Saturday, 10 February 2001

Russell Hoban: A Reading and a Birthday

by Richard Cooper

(1)
I am the wall, Russ: A Reading
24 January 2001

The branch of Waterstone’s in Piccadilly Circus, London, prides itself on being the biggest bookshop in Europe. It’s not so much a building that King Kong might have climbed as a monster in itself. In the evening it’s a black six-storey monster with glowing red eyes, but on the inside there’s lots of light, and, most importantly, plenty of books. It’s a fatal place for me, both tantalising and terrifying: whenever I walk into it I feel that no matter how long I spend there, I’ll never get to the bottom of it – like Amaryllis says, “I don’t like Klein bottles, they make me feel like what’s the use.” And this is just from the point of view of someone who loves to read and buy books. As an aspiring writer, it fills me with an extra dimension of dread. It’s all been done, yawn the shelves at me as they groan under the weight of countless spines. Forget it, sucker! The world doesn’t need another book. Go and be a cheesemonger instead, there are more openings there. Paxton & Whitfield just around the corner are looking for staff...

Until a few years ago the shop was Simpson’s, an old and beautiful department store which always seemed to exist in a long-gone era in which everybody looked like Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant. The original lifts still ding decadently when they arrive at a floor, which can be irritating when you’re looking at books, but I understand the dings, along with the rest of the store, are under a preservation order and cannot be silenced. Anyway, there are so many stairs in the place that non-mountaineers wishing to really explore have to conspire in the dinging in the interests of survival. Especially if you’re there for an “event” – since all events at the store, such as tonight’s reading by Russell Hoban, happen on the top floor.

Dinging myself to the summit I presented myself at “The Emberton Room”, where a soft, curly woman said things were running a little behind and so I might like to have a drink in the bar one floor down. I took the stairs this time, stepping from bookshelves full of light into a busy but shady parallel universe where beautiful people languified with cigarettes and expensive drinks. Men were talking about business deals and women were talking about men. My orange juice was £2.50 but at least I got a black bendy straw. And what the hell, you don’t get to see Russell Hoban every day of the week.

The last time I’d seen him (and the first) was at a reading in Richmond Town Hall in November 1999, when he was promoting Angelica’s Grotto, and I wasn’t going to miss this second, rare chance to hear him read from his then-new book Amaryllis Night and Day. On the way back up from the bar I bought a copy of Turtle Diary. I already had one, but mine was a second-hand movie-tie-in paperback with a misprint on the back cover, and the new Bloomsbury reissue design matched that of The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz that I’d bought a few months earlier, so now I’d have the pair. The assistant slipped the book in a black plastic bag printed with “THINK SIDEWAYS!” – Edward de Bono in gold lettering.

The Emberton Room meanwhile was filling up nicely with people of all shapes, sizes and genders. A fat panorama of night and the city, office blocks and distant traffic sat itself down for the evening outside the windows. As a room, Emberton was fairly antiseptic, with forty or so neatly arranged foldable plastic chairs and an inexplicable décor of large framed colour photographs of sportspeople energetically pole-vaulting, canoeing and firing rifles. Upon later investigation, the photos were revealed to be for sale at £500 each (plus VAT). My ticket said that tonight would be a joint reading event, Hoban reading from Amaryllis and Justin Cartwright reciting from his new novel, Half in Love. At that time I hadn’t heard of Cartwright, although examination of a pile of his books revealed one familiar title, Masai Dreaming; it’s interesting how your ideas and your work can go ahead of your name in people’s imaginations. I arranged myself near the back, encumbered by overcoat, expensive drink and a rucksack full of books which I hoped later Russ would be able to autograph. I turned my mobile phone off, put it in my pocket, took it out again, made sure it was off, and put it in my pocket again.

The audience was a good range of ages, hairstyles and marital dispositions. It was fun to look around the audience and wonder who was here for Cartwright, and who for Hoban. Maybe some had turned up for the sportspeople, I had no idea. Someone was reading a newspaper: MANDELSON RESIGNS AGAIN, said the headline. A young woman sat down directly in front of me, and as I squinted through the blur of her bright pink hair a familiar figure appeared and sat down in the front row: flat satchel under one arm, tweed hat in big red hand, close-cropped hair smooth and white like the meringue on a lemon-meringue tart, his comfortable body – not, perhaps, unused to the occasional lemon-meringue tart itself – was wrapped in several layers of black clothes and a colourful knitted sleeveless cardigan. I’d say he looked a few days short of 76.

