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Tiny tiny giants

Back in 2002, I produced a review-essay for The New York Review of Science Fiction that covered four novels by Russell Hoban, Fremder, Mr Rinyo-Clacton’s Offer, Angelica’s Grotto and Amaryllis Night And Day. From correspondence and conversations I’ve had since then, this appears to be one of the very few critical essays on Hoban’s work that covers anything other than Riddley Walker. Now Riddley Walker is his masterpiece, make no mistake about that, and fully deserving of all the attention it receives. But it is also something of an anomaly in Hoban’s work, and his other books merit critical attention also.

Since Fremder, which ended a silence of roughly ten years, his novels have appeared at more or less annual intervals. They tend to get a respectable notice in the newspapers, and then disappear from view. Several times I’ve remarked upon reading a new novel only for another Hoban fan to declare they hadn’t even realized there was another book out. And several of the books have suffered the relative indignity of being issued as paperback originals. Someone doesn’t have a great deal of faith in the books.

I’ve often wondered about this strange Hoban-shaped silence. I’ve come to the conclusion that the problem is that all of his novels since Fremder have been sex comedies, often with rather outré sex. There’s homosexual rape in Mr Rinyo-Clacton’s Offer, Angelica’s Grotto is about a lonely old man obsessed by a pornographic web site, in the latest novel, Angelica Lost And Found, there is bestiality. These are not polite subjects for serious literature, particularly when the author is getting on a bit (Hoban will be 86 at the beginning of February); doesn’t this make him a dirty old man? Shouldn’t we therefore brush his works under the carpet?

It doesn’t help, either, that his novels tend to be fantasias. I choose that word carefully. There are two overtly science fictional novels in his oeuvre, Riddley Walker and Fremder, and there are two or three that are straightforwardly realist fictions, Turtle Diary, Angelica’s Grotto; but practically everything else is a contemporary realist novel with fantastic overtones. Dreams, stories, paintings and music become vital in prompting action, characters share dreams, step in and out of pictures, move in a perplexed but unquestioning way between realities. And these shifts in reality may be psychological (Angelica, in the latest novel, works her way through three different psychiatrists in the course of the novel) or they may be actual; but mostly they are both at once. It is that very indeterminacy that makes the books so fascinating, and that, I think, allows critics to dismiss them as lightweight genre work that doesn’t need serious attention.

The critics are wrong; Hoban’s work needs to be looked at more seriously, not as individual novels so much as a complex and interlinked body of work.


I couldn’t have known it at the time, but I was both wrong and right in my original assessment of those four Hoban novels. More and more as I look back I see that Fremder doesn’t belong in this group. It is a transitional novel (and easily the weakest he has written) that, except in some of the stylistic quirks common to every Hoban novel, does not belong either with the novels that went before or the ones that came after. Although Mr Rinyo-Clacton’s Offer is closer, in subject and approach, to the novels that have followed, I think it is still something of a transitional work.

I believe I was right, however, to see Angelica’s Grotto and Amaryllis Night And Day as being linked works, the dark and light of the same topic. What I couldn’t have realized is that these two books would be the starting point for a complex sequence of novels all of which are interlinked in some way by recurring characters, by theme, by affect. Every one of the seven novels written since Angelica’s Grotto appeared in 1999 links in some way to its neighbours.

The most recent novel, Angelica Lost And Found, makes the connections explicit in many ways. The title itself echoes both of the first two books in the sequence. Indeed, both Angelicas take their name from the character in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, a work which is, along with the paintings of Odilon Redon, one of the abiding obsessions that leaves its imprint on every one of these novels. But where the Angelica in Angelica’s Grotto is linked to the Redon painting of ‘Angelica and Rugggiero’, the Angelica in Angelica Lost And Found is linked to a different version of the same scene, ‘Ruggiero Saves Angelica’ by Girolamo da Carpi. Indeed, so sinuously do these artistic interpretations of Orlando Furioso weave their way through these books that they might, collectively, be taken as a reimagining of Ariosto’s original.

