I woke this morning to hear news of the death of Russell Hoban at the age of 86. He was a unique writer, someone whose work I treasured, and I feel sad to think that I will never now have the chance to meet him in person.
The first book of his I read – by chance almost – was his 2002 novel The Bat Tattoo, and not since picking up Jonathan Carroll’s The Land of Laughs a couple of years earlier was I so immediately captured by a particular writer’s sensibility and vision.
He was an American who ‘got’ London, who loved the place and loved to write about it. Passing over the more obvious temptations towards ‘gritty urban reality’, he rather viewed our gloriously sprawling metropolis as a place without boundaries, a cathedral of the imagination. That he did this whilst remaining true to its earthly geography makes his achievement all the more magical. How many times, walking the route of one of his books, did I wriggle with delight to find that each street corner, each church, each shopfront was actually there? I’ve lost count. Russell Hoban first won recognition for Riddley Walker, but it will always be his later, London novels I love most dearly, that will continue to offer me inspiration and – remarkably often – an alternative insight into my own feelings.
His knowledge of music too was something I cherished. The classical recordings he talks about – in My Tango With Barbara Strozzi (my favourite), in Her Name Was Lola and everywhere elsewhere – were always actual CDs, their offerings evoked with the passionate enthusiasm of the true connoisseur. He never patronised his readers, he never name-dropped for effect or for the sake of it. He simply loved music, and wanted to talk about it. His closeness to the German language through his wife Gundel was another aspect of this, and yet one more reason I felt close to him.
Typically, he was not half so well known as he should have been within the literary establishment. He was one of those uncomfortable writers who defy definition, who was fearless and singular and utterly sincere. He paid the price for it.
While caught up in the world of The Bat Tattoo I found myself compelled to go and visit the Claudes in the National Gallery, The Embarkation of St Ursula in particular, so richly and lovingly described in that novel. Hoban writes about art with the same conviction as he writes about music, and I’ve had a reproduction of the painting in my work room ever since. For me, it will always be his sign, and I will continue to think of him each time I look at it.
Anyone who’s in the area this morning should grab themselves a bite to eat in Gabi’s deli on Charing Cross Road and celebrate the life and work of this most singular artist. I wish I was in London today.