11 minute read

Russell (Conwell) Hoban Biography

Nationality: American. Born: Lansdale, Pennsylvania, 1925. Education: Lansdale High School; Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art, 1941-43. Military Service: Served in the United States Army Infantry, 1943-45: Bronze Star. Career: Magazine and advertising agency artist and illustrator; story board artist, Fletcher Smith Film Studio, New York, 1951; television art director, Batten Barton Durstine and Osborn, 1951-56, and J. Walter Thompson, 1956, both in New York; freelance illustrator, 1956-65; advertising copywriter, Doyle Dane Bernbach, New York, 1965-67. Since 1967 full-time writer; since 1969 has lived in London. Awards: Christopher award, 1972; Whitbread award, 1974; Ditmar award (Australia), 1982; John W. Campbell Memorial award, 1982. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature, 1988. Agent: David Higham Associates Ltd., Golden Square, 5-8 Lower John Street, London W1R 4HA, England.



The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz. London, Cape, and NewYork, Stein and Day, 1973.

Kleinzeit. London, Cape, and New York, Viking Press, 1974.

Turtle Diary. London, Cape, 1975; New York, Random House, 1976.

Riddley Walker. London, Cape, and New York, Summit, 1980; expanded edition, with afterword, notes, and glossary by the author, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1998.

Pilgermann. London, Cape, and New York, Summit, 1983.

The Medusa Frequency. London, Cape, and New York, AtlanticMonthly Press, 1987.

The Moment under the Moment. London, Cape, 1992.

Fremder. London, Jonathan Cape, 1996.

Angelica's Grotto. London, Bloomsbury, 1999.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Schwartz," in Encounter (London), March 1990.

Fiction (for children)

Bedtime for Frances. New York, Harper, 1960; London, Faber, 1963.

Herman the Loser. New York, Harper, 1961; Kingswood, Surrey, World's Work, 1972.

The Song in My Drum. New York, Harper, 1962.

London Men and English Men. New York, Harper, 1962.

Some Snow Said Hello. New York, Harper, 1963.

The Sorely Trying Day. New York, Harper, 1964; Kingswood, Surrey, World's Work, 1965.

A Baby Sister for Frances. New York, Harper, 1964; London, Faber, 1965.

Bread and Jam for Frances. New York, Harper, 1964; London, Faber, 1966.

Nothing to Do. New York, Harper, 1964.

Tom and the Two Handles. New York, Harper, 1965; Kingswood, Surrey, World's Work, 1969.

The Story of Hester Mouse Who Became a Writer. New York, Norton, 1965; Kingswood, Surrey, World's Work, 1969.

What Happened When Jack and Daisy Tried to Fool the Tooth Fairies. New York, Four Winds Press, 1965.

Henry and the Monstrous Din. New York, Harper, 1966; Kingswood, Surrey, World's Work, 1967.

The Little Brute Family. New York, Macmillan, 1966.

Save My Place, with Lillian Hoban. New York, Norton, 1967.

Charlie the Tramp. New York, Four Winds Press, 1967.

The Mouse and His Child. New York, Harper, 1967; London, Faber, 1969.

A Birthday for Frances. New York, Harper, 1968; London, Faber, 1970.

The Stone Doll of Sister Brute. New York, Macmillan, and London, Collier Macmillan, 1968.

Harvey's Hideout. New York, Parents' Magazine Press, 1969; London, Cape, 1973.

Best Friends for Frances. New York, Harper, 1969; London, Faber, 1971.

The Mole Family's Christmas. New York, Parents' Magazine Press, 1969; London, Cape, 1973.

Ugly Bird. New York, Macmillan, 1969.

A Bargain for Frances. New York, Harper, 1970; Kingswood, Surrey, World's Work, 1971.

Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas. New York, Parents' MagazinePress, and Kingswood, Surrey, World's Work, 1971.

The Sea-Thing Child. New York, Harper, and London, Gollancz, 1972.

Letitia Rabbit's String Song. New York, Coward McCann, 1973.

How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen. New York, Atheneum, and London, Cape, 1974.

Ten What? A Mystery Counting Book. London, Cape, 1974; NewYork, Scribner, 1975.

Dinner at Alberta's. New York, Crowell, 1975; London, Cape, 1977.

Crocodile and Pierrot, with Sylvie Selig. London, Cape, 1975; NewYork, Scribner, 1977.

A Near Thing for Captain Najork. London, Cape, 1975; New York, Atheneum, 1976.

Arthur's New Power. New York, Crowell, 1978; London, Gollancz, 1980.

