"Russell Hoban is our ur-novelist, a maverick voice that is like no other. He can take themes that seem too devastating for contemplation and turn them into allegories in which wry, sad humour is married to quite extraordinary powers of imagery and linguistic fertility that makes each book a linguistic departure." --Sunday Telegraph

Mr. Hoban
Mr. Hoban in the 70s

Who Is Russell Hoban,
and What's His Deal, Anyway?

An Introduction of Sorts,
by Dave Awl

Last updated: April 16, 2001

It's tempting, when describing Russell Hoban's work to someone who's never read him, to resort to comparative constructions like, "Well, if you combined Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula K. LeGuin and Milan Kundera in a blender, then tossed in Robert Graves for mythological savvy, with a dash of Joycean wordplay and a salting of Pythonesque humor..." You get the idea. But to compare Mr. Hoban to other writers is ultimately to miss the mark: the truth of the matter is that Russell Hoban is one of the most original writers of the twentieth century, in a century characterized by innovation.

Turtle Diary It's a testament to how diverse, varied and prolific his career has been—and also how fragmented his following—that almost everyone knows something of his work, but few are aware of the entire scope of it. You might talk to one person who grew up reading the Frances books, but didn't know that Russell Hoban wrote novels; someone else who read The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz or Riddley Walker in college, but had no idea there were any other Hoban novels; and a third person who saw and adored the film version of Turtle Diary, and didn't realize it started out as a novel. What these people all have in common is the joy awaiting them once they discover the rest of the Hoban canon.

It's certainly a shame that a writer as acclaimed as Russell Hoban—many of whose novels garnered front page raves in The New York Times Review of Books—has been relegated for many years to used-bookstore obscurity here in the U.S. (See Reviews, Commentary and Criticism.) In the last decade, many of his novels have been unavailable in the U.S., and some have even gone out of print in the U.K.—though the tide is starting to turn, thanks to the efforts of Indiana University Press in the U.S. and Bloomsbury Publishing in the U.K. This Web site began as my attempt to help—as Mr. Hoban himself wryly puts it—"haul him up out of the abyss of obscurity," by creating a resource to build awareness of and exchange information about some of the most thoughtful, amusing and compelling books you'll ever come across. And I'm proud to say that since this site was launched, there has been a Hoban resurgence of sorts: In the U.K., the fabulous Bloomsbury Publishing has brought out attractive, high-profile editions of Mr. Hoban's two most recent novels, to much acclaim; in the U.S., IU Press has published its Russell Hoban Omnibus, making a wide selection of his writing available again; and a thriving online community of passionate Hoban fans called The Kraken has sprung up, to discuss and promote the appreciation of his work. Perhaps the best news is that in the fall of 2001, the U.S. publication of Mr. Hoban's novel Angelica's Grotto will mark the first stateside release of a new Hoban novel since the late '80s.

Each of Mr. Hoban's novels is a unique creation, usually with a one-of-a-kind plot that will have your friends' jaws dropping when you describe it at a party. The head of Orpheus appears repeatedly to a comic book writer to tell its tale of woe, turning up as a head of cabbage in his fridge or a football kicked against his door (The Medusa Frequency); in a time when lions are extinct, a boy conjures up the ghost of a lion to pursue the father who abandoned him (The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz); two lonely, embittered souls meet at the zoo where they watch green sea turtles swimming peacefully in a tank, and hatch a scheme to return them to the ocean (Turtle Diary).

What makes Russell Hoban's writing so memorable, and creates passionate devotees of those lucky enough to discover his work, is his patented blend of droll, arch humor mixed with a surreal romanticism that elevates the reader into a realm of pure poetry. You encounter dry witticisms like: "In the morning I came awake as I always do, like a man trapped in a car going over a cliff" (The Medusa Frequency); or Neaera H.'s observation in Turtle Diary that "If I were to say that today's tomatoes were an index of the decline of Western man I should be thought a crank but nations do not, I think, ascend on such tomatoes." Then, mere sentences away, you encounter a rich sequence of surrealistic images, or a dizzying passage of philosophical epiphany, as when the head of Orpheus tells Herman Orff:

'My story is not a sequence of events like knots on a string,' said the head; 'I could have started with the loss of Eurydice and ended with the killing of the tortoise—all of it happens at once and it goes on happening; all of it is happening now and any part of it contains the whole of it, the pictures needn't be looked at in any particular order.'

'Why not?'

'Because the thing is simply what it is. Hold a pomegranate in your hand and tell me where is the beginning of it and where is the end. The name of this pomegranate is Loss; the loss of Eurydice was in me before I ever met her and the loss of me was in her the same.'

Again and again, Mr. Hoban gives his readers observations so precise and poetic you have to stop and copy them down in your notebook: "There is only one place, and that place is time," or "A story is what remains when you leave out most of the action," or "My despair has long since been ground up fine and is no more than the daily salt and pepper of my life." (See The Quotable Russell Hoban for a selection of these.)

Frances His children's books are the kind of enduring classics that are remembered fondly by adults who grew up on them decades ago; they still delight children today, while containing enough sly wit—and often, surprisingly sophisticated ideas—that they engage, enlighten and move the adults who pick them up as well.

If you're new to Russell Hoban, this web site will fill you in on his background and give you a guided tour of his work. If you're already a fan, it may introduce you to books or projects you haven't enountered yet, or help you locate something you've been searching for. So welcome to The Head of Orpheus—take a look around, and give a listen to the tales it has to tell.

Where can I find this fellow's books?


A Ceaseless Becoming: An appreciation of Russell Hoban by New Zealand-based fiction writer Chris Bell.

Back to The Head of Orpheus: a Russell Hoban Reference Page (home page).

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