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Russell C(onwell) Hoban 1925–
Hoban has had a successful career as a writer and illustrator of children's stories, often employing animals as his protagonists. With The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz and Kleinzeit Hoban began to write allegorical novels for adult readers, but he retained the magical and bizarre worlds of his children's stories. Consistent throughout his adult novels is Hoban's search for the patterns that make life significant—and this often in the face of a threatening, desolate, or near mad world. For example, in Turtle Diary, his third novel, his adult protagonists seek meaning for their own lives by freeing sea turtles from a zoo. Hoban's prose style, markedly individual, fresh, and often funny, is a linguistic match for his metaphysical themes.
Riddley Walker, Hoban's recent novel, has been hailed as his finest achievement to date. Some critics predict that it will become a cult novel, similar to Tolkien's Hobbit stories. Set in the distant future after a twentieth-century atomic holocaust, Riddley Walker has received special acclaim for Hoban's use of a barely recognizable but phonetically decipherable English language that reflects the outcome of disrupted civilization.
(See also CLC, Vol. 7; Children's Literature Review, Vol. 3; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.; and Somthing about the Author, Vol. 1.)
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There are moments in this strange novel [The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz] when the full meaning is almost within grasp; but the moment passes and the reader is left hanging on to the present pleasures of comic, heroic and romantic episodes.
Russell Hoban extended his reputation beyond the small enclosed world of children's books in 1969 when The Mouse and His Child, which came out with a children's book imprint in the way that The Hobbit did, found devoted readers of all ages…. Mr Hoban has something very important to say. But it is not quite clear that he has yet found the right way of saying it.
Jachin-Boaz lives in a world without lions. The last wild lions were destroyed by hunting; the tamed specimens in zoos died in an epidemic. Jachin-Boaz is a map-maker. He makes very useful maps…. His leisure hours are devoted to a map for his son Boaz-Jachin, containing everything that he could wish for. But it does not show where Boaz-Jachin could find a lion.Then Jachin-Boaz goes away, deserting his wife and son. His farewell note reads: "I have gone to look for a lion", but what he finds is a mistress and a job in a bookshop. His son goes lion-seeking too, and finds what he is looking for in the ruins of a dead civilization…. The narrative thereafter follows successively the fortunes of father and son in a world in which a phantom lion—but one with effective claws and teeth—stalks the streets by day and night…. The two are reunited in a strong climax in which both challenge the lion simultaneously; it vanishes and father and son go home together for breakfast.
The underlying allegory, put into plain words, would, like most poetic allegories, appear trivial and insufficient justification for a novel of nearly 200 pages. What matters is that the theme is dressed in intriguing clothes, now fantastic, now hilarious, now sombre. The fantasy is set against the real world of telephone kiosks and cops, the underground and sex. Jachin-Boaz, thumbing his way around the world, has some memorable encounters, notably with a homosexual lorry-driver who represents "the triumph of whoring over pimping", and with a coasting trader who navigates by memory but can't tell the time…. Mr. Hoban excels in the clash of the physical and metaphysical. He is a master of the calculated use of bathos. Even in the climax of his story he allows himself, most effectively, a sudden switch to broad comedy. It is some measure of his success that, remembering with gratitude these gay and wry touches, the reader does not forget the lion who answered the call of a distant world and for whom "there were no maps, no places, no time".
"Father and Son," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1973; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3706, March 16, 1973, p. 285.
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Once one is acclimatized to [Hoban's] mannerisms—a blend of conscious advertising and journalistic jargon and highly quirky use of words, and to his personification of inanimate objects—[Kleinzeit] flows freely….
It will be noted that Mr. Hoban has solved the problem facing all "medical" novelists. Instead of cluttering up his pages with baffling technical terms, he invents his own as he goes along….
It is a measure of Mr. Hoban's talent that [the frolics he depicts], some of them childish and not to all tastes, contribute to the serious impact of his novel. He is a master of the significantly trivial…. The action is worked out by Kleinzeit, Sister and the doctors, but also by personifications: Hospital, who welcomes Kleinzeit not only as a patient but as a lover, Death with dirty finger-nails, Word whose proud boast is that he "employs God", Pain, not a single being but a whole Company roaring on motorcycles in pursuit of Kleinzeit, and God, a modest and considerate soul—"Don't expect me to be human, said God."…
This strange novel, seeming at first diffuse and confusing, reveals itself as a masterly piece of economy, a mosaic in which each tiny fragment of wit or dirt or profundity has its appointed place.
