Russell Hoban, ‘Frances’ Author, Dies at 86
By BRUCE WEBER
Published: December 14, 2011
Russell Hoban, a prolific author who created Frances, a girl who appeared in the guise of a badger in seven books for children, and Riddley Walker, the eponymous narrator of a widely praised postapocalyptic novel for adults, died on Tuesday in London. He was 86.
His death was confirmed by his daughter Phoebe, who said that she was unsure of the exact cause but that her father had recently received a diagnosis of congestive heart failure.
Mr. Hoban had several distinct careers. Trained as an illustrator, he wrote copy for advertising agencies and produced paintings for books and magazines, including several for Sports Illustrated and for Time magazine. His illustrations included a portrait of Holden Caulfield, the fictional protagonist of J. D. Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye,” and cover portraits of Joan Baez and Jackie Gleason that the subjects, Mr. Hoban said, did not like.
He began writing children’s books in the late 1950s. His first, “What Does It Do and How Does It Work?,” featured Mr. Hoban’s own drawings of dump trucks, steam shovels and other heavy machinery. But he didn’t care for illustrating his own books, and his second title, “Bedtime for Frances,” a gentle tale about the delaying tactics of a child being sent off to bed, was illustrated by Garth Williams, with Frances as a furry little badger.
In the six Frances books that followed, including “A Baby Sister for Frances,” “A Birthday for Frances” and a poetry collection, “Egg Thoughts and Other Frances Songs,” the illustrator was Mr. Hoban’s wife, Lillian.
All told Mr. Hoban wrote more than 50 books for children of various ages, from tots to adolescents — including “The Story of Hester Mouse Who Became a Writer,” “What Happened When Jack and Daisy Tried to Fool the Tooth Fairies” and “The Mouse and His Child” — most of them before he turned his attention to writing adult fiction in the 1970s.
He proved to be a novelist with an expansive, eccentric imagination for language, for settings and for plot, a free melder of realism, psychological astuteness, historical research and science fiction. The Independent in London once referred to him as “the strangest writer in Britain.”
His “Turtle Diary” (1975) was about two lonely middle-aged people obsessed with freeing sea turtles from the zoo and returning them to the ocean. It was made into a 1985 movie with a screenplay by Harold Pinter, starring Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley.
In “Pilgermann” (1983), set during the during the 11th century, he gave a vividly violent account of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem by a castrated German Jew. In “The Medusa Frequency” (1987), set in contemporary London, he wrote of a blocked novelist who becomes obsessed with the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice by way of his encounter with a severed head that keeps resurfacing as various familiar objects — a cabbage, a football, a grapefruit.
By most critical accounts, Mr. Hoban’s greatest triumph was “Riddley Walker” (1980), which he set some 2,000 years in the future, in Canterbury, England. A nuclear holocaust has long ago decimated human civilization, and a mostly slave population labors in the thrall of an unseen band of rulers who are determined to unearth the long-buried detritus of their ancestors, hoping to find clues to the great secrets of the past — airplanes, for instance, or “boats in the ayr,” as they are called.
The narrator, Riddley, is a young renegade in flight from his enslavement. What many reviewers cited as the novel’s signal achievement, or at least its most apparent, was the invention of a language — “a worn-down, broken-apart kind of English,” Mr. Hoban called it — that reflected both the withered remains of a tongue no longer in use and the liveliness and creativity of the human need to name things. The government, for instance, might be referred to as “the Pry Mincer”; “plomercy” is diplomacy; “Ardship of Cambry” is the Archbishop of Canterbury; and, more vividly, atomic energy becomes “Littl Shynin Man the Addom.”
“Where we wer stanning you cud hear the sea beyont us in the dark,” Riddley says in a passage in which he describes ruins of a power plant. “Breaving and sying breaving and sying it wer like them machines wer breaving and sying in ther sleap.”
Most reviewers were dazzled by Mr. Hoban’s facility with sounds and spellings, his narrative command, his visual clarity and his sophisticated, eclectic sensibility.
“Set in a remote future and composed in an English nobody ever spoke or wrote, this short, swiftly paced tale juxtaposes preliterate fable and Beckettian wit, Boschian monstrosities and a hero with Huck Finn’s heart and charm, lighting by El Greco and jokes by Punch and Judy,” Benjamin DeMott wrote on the front page of The New York Times Book Review. “It is a wrenchingly vivid report on the texture of life after Doomsday.”
Russell Conwell Hoban was born in Lansdale, Pa., west of Trenton, N.J., and north of Philadelphia, on Feb. 4, 1925. His parents were Ukrainian immigrants who opened a newsstand in Philadelphia. His father, who died when Russell was 12, also worked as an advertising manager for The Jewish Daily Forward.
After high school he attended art school in Philadelphia and served in the Army in Europe during World War II, earning a Bronze Star. At his death he was awaiting publication of a new book, “Soonchild,” due early next year.
“Writing was my father’s life,” Phoebe Hoban said Wednesday, “and when he died he had done what he needed to do.”
Mr. Hoban had lived in London since 1969. His first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife, the former Gundula Ahl; their three sons, Jake, Ben and Wieland; four children from his first marriage to Lillian Aberman: three daughters, Phoebe, Esmé and Julia, and a son, Brom; and 13 grandchildren.
In “The Moment Under the Moment,” a 1992 collection of his writings, Mr. Hoban discussed his literary motivation.
“The most that a writer can do — and this is only rarely achieved — is to write in such a way that the reader finds himself in a place where the unwordable happens off the page,” he wrote. “Most of the time it doesn’t happen but trying for it is part of being the hunting-and-finding animal one is. This process is what I care about.”