A Waterstone’s employee took the platform and welcomed us. Cartwright was on first. A tall, formal, well-spoken man in his late 40s, he gave us a bit of background on his novel, which ironically featured as its central character a cabinet minister enmeshed in a scandal – “Like our friend here,” he gestured to the newspaper headline. Obviously nervous, he read haltingly from a chapter near the beginning of the book, his dry delivery appropriate to the understated humour in the writing. But disappointingly, after about six minutes he said “That’s it,” closed his book to surprised applause, sat down with some relief and said almost nothing else for the rest of the evening. As Russ prepared to take the stand, I was hoping six minutes wasn’t some kind of contractual obligation; the tickets were only £2 each – the price, perhaps, of an orange juice without a black bendy straw – but surely we could hope for a bit longer than that? Furthermore, it did seem an odd pairing; Hoban is a famously unclassifiable writer, but you really couldn’t get two more different authors together at the same reading. They didn’t share a publisher; maybe they shared an agent? Or perhaps a hairdresser? “If these thoughts interest you for even a moment, you are lost,” as Leonard Cohen once said.

Russ, taken as much by surprise at Cartwright’s early bath as everyone else, flopped his hat onto his chair, produced a copy of Amaryllis from his satchel and stood behind the lectern. Cartwright being several inches taller than Hoban, the microphone he had used floated somewhere above Russ’s head. He ignored it. It looked funny. He was getting chuckles already. The Waterstonian host approached the stand to adjust the mike but Russ started speaking before he got there. “How’s the sound?” he asked. It was fine, so he carried on regardless. His copy of Amaryllis was marked in several places with red adhesive tabs. “I’ve timed this at eighteen minutes,” he said of his itinerary, and I sat back like the night outside the window, preparing myself to take in every word like a kid watching a much-awaited TV show in the days before videos were invented. He started on page one – as distinctive and vivid, and, as it was in the middle of a dream, as Hobanesque as any of his other page ones – and instantly Cartwright, and probably everybody else in the room, looked disorientated, interested and charmed in about equal measure. Russ has an unusual reading style, ending almost every sentence with a kind of gently surprised exclamation mark! On paper (or screen, even) this probably sounds irritating, but it was actually delightful, and given the increasingly surreal events described in the story, sounded perfectly reasonable!

Russ read the first few chapters in their entirety, and then some excerpts from later chapters; I remembered he did this with Angelica too at the Richmond reading. The audience soon got used to their disorientation, realising they weren’t necessarily going to find out where they were going in one sitting, but that with this charming, grandfatherly figure to guide them, this was not only not such a bad thing but actually great fun. The definitions of Klein bottles and Möbius strips were the funnier for Russ’s intonation, the bemused hero Peter Diggs walking around his strange dreamworld as lost – but also as unafraid – as we were. The line that got the most laughs was “Lenore, what does it feel like to be walking around in a name out of Edgar Allen Poe?” The reading finished tantalisingly at the end of the first real-life meeting between Peter and the beautiful Amaryllis, and Russ returned to his seat next to Cartwright to much applause.

Our gangly host thanked both writers and invited us to ask them questions. The audience went through the formality of responding with complete silence followed by embarrassed titters, until finally someone asked Russ, further to the Klein bottle references, whether he took a professional interest in science. “Not really,” he said. “My appreciation of science is a layman’s one, and my mathematical ability is almost zero. I just write about whatever I happen to be interested in at the time. My next project might be as much about, say, astronomy as Klein bottles.” The next questioner asked what it was between him and the name Klein. “Well,” he said to many chuckles, “my first novel was called Kleinzeit and the protagonist of my last novel was called Harold Klein. As for why this is, I don’t know… Kleinzeit means ‘smalltime’, and Klein means small, and I’m not a very big person myself, so maybe that has something to do with it.”

