The American expatriate author Russell Hoban was the real deal, an utterly non-derivative talent who followed his own quirky muse from the children’s stories of his earlier career (including the excellent The Mouse and His Child, which I’ve described as a sunnier version of The Road, except it’s for kids, and it features mice, and it contains no apocalypse, catamites, cooked babies, etc.) to the challenging novels like Kleinzeit and Pilgermann and the magnificent Riddley Walker. Hoban died in 2011; from what I can tell, no one has yet written a biography of him, but I’d gladly read one (or, if I had that sort of ambition, write one). His life had just enough outward bustle, with service in World War II and a wrenching midlife divorce and migration to London, to provide background for an exploration into the intriguing interior life he pours out onto the page.
It’s typical of Hoban that he begins a novel entitled Turtle Diary with, not a turtle, but an octopus. One of the two narrators (actually diarists, both in their mid-40s), the divorced bookshop assistant William G., visits the London Zoo in a vain attempt to see an octopus after an unsettling dream — but once there, he ends up fascinated by a different inmate:
Sea turtles. Two or three hundred pounds the big ones must have weighed. Looping and swinging, flying in golden-green silty water in a grotty little tank no bigger than my room. Soaring, dipping and curving with flippers like wings in a glass box of second-hand ocean. Their eyes said nothing, the thousands of miles of ocean couldn’t be said.
Another lonely soul, Neaera H., is an author tired of writing children’s books about animals (Gillian Vole’s Jumble Sale, Delia Swallow’s Housewarming, etc.). She too is led to the zoo by an animal other than turtles, wanting to see oyster-catchers “[walking] with their heads down, looking as if they had hands clasped behind their backs like little European philosophers in yachting gear.” Slowly, elliptically, William and Neaera find each other, their preoccupations circling toward an impulse neither of them can quite explain or feel comfortable with: to free the sea turtles from the zoo back into the open ocean.
The story that follows is neither a tension-drenched jailbreak — the release of the turtles isn’t even the climax of the story, inasmuch as there is any climax at all — nor is it a romance between two lonely middle-aged people brought together by a noble cause. Instead it’s a study of humans trying to attain the dignity that animals seem to possess in just being, when just being as a human involves loss, loneliness, regret for missed opportunities and personal shortcomings, and too much being in one’s own head:
Green turtles must have the kind of mind that doesn’t think about sharks unless a shark is there. That must be how it is with them. I can’t believe they’d swim 1,400 miles thinking about sharks. Sea turtles can’t shut themselves up in their shells as land turtles do. Their shells are like tight bone vests and their flippers are always sticking out. Nothing they can do if a shark comes along. Pray. Ridiculous to think of a turtle praying with all those teeth coming up from below.
What liberation William and Neaera do eventually find feels earned and suitably modest, a cautiously negotiated truce with the melancholy inherent in human life. Hoban’s ability to so finely delineate the terms of that truce is what makes him a major artist.
- For its depiction of London loneliness, Turtle Diary rivals Patrick Hamilton’s fantastic 1947 novel The Slaves of Solitude, also available in an NYRB edition.
- Speaking of NYRB, their usual talent for cover selection deserts them here: the painting on the front shows tortoises, not turtles. It’s not a distinction I would normally notice but they clearly have legs rather than flippers.
- I often find front matter nowadays just depressing — witness Ed Park’s condescending introduction, with its weird mentions of Gillian Flynn, Eminem, and Twitter. Really, introductions are not what they used to be. But Park does point out what I also noticed during reading: this is really a book for people in their 40s. His description of it as “one of the great novels of middle age” is apt.
- The name Neaera is from Milton’s “Lycidas” — lines 64-69 are quoted:
Alas! What boots it with incessant care
To tend the homely slighted shepherd’s trade,
And strictly meditate the thankless Muse?
Were it not better done as others use,
To sport with Amaryllis in the shade,
Or with the tangles of Neaera’s hair?
According to my Norton Anthology of English Literature the names Amaryllis and Neaera are “conventional names for pretty shepherdesses.” Interesting that one of Hoban’s other novels is called Amaryllis Night and Day and features a character by that name.
- There’s a 1985 film version featuring Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley and written by Harold Pinter; it seems to be the only live-action film based on Hoban’s work (not counting the creditable second act of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome that borrows heavily from Riddley Walker). I quickly checked the journey-to-Polperro scene on YouTube, where the film’s available in its entirety. It’s probably well done for what it is but it doesn’t seem to capture the book very accurately — aside from lacking the texture of London in the 70s so skillfully evoked by Hoban, the scene has William and Neaera driving on the highway in the daytime, smiling and chatting in camaraderie, which is nothing like the night-time drive portrayed in the book. I’ll stick with Hoban’s version.