I was saddened to read of the death this week of Russell Hoban, the author of two of the most memorable, startlingly original works of fiction I’ve ever read: Riddley Walker and The Mouse and His Child.
Hoban was born in Philadelphia but lived for the last four decades in London; his later fiction was strongly influenced by English history and culture. (In the Acknowledgments to Riddley Walker he credits the novel’s genesis to his first visit to Canterbury Cathedral, on March 14, 1974. He began work on the novel exactly two months later; it took him five and a half years to complete.) As a young man Hoban worked as an advertising copywriter and illustrator, and the skills required for those jobs—word play, storytelling, visual acuity—surely helped shape his unique writing style.
The Mouse and His Child, published in 1967, may be the only children’s book in the English language with an epigraph by W.H. Auden. The story is archetypal: It’s Christmas, and a tramp rescues a broken and abandoned wind-up mouse-child pair from a trashcan. He sets them on a road, winds up the father, and issues a blessing: “Be tramps.” And that’s the last we hear from the tramp until the very end of the book. The rest of the novel tells of the mouse pair’s adventures as they seek to become “self-winding.” This being a fable, they meet an assortment of talking animals whose pronouncements are sometimes menacing, sometimes amusing, sometimes gnomic. (“‘Beaver plus Teeth times Gnaw times Time times Tree equals Treefall,’ said Muskrat.”)
With Riddley Walker (1980), we plunge into a darker, even more inventive world, several millennia in the future. Long ago, a nuclear holocaust devastated most of the planet, and the survivors have lost almost all knowledge of technology and culture. Do you ever wonder how English might look and sound a few thousand years from now? Here is the first sentence of the novel:
On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the last wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.
I wrote about Riddley Walker in an October 2006 post about the books I can’t forget:
Speculative, post-apocalyptic fiction generally leaves me cold, but Riddley Walker is sui generis. It’s set in the nuclear winter of some future England, where humans and dogs are enemies. Twelve-year-old Riddley, newly orphaned, undertakes a coming-of-age quest in which Punch and Judy puppet shows—one of the most ancient of Anglo-Saxon theatrical traditions—figure prominently. But it’s the language, not the plot, that sets this novel apart. In Hoban’s vision, and Riddley's first-person narrative, the English language has become as deconstructed as society itself; England is “Inland,” America is “Eusa,”and the Archbishop of Canterbury (whose office has somehow survived) is “the Ardship of Cambry.”
According to the Times obituary, Hoban’s final novel, Soonchild, will be published early next year.
In 2006, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Jim Higgins wrote an appreciation of Riddley Walker. He includes it in his obituary of Hoban, published in his “Recommended Reading” blog.
P.S. Yes, I know that Hoban is better known in some quarters as the author of the Frances books for young children. I haven’t read those books, but this lovely appreciation of them by Lawrence Downes makes me want to.