"In Jugular Vein," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1974; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3760, March 29, 1974, p. 345.
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[Riddley Walker] is extraordinary. It is not 'like' anything, though John Gardner in Grendel and William Golding in The Inheritors ventured tentatively down Riddley Walker's road—but backwards. For this story is about the distant future, several centuries after England has suffered a major nuclear attack. Reading and writing skills have been lost for hundreds of years and are only now beginning again; the story is written by Riddley, who is only 12 but a 'connection man', a seer who interprets the government puppet show. Language survived only orally and has mutated in strange ways; the new English in which the book is written is a shock….
At first, one seems to be reading gibberish, but having suddenly grasped that the 'Ardship of Cambry' is the Archbishop of Canterbury, one goes on to deduce the derivation of 'Pry Mincer', and of those long-ago technocrats, the 'Puter Leat' [computer elite]; one can interpret, as the singers cannot, their magic nonsense rhymes about 'Galack Seas', the 'nebyul eye' and 'party cools'. This makes one feel mighty clever, which is not really to be clever at all, since 'clevver' is the word they use for our own era of destructive technology. Riddley knows that before that, in primitive times, men had another, instinctual wisdom….
There are some quite arbitrary cultural survivals which become sacred—a Punch and Judy fit-up with the traditional patter, an image of the Green Man (the inexplicable foliate head of mediaeval sculpture), and the legend of St Eustace and the stag…. [After] 100 pages or so of Riddley's English, our own looks baroque and exotic, and one feels daftly clevver at being able to read it so fluently. Riddley's wise friend gives a dottily surreal interpretation of this text, with the bluffing pedantry of a modern biblical scholar. But from it the formula for causing an explosion is deduced, since 'Theres all ways some kynd of clevverness waiting somers near or far its all ways waiting to happen its all ways waiting for some I to bring it down on the res of us.'
There is a lot more in this book—a search for a meaning to existence ('the idea of us'), and much to be deduced by us doomed clevvers about perception and innate knowledge. There are in Riddley Walker, too, a lot of clevver linguistic jokes, and whimsicality, theology, true originality, and a terrifying imaginative projection. It will be a cult book, and not a mere nine days' wonder. It's here to stay.
Victoria Glendinning, "The 1 Big 1" (© British Broadcasting Corp., 1980; reprinted by permission of Victoria Glendinning), in The Listener, Vol. 104, No. 2685, October 30, 1980, p. 589.
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[The sub-literate narration in Riddley Walker] is initially painful for us fast readers and good spellers. But the heavy head-work required to decipher it is justified, in the long run by the unexpected meanings that seep through the cracks when conventional orthography is fractured. Hoban the master wordsmith has fun with the remnants of our administrative system … and with the terminology of science….
While engaged on this elaborate invention, Hoban wrote an introduction to Grimms Tales in which he expounded the ideas that [Riddley Walker] seeks to embody. Thus, domestic unity encompasses human existence. The myths that are in us prove our affinity with the cycle of the collective mind, illustrate the cosmic pattern, the infinite rhythm, of which our destinies are a part. "All of us have been, all of us are, everything."
Unfortunately, when a metaphysican casts his net over the whole of human consciousness, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, and returns in triumph to share what he has caught, he appears to everyone but himself to be empty handed. The secret is incommunicable; the revelation void. So, in this creation, despite wonderful energy, an intricate structure, poignant characters, and a compelling landscape the message, of survival through renunciation …, cannot escape bathos.
Marion Glastonbury, "Incommunicable Secrets," in The Times Educational Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Educational Supplement by permission), No. 3358, October 31, 1980, p. 22.
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Riddley Walker, as the name suggests, is a novel which courts obscurity. Perhaps twenty years as a successful children's writer has taught Russell Hoban that our capacity to respond to the bizarre does not atrophy with age. Here he tells the story of a twelve-year-old "connexion man" interpreting puppet shows in the year 2347 o.c. ("Our Count") while the topography remains (just) recognizably that of East Kent.
Hoban's confidence in our ability to accept the strange allows him to tackle a problem which most futuristic writers evade. This is the recognition that total change, whether it be to post-holocaust desolation, as here, or to Utopian socialism, must involve a modification of consciousness which will be reflected in, and then structured by, our use of language. His solution is to imagine how language would evolve—or rather decay—in a disrupted society. Only the showmen and their interpreters are literate, and since words are heard rather than read spelling follows pronunciation, multisyllabic forms are broken, and prose rhythms echo those of speech. The result is easy to follow once you can "hear" the language being spoken with a rural accent….
