Russell Hoban Essay - Critical Essays (Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Hoban, Russell C(onwell) (Vol. 7)

Hoban, Russell C(onwell) 1925–

Hoban, an American, writes for both children and adults. He often uses animals or other creatures as protagonists in his fanciful tales. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

I hear that Russell Hoban has been compared and contrasted with Richard Brautigan, and this seems very unfair to Mr Hoban. His Turtle Diary is a pleasantly sentimental novel and, being a sentimentalist myself, I found it lovable and entertaining. Sentimentality is, of course, an extremely powerful force since it can contain any number of disparate emotions without noticing the strain. And there is a special kind of sentimentality which attaches itself to brute animal life (if there are no animals around, children will serve) at the same time as it lets out a few mawkish yelps at the generally depressed condition of 'life,' 'reality' or whatever….

[Despite] the characters' fascination with their own lives, what emerges is Mr Hoban's individual and very distressing imagination. He collects his insights like bright and tiny stones, and he uses a ferocious but slightly awkward prose which keeps everything to one side. Now the sideline is a very honourable position to be in, since it is the only one which encourages the warm glow of sentimentality, but Mr Hoban is continually fretting and straining to be somewhere else. There are continual references to the small scale on which he is forced to work (there are descriptions, for example, of those small but perfectly complete model towns through which sentimentalists love to wander), and Mr Hoban probably hates himself for those moments of great preciousness and whimsy which I much appreciated. It is an eclectic but at the same time highly organised book, and one that is full of stray insights and descriptions which are united by Mr Hoban's mercurial creative temperament. My only complaint is the dialogue, which is uniformly artificial: real sentimentalists—like turtles—never open their mouths except to be fed. (p. 412)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), April 5, 1975.

Mr Hoban's books have mice, lions or turtles at their centre, and they are never 'warmly human'; they project their own unmistakable reality, whether Mr Hoban is writing for children or adults or for himself. It is not a question with him of images illustrating reality, either…. Turtle Diary is very intelligent and very funny. I know perfectly well that some people will find it whimsical and irritating; and the journal technique makes it all too easy to include a lot of 'writer's diary' observation of people in buses and shops—there is an air of no material being wasted. But no one else could have written this bizarre book, and it is [a] most distinguished and memorable [novel]. (p. 489)

Victoria Glendinning, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), April 11, 1975.

Hoban never claims too much for Turtle Diary, and that very modesty is the reason for his success. He argues gently but profoundly that human lives are really composed of details as mysterious in their power as the force that tugs the turtles; the most dramatic adventure can unfold as a series of petty and incomprehensible inconveniences. A romantic would emphasize the heroic; a realist would squint at the mundane. Hoban tries something harder: to see both, and the hairline truth that lies somewhere in between.

Paul Gray, "Shell Games," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), February 16, 1976, p. 72.

For Russell Hoban the turtle is an instinctual long-distance navigator; in its genes is locked an unthinking certainty of purpose unavailable to men.

In Hoban's novel ["Turtle Diary"] two lonely people conspire with the keeper of turtles at the London zoo to kidnap his charges and return them to the sea. It seems the right thing to do. For William G., the turtles' ability to swim by some obscure direction for hundreds of miles to a precise destination is what life should be about…. For Neaera H., the turtles' involuntary confinement is indefensible because "they can find something and they are not being allowed to do it." (p. 76)

It's a nice story, a charming story: two people who have retreated from life plan to break the law with a symbolic gesture that frightens them a little. By freeing the turtles will they free themselves? The answer, a proper answer for a tale that means to avoid sentimentality, is both yes and no. Liaisons—not quite those that we expect—will be made and broken and more loneliness than we expected will be revealed. (pp. 76-7)

In England, Hoban shows signs of becoming a cult writer Like other cult writers—Salinger, for instance, or Vonnegut—he writes about ordinary decent people making life-affirming gestures in a world that threatens to dissolve in madness; like them, he writes a prose that is often fresh and funny, occasionally precious: "Atoms speeding to infinity aren't necessarily lost, are they." Writing of that sort tends to promote love rather than admiration. (p. 77)

Peter S. Prescott, "A Sense of Direction," in Newsweek (copyright 1976 by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), March 1, 1976, pp. 76-7.

Neaera in "Turtle Diary" writes children's books, but she is disgusted by her own professional whimsy, the cosy anthropomorphizing that robs animals of their otherness. Indeed, Neaera regards children's books as propaganda: "I think that all the people who worry so much about the children are really worrying about themselves, about keeping their world together and getting the children to agree that it is indeed a world."…

[In this book Hoban] was fighting free of the "lie" at the heart of his past work. Certainly no novel was ever less coy and childlike than "Turtle Diary." It concerns a divorced middle-aged man named William, living in a dreary London boarding house, who hatches a scheme to free three of the sea turtles in the zoo and return them to the ocean. His diary is intercalated with entries from Neaera's diary. Although she doesn't even know William until a third of the way into the book, she, too, is obsessed by "turtle thoughts." Eventually William and Neaera join forces….

