Saturday, 17 December 2011


In all the fuss about Christopher Hitchen's death, the death of a far greater writer in the same week has passed almost without comment.

I refer to Russell Hoban.

Hoban was a highly skilled and highly original novelist and children's author.  His best known adult novel is probably Riddley Walker, a haunting post-apocalyptic dystopian novel, written in a fallen English with searing intensity and profound insights into the human condition.  Turtle Diary is a very gentle novel, made into a film with Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson, with a screenplay by Pinter (as an aside, I consider Pinter a far better screenwriter than playwright). Hoban's other novels are nearly always very rewarding, for his imaginative inventiveness and spare yet powerful use of language.  A few should have an X Certificate...

His children's books include the wonderful Frances stories, the anarchic Tom and Captain Najork books, the delightful Twenty-Elephant Restaurant, and the very quirky Big John Turkle, Charlie Meadows et al.  'Bleak Outlo' is regularly quoted here, along with many other Hobanesque phrases.  And then, of course, there was The Mouse and His Child, with the unforgettable Manny Rat.

I started with the claim that he was a greater writer than Hitchens.  That is not to say that I think Hitchens a poor writer: he was, at his best, very entertaining and engaging.  He was, of course, a man of strong prejudices and some very silly views; but as a writer, he knew his craft.

But I would stake a large wager that Hoban will be read and enjoyed by both adults and children  long after Hitchens is forgotten.

The BBC report (linked above) quotes a Guardian interview in which he suggested that death would be a "good career move".  He added: "People will say, 'yes, Hoban, he seems an interesting writer, let's look at him again'."

Which of them will have been more surprised to meet his Maker, I couldn't hazard a guess; but may God in His infinite goodness have mercy on both their souls, and may they rest in peace.

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