Russell Hoban

News today that one of my favourite authors, Russell Hoban, has died at the age of 86, in London.

Hoban wrote many novels and children’s books, but the one I like best of all is Pilgermann, which he published in 1983. I have reread it countless times and it refuses to age, partly, I suppose, because it is an allegorical novel that follows the adventure of a Jew who, having got caught up in a pogrom because he was conducting an illicit affair with Sophia, a merchant’s wife, is castrated by the mob and left to die. While lying in the dirt he has a vision of Christ who instructs him to journey to Jerusalem, and it is the story of this voyage, and what happens when he gets to Antioch, that are the subject of the novel, a marvellous, witty and deeply profound meditation on Judaism, Christianity and Islam at the time of the Crusades, which includes, amongst other characters, the wonderful Bembel Rudzuk and Pilgermann’s own Death, a ribald figure who accompanies him for part of the journey.

Hoban was most famous for his chidren’s novel, The Mouse and His Child, and the post-apocalyptic Riddley Walker – the latter an extraordinary achievement written in a language Hoban made up specifically for the novel, a possible future English which has its own rhythm and cadence.

He has never stopped writing but I’m afraid I haven’t kept up with many of his more recent books. It was the ones I’ve mentioned as well as The Lion of Boaz Jaquin and Jaquin Boaz, and Kleinzeit which managed to enter the deepest parts of my psyche with their peculiar mythic style, as if they were no more than descriptions of other worlds that did, or had, or would exist, whose reputation had come down to us by word of mouth. My gratitude to Russell Hoban is immense.

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