The next questioner asked Russ whether the “glims” in Amaryllis were inspired by his own dreams or whether he’d made them up. “I’m very glad you asked me that,” he said. “The dream in the opening chapter, about the bus made from bamboo and rice paper and lit from the inside, was a dream I had myself. The book was taking quite a long time to get started, and one night I had that dream and when I woke up I felt at last I had somewhere to go with it. The dream about the Brass Hotel which comes later in the book was also a real dream of mine.”

A nervous young woman from a few rows back then said to Russ she was interested in his idea about “the dance in the stone and the stone in the dance”, one of the many themes pervading his work which make cameo appearances in Amaryllis. “I’m sorry,” Russ said to the Waterstonian, “I left my hearing aid at home, could you translate?” He repeated the question. “Well, I’m an inveterate stone collector,” Hoban commented, “and when I hold a stone in my hand I just feel the vibration, the dance in that stone… it’s hard to explain, I just feel it.” He turned back to the questioner and said, “What is it about that that interests you?” There was a pause; she hadn’t expected Russell Hoban to ask her a question! “Er, I just liked the paradox,” she said. “Do you feel a sort of dance when you hold a stone?” he said, the audience warming to the conversation. “Yeeesss…” she said. “But I get that more from organic things.”

The next question was for Justin Cartwright. Slumped in the chair next to Russ, attentive to the proceedings but apparently forgotten, he was asked why he had chosen to read a single extract from one part of his novel while Russ had read bits from several different chapters. “I don’t know,” he said, “I was just asked to read for a few minutes, so I picked a chapter and read from it…” There were polite chuckles, but the disappointment that he didn’t seem very engaged by the evening was tangible. This could have been because of the interest that Russ’s appearance generated, and it did seem more like a Hoban gig with Cartwright as the support act, although I’m sure that wasn’t officially the case. Still, evidently the lack of questions directed to Cartwright had nothing to do with the audience’s lack of interest in him, since when the questions were over and we were invited to have the two authors sign copies of their books for us, the queue for Cartwright was just as long and appreciative as that for Russ.

I gathered up the Hoban collection I’d brought with me, including a nearly-finished copy of Amaryllis I’d bought a week earlier, and joined the queue. We moved slowly because everybody wanted to talk to Russ and ask him even more penetrating questions. It reminded me a little of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, the famous director repeatedly besieged by dedicated fans who all want a bit of him; I hoped I wouldn’t feel too nervous in his presence and ask him to autograph my left knee or something equally unsuitable. One man up ahead in a white raincoat seemed to be trying to book Russ into some major event. “The trouble is,” he said, rubbing his forehead anxiously, “that’s going to take two weeks out of my next novel that I’m trying to finish…” Another man in the queue was obviously also an established fan, carrying a hardback of Mr Rinyo-Clacton’s Offer and one of Russell’s children’s books. But the event had made him some new fans too. “I’m hooked, I’m hooked!” gushed a slender woman as she took a hot-off-the-press copy of Amaryllis from the pile and pressed it to Russ, which he autographed appreciatively.

Finally it was my turn. It was such a pleasure to see him again. “We met once before,” I said.

“At the Islington reading?”

“No, Richmond, just over a year ago.”

With a black felt pen in his huge red hands he worked his way through my well-used collection of his books, writing everything in capitals, autographing each of them RUSS HOBAN and adding a comment referencial to the story. I remembered he’d done this before in Richmond: BEST WISHES FROM YELLOW PAPER & ME, Kleinzeit had said; BEST WISHES FOR GOOD MOMENTS, said The Moment under The Moment. Now my prized hardback of The Medusa Frequency said BEST ORPHIC WISHES.

By now my head was full of deep questions about The Medusa Frequency, profound insights into the dance in the stone and bad puns like “Möbius stripteases”. But as the person who had recently volunteered to deliver Russ’s birthday present from The Kraken, I wanted to use the time I had with him to sound him out for gift ideas. Thankfully the number of books I’d brought with me bought me some extra minutes to speak to him. “Are you looking forward to your birthday?” I said. His response seemed the definitive image of happiness: all he did was raise his hands and laugh, but in that moment he was the happiest man in the world, still very much alive and still able to do exactly what he loved doing most. And, given the list of infirmities he had confessed at the Richmond reading he shared with Harold Klein, not just happy but incredulous. “I don’t believe it!” he said. “I just hope I make it.”

