee authors. 

Olaf Schneider studied biology (behavioural ecology) in Bielefeld. Since 2002 he has been CEO of AMMMa, which deals with educational software. You can see some of his Hoban-related audio-visual animation at http://sa4qe.blogspot.co.uk/p/olaf-schneider-sa4qe-animations.html

Theo Malekin lives outside Glasgow, where he is finishing a PhD. He is very lazy.

p.a. morbid is a poet, painter and musician, resident of Middlesbrough in the north of England.

With gaps in mind

I first heard Russell Hoban talk in 1995, at a Fantasy Literature conference. It was refreshing for an audience of truanting school-teachers, accustomed to helping pupils slog through ‘creative writing’ assignments, to contemplate his idea that stories surround us as a kind of charge, looking to ground itself through the medium of the expectant author.

Russ read from The Moment Under The Moment, a self-deprecating humour enhancing his gnomic spell. He deflected questions about what he really meant, intimating that the work could speak for itself more authoritatively than its author would; but he offered a real revelation about drafting: over five years’ work on Riddley Walker he’d written, but not used, something like 500 pages.

I was truly struck by this intimation of ruthless craft. Over 12 compulsive months I’d been rapt in a novel of my own: with barely a quarter of the planned story fleshed into coherence, its dénouement still lay at least 500,000 words in the future. Oppressed by its ghastly accretion of detail – it was provisionally entitled The Minutiad – I’d taken to condensing each section that took shape, tightening sentences the way a curtain-maker tugs on rufflette tape. Now my text hung in densely unappealing swags, nothing like that afternoon’s readings, which had floated like lace curtains, translucent, holey… Hobanesque.

During the book-signing I sought Russ’s benediction, and he laid a kindly hand on my arm, saying “Bless you, my son,” in quiet unsurprise. Could this shaman’s touch help me take my putative readers on leaps of fictive faith, side-stepping the morass of circumstantial trivia that purported to make The Minutiad convincing? Many of the Moment stories we’d just heard dispensed with ‘convincing’ altogether, voicing readers’ qualms pre-emptively: “The whisky didn’t run out of the back of [the skeleton’s] jaw, it just disappeared”. Russ let things be what they wanted to be, and skipped to places he wanted us to be: “You can walk into any of these pictures…”

But such gaps need daring; addicted to joining up tiny dots of inspiration via acres of perspiration, I needed to complete a long draft before I could sling out my 500 pages. So I slogged on, recalling how Hoban himself – despite the unbeatable lightness of his short stories – indulged in weighty specifics when necessary. His novels were an index of poets, philosophers and painters, with streetscapes so real you could read the manhole covers; if London Transport ever lost their underground map, they could reconstruct it from his writings…

Journeying, route-finding, they’re all-important in Hoban: the gaps between places generate longing, humour, blackness. Those tube-journeys take us from bright place to place via flickering darkness, an underground cinema whose interstitial black outweighs the story-images. Even an overground train becomes a movie in Turtle Diary, where Neaera’s sky is “successively framed by each window as the carriages passed […] The windows passing, the blue remained”.

And his train-rides commonly end at galleries or museums: not just time-freezers, but also places to continue that journey between illuminated scenes, finding ourselves in the narrative that’s implicit in the gaps. Amid this Babel of “continuous conversation […] between everything around us and us”, Russ attunes us to off-net broadcasts, inscrutable Krakenspeak, the wordlessness of Redon or Chopin. His work reaches for “a place where the unwordable happens off the page”, whereas my Minutiad strove to cram everything on the page. Constructing its world atom-by-atom, I’d disregarded The Raven’s “tiny dancing giants” who slowly become a world, through their own, unmanipulated nature.

So I eventually listened to the dots I’d been joining, and they were whispering “Maybe No World is Best”. If you can’t do gaps, leave it to the lacemakers. Oh huge relief, to realise that I could honourably quit quicksandpapering! My process needed no product other than this trip behind the curtain, illuminating what was admirable in a true writer. A decade on, even the key to my locked Word files is forgotten.

In the beginning was the word: before that, wordlessness. And we who can’t gain access to the wordlessness should be seeking to bless the man who can, not vice versa. I am humbly proud to take this 80th-birthday opportunity of thanking Russell Hoban for continuing to keep us so richly sustained by the unwordability that his many writings have taught us to value. Long may he reign!

Roland Clare is a retired English teacher from Bristol. Once a travelling musician, he still gigs and writes (his through-composed musical The Mystery of Mary Celeste features the Kraken). He records with The Palers’ Project, edits Beyond the Pale, and contributes to The Spoonbill Generator.


Share this page