Ruggiero and Angelica by Odilon Redon
Ruggiero and Angelica by da Carpi

There are other links, small and subtle. One very minor character is named Strozzi, which calls to mind Hoban’s previous novel, My Tango With Barbara Strozzi, and later in the novel Lola, from Her Name Was Lola, has a walk-on part. But the links are mostly thematic. Hoban’s characters have a habit of running into each other in galleries (it happens, for example, in Amaryllis Night And Day, The Bat Tattoo and My Tango With Barbara Strozzi, and the central character in Angelica Lost And Found runs an art gallery), pictures come to haunt the characters (in Amaryllis Night And Day it is a painting by the central character, Peter Diggs, called ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ after a story by Oliver Onions, Barbara Strozzi was of course an artist herself, in Angelica Lost And Found two artists both paint versions of the same dreamscape, called ‘Tiny, Tiny Dancing Giants in the Dim Red Caverns of Sleep’). But in Linger Awhile Hoban took a step further in this direction, with a sexy movie starlet being raised from her celluloid existence into flesh and blood reality by a strange and hilarious act of alchemy. This notion is picked up again in Angelica Lost And Found, but transformed further: the hippogriff in Ariosto’s epic, as depicted in da Carpi’s painting, imagines himself into existence, and then sets out to discover a reincarnation of Angelica in the modern world, because the hippogriff, who calls himself Volatore, believes he is a far better lover of the woman than the wishy-washy Ruggiero.


And we keep coming back to Orlando Furioso. The sequence began with it in Angelica’s Grotto, and we return to it in Angelica Lost And Found, which I seem to be reading as the end of the sequence if only because of that sense of turning in a circle, of getting back to where we started from. But I’m not so sure about that. Circles, eternal returns, are a common if not a formal part of the structure of most of Hoban’s fictions. I say not formal, because he rarely ends a novel at the same geographic or emotional point he started, for all his love of repeated symbols he rarely has the same symbol cropping up as the start and end of a novel. Yet there is always a sense, as the pages of the novel run out, that this explains how we got here, that the novel isn’t so much reaching an end as starting again.

That said, therefore, I am confident of two things. The first is that Orlando Furioso will continue to infect Hoban’s imagination whether or not this particular sequence continues. The second is that the sequence may not have completed, the circle may not have turned; it is perfectly possible that when we read any future novel we will find that we are going around once more in yet another circle within the grand circle that is this sequence.

Yet the reincarnation (or perhaps I should say incarnation) of Volatore, also calls to mind elements of Hoban’s very first novel for adults, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz. Perhaps we are really talking about a yet grander sequence that encompasses all his adult novels? (Of the novels for children I have read only The Mouse and His Child, and again there is that sense of the incarnation of dreams that could place that novel also within the grand design.) More accurately, I suspect, we are talking about a series of stylistic and narrative devices to which Hoban returns naturally, without really thinking about it.

When I met him in the early 80s he told me two things about his writing habits. When he first wrote The Mouse and His Child he didn’t know how to write a novel, so he would lay his pages out across the floor of his room and run up and down the line to get a sense of the shape of his book. That is an approach that will favour short chapters (because longer chapters would mean too many pages consisting only of blocks of text, so running up and down would not give much sense of shape). And indeed all his books are short (the longest are probably Riddley Walker and its immediate successor, Pilgermann), and all are composed of short chapters. This late sequence is notable both for the number of chapters (Angelica Lost And Found has 71 in some 230 small pages) and the number of very short shapters (in Angelica Lost And Found 17 are less than a page long, there are two of no more than two lines). That gives a certain rhythm to the writing that is quite distinctive.

The second thing he told me was that he tends to write late at night in a room that is absolutely cluttered with paraphernalia (it was hard to see how he could even get to his writing desk) while listening to short wave radio or to massive tottering piles of CDs. Everything, the objects that clutter the room, the music he hears, finds its way into the work. That’s why his novels are peopled by characters who all have a peculiarly eclectic cultural taste. Everyone appreciates opera and quotes obscure pop lyrics at the same time.

But it is not just an overly rich cultural world that his characters inhabit. In Kleinzeit he first had objects speaking, nothing was silent, doors and manhole covers and trains all uttered recogniseable words and phrases. In that early novel it was a symptom of the character’s mental state, and no novel since then has been so filled with noise. Nevertheless, when for instance a character hears a train approaching, Hoban will never say: ‘X heard the train’ but always ‘the train said’. In his novels we are all part of an animate world, our senses have to be open to things from every possible source. It ties in with the importance of dreams in his novels, the more we open up to all experiences the more there is to discover.


Photo by chrisjohnbeckett

One of the things I often find it hard to remember is that Hoban is an American writer. That is, he is American, but all his novels were written after he moved to Britain in the 1960s, and the work is suffused with Britain. Riddley Walker is actually set in Kent, mostly in the area between Folkestone and Canterbury, I know several of the places that appear in that novel, just as you will find, on display not far from the altar in Canterbury Cathedral, the painting (another painting, but remember, Hoban was an illustrator before he became a writer) of the legend of St Eustace that is transformed into the legend of St Eusa in that novel. But most of the books are set in London.

Actually, not just London but a very specific area of west London. Every road mentioned in his novels is a real road, every route is one you can follow. Indeed his own home is recogniseable as the home of characters in several of his later novels. He is a very place-specific writer. What was unexpected in Amaryllis Night And Day was that it ended in America. Others in the sequence would do so also (Her Name was Lola, Come Dance With Me) but they were still primarily London novels.