I handed him my copy of Riddley Walker and said it was a very moving book. “Thank you,” he said, “it certainly moved me when I wrote it.” He signed it AL BES FROM RUSS HOBAN.

“Er, I’m a member of The Kraken by the way,” I said uncertainly, like a spy whispering a code-word to a stranger to see if he’s on the same side. “We’d like to get you something for your birthday. I hear you like Scotch…”

“Yes, I received a very nice bottle of single malt from The Kraken last year,” he said.

“I heard it was MacAllan,” I said, “but I wondered if you’d prefer Glenfiddich, because all the characters in your books seem to drink it."

“Well, to be honest, I don’t drink much spirits,” he said, “but yes, when I do, it’s Glenfiddich.”

He took my second-hand copy of Turtle Diary and I showed him the misprint on the back cover, which had turned a quote from The Times describing him as “our ur-novelist” into the somewhat less flattering “un-novelist”. “Oh yes,” he chuckled darkly, “un-novelist. I had a word or two with them about that.”

The Glenfiddich, then, was confirmed, but The Kraken wanted to stretch to something else this year, although we had no idea what. What do you get a man like Russell Hoban for his birthday? His books are often so intimate, comfortable and humorous that you feel he’s a friend, and yet of course you don’t know the man himself the way his friends and family know him, so you can’t ask him directly, “What d’you fancy for your birthday, Russ?” – and being a modest person he’d probably feel awkward answering that anyway. (Or, being English, was I simply embarrassed to be so direct?) At 76 years old, and such a seemingly peaceful, contented and complete man, there must be hardly anything you can buy him that he hasn’t already got. For example, Piranesi crops up in Amaryllis, so a new Piranesi monograph I’d noticed downstairs could be a possibility. But was this one of his “certain obsessions” or just a passing reference? If so, there’d not be much point splashing out on the new book because he probably already had it. His cultural frame of reference is so wide that it appears he’d be equally appreciative of a Garbage CD, but just because he referred to the band in Angelica’s Grotto, being a cultural smartass and getting him the new Marilyn Manson album might feasibly not go down. Like he said, even he doesn’t know whether his next project will be about astronomy or Klein bottles. My mind went sort of long and wide under these conundrums. Maybe the best thing in such circumstances is to let the guy buy something for himself – but you can’t give Russell Hoban a Marks & Spencer’s token, can you?

Then again, I thought, there was always The Köln Concert, Keith Jarrett’s magnificent, classic 1974 double-album of solo jazz piano that for a long period in my life I’d played almost every day until the vinyl disintegrated. It’s such an evocative, inspirational and contemplative work, so full of different colours and textures and conveying so many emotions, that it suddenly struck me as the perfect choice – and he’d written a whole essay about another jazz piano genius, Thelonious Monk, in The Moment under The Moment. The only thing was, did he already have the record?

“Cole?” he said, cupping his fingers behind his ear.

“Köln,” I said, “K O L N.”

“Oh, Köln, Cologne, yes.”

“You know it?”

“I have two Keith Jarrett CDs, but I don’t recall that one,” he said.

“I think you’ll like it,” I said, quietly amazed to find I knew about a record that he didn’t. “Don’t go out and buy it, now!” I remonstrated.

“Oh – okay!” he said, faintly amused at being told off by a man fifty years his junior.

Finally, too soon, he got to the last book in my extensive pile, Amaryllis Night and Day. As he prepared to autograph it, I pointed out to him another misprint, this time in the list of his previously-published books. BY THE SAME AUTHOR, said the flyleaf, NOVELS: Mr Ringo-Clacton’s Offer. “A sort of subconscious Beatles reference?” I quipped.

“Ringo!” he read and burst out laughing.

I said goodbye, but he was already under siege from another fan who had sat down next to him with yet more books. I was reminded of a line from Angelica’s Grotto, “I’m being attacked by random metaphors.”

I looked in the flyleaf of Amaryllis as I put the books in my rucksack: GLIMMERS, FROM RUSS HOBAN, it said now.


