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Russell Hoban wrote books that blurred the line between fantasy and literature

December 14, 2011

One of the 20th century’s vast number of unjustly neglected novelists, Russell Hoban, died yesterday at age 86 — a development he foresaw with his customary wit as “a good career move.”

As the Guardian reports in an excellent if too-brief obit, Hoban told an interviewer in 2002 that his death would spur new reader attention.

“People will say, ‘yes, Hoban, he seems an interesting writer, let’s look at him again’,” he said.

Hoban is best known for his post-apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker, for which he invented a credible new English dialect. Anthony Burgess, who performed a similar feat in A Clockwork Orange, described Hoban’s book as “what literature is meant to be.”

The novel imagines life in Kent, England, 2,000 years after a nuclear war has destroyed world civilization. Riddley Walker lives in a sub-medieval society of bows-and-arrows, where wild dogs prey on people, and puppet shows have replaced religious services — previous church traditions have been lost.

Riddley Walker was published in 1980 to great fanfare, and now is considered a classic by literary and sci-fi critics alike. You can find an appreciation of Riddley Walker at NPR by the emerging American novelist John Wray, who writes the “voice of the novel, remarkable as it is, is only the most obvious of the narrative’s many charms.”

And Riddley Walker is only the most obvious of Hoban’s achievements. He was also a distinguished children’s author and illustrator, creator of the series about Francis the badger. His children’s novel The Mouse and His Child is considered a modern classic, according to the Guardian.

Hoban was born in Pennsylvania, but spent most of his adult life in England. He served in Italy during WW II, earning a Bronze Star “for bravery in action.” Back in the U.S. he found work as a freelance illustrator working with Time, Sports Illustrated and other magazines.

His first children’s book, What Does It Do and How Does It Work, came out in 1959. He wrote and/or illustrated many children’s books over the course of his life. His 16 adult novels include Pilgerman, The Medusa Factory, and Turtle Diary, which was made into a 1985 movie with a screenplay by Harold Pinter.

“If I am kept away from writing I become physically unwell,” Hoban told the Guardian in 2002. “It is art and the creation of art that sustains me. Things like Conrad’s Nostromo or Schubert’s Winterreise or Haydn’s Creation or paintings by Daumier make me feel it is a good thing to be part of the human race.”

Bill Swainson, Hoban’s publisher at Bloomsbury, praised the author’s “wonderful imagination.”

“In his last, Angelica Lost and Found, a hippogriff escapes from a painting and lands in San Francisco outside the window of a Jewish gallery owner who has just dumped her lover,” Swainson said. “Russell always wrote with with such a light touch – he always had fun, and made you think that there’s not a sentence wasted.”

That’s why now is a good time to make Hoban’s prophecy come true, and use the occasion of his death to discover his work, both the children’s books and the adult novels.

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