The Twenty-Elephant Restaurant. New York, Atheneum, 1978; London, Cape, 1980.

The Dancing Tigers. London, Cape, 1979.

La Corona and the Tin Frog. London, Cape, 1979.

Flat Cat. London, Methuen, and New York, Philomel, 1980.

Ace Dragon Ltd. London, Cape, 1980.

The Serpent Tower. London, Methuen, 1981.

The Great Fruit Gum Robbery. London, Methuen, 1981; as The Great Gumdrop Robbery, New York, Philomel, 1982.

They Came from Aargh! London, Methuen, and New York, Philomel, 1981.

The Battle of Zormla. London, Methuen, and New York, Philomel, 1982.

The Flight of Bembel Rudzuk. London, Methuen, and New York, Philomel, 1982.

Ponders (Jim Frog, Big John Turkle, Charlie Meadows, Lavinia Bat). London, Walker, and New York, Holt Rinehart, 4 vols., 1983-84; 1 vol. edition, London, Walker Books, 1988.

The Rain Door. London, Gollancz, 1986; New York, Crowell, 1987.

The Marzipan Pig. London, Cape, 1986; New York, Farrar Straus, 1987.

Monsters. London, Gollancz, and New York, Scholastic, 1989.

Jim Hedgehog's Supernatural Christmas. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1989; New York, Clarion, 1992.

Jim Hedgehog and the Lonesome Tower. London, Hamish Hamilton, 1990; New York, Clarion, 1992.

M.O.L.E. Much Overworked Little Earthmover, with Jan Pienkowski. London, Cape, 1993.

The Court of the Winged Serpent. London, Cape, 1994.

The Trokeville Way. New York, Knopf, 1996.

Trouble on Thunder Mountain. New York, Orchard Books, 1999.


The Carrier Frequency, with Impact Theatre Co-operative (producedLondon, 1984).

Riddley Walker, adaptation of his own novel (produced Manchester, 1986).

Some Episodes in the History of Miranda and Caliban (opera libretto), music by Helen Roe (produced London, 1990).

Television Plays:

Come and Find Me, 1980.

Poetry (for children)

Goodnight. New York, Norton, 1966; Kingswood, Surrey, World'sWork, 1969.

The Pedalling Man and Other Poems. New York, Norton, 1968;Kingswood, Surrey, World's Work, 1969.

Egg Thoughts and Other Frances Songs. New York, Harper, 1972;London, Faber, 1973.


The Second Mrs. Kong: An Opera in 2 Acts (libretto), music byHarrison Birtwistle. London, Universal Edition, 1994.

A Russell Hoban Omnibus. Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1999.

Russell Hoban: Forty Years: Essays on His Writings for Children, edited by Alida Allison. New York, Garland, 2000.

Other (for children)

What Does It Do and How Does It Work? Power Shovel, Dump Truck, and Other Heavy Machines. New York, Harper, 1959.

The Atomic Submarine: A Practice Combat Patrol under the Sea. New York, Harper, 1960.


Critical Studies:

Through the Narrow Gate: The Mythological Consciousness of Russell Hoban by Christine Wilkie, Rutherford, New Jersey, Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, and London, Associated University Presses, 1989.

* * *

Russell Hoban's novels for adults have a compelling strangeness made up of the most elusive aspects of myth, riddle, history, fantasy, philosophy, and humor. For many readers this is a deeply intriguing mixture which has made him something of a cult author. Drop the title of his most-discussed book, Riddley Walker, into any literary conversation and it will divide the group into three parties: the excited supporters who believe it to be one of the great underestimated novels of the 20th century, the bored opposition who didn't get past page six because it was "odd," and the remainder who've never heard of Russell Hoban. This last group is smaller since the success of the film Turtle Diary, which follows the bare plot of Hoban's third novel, but with scarcely a shadow of the book's power.

Turtle Diary is the most approachable of Hoban's works for readers familiar with the "realist" novel, although its structure is unusual. The first chapter is a kind of journal note by William G. who works in a London bookshop and whose deliberately limited life is metaphorically connected to the lives of the giant turtles he visits in the London Zoo. Chapter 2 is an apparently unrelated narration by Neaera H., an author of children's books, but now in a state of block about a water-beetle she had hoped would become a new character. As William and Neaera meet and join forces to free the turtles the parallel narration continues, creating two characters of powerful immediacy, and allowing the reader to know far more about them than either is willing to reveal to the other. Like all Hoban's major characters these two are seekers, looking for answers, or even the right questions, about the meaning of life. The starting point is often a sudden perception of the extraordinariness of the ordinary, whether it's the daily human routine or the world of landscape and natural objects.