(2)
Russ in Urbe: A Birthday
4 February 2001

I finished Amaryllis later that evening over a fiorentina at the Pizza Express by London Bridge. With the pizza I had another glass of orange juice; this one was £1.50 and there was more of it, plus there were bits of orange in it which more than made up for the lack of a black bendy straw.

I found Amaryllis a delight, deceptively dark as it is in parts. I felt the scenes with Lenore at Beachy Head and the turf maze were the best in it, although the long dialogues with Amaryllis in the pub were atmospheric and authentic, and the book is as transcendental as anything Russ has written, studded with tiny references and asides and parentheses that are a pleasure to rediscover on repeated readings. Generally though I felt it was quite a light read by Hoban standards. I fancied something more meaty to follow it and, having waited a couple of days out of reverence, I picked up Hannibal by Thomas Harris from my ever-growing pile of “things to read”. Meaty, this certainly turned out to be. Why did I feel ambivalent following Russ’s new book with such a heavy, gory, unashamedly commercial blockbuster? They were both beautifully written and compulsively readable; I hoped I could find some other common ground to make me feel less guilty about their juxtaposition.

I was almost certain I could hand-deliver Russ’s presents to the Hoban homestead, a short underground journey from my house, so allowing for postage time wasn’t an issue, and with only a few days left before Sunday 4th February I bought the Jarrett CD from my local HMV and went to my local off-licence to investigate Scotch whiskies. The manager, whom I know well, wasn’t there, having apparently been replaced for the evening by a new, French assistant I’d never seen before. “Do you have a big bottle of Glenfiddich?” I said.

“Glenfiddich, I’m not sure,” he said, examining the shelf several feet above our heads.

Neither of us could see one forthcoming. “Do you know if you’re getting any in?” I said.

“I don’t know, maybe next week.”

“Ah, that’ll be too late, it’s a present for someone.”

“If you write it down, I can ask the manager,” he said, and gave me a length of blank till-receipt paper to write on. I put 70CL GLENFIDDICH – RICHARD. That looked a little as if I were an alcoholic, and anyway it struck me that the manager probably wouldn’t know me as RICHARD or even as anything in particular, because we’d never actually referred to each other by name in the six years I’d been going into his shop. I added COOPER to RICHARD and then wrote my address too, followed by my phone number. I only lived two minutes’ walk away but I was going to be busy for a couple of days and he might want to ring. “How much will that be?” I said to the French guy.

“I think it’s the same as that one,” he said, pointing to a row of bottles of different prices.

“This one?”

“That one.”

“£21.99?”

“Yes.”

“And it’s in the same sort of presentation box as that one?” I knew nothing about whiskies and I wanted to double-check the Glenfiddich would come in a smart tubular box, not be an ordinary bottle like the Bell’s and Teacher’s on the shelf below.

“Like this one?”

“Any one,” I said.

“This one?” he said, taking down a bottle.

“Yes,” I nodded. He started ringing it up. “Sorry,” I said, “I don’t want to buy that one.”

“You don’t want this one?”

“No, I’d like the Glenfiddich.”

“I’ll go and find out when we’ll get some more in,” he said, and disappeared from the counter to the back of the shop. Presently he returned with the manager.

“Evening,” said the manager.

“Oh hi, I didn’t realise you were here,” I said.

“Glenfiddich you wanted?” he said.

“That’s right.”

“You were talking about MacAllan the other day,” he said. I had been; I’d made initial enquiries before the Waterstone’s reading. “I got some MacAllan in after you mentioned it.” Now I looked, I realised there were several bottles of MacAllan on the shelf.

“I know,” I said, feeling guilty again, “I thought that was the one I wanted, but I just found out the guy that it’s a present for drinks Glenfiddich.”

“That’s okay,” he said. “I can get some in on Saturday, is that all right?”

“That’s fine,” I said, “what time do you open, eleven?”

“Ten,” he said.

“I can get here for ten,” I said. I planned to get there early because, as I was working nights, I had to sleep for most of Saturday, but he didn’t know that, and now I really felt like an alcoholic.

“I won’t have it until lunchtime,” he said.