Angelica Lost And Found, on the other hand, is a distinctly American novel. That is, apart from early scenes in Italy, it is set exclusively in San Francisco. There is something slightly odd about this: Volatore turns out to have the ability to occupy the mind of a human male. When he first acquires reality, the first person he occupies is an Italian, Marco Renzetti, who immediately flies to San Francisco. What is odd is a curiously disingenuous comment in the Acknowledgements at the end of the novel:

‘Why San Francisco?’ you may ask. Well, when it turned out that Marco Renzetti was going there, Volatore had perforce to go along. I have never been to that city …

Which gives the impression that the author has no control over his fiction, but is, rather, dragged along by what even relatively minor characters choose to do. Though, to be honest, his novels have increasingly given the impression that that is exactly how they are written.

As to never having been to San Francisco, he still has to make the city as real as London. Which he does: the roads are real roads, the routes are real routes, some of the restaurants he mentions are real restaurants. (In the last chapter, real people who work at the El Paso Museum of Art where the da Carpi painting is held all appear as characters.) Of course, things like Google maps probably help in this, because Hoban seems to have been an early adapter for just about every bit of technology going; and if he uses a device, his characters do as well.

In other words, what is idiosyncratic about his novels is what is idiosyncratic about Russell Hoban. (So the sexual content of his books does, indeed, raise that uncomfortable image of the dirty old man.) But anyone who has learned to read criticism has learned to separate the fiction from the biography. Which makes Hoban a particularly tricky author to study.

Maybe that’s why I love his work so much.

11 thoughts on “Tiny tiny giants

  1. Hi Paul,

    I’m interested in the idea of eternal return and circles in Hoban’s work, and I wonder if you could point to more examples, especially to works, like Finnegans Wake and Dhalgren, that use it as a structural device, as well as to works that use the form more subtly, like Light in August and Of Mice and Men; and works like P. D. Ouspensky’s novel Strange Life of Ivan Osokin and Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being that investigate the idea.

    I haven’t read Robert Jordan’s fantasy series The Wheel of Time, but doesn’t eternal return play a large part in its world?

    1. Hi John,

      Well, there is, I suspect, a difference between the device of eternal return and the convenient narratological structure of bringing everything back to the starting point. (Or is there?) Something like Brian Aldiss’s massive Helliconia Trilogy is structured round a year, but the year is so long and the conditions so fierce that at the end everything is back where it was at the beginning.

      I was going to say that this structure seems particularly common in long works, as if you need the space to explore the circle. Then I remembered short stories like Isaac Asimov’s ‘Nightfall’, which only covers the point where everything collapses back to the beginning, but in so doing implies the whole circular structure.

      Actually, the more I think about it the more common this whole circular structure seems.

      1. Yes, Borges. I’ve just now given up looking for his Collected Fictions, which is lost somewhere in the house, the search itself probably giving the lie to the idea of eternal return.

        I’ll have to check out Aldiss’s books and the Asimov story. Feel free to list others as they come to mind, especially examples with an overt circular structure.

        1. There is, of course, the circular structure that David Mitchell often uses, in Ghostwritten for instance. There’s circularity also, structurally if not narratologically, in Cloud Atlas. And Black Swan Green uses the year as its structure, and ends with an image that recalls how the novel starts, both of which imply a circle though I think it is probably closer to a spiral.

  2. Several times I’ve remarked upon reading a new novel only for another Hoban fan to declare they hadn’t even realized there was another book out.

    Case in point… I didn’t have much time for the internet in the last few months and I completely missed the news. Thanks!

    Btw Paul I’d like to comment on your LJ from time to time but you’ve disabled the anonymous option. I suppose I’ll have to create an empty profile.

    Eternal Return of some sort – Red Shift and Thursbitch (really, most Alan Garner novels qualify in some way) and the latter has a circular structure.

    The next things that came to my mind are The Third Policeman, Kelly Link’s Lull, Ken Grimwood’s Replay, Heinlein’s All You Zombies, all of which present some form of circular structure and/or time loop, even if they don’t exactly reflect the historical/philosophical concept of E.R.

    1. The anonymous option should not have been disabled, but I’ve fixed it now.

      You’re right about Garner, Strandloper is a particular case in point.

      Mention of the Grimwood and Heinlein reminds me that most time travel stories have a circularity, the travellers nearly always wind up back where they started from. (This is also true of things like Star Trek, but that is a fundamental issue of the TV serial form.)

      There is also, of course, a structural/moral circularity in much crime fiction: an ordered universe, the disruption of the crime, the restoration of order in the solving of the crime.

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