Is there a book that you’d run into a burning house to save? I think this might just be the one I’d choose. If I could have more, along with Middlemarch I’d probably choose Riddley Walker.
I go on writing short posts about this time of year, because Russell Hoban changed the way I think about the world. It started when I met him at a NATE Conference some time in the 1970s. Breakfast. He was smoking roll-ups, Old Holborn, and eating All-Bran, was Mr Hoban. He was fulminating about the teachers in his writers workshop who had asked if they could have a coffee break. “What do they think writing’s about…a leisure pursuit?”…I’m paraphrasing. He was wonderful company.
Will Self wrote a tribute to him in 2011, the year he died, the 25th anniversary of the publication of Riddley Walker, which I go on arguing is one of the great novels of the 20th C.
A few years ago, charged with writing a new introduction to a 25th-anniversary edition of Riddley Walker, I called the author, Russell Hoban, at his behest. A frail-sounding voice answered the phone, and when I explained who I was, Hoban fluted: “Would you mind calling back in half an hour or so? My wife and I are about to watch Sex and the City.” I put the receiver down chastened: here was a man in his 80s who had more joie de vivre than I could muster in hale middle age.
After I met him, I discovered The Mouse and his Child. I’ve read it dozens of times, often when life feels unbearably bleak. It never fails to relight your faith in the human condition and the power of hope combined with love and endurance. It’s a story of a quest for self-winding, undertaken by a clockwork mouse and his child. You’d think it would be twee and sentimental. It isn’t. It’s profound, layered. Magic realism doesn’t do it justice. It sits very comfortably (or uncomfortably) alongside Angela Carter’s The magic toyshop. Saved by a tramp from the dustbin (where they’ve been thrown after being broken by a cat) they’re sort-of-mended and wound up, set down on the road and left to find their destiny. Just buy it and read it. Your life will be better.
You may even find yourself, as we did, collecting wind-up toys and bringing them out every Christmas. You might even find yourself making special boxes for them. And writing poems. So here we are, taking down the Christmas tree and the angels and lights and tinsels, and maybe lighting a candle for Russell Hoban and for the Mouse and his Child. Happy New Year
lifted on the stroke of midnight
on some special Eve,
midsummer, say, or Christmas.
Then, it’s said that stones, or foxes,
trees, or owls can speak.
Or toys piled pell-mell in boxes
kept in lofts, in attic cupboards,
and things that hang in Christmas trees,
like fairies, snowmen, angels,
and wind-up clockwork toys.
What is it, do you think, they say
just once a year, just for one day?
The dark that lasts all year,
the silent dust that settlesclogs their tongues.
In truth, they’re mad as stones
and deaf as owls. They’re let to speak.
Have forgotten how, and what, to say;
stay silent till Twelfth Night
and then, once more, are put away.
(But actually, I do believe they are articulate, fluent, funny, wise and occasionally as cross as Russell Hoban could be. I believe they will become self-winding and live rich and loving lives)