“I’ll come in in the evening,” I said.

As I went out the door the manager was saying to his assistant, “Who’s Richard Cooper?”

There were a few hours before I had to be at work and I decided I’d better write an email to Russ forewarning him of an impending Kraken appearance. I typed,

Hello Mr Hoban

This sounded a bit strange. Emails supposedly make communication less formal, but a letter’s a letter. “Dear Mr Hoban” sounded a bit too formal, though. Dear Russell? Dear Russ? Hi? Yo? How’s it hangin’, Herman? Nothing seemed to fit. “Hello Mr Hoban” it stayed, if for no other reason than that if I couldn’t get past the salutation this evening then Russ wouldn’t get the email before Christmas, let alone his birthday. I wrote on,

At last week’s event I mentioned to you that the members of The Kraken had collaborated to get you something to celebrate your birthday this Sunday in recognition of our respect and love for your work. Dave Awl, Kraken-in-Chief and webmaster of the “Head of Orpheus” website, recommended I approach you in traditional electronic fashion with the following enquiry.

As you know, the members of The Kraken are scattered all over the world, and so being one of the few who live in London I volunteered to buy your gifts on their behalf and arrange for them to be delivered to you.

Since I live a short Tube ride away from Fulham, I was hoping it would be possible for me to drop by at your home with the gifts, if not on Sunday itself (no doubt you have other arrangements on your birthday) then some time within the next week, entirely dependent on the best time for you.

I am working nights until and including Monday 5th, and therefore sleeping most of the daytime each day until then, but I could drop the gifts by either one morning on my way home (sometime between 8.30 and 9.30am) or any time from about 6pm on my way to work. If it is more convenient I can call anytime during the day or evening from Tuesday next week onwards. Monday is likely to be difficult for me because of the Tube strike but any other day would be fine.

It would of course be a fleeting visit, as I have no intention of interrupting your work or imposing on you, but I will understand if you are not able to greet me at the door, and this being the case I will just leave your gifts on your doorstep.

It was both very entertaining and nourishing to hear you read and speak to you again last week, and I'm sure all members of The Kraken join me in hoping that your new novel is going as swimmingly as the head of Orpheus up the Thames.

The drop-off arrangements seemed over-complicated but the night work I did at that time was a killer and no matter how much sleep I got the previous day, working through the night made me twice as tired as working during normal hours, to the extent that trying to mix a night’s work with normal daytime activities was far harder than staying up late at night after doing a normal day's work. Still, it's a hard day's night, as Mr Ringo-Clacton once said. I was at pains to make it clear that on one hand I wasn’t available all the time, whilst on the other realising I was effectively inviting myself round to his house, which obviously had to be at a time convenient to him. My mind turned into a Klein bottle again: was I going up my own arse? Thinking of that word Klein, as I approached the Tube for the ride to work I wondered if I should have suggested to Russ that he perhaps work a Calvin Klein theme into his next novel. Maybe he could get a good sponsorship deal going? A free pair of unisex boxer shorts with click here to enter printed on them with every copy of Angelica’s Grotto? Maybe I was taking the Klein motif too far. And I still couldn’t see any connection between Amaryllis and Hannibal.

Russ replied to my email on the Saturday, the day before his birthday. It was a bit surreal seeing his name in the “From” list on my email program. It said,

Dear Richard,

Thanks for your message. If you stop by on Sunday between 11:00 and 12:00 I should be able to greet you at the door.

Best wishes,

Russ

Between 11 and 12! Normally I was in bed by 9am. Could I stay up an extra couple of hours in the morning, or would I collapse, exhausted? Of course I could manage it. This was Russell Hoban, for chrissakes. I emailed him back saying I’d be there at 11 but if he woke up feeling like a man falling over a cliff, or like Harold Klein on a bad day, he should ring me on my mobile phone and we’d reschedule.

I wrapped the Glenfiddich and Jarrett CD from The Kraken, and then a personal gift of two Leonard Cohen CDs, Songs of Leonard Cohen and More Greatest Hits. I had no idea whether he’d like them, but I guessed he’d appreciate the sublime lyrics, and the early, acoustic album should be undistracting enough to play while he was in the throes of composition, if he felt that way inkleined. But this aspect of my mission was a personal one more than anything else: Hoban and Cohen are perhaps an unlikely pair, but to my imagination they are two towering figures of influence and inspiration. Anyway, I’d sent Cohen a copy of The Medusa Frequency for his birthday last year, and while I’ve no idea if he ever received it, I’m a sucker for symmetry.

