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Russell Hoban: A Great American Writer

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Russell Hoban was born on February 4, 1925, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Abram and Jennie Hoban, who were Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine. He began to win prizes for his stories and poems while still a child.

Even if Hoban's name is not familiar to you, it is likely that you know his work. He was written more than fifty children's books, including The Mouse and His Child, Emmett Otter's Jug-Band Christmas, The Marzipan Pig, and most famously the Frances series.

In 1969 he moved to London. He divorced and remarried, started a new family, and reinvented himself as a writer, publishing sixteen novels for adults from 1973 through 2010. (His British publisher is Bloomsbury.) A seventeenth novel for young adults, Soonchild, is scheduled for publication in 2012.

This group of novels includes the postapocalypse masterpiece Riddley Walker. In 1980 it got a front-page review in the New York Times Book Review -- a rave.

Riddley Walker is set in a desolate, post-nuclear holocaust England and written in fractured English. Although the lives of the people are short and brutal, they live in a world that once knew art and spaceships. They grope for meaning. So do you. For example:

...You cud get jus the fayntes glimmer of what it musve ben to be the Puter Leat [the computer elite]. To have them boats in the air which they callit them space craf and them picters on the wind which that wer viddyo and going out beyond the sarvering gallack seas [the sovereign galaxies]. Not jus singing it you know. Acturely going it acturely roading out thru space.

Yes, the whole book is like that. And yes, it works. As you puzzle out the meaning of the words, the characters puzzle out the meaning of their existence. If Hoban had written about this demolished world in ordinary English, Riddley Walker would not be a masterpiece.

Twelve novels followed Riddley Walker, but Hoban is largely a prophet without honor in his own country. US readers needed to look sharp to find, for example, Fremder, a science-fiction novel of shocking power; The Medusa Frequency, which is both funny and mysterious; or Linger Awhile, his vampire novel. All the novels make deep dives into fantasy, humor, and contemplative thought.

Hoban's 16th novel for adults, Angelica Lost and Found, was published in 2010 to enthusiastic reviews in the United Kingdom. It is a wonderful fantasia on some typically Hobanesque themes, although these themes will seem startling to persons new to his work.

Patrick Ness, writing in The Guardian, on November 20, 2010, had this to say about the novel:

Angelica Lost and Found is a corker, a wildly entertaining, intellectually adventurous and marvellously odd attempt to answer a question we all must have asked ourselves at some point: what would happen if a hippogriff in a painting fell in love with a mythological heroine and went to find her in present-day San Francisco?

I belong to the Kraken, an online group for Hoban fans. Since 2002, we have celebrated his birthday on February 4 by placing favorite quotations from his books in public places. This event is international. People in Europe, the United States, South Africa, Canada, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand have been taken by surprise by pieces of yellow paper bearing his words.

Such as this:

Reason is not sufficient. I know what I cannot explain.

And this:

We make stories because we are story. The fabric of our myths and folk-tales is in us from before birth. The action systems of the universe are the origin of life and stories. The pattern of blue-green algae and the numinous wings of the Great Nebula in Orion and the runic scrawl of human chromosomes are stories.

Here is what Hoban says about his own work:

The real reality, the flickering of seen and unseen actualities, the moment under the moment, can't be put into words; the most that a writer can do--and this is only rarely achieved--is to write in such a way that the reader finds himself in a place where the unwordable happens off the page.

If you deduce from this bracing raison d'etre that a Hoban novel is not an easy read, you are correct. I've found the journeys worthwhile, though, because sometimes the unwordable does happen off the page. What a writer. What a gift.