The Head of Orpheus: Russell Hoban

❉ We celebrate the life and work of legendary cult writer Russell Hoban, on what would have his 92nd birthday.

In his essay on writer’s block, Russell Hoban explains why he always wrote on yellow paper: specifically, 80-gram yellow A4 foolscap, “the kind of yellow the paper manufacturers call gold, and gold is what one is trying to refine the base metal of one’s thought into, isn’t it.” Hoban explains that yellow paper has less “word resistance” than blue, and white paper is strictly no go for him – “to intensify the blankness of a blank sheet by using white paper is to run to meet trouble considerably more than halfway”.

Was he altogether serious? Perhaps. Whatever alchemy he was cooking with, Hoban certainly magicked up more gold than most out of his base metal. Maybe you remember, as a child, enjoying the wry, charming picture books about Frances and her badger family, or perhaps the existential quest of ‘The Mouse and His Child’ (1967) from toyshop to rubbish dump, to become “self-winding” in the most meaningful sense? Beyond children’s books, Hoban is best known for ‘Riddley Walker’ (1980), a post-apocalyptic novel, fearlessly written in a post-apocalyptic language (“Our woal life is a idear we dint think of nor we dont know what it is”) that Anthony Burgess said everybody should read. But he published fifteen novels besides that, along with books of poetry, and a beautifully weird graphic novel, ‘Soonchild’, in 2011, the year he died.

The fact that Hoban is still awaiting discovery, by so many who would love his work, is the reason fans like me will be sending pieces of yellow A4 paper into the world (yellow foolscap, 80-gram, if we can get it) this February 4th, on what would have his 92nd birthday. The Slickman A4 Quotation Event is a tradition going back fifteen years, and if you’re lucky you may happen across one of those pages, with a favourite quotation, left on trees, lampposts and bookshelves; I sent some of Hoban’s words riding around the Central line of the London Underground last year, the Tube being a recurring image and icon in Hoban’s work, beginning with ‘Kleinzeit’ (1974), where it has its own voice (and that’s just for starters).

He was born in Philadelphia in 1925, but went to Britain in search of the London of ghost-stories, where he met his second wife, working in a bookshop. He writes about London with an outsider’s intuition for urban strangeness, and with a feeling of the city’s capacity for odd coincidences, drawing things and lonely people together in surprising narratives. In one of my favourite of his novels, two self-absorbed loners, a writer and a bookseller, each visit the aquarium at London Zoo, and independently get the idea to spring a pair of turtles free. What feels like a “meet cute” waiting to happen becomes something less straightforward, more illuminating. What does it really mean, he asks, to share an idea?

In ‘Amaryllis Night and Day’ (2001), Peter and his lover Amaryllis are even capable of literally visiting one another’s dreams, and it still doesn’t make things any easier. The unconscious, after all, is not to be taken lightly. Why do writers fear the blank page, in the first place? “Well, you never know what’s going to find its way on to it, do you,” he says, going on to invoke H.P. Lovecraft, and the dangers of conjuring up something out of the unknown spaces of the world. Behind every creative work is a reckoning with the blank page and the unconscious, “Thing-in-Itself”, or “the ungraspable isness of what is”.

Heady stuff. For me, though, Hoban’s great lift is his lack of pretentiousness. In this essay, and elsewhere in his work, Lovecraft is placed alongside Vermeer; writing, terror and beauty are all part of the same thing, as in Rilke, or King Kong. Hoban’s mood of hesitancy and the uncanny may be found in the English ghost story, but his laconic, plain-speaking, wry tone feels all-American, even Chandleresque. His novels are funny, his heroes are earthly and frequently hapless. When the protagonist of ‘The Medusa Frequency’ (1987) first has a conversation with the Head of Orpheus – the actual Head of Orpheus – it manifests before him as a talking cabbage in his fridge. Try as hard as he might, Paul Auster couldn’t write as deep or as deliberately anticlimactic as that.

Even in ‘Riddley Walker’, with its debt to the Nadsat of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ paid in full, with interest, where the very language has corroded and melted in the blast of something awful and awesome, where old folk tales have grown sharp new teeth and the Punch and Judy shows have a new cultural importance, Hoban avoids cynicism and looks for specks of wonder in the dirty world. Difficult at first, his invented language has an immersive power, and comes to feel somehow immediate, pungent and possible. The awful and awesome thing, if it is made at all, is man-made. It would be a particularly illuminating novel to reread in these scary times.

But as well as nuclear weapons, people make stories. “We make fiction because we are fiction,” he once wrote. “Because there was a time when something said, ‘What if there are people, hey? What if?’” Those are the words I’ll be sending out on my piece of yellow A4 paper this week, hoping for someone in the rainy city to happen across it in an authentically Hobanesque coincidence. Philosophical, melancholy, strange, cheerful, funny, the only kind of gold you need: I’ll be reading Hoban again for the umpteenth time on 4 February, and a long time after. I hope you’ll consider this an invitation to discover him too.


❉ Riddley Walker, among other titles, is available from in the UK Bloomsbury Publishing. In the US, Valancourt Books recently reissued three Hoban novels, including Kleinzeit. The Mouse and his Child is published by Faber & Faber. You can learn more about Hoban and the SA4QE tradition on http://www.russellhoban.org/

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