My rucksack was heavy that night, what with Hannibal as well as Glenfiddich and various CDs. As I approached the end of the Harris novel I was amazed that there did at last appear to be a slim connection between it and Amaryllis. Hannibal Lecter’s victim-turned-nemesis Mason Verger keeps an eel in a tank in his dingy room; like the Redon canvas in Angelica’s Grotto, the eel is there right from the beginning of the story and pops up darkly at regular intervals without appearing to have a significant role to play. Because it’s always there, you forget about it, and you hardly expect it to have a practical use for either the characters or the writer. But, suffice to say that the eel gets his fifteen minutes of fame. The main connection though is that the eel is described at one point as “swimming in a Möbius eight”. Blimey, I thought, they’re all at it. Maybe I should send Thomas Harris a copy of Amaryllis Night and Day? Then again, maybe not.

Saturday night passed slowly, and eventually the rain rose in a deep blue Sunday morning, rendering it steel-grey. Although I’d finished my work by seven, it wasn’t so difficult for me to “stay up early”, sustained by web-surfing, chocolate biscuits and the sheer excitement of visiting Russell Hoban. But when I actually stood up and walked down Borough High Street to London Bridge station, the extra hours began to hang from me like lead weights. Bugger this, I thought, I wouldn’t do it for anyone else!

I got to Fulham Broadway station, so accurately described in several Hoban books as “hangar-like” and “full of lift”, half an hour before the arranged time. It was wet, cold, empty and lonesome. WANT TO AVOID THE FOOTBALL CROWDS? said a sign, giving dates for Chelsea home games. Two good-looking black girls handed out leaflets to passers-by at the entrance to the station. I tried to wait there for a bit and sit out the rain, ticking off in my head a list of Hoban characters who lived in the area, from William G to Peter Diggs. But my feet were too itchy to hang around for long, rain or no rain, and I headed in the general direction of Russ’s house.

Fulham Road seemed grey and crumbly. Protected by overcoat and umbrella, I tried to find a café that was open but even when I found one I decided against it, suspecting that if I sat down I might not get up again. I killed time with a circuit of Eelbrook Common, described so beautifully in the essay Pan Lives from The Moment under The Moment. A man in a red anorak was walking two very moist and curly dogs and a couple of blue-anoraked children without dogs were playing football. I located Russ’s house but I was still too early, so I went round the park one more time, feeling my legs begin to tremble. My legs always give out first when I’m really tired or hungry, shortly followed by my head; other parts of my body then drop off gradually.

Suddenly I was hit on the back of the head by something bouncy. Sproing sproing, it said. “Pass us the ball!” said the children. I looked down and on the grass there was this hideous head with only one eye and all the flesh rotting off it.

“I know you from somewhere,” I said to it. “What are you doing here?”

“I’m not really here,” said the head. “Let’s be realistic, I’m a hallucination.”

“You seem pretty real to me,” I said.

“That’s because you’re sleep-deprived,” said the head. “Anyway, never mind about me, what are you doing this far into this ridiculous account and you still haven’t even got to Hoban’s house yet?”

“Will you tell me your story?” I said.

“Are you sure you want to hear it?” it said.

“Are you kidding? I’d love to hear it.”

“I’ll ask you a second time,” it said, “are you sure you want to hear my story?”

“Look, I know the routine, I’ve read the book. Yes, yes and thrice yes.”

“I have to ask you formally three times if you want to hear my story,” said the head, “and if you say yes three times then I have to tell it. Now, do you – ”

“Don’t talk to it, kick it!” said a small boy as he ran over and picked up his football.

“Oi, what’re you doing?” I said. “That’s not a football, that’s the Head of Orpheus. Bring it back.”

“Bloody weirdo,” the boy said, or thereabouts, and ran off.