The significance of Hoban's bold experiment is that the concepts embedded in language reveal the history and ruling principles of a society and the way these are internalized by individuals. Here, grafted on to the earthy colloquialisms, is a corrupted computer jargon which provides the words for thought, "strapping the lates from what littl datter weve got we pirntow", while space imagery embodies religious yearning, and itinerant healers are described as "clinnicking and national healfing".
While the language expresses a nostalgia for an age of high technology, the roots of that language are lost to the people, who wrench a living from barren soil, hunting and gathering, farming, excavating old machinery for metal, shadowed by organized packs of killer dogs. Their existence is given a cultural as well as physical solidity. It has hereditary systems, "Big Men" and "telwomen", embryonic guilds of dyers and charcoal burners, formal transactions in "hash and rizlas", folk tales, rituals and children's games. In a horseless land where rumour precedes news, a remote government maintains control with the help of "hevvys" and the propaganda of touring puppet shows. It is Riddley's job, like that of his father before him, to interpret these "cow-shit shows" to his particular band.
Such a vividly created world cannot fail to capture the imagination. Unfortunately the setting is vastly more interesting than the feverish and portentous action which takes place there. Stung into revolt by the discovery of an ancient Punch figure (the original subversive, the old Adam), Riddley becomes caught up in a feud…. The struggle for power is synonymous with the search for Power, the old energy sources which were also the means of mass death. Eventually they discover only the "1 little 1" (gunpowder) and not the "I Big 1", but the cycle of destruction has started again.
The obscurity of plot, language, puppet-show symbolism, fable, rhyme and riddle is compounded towards the end of the novel by the hero's difficulties in interpreting the puzzles around him…. The riddles which he ponders are the central paradoxes of mystical religion…. [Although] a spiritual quest may involve wrestling with nuances of meaning, the repetitious circling becomes increasingly indulgent and out of control….
Most futuristic novelists provide allegories for today's society and some add metaphysics to their metaphors, presenting themselves as interpreters and prophets. Russell Hoban has such ambitions, projecting into the future a pessimistic contempt for the masses which is hardly balanced by the promise of mystic intuition for an artistic élite. The current taste for cabbalistic utterances combined with the novel's striking setting and ingenious language may win this prophet followers—perhaps we shall soon all be buying maps of Inland and exclaiming "Wel, scatter my datter!" But Riddley Walker is a far more effective and suggestive work when it depicts the plight of man in this world than when it attempts poetic restatements of eternal verities.
Jennifer Uglow, "Leavin the Worl Behynt," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1980; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4048, October 31, 1980, p. 1221.
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The first thing to be said about Russell Hoban's apocalyptic fable [Riddley Walker] is that it is compulsive reading. From the first words … you are immersed in a world that is total, maverick and disturbing—so much so that at times I was obliged to set the book aside and turn to some tried familiar favourite for assurance both literary and otherwise. It is strong stuff—and ambitious stuff, too: Russell Hoban is considering human nature, no less, and is not optimistic, to put it gently….
Now if there are two ingredients that would normally have me throw a book across the room after the second page they are future prediction and authorial messing around with language. Jabberwocky, to my mind, is of no literary interest whatsoever; and the novelist's concern is the human condition not prophecy (or historical reconstruction, for that matter, though best not to get involved in that argument, I suppose …). But the language of Riddley Walker is not Jabberwocky; it is a craftsmanlike shunt and twist of standard English which contrives at times a startling poetic power of its own and which is essential to the book's purposes in showing how memory itself is enshrined in speech, even distant and uncomprehended memory. The ghostly presence of organised society and technology survives in the decayed speech of these inhabitants of Inland…. And the matter of the book—for all its chilling supposition—is the human mind, its terrible and perhaps fatal duality, its capacity for salvation, its energy, its tragedy—"… that thing with no name looking out through our eye hoals."
