Thursday, December 22, 2011

Much Missing Russell Hoban

Dec. 22, 2011

I am much missing Mr. Hoban. Just two remembrances of mine:

First is a Thank You to Professor Peter Neumeyer, still my friend, in whose first SDSU Children's Literature class in the then new (1978) field of study I was introduced to Russell Hoban's The Mouse and His Child. I read the first chapter glued to the prose: an author whose words--style, content, quirkiness-- were just perfect for me. I even remember where I was sitting in the classroom in Storm Hall that day. One of those intense moments only great art (and a few others things) can so impress on the mind.

I have been reading Russell Hoban ever since.... and he wrote a lot.

As he often commented, either you like Russell Hoban’s writing or you don't. The litmus test is whether you get not only through but really jaw-droppingly into the first chapter of Riddley Walker. Sometimes not: I gave a copy to a friend for her birthday and she gave it back to me for mine.

Russ' books made me laugh out loud, marvel, and notice fleeting moments and associations. He was 85 when he wrote his forthcoming Soonchild (Walker Books, March 2012), writing right up to the end, and it is one of his best. So, thank you, Russ, for leaving a library we can keep returning to as our lives change, since you wrote for toddlers as well as for philosophical, myth-minded, word-play-loving adults. What you wrote is deep and full of culture.

But, wait! Here's the other memory, without the context, just the nub. Russ and I were on Interstate 10 just passing Cabezon, California, 1991, on our way for one of his talks. We stopped for gas. Inside the snack shop, he spun the rack of SoCal postcards: booby, beautiful blonds; surfers; sunsets to die for; sandy beaches. The one he bought? It was a new slogan then: the post card just said "Shit Happens."

When Russ was at San Diego State, over 600 people came for his talk on his kids’ books. For hours he charmed us. He began by unwrapping the actual Mouse and His Child wind-up toy he had carried all the way from the U.K., along with Mr. Punch, a glossy reproduction of the St. Eustace wall from Canterbury Cathedral, many other props,and a bottle of scotch for me. For this audience, he read aloud the entire first chapter of The Mouse and His Child, the one I had loved long ago. And yes, my professor, and by then colleague, Peter Neumeyer was there, too.

Hoban liked words like “palimpsest” and “tawny.” He wrote passages of stunning lyrical beauty and, with his painter’s eye, envisioned scenes that were, in their scope, like palimpsets (the battle of the shrews in The Mouse and His Child; the Crusaders' battles in Pilgermann) . He used the music and art he surrounded himself with as the ins and outs of plot devices in his writing, glimpses of melodies intertwined characters. Voices from famous statues or manhole covers motivated protagonists. Orpheus reappeared; Eurydice, too. On the same page, Hoban could also time a joke with the best of them: one-liners straight from the Borscht Belt. Kleinzeit, Hermann Orff, Pilgermann, Fremder; these characters have a Jewish sensibility and a Yiddish sense of humor.

I hope a lot of people read Soonchild. Many of Hoban's novels focus on a father-son relationship; Soonchild is a father-daughter story. I hope a lot of people read The Mouse and His Child and Riddley Walker and Pilgermann and The Medusa Frequency and Turtle Diary and Fremder and so many more. And The Sea-Thing Child, the Marzipan Pig, the Frances books, How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen, The Dancing Tigers, Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas, Hester Mouse Who Became a Writer, Ponders, Monsters, and so many more. And “The Raven” and “The Man with the Dagger” and “Dark Oliver” and “The Ghost Horses of Genghis Khan” and so many more. Many of his best short stories and his intricate, rich essays are collected in The Moment under the Moment.

Russell Hoban affectionately called his fan club,The Kraken, with its on-line members from all around the world, "weirdos." Many Krakenites met in London to celebrate his 75th birthday, people who'd never met before drawn together on Hoban's frequency for three vivid days. We've been communicating a lot this last week and draw comfort from each other. The same people and many new ones will continue the growing global tradition of scattering A4 yellow paper (Russ’ favorite), covered with our favorite quotes from his 80+ books/stories/ and/essays, for weird people to encounter in places like classrooms, bookstores, hospitals, museums, park benches, computer screens, and the Underground.

We miss him.

Alida Allison

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