Hoban has not selected a rich theme. Not only are his characters dim, but the thematic underpinnings of the book seem flimsy. For William and Neaera are presented as dessicated, overly civilized creatures cut off from the instincts, which are embodied in the turtles. William longs to be a shaman, ecstatic and primitive…. [The] terms are too crude to be novelistically interesting—a spinster who wants to unite with the instinct that blindly sends turtles to their "breeding grounds" and a lonely man who admires shamans because "there's something between them and animals, a bond, a connection, channels of power…. Could I be a turtle. Could I through an act of ecstacy swim unafraid and never lost, finding, finding?"

This nostalgia for the mud was gripping (if dangerous) when D. H. Lawrence first explored it; through his best pages shines a fierce, restless inability to understand fully his own intuition. He was compelled to worry it, never satisfied with any particular formulation of nature versus civilization. But in Hoban's book primitivism has petrified into a received idea, automatically virtuous—and therefore insipid. (p. 6)

Edmund White, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by the New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 21, 1976.

[The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz] creates a universe of very special magic, in which everything forms part of a pattern in a more complex way than in [Hoban's] The Mouse and His Child. There the father and son faced in opposite directions but were forever linked. Here it is their names which are linked and face in opposite directions, while they themselves are bound spiritually but lead separate lives. However, although their lives are ostensibly more naturalistic and set in a recognizable human world, their journey is as allegorical as that of the two mice—even more so in some ways. The novel's allegorical qualities should not be laboured too minutely; they are there, and they form definite patterns which speak more than adequately for themselves. (pp. 47-8)

Russell Hoban's understanding of the world involves a knife-edge juxtaposition of humour and horror, of reality and seeming nonsense—which is, of course, the ultimate reality….

Lion examines the problems of the people who are not strong [and the] significances of a world where anything is allowed to be possible and everything is liable to break out in conversation…. (p. 48)

[The] bizarre world of Kleinzeit … is more brash, more urbane, funnier, than the universe of Jachin-Boaz (sometimes, indeed, in Kleinzeit the brilliant verbal technique is self-indulgent in its witty extravagance). In some ways it is a less remote universe, more recognizable and accessible, but it nevertheless carries that same unmistakable aura of magical terror and absurdity. It is still easy to identify as a world where things not-allowed-to-be-possible jump out. Kleinzeit is surrounded by the ridiculous and the terrible aspects of living all the time. Everything talks; everything is significant; everything is part of the pattern. The structures which might seem to hold our lives together are not ultimately as meaningful as other, less easily identifiable inner structures, which, once apparent, are always present.

Thus, when Kleinzeit feels a 'clear brilliant flash of pain from A to B', it turns out to be his hypotenuse which is playing him up ('"We don't know an awful lot about the hypotenuse" Dr Pink said'). All the terrifying mumbojumbo of modern medicine—its jargon, its drugs, its technical complexity, its appalling paraphernalia—is put sharply into a new and sardonic perspective. Inhabiting our bodies is a depressing, disgusting, alarming, and, of course, very funny business…. (pp. 49-50)

[This] novel, more than any that precede it, is closely and tightly written. Everything is significant; everything relates to everything else. The echoes in the passage quoted are heard throughout the book. In Kleinzeit's world all things are part of a pattern; all his experience carries echoes of other times and places. The thingness of things is all-important. This is the real structure of his life, not the ostensible order of Doctors Pink, Krishna and Company. As Boaz-Jachin did, so Kleinzeit resists this pattern; it is too difficult, too frightening. Significance is wearying. But once the connections have revealed themselves, they have to be acknowledged, as Kleinzeit comes to accept. Whoever is the only connector of this significantly patterned universe, it is certainly not God, as Sister and Kleinzeit find out in their conversations with him. He is just another part of the whole thing, one of the many voices, one of the fragments which must be connected. (pp. 50-1)

Kleinzeit clamours for answers but has to discover, as the mouse and his son did and as Jachin-Boaz and his son did, that there are no ultimate answers and that acceptance of what is is necessary. At the end of the book he still has his pain shooting from A to B and he still has all his organs grumbling but intact, but now no one seems worried about it. He himself is not really any different from how he was at the beginning of the book. He has not been presented with answers, but his perception has changed. (p. 51)

