Russell Hoban Hoban, Russell C(onwell) (Vol. 25) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Russell C(onwell) Hoban 1925–

American novelist.

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.)

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Victoria Glendinning

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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...

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Marion Glastonbury

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[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.

Jennifer Uglow

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Penelope Lively

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Dirda

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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A. Alvarez

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Penelope Mesic

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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