Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Barrow Full of Rocks: Remembering Russell Hoban

I am finding it hard to be too downcast about the death of my favourite writer, Russell Hoban. Why? Because the days surrounding his passing have been so full of Hobanesque drama and apophenic events. It's hard to be sad when available evidence suggests the spirit of this great man is alive and well and thriving among us - somehow.

I first came across his work when I was preparing to fail my English A-Level (if you're one of my 1980s or 1990s employers, of course I actually passed it... honestly... that's why it's on my CV).

'Kleinzeit' was recommended to me by my tutor at Exeter College, along with Tolstoy's 'The Death Of Ivan Ilyich', as material guaranteed to get my whistle whetted while writing an extended essay on 'Death In The Novel'. I don't recall anything about the latter, but the former had me enthralled from the off. The lead character's warped distillation of life experience into one long battle of wits with symbolism and weirdness spoke to me. His personal exchanges with the 'A-to-B' of his illness, with 'Sister' with the London Underground and with yellow paper - that's yellow A4 paper - was fun and thought-provoking.

Further Hoban reading rewarded me with an incrementally deeper understanding of a surreal world that I believed I could sometimes glimpse - a world where words and sentences are infused in objects like blue veins, where the shimmering sheen of 'reality' only loosely covers the nebulous 'moment under the moment'. Entire cities, in Hoban's world, are given voice and soul - and there's a recurring melancholy for the purity of childish thought, too. His books for children, at least the ones which aren't mere animal stories, are sometimes enlightening and visionary. Secrets are in there; secrets that are too good to be kept among kids alone.

I continued to read Hoban through my teenage years, my twenties, my thirties and into my forties. Each new novel (and he was remarkably prolific of late for a poorly octogenarian) added something new to the great Hoban mix: I sometimes think his work is like one of those magic pictures made out of dots. Look at it long enough through defocussed eyes and a truer, surprise image will rise up before you.

I give this man much credit for helping me, and many others, to study this world in a different way. And on one level, what I suppose would be the metaphysical, it seems the universe has been determined to click 'like' on the great big Russell Hoban Facebook page in the sky ever since the man himself logged off for good, suddenly, last week.

First came an email from my mother, about a Russell Hoban Christmas book she was unable to find. On the day he died. Then followed a higher than usual count of 'FJ' numberplates on cars: which is my own potentially cuckoo barometer for symbolism in my waking life (hey, I *am* diagnosed mentally ill, so cut me some slack - OK?).

And then came the finest and funniest and most reassuring of all. Walking around the new secret weekend food market near my home, I came across a lovely antique wheelbarrow parked mysteriously against a railway arch - chock full of rocks. A barrow full of rocks. Morrows cruel mock. Arrow in a box. Harrows full of crock. A repetitive motif in 'Kleinzeit' is this little phrase, presumably misheard and replayed through the drugged and dying mind of the unfortunate Kleinzeit. A barrow full of rocks. Bzzzz.

It raised a smile on an otherwise wet day, the first weekend without a Russell Hoban on this earth.

I'm very sad that he has died, but I am also thankful to have known a piece of his mind through his work. And I will forever be grateful for the peculiar tint he has given my worldview spectacles.

So goodbye, Mr Hoban. And thank you.


  1. Just stumbled across this linked from the Russell Hoban Facebook page. Fantastic post. I also love Kleinzeit, although my first Hoban was The Medusa Frequency, which contains a few of the same motifs, and is equally highly recommended. Thanks again for this lovely piece of writing.

  2. Hi TC. Many apologies - only just seen your kind comment. Thank you very much! Medusa is a spectacular piece of work, isn't it? I must read it again sometime soon.

  3. Hi TC. Many apologies - only just seen your kind comment. Thank you very much! Medusa is a spectacular piece of work, isn't it? I must read it again sometime soon.