I must say I was disappointed. Herman Orff wasn’t even looking for the Head of Orpheus but he got to hear its story and no mistake. After years of looking for it along the muddy paths of the Thames during terrible periods of Blighter’s Rock and failing miserably, finally I find it, but when I ask it to tell me its story it gets dribbled away by a young Dennis Wise. Story of my life.

By now it was eleven o’clock. At last! I took a deep breath and approached chez Russ, a large but unostentatious three storey Victorian terraced house in a quiet residential road. My knees shuddered again: would I be able to make it, or would the police later pick me up for falling asleep on a park bench nursing a bottle of Glenfiddich and a Thomas Harris novel? I couldn’t have got this far only to fail right on the verge of completing my mission on behalf of an international organisation. I was The Kraken’s agent, everything depended on my knees. What if I collapsed in my host’s hallway? Would I come round to a vision of Gundel waving a bottle of balsamic vinegar under my nose?

I rang the brass bell. Nothing happened for some moments. I hoped Russ wasn’t still in bed. Maybe he never received my return email. I closed my umbrella and blinked in the rain. The door creaked open. “Good morning, Richard,” said Russell Hoban from inside a dark, narrow hallway. “Come in.”

I woke up immediately. “Thank you,” I said, squeezing past a bicycle and some bookshelves. “It’s your kind of day out there!”

“It certainly is!”

The hall carpet was red and very soft. The hallway led up to a flight of stairs and down to a bright room which I guessed was a kitchen. To the left was an open door to what I assumed to be the sitting room. Russ, framed by the doorway, beckoned me inside. “Do you want a coffee?” he said, “take the cold out of your hands?”

“No, honestly, don’t go to any trouble,” I said, and started rummaging for the gifts. I was trying to juggle rucksack, wet umbrella, Scotch and CDs, and one or more of these had to go either on the floor, or to Russ. Somehow he ended up with the umbrella. “Sorry,” I said, squirming.

“That’s okay,” he said, and we did a swap, umbrella for whisky. “Oh, this is very kind... What else could this be but a bottle of Glenfiddich?” he said, lifting his glasses to examine the tubular parcel. “Come in, take off your coat. You sit down there,” he said, motioning to a particular armchair directly beneath an anglepoise lamp, which glared at me like a Gestapo interrogation, and opposite a large Sony TV.

This room I’d presumed was the lounge was nothing of the sort. I had, for some reason, imagined a beautiful reception room full of light, with a marble fireplace, a sumptuous leather three-piece suite, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves lined with elegant monographs, and Gundel Hoban languishing on a chaise-longue reading a vast German novel and eating continental confections; I’d imagined Russ would open his gifts there, and maybe, just maybe invite me upstairs into his study for a few moments. But I realised with awe that I was already standing in Russ’s work room. It took my breath away. You couldn’t call it a study, it was about six times the size of a regular domestic study. It was dark, soft, and very comfortable in a cluttered sort of way. I had the overwhelming feeling that I’d come home. The only thing I had been right about were the bookshelves: there were bookshelves all around the walls, like an old library, except these held as many videos and ornaments as books. The head of Mr Punch fixed me with an unremitting stare from one of them. In the centre of the room stood more shelves filled with videos. DO NOT WALK INTO THESE SHELVES, said a handwritten yellow-paper note stuck on them, THEY ARE AN ILLUSION. Or it might have been THEY ARE NOT AN ILLUSION, I can never be sure.

On the few feet of visible floor space were overlapping scatter rugs of various colours and patterns. Soft Cuban jazz floated through the room like smoke from a Havana. Russell pulled up a stool to sit opposite me and produced an elaborate pen-knife to carefully slit open the wrappings. His hands were those of a much younger man. His gaze was firm and critical but his eyes softened as he ran his fingers over the handsome black and red bottle of Glenfiddich, its peaty colours fitting into the atmosphere of the room perfectly. As he opened the CD he said, “I’ve never heard this, and I love Keith Jarrett. I prefer instrumental music... I can’t take words, you know, when I’m writing.”

“This is a nice record,” I said, indicating the air.

Russ went to the hi-fi on the other side of the room and held up a CD case – Sublime Illusion by Eliades Ochoa. “I like all the Buena Vista