Quote #19

Riddley-WalkerCounting counting they wer all the time. They had iron then and big fire they had towns of parpety. They had machines et numbers up. They fed them numbers and they fractiont out the Power of things. They had the Nos. of the rain bow and the Power of the air all workit out with counting which is how they got boats in the air and picters on the wind. Counting clevverness is what it wer.

When they had all them things and marvelsome they cudnt sleap realy they dint have no res. They wer stressing ther self and straining all the time with counting. They said, ‘What good is nite its only dark time it aint no good for nothing only them as want to sly and sneak and take our parpety a way.’ They los out of memberment who nite wer. They jus wantit day time all the time and they wer going to do it with the Master Chaynjis.

They had the Nos. of the sun and moon all fractiont out and fed to the machines. They said, ‘Wewl put all the Nos. in to 1 Big 1 and that will be the No. of the Master Chaynjis.’ They bilt the Power Ring thats where you see the Ring Ditch now. They put in the 1 Big 1 and woosht it roun there come a flash of lite then bigger nor the woal worl and it ternt the nite to day. Then every thing gone black. Nothing only nite for years on end. Playgs kilt peopl off and naminals nor there wernt nothing growit in the groun. Man and woman starveling in the blackness looking for the dog to eat it and the dog out looking to eat them the same.

– Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker. Pretty much sums us up I guess.

Kingsnorth’s Wake and Its Predecessors

9781908717863This sounds pretty intriguing: a novel about Anglo-Saxon guerrillas fighting against their Norman conquerors in 11th-Century England, written in a sort of ersatz Old English. Adam Thorpe’s review of Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake makes the obvious comparison to the earthy, atavistic voice of the narrator in Russell Hoban’s post-apocalyptic masterpiece Riddley Walker. Thorpe’s review makes the protagonist of The Wake sound gratifyingly brutish and unreconstructed, and not nearly as quirkily sympathetic as the 14-year-old Riddley. But based on excerpts there’s quite a similar stylistic feel — Here’s Kingsnorth:

the night was clere though i slept i seen it. though i slept i seen the calm hierde naht only the still. when i gan down to sleep all was clere in the land and my dreams was full of stillness but my dreams did not cepe me still when i woc in the mergen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after and for all time.

And here’s Hoban:

The Bernt Arse pack ben follering jus out of bow shot. When the shout gone up ther ears all prickt up. Ther leader he wer a big black and red spottit dog he come forit a littl like he ben going to make a speach or some thing til 1 or 2 bloaks uppit bow then he slumpt back agen and kep his farness follering us back. I took noatis of that leader tho. He wernt close a nuff for me to see his eyes but I thot his eye bin on me.

Riddley-WalkerIt’ll be interesting to see if Kingsnorth’s novel is as much of a slippery, satisfying, off-kilter epic as Riddley Walker — a near impossibility, given Hoban’s slippery, satisfying, off-kilter genius.

Thorpe also compares The Wake to Alan Garner’s Red Shift, another great novel. Red Shift‘s most effective section (there are three eras of British history covered, with a mysterious connection between them) is Garner’s portrayal of a band of Roman soldiers trying to fight their way out of barbarian Britain. It’s a clear analogue to the Vietnam War, as well as to the UK’s own post-colonial police actions, and a murky, truly claustrophobic bit of work.

And, with reviewer’s prerogative, Thorpe also puts a word in for his own novel Ulverton, like Red Shift an episodic journey through the history of Britain. 1219123Ulverton is a fantastic novel as well (strangely, it’s right next to Riddley Walker on my bookshelves, though I’ve never consciously connected the two), covering three hundred years in the life of a fictional English town, each section written in a style reminiscent of the age. Thorpe takes a concept that could easily become a gimmick or a disjointed stylistic exercise and instead uses it to mount a classic exploration of the nature of social history.

I get the feeling The Wake might make a good Anglo-Saxon double-feature read with Nicola Griffith’s Hild — at some point later this year when my reading isn’t so goal-oriented I’m hoping I’ll get to them both.

Quote #5

“There are of course many men who walk in safe paths all their lives but they often seem a little apologetic, as if they think themselves not quite honorable. And there are others, quiet men, obscure, ungifted, who yet require satisfaction of some grim thing that ultimately kills them.”

– Russell Hoban, Turtle Diary. It’s really “ungifted” that makes the quote.

Turtle Diary

chelonia_mydasThe 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.

Turtle Diary Cover.inddAnother 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.

Stray observations:

  • 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.