Animals are often used by Hoban as metaphors, or totems, or familiars. Through them he questions reality and identity, Thing-in-Itself. What a turtle is to itself remains a riddle for Neaera and William. The lion in The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz, Hoban's first novel for adults, begins as a figure in a lion-hunt Boaz-Jachin sees carved in relief upon a tomb. It develops as a richly ambiguous image during his search for his father and the map of life his father has promised him. Like many other objects in the internal worlds of Hoban's narrators, the lion becomes increasingly "real," and moves into the external world with farcical, sad, moving, results. Although some of the black comedy, like the outrageously funny scene in the asylum, is similar to the surrealism of Samuel Beckett, the bleakness is always moderated in Hoban's work by a far more benign, optimistic view of the world than Beckett's. Love is possible, even probable, in Hoban's world, though it is always love with toughness, risk, and no certainties. Like life, it requires courage, hope, and a sense of humour.

Kleinzeit and The Medusa Frequency have hints of Beckett too, but also of Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, and "magic realism." Kleinzeit tells Ward Sister that his name means "hero" in German, but his rival explains that it really means "smalltime," and the unheroic hero, struggling with inner states which have become inseparable from outer, is often at the center of Hoban's novels. Gifts are given to Kleinzeit as he leaves the hospital with Ward Sister, "cured" of his "dismemberment," if not of the pains in his hypotenuse, diapason, and stretto. God gives the lovers a week free of electricity-strikes to start them off on their joint life, Hospital gives a week's postponement of Kleinzeit catching the flu, and Death gives Kleinzeit the power to draw with a calligraphy brush in "one fat sweep" of black ink, a perfect circle, symbol of harmony and completion. But although the symbols in Hoban's novels are often universal ones, and frequently have a classical source, like the recurrent Orpheus and Eurydice myth, their particular appearances are always full of wit and unexpected application. The Orpheus and Eurydice myth allows scope to some of Hoban's strongest interests, the need to love which has as its dark side the possibility of loss and death, the power of memory and history, and the urge to make sense of experience by remaking it in song, story, and art.

Hoban has fun with names and words in all his books, but Riddley Walker is, among other things, an extended examination of the connections between language and the world. The action is narrated by Riddley Walker himself in an extraordinary dialect, a cross between phonetic Cockney, mixed regional, and corrupted remnants of computer-speak, which succeeds brilliantly in suggesting the language of England over two thousand years after the "1 Big 1," a nuclear explosion around 1997 A.D. With no words for half the abstractions we take for granted, Riddley expresses ideas of religion, science, and art in terms of the practical things he knows, and the resulting metaphors are exhilarating. (In 1998—the real 1998—Hoban published an expanded edition of the book, including a glossary and explanatory notes.) The two parts of Riddley's name hint at the two aspects of his adventures, mental and physical, during the ten days after he earns manhood in his tribe. "Walker is my name and I am the same. Riddley Walker. Walking my riddles where ever they've took me and walking them now on this paper the same." One of the great pleasures of Hoban's novels lies in the participation demanded from the reader. In this novel the distant past of Riddley's society, known to him only from scraps of myth, song, and game, is the reader's twentieth-century present. There are continual shocks in the collision between our own and Riddley's view of events. A very funny scene satirizes "expert" interpretation of the past when Goodparley explains the meaning of a manuscript dating from the twentieth century.

Pilgermann, Hoban's most violent and disturbing novel, is an equally startling use of history to ask philosophical questions, but this time with a complexity of biblical and Islamic allusions. The pilgrim-hero is a Jew in the eleventh century, another of Hoban's seekers on whom the riddles of life suddenly force an imperative physical journey and metaphysical quest. Any answers come through connections demonstrated, not merely told.

Nick Hartley, the hero of The Trokeville Way, a novel for children, has a grown-up mind: he compares the object of his affection (an older girl, naturally) to a pre-Raphaelite painting, and has trouble fitting in with the world of children. Harold Klein of Angelica's Grotto also has problems adjusting, but his difficulties are much more serious, since he is seventy-two. Whereas Nick may be an art historian in the making, Harold is the genuine article. Obsessed by Gustav Klimt's nudes, he stumbles onto a titillating Web site called Angelica's Grotto, and enters into a complex relationship—first in cyberspace, then in real life—with the site's mistress, a feminist intellectual. "I'm on the edge of madness," Klein confesses. "On the other hand … I've got a lot of company."

—Jennifer Livett

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: James Heneghan (1930-) Biography - Personal to Rick Jacobson Biography - Personal