Turtle Diary, in some ways Hoban's finest writing yet, provides the best marriage of his concise, poetic and rhythmic expression with his dry, witty observation. This particular synthesis was foreshadowed in The Sea-Thing Child, a beautiful, brief fable, both sad and funny, which he wrote after The Mouse and His Child. This latest novel, Turtle Diary, incorporates all the themes examined so far, in a very subtle and delicate manner, different from the style of the earlier stories. There is no 'happy ending': the previous books all offered this in some way, even if it was not really an intrinsic part of the story. Thus, what Kleinzeit learns about patterns, about acceptance and resignation, what Jachin-Boaz and his son learn about maps and lions, what the mice learn about self-winding and territories, is centrally important; but in each case they are given some sort of present as well, a cosy ending. Here, for one of the protagonists at least, things are rather more bleak. The resignation and acceptance are all. The observation is as sensitive and as humorous as always and more carefully and closely expressed than ever. Stylistically the novel is both more ambitious and more accomplished than anything previously written. It is the only book which Hoban has chosen so far to write in the first person; however, he has written the story from the point of view of two different people, so that alternate chapters are told by William G and Neaera H. He has used this technique successfully, for the most part maintaining the individual characteristics of each speaker with skillful care. The added complexity which this brings to his familiar preoccupations is an exciting development.

Some aspects of the book initially seem far more conventional and less eccentric than earlier works. The story line is more central and ostensibly important; the world is, or at least seems, a more naturalistic one. It is a world which contains London, with the Zoo, Madame Tussaud's, the British Museum and Hungerford Bridge; the protagonists are presumably telling the story to 'ordinary people', explaining how they feel; the language is less extravagant, less concerned with its own wit. All this makes the representative originality of vision all the more forceful and impressive when it appears in its new and subtler forms. What finally matters to the novel is not the outcome of the story, for itself, but what the story says about the central characters. It is their inner world which is important, as always.

As always, too, this is a world of significant connections, and this time we see two separate people, not one person with his son, or one man alone, finding the patterns, discovering the integral parts of the whole, noting the awful ironies and sardonic jokes of being alive. William G and Neaera H have a similar approach to living—they are 'from the same picture', so they see the same patterns, but, of course, in different ways. Noting the delicate disparities in their understanding of their mutual experiences is one of the chief delights of the book. 'As a man is, so he sees': the way in which a human being's mind colours the world he sees is one of Hoban's central themes. Both central characters are always aware of the shaping patterns, the messages the world has to offer; they frequently note the same idea, at widely spaced intervals in the book.

Although (on self-admission) Russell Hoban seems closer to William G in attitude, it is Neaera H who says several things which are central to most of Hoban's writing…. (pp. 53-4)

[While] it is more often Neaera H who provides these thematic statements, it is William G who observes the grim humour, hears the implicit language and messages around him….

What is new in this novel is the detailed organization and structuring of the protagonists' thoughts. They are skillfully ordered so that the novel progresses in certain ways, considers specific themes, while the two people seem just to be thinking aloud, responding to a situation as it develops. The way in which their similar opinions on certain topics are introduced is superbly managed. Because so much of their narrative is just a statement of aspects of their inner selves, the task is much more complex than the mere telling of a story from two points of view. Two thought-patterns have to be developed concurrently, and the external 'story' that is happening to both characters is only one of several stimuli working on them. Thus, always, although they reach similar or coordinated conclusions, it is from different directions, and in different ways. There is ample opportunity within this structure for things to become boring, repetitive or muddled, and this never happens. It is always an accomplished and controlled look at the familiar world of Russell Hoban where a wide pavement says 'walk together' and a narrow pavement says 'walk alone'. (p. 54)

Gillian McMahon-Hill, "A Narrow Pavement Says 'Walk Alone': The Books of Russell Hoban," in Children's Literature in Education (© 1976, APS Publications, Inc., New York; reprinted by permission of the publisher), No. 20 (Spring), 1976, pp. 41-54.

The pace and talk are rapid, the people are quirky-real, and fine imaginings of long turtle journeys abound [in Turtle Diary]…. I read the tale … impressed to the end with the author's wit and invention.

But I can't pretend that I owe this pleasure to my alertness to unknown new fictional talents. Russell Hoban has been well known for years as an author not of novels for grownups but of admirable children's books, a series about a young badger named Frances, and an especially memorable character study of a runaway beaver called Charlie the Tramp.

These books are unique, first, because the adults in their pages are usually humorous, precise of speech, and understandingly conversant with general life, and second, because the author confronts—not unfancifully but without kinky secret garden stuff—problems with which ordinary parents and children have to cope. (pp. 83-4)

Looking up the Frances books just now,… I came face to face with my own wayward wishfulness. I saw, that is, the perversity of asking a writer for more children's books when all the children to whom you might read them have flown. Better to say (as Russell Hoban said to himself?), Grow up, remember your pleasures, move along. (p. 84)

Benjamin DeMott, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1976 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), August, 1976.