Russell Hoban RIP

Russell Hoban died this week: he was the author of Riddley Walker, one of the great post-apocalyptic novels of the last 30 years (along with The Road, The Kraken Wakes...what else?). I read Riddley Walker quite recently, and loved its rough Anglo-Saxon language, its mysticism, its vivid sense of a new Dark Ages, of a time when most knowledge and even basic literacy has been forgotten. Imagine living for centuries surrounded by reminders of a civilisation obviously far superior to yours. That's how people lived for centuries after the Roman Empire, and perhaps it's how we'll live again.
Here's an excerpt from the Guardian's obituary:

Riddley Walker established his extremely high reputation as a deeply original novelist. It is an enormously eloquent and demanding science-fiction tale set in the UK perhaps three millennia after a nuclear war has ended civilisation. The survivors inhabit what is often referred to by science-fiction critics as a "ruined earth", a ravaged, resource-poor, constantly threatened world whose inhabitants are unlikely to be literate, or long-lived.

It is a difficult world to portray, except sentimentally, or in terms of Grand Guignol. Hoban solves this problem by having his young protagonist tell his story, in his own words. The astonishment is in the words, a deeply ingenious and poetic representation of what English might actually sound like in such a world. The first sentence of the book has become famous: "On my naming day when I come 12 I to gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long before him nor I aint looking to see none agen." By the end of this novel the attentive reader dreams in that tongue.


Hoban was a short, compact man with a clear cold eye and a sometimes forgiving smile. He drank quite a bit, but there was never an embarrassment of self-exposure that acquaintances might marvel at. He was intensely sharp and seemed, as well, to be in control of his body, despite an array of illnesses. He enjoyed picnicking on Hampstead Heath, but one felt, seeing him gaze at the view across London, that what he saw was the end of the world.

And here is an excerpt from Riddley Walker, to give you a flavour of its weirdness:

Lorna said to me, 'You know Riddley theres some thing in us it dont have no name.'
I said, 'What thing is that?'
She said, 'Its some kind of thing it aint us but yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals. May be you dont take no noatis of it only some times. Say you get woak up suddn in the middl of the nite. 1 minim youre a sleap and the nex youre on your feet with a spear in your han. Wel it wernt you put that spear in your han it wer that other thing whats looking out thru your eye hoals. It aint you nor it don't even know your name. Its in us lorn and loan and sheltering how it can.'
I said, 'If its in every 1 of us theres moren 1 of it theres got to be a manying theres got to be a millying and mor.'
Lorna said, 'Wel there is a millying and mor.'
I said, 'Wel if theres such a manying of it whys it lorn then whys it loan?'
She said, 'Becaws the manying and the millying its all 1 thing it dont have nothing to gether with. You look at lykens on a stoan its all them tiny manyings of it and may be each part of it myt think its sepert only we can see its all 1 thing. Thats how it is with what we are its all 1 girt big thing and divvyt up amongst the many. Its all 1 girt thing bigger nor the worl and lorn and loan and oansome. Tremmering it is and feart. It puts us on like we put on our cloes. Some times we dont fit. Some times it cant fynd the arm hoals and it tears us a part.

LiteratureJules EvansComment