Saturday 7 November 2015

RIDDLEY WALKER by Russell Hoban .... by Adèle Geras

Followers of this blog will know how fond I am of cathedrals. I've written about them often enough, but this post is about something else. It was sparked, however, by a visit to Canterbury Cathedral. This was my first visit. Below is a photo showing towers against the kind of sky that goes with towers very well: full of slightly forbidding clouds. No one who's been here, or who saw the television programme about life in the Cathedral, can be in any doubt about its beauty and majesty and importance as the diocesan church of the Archbishop of Canterbury.  The memorial to Thomas à Becket is here, too.

But what the Cathedral brought to my mind more than anything was a book I read when it first came out in 1980.  Thinking about it since my visit, it occurred to me that the afterlife of books was  a strange thing. When I look back on  my reading youth, there are many writers whose work I used to love and who have almost disappeared from the literary landscape, swept away by a rising tide of the new, the whizzy, the fashionable, the prizewinning and so on. I'm thinking of writers like Charles Morgan, Pamela Hansford Johnson, C.P. Snow, Mazo de la Roche, Elizabeth Goudge , and others. Publishers like Persephone Books have rescued and given a new life to writers we might easily have forgotten, like Dorothy Whipple, who 's a particular favourite of mine, and Elizabeth Jenkins and Molly Panter-Downes and we must all be very grateful to them, because many writers  are unread  when their time in the limelight is past.

Russell Hoban is not one of these. He's remembered in certain quarters. His children's books, many illustrated by Quentin Blake, are loved by many. He wrote a book called THE MOUSE AND HIS CHILD which I think is a classic, though I'm not sure how many people these days know it or read it. And his adult books seem not to be at the top of anyone's agenda any longer. If you said his name at a dinner party, how many of the guests would have heard of him? I am not at all sure.

Because all of us who write on this blog are novelists, I think it's salutary to remind ourselves that our books will soon 'be one with Nineveh and Tyre'. It's a sobering thought, and I don't want to depress either myself or my fellow History Girls, but I do feel that  most of what most of us write will be forgotten.

Still, there is the upside. Some of what we've written may float to the surface, so to speak, in the distant future. Some History Girls in the 23rd century may come across our books and bring them back to a kind of life. It's in this spirit that I am doing my bit to preserve this wonderful novel. I would like it to be remembered.

Bloomsbury are to be congratulated on keeping in print one of Hoban's most interesting books: RIDDLEY WALKER. This edition, from 2012, has a good introduction by Will Self and glancing through the many enthusiastic reviews on Amazon, I can see that it's mainly the science fiction fans and fantasy buffs who love it. I read it, as I say, long ago and in 1986, I saw a production of it at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre with David Threlfall as Riddley which was completely brilliant. It seemed then  to be the kind of book which could never be adapted, but I suspect that nowadays, people are more likely to have seen RIDDLEY WALKER as a play. 

Back to Canterbury Cathedral. It was when I saw this painting of St Eustace (whose legend is a very strange tale indeed) that I was reminded of Hoban's amazing novel.

 This is  a detail of the painting above. I thought at once of RIDDLEY WALKER because the novel is deeply connected with the story of St Eustace.

 Here is a page from the book, taken at random. When I saw this weird hybrid language, my heart sank. I'd  known Hoban as the author of such novels as TURTLE DIARY and  KLEINZEIT. The latter was odd but marvellous and though it was surreal,  I managed to read it with no difficulty and loved it. It was written in English, which was a great plus as far as I was concerned. 

I must admit straight away that I am not a fantasy or science fiction fan. I do not like books about what happens after nuclear apocalypses. In general, I don't like books I have to decipher.  I opened RIDDLEY WALKER and almost closed it straight away. But I persisted because I was a Hoban fan and I felt that there must be something there. Plus, of course, it was being reviewed and fêted all over the place, back in the day and when I was young, I liked being up to speed with what was new.  I'm much less of a follower of fashion now that I'm older. So I deciphered the first page. Then I deciphered the second and on and on I went, drawn into Riddley's strange language, and his even stranger world. After a few pages, I was reading Riddley's tale with ease.

How to describe this book? How to persuade new readers to try it? It's a bit like THE ROAD, by Cormac McCarthy in that it's post -Apocalyptic. It's set in a world which is very different from ours but in which certain things from our world (Punch and Judy shows, most importantly) have acquired a significance we never gave them. It's set in what is recognisably Kent (there's even a map in the front of the novel) and the Cathedral and St Eustace and his legend are  of great importance. It's a book that's very hard to describe and it's not one that everyone will like, but it's full of humour and some of the sayings like "TRUBBA NOT" (don't worry) have become part of my personal vocabulary. I also like PRIME MINCER for Prime Minister. It's a book which a certain kind of teenager would adore, and did adore when it first appeared. I've written this post in order to draw some attention to it so that hopefully a whole new audience can share Riddley's adventures. And if anyone else out there is a fan, I'd be very happy to read your opinion of this dazzling novel in the comments.


catdownunder said...

I met Russell Hoban at a conference about children's literature many, many years ago in Exeter. I actually stayed on a short extra time after a year at university in the UK so I could attend the conference. It was a marvellous experience. He and Ted Hughes told ghost stories one night and most of us made sure we went back to our rooms in, at very least, pairs!
The Mouse and his Child is one of those books that all children should know.

Sally Prue said...

This is probably my first sighting of the word apocalypses: thank you, Adele. I must find out more about Hoban, now - and St Eustace, too.

Ben said...

Hoban was an extraordinary writer.

It is quite something to have written a classic children's novel (The Muose and His Child), a classic picture book series (the Francis books) and in Riddley Walker one of the finest adult novels of last 50 years or so. Few writers can boast such breadth.

Riddley Walker is a book I usually re-read every couple of years or so. Once when I was reading it on a London tube, I was stopped by a stranger who just wanted to enthuse loudly about the book - he was, I suspect, simply glad to have found someone else who admired it. Perhaps the novel does not have so many fans, but we're a dogged and loyal lot.

Ann Turnbull said...

I MUST read this book! Heard about it long ago, but for some reason never got around to it. And then, as you say, Adele, books disappear under all the new stuff. I loved The Mouse and his Child. And another one - Turtle Diary? I would also love to visit Canterbury Cathedral, but it's so far away now - should have seized the moment when I lived in Kent.

Susan Price said...

I'm off to look up the book. The Mouse and His Child is FANTASTIC!

Carol Drinkwater said...

I haven't seen the name Russell Hoban in a very long time and cannot even remember which of his I read. Maybe none. Maybe memory misleads me though I have the idea that when I was at drama school he was read quite widely. It is always good to celebrate past writers. When I was young everyone was reading Herman Hesse. Does anyone ever read him now? I thought he was brilliant. One could sit for hours going over those we used to read who have lost fashion. Thank you for this memory, Adele.

Ms. said...

I too read it when it first came out, though I was not at the time a Hoban fan, and I don't even recall what reference or person led me to it. I too struggled to catch on to the unique language and fairly soon did. I recall thinking it one of those books one ought to read in a concentrated single session. Since I couldn't do that, I usually reread the last bit before moving on each time. However, as much as I loved it then, I had little recall until you mentioned it here, and struck my rusty memory chord. I even think it might be in those boxes of books stacked in the closet in one of the many purges I've done over the decades I've lived here..SO,I went back to this review to refresh me some more

I think it might just be time to dig into those old boxes, or consult a librarian for easier access.

Lydia Syson said...

I saw that production at the Manchester Exchange too! David Threlfall was extraordinary, wasn't he?

Unknown said...

I was there too!