They are mystical and credulous, these people. They have an oral religious myth which is preserved and re-enacted by travelling puppeteers and which is derived—distantly—from the legend of St. Eustace, itself apparently Russell Hoban's inspiration for the book. The enactment of the "Eusa Story" and the associated Punch and Judy dialogues show the author's extraordinary and maverick imaginative powers at their fullest stretch, it seems to me, since [Hoban's] The Mouse and his Child (the great children's book of the century, surely). Brilliant, allusive, disturbing, they interrupt the tempo of the narrative just sufficiently for the cryptic references and jingles to haunt the reader…. There is flight and pursuit, search and loss, question and answer. There is cruelty and superstition … and the sad dim awareness that the world once was otherwise and that there may be an inescapable cycle of things…. [Riddley Walker] is sui generis, its inspirations both particular and diverse, its references legion, its craft remarkable—contributing to a whole that is vivid, compelling and certainly unforgettable. No one should be put off by the language. Take it phonetically—hear the book rather than read it—and there is no problem; indeed, and extraordinarily, it carries a powerful resonance of its own so that phrases and passages remain in the mind long after the book is put down…. Comparisons are going to be made: Tolkien, even (heaven help us) Richard Adams. The construction of special worlds carries the risk of consignment to a kind of literary graveyard. I hope this book gets the respect and attention it deserves. (pp. 58-9)
Penelope Lively, "Books and Writers: Five of the Best," in Encounter (© 1981 by Encounter Ltd.), Vol. LVI, No. 1, June, 1981, pp. 53-9.∗
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Many readers on opening Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban's extraordinary combination of quest romance, science fiction, linguistic experiment, and theological speculation, may feel the same confusion as its narrator-hero. For Hoban's is a complex story, being largely about how we interpret language and understand ourselves, "what the idear of us myt be." Suffused with melancholy and wonder, beautifully written, Riddley Walker is a novel that people will be reading for a long, long time. (p. 1)
The most pervasive myth [in the novel] … is the sacred Eusa Story. Hoban dextrously transforms the Christian legend of St. Eustace—who was converted by a vision of Christ standing with arms outstretched between the antlers of a stag—into an allegory of atomic energy. (pp. 1, 14)
What is marvelous in all this is the way Hoban makes us experience the uncanny familiarity of this world, while also making it a strange and animistic place, where words almost have a life of their own…. Hoban achieves this power largely through the book's transcription of Riddley's speech, at once degenerate modern English and a supple, poetic tongue all its own, reminiscent of Anglo-Saxon in its rhetorical formality, rhythms and music….
This corrupt English, a language of compressed, unexpected power, gives the book its particular flavor and excitement….
[As the novel progresses, the] meanings accrue, causing every word to shine out ever more brightly in several directions. The reader learns and solves the riddles along with Riddley….
Just as Riddley seeks to make connections, to find meaning, so readers of Hoban's book must explore the layering of its words and events. Back and forth goes the hermeneutic circle—Riddley and reader, each questing through a forest of symbols…. (p. 14)
Michael Dirda, "Riddling Out a Canterbury Tale," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), June 7, 1981, pp. 1, 14.
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Intermittently "Riddley Walker" brings to mind books by several contemporary authors—Anthony Burgess's "The Clockwork Orange," John Gardner's "Grendel," the complete works of William Golding. But in vision and execution this is an exceptionally original work, and Russell Hoban is actually his own best source…. [He] has earned his living principally as an author of children's books (among them such classics as "Charlie the Tramp" and "Bread and Jam for Frances"), and the authority and ease with which he explores the interior of Riddley's pre-adolescence derive in part from this extended experience in imagining youthful minds. The theme of flight in this book is more complex than anything I'm aware of in Mr. Hoban's earlier novels, but his fictional studies of comic and romantic truancy in "Kleinzeit" … and "Turtle Diary" … are now clearly recognizable as preparations for the bolder experiment at hand.
The book has flaws, inevitably, chief among them its effort to turn Riddley Walker into a thinker. Spirited, generous, direct and incorruptible, a beacon in the surrounding waste, the lad nevertheless isn't persuasive as a sage on the use and abuse of power. Triumphs, though, far outnumber flaws. I was impressed not only by the invented lingo, but by the finely controlled irony of the whole—Riddley's masters' lunatic certainty that the recovery of greatness depends absolutely upon the reconstruction of the arts of violent destruction and propaganda. (The narrative climax of the book coincides with the reinvention of gunpowder.) To reanimate the giants who walked before the Apocalypse—ourselves—requires nothing less than the recreation of the instruments of a new Apocalypse. But of course.
Still more valuable, I think, is Russell Hoban's oblique but commanding summons to the reader to dwell anew on that within civilization which is separate from, opposite to, power and its appurtances, ravages, triumphs. "Riddley Walker" is in part a book about voids and absences—about, that is, the character of experience minus the sedimentation of values, minus all those patterns of meaning incised upon life over the centuries as a consequence of the human vision of standards, the human enthrallment with ideals. Whether one is watching the pointless, exhausting disinterment of the dead engine, or listening to a pseudo-learned contemporary of Riddley Walker's explaining, with heartbreaking ignorance and absurd confidence, the meaning of the phrase "the figure of the crucified Savior," one's mind repeatedly focuses on the nature and meaning of the vanished human achievement. Half the activity of reading the book is identifying the qualities lost. What's missing here, the sense of history? Yes—but also the idea of justice—and the ideal of peace—and the notion of esthetic pleasure—and the distinction between slavery and freedom—and…
"People crave to be kinder," said Brecht correctly. But the consequence of craving for a kinder world can be blindness to—contempt for—our existing moral and intellectual capital. Quietly and tellingly "Riddley Walker" chides such contempt, contradicting those voices of the extreme right and left whose response to talk of the death of civilization has become a defiant shout: "What civilization?" Its striking accomplishment is that, in the act of damning the madness of the power-obsessed, it brilliantly revivifies consciousness of the resources in our midst that comprise our real hope at the brink. "Riddley Walker" is haunting and fiercely imagined and—this matters most—intensely ponderable. (p. 25)
Benjamin DeMott, "2,000 Years after the Berstyn Fyr," in The New York Times, Section 7 (© 1981 by The New York Times Company, reprinted by permission), June 28, 1981, pp. 1, 25.
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Since Russell Hoban is an American—now settled in London—who has also written books for children, it seems natural enough that Riddley Walker should pick up where Huckleberry Finn leaves off…. The voices are very similar, at once young and knowing, innocent and disillusioned, the voices of survivors fumbling with a language they have never been formally taught.
Hoban, however, has transformed Huck in a minatory, contemporary way, much as William Golding, in Lord of the Flies, rewrote The Swiss Family Robinson. Riddley Walker is Huck Finn after an atomic disaster, mourning his jaunty self, stripped barer than he could ever have imagined, with no Judge Thatcher or Aunt Sally waiting in the wings to rescue him. He is also a creature of a distant and desolate future, though just how distant he himself does not know….
Hoban has said Riddley Walker took him five and a half years and went through fourteen drafts. It is easy to see why. The book is an artistic tour de force in every possible way and the language he has invented for it reflects with extraordinary precision both the narrator's understanding and the desolate landscape he moves through…. (p. 16)
Russell Hoban has transformed what might have been just another fantasy of the future into a novel of exceptional depth and originality. He has created a hero who, deprived of all other references, reads the world through his instincts, his imagination, his unconscious, without losing touch with his own reality or becoming either more or less than he is: a twelve-year-old who has become a man and is fighting to maintain his clarity and independence in a devastated land. He is also an orphan haunted by an unspecified sense of grief; the Iron Age he lives in is made even more desolate by the vague memory of what has been lost and will never be recovered, a civilization that had "boats in the air and picters on the wind."… Again and again, Hoban transforms Riddley's broken dialect into prose which reflects every tremor of his fierce and unanswerable world. It is an extraordinary achievement, comparable, in its way, to Huckleberry Finn itself. (p. 17)
A. Alvarez, "Past, Present & Future," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 18, November 19, 1981, pp. 16-18.∗
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Russell Hoban has made the unthinkable familiar ground. Riddley Walker concerns itself with a young hero, newly initiated as a soothsayer or "connection man" of his tribe, who dimly senses the greatness of past civilization, fears the spreading mania for tinkering pointlessly with explosive, mysterious compounds of charcoal, saltpeter and sulphur, and feels the tension of his times as tribes or "crowds" shift from a hunter-gatherer society to an agricultural one….
Hoban has used his considerable art to insure that we find his image of the future a cause for thought rather than incredulity. The logic of his world is such that, sad as it is, there is a pleasure in the invention of it, a wish to peep at different aspects never shown….
The force and beauty and awfulness of Hoban's creation is shattering. His cleverness in fabricating Riddley Walker's poor broken language as if believably descended from our own and giving it the crudeness and strength and fresh comeliness of Chaucerian English is equal to his courage in using that language to describe a time of bleakness unbearable to anyone who ever loved a book or happened on a formula with delight, glorified in the Earth's diversity of life (we notice all that are left are pigs, dogs, humans, chickens, crows: only unfastidious creatures have the run of this burnt planet)….
Hoban's novel restores the freshness of delight to language and the freshness of horror to the Earth's ruin. For both he should be congratulated and more to the point should be read. (p. 50)
Penelope Mesic, "Reviews: 'Riddley Walker'," in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: a magazine of science and public affairs (reprinted by permission of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: a magazine of science and public affairs; copyright © 1982 by the Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, Chicago, Il, 60637), Vol. 38, No. 6, June, 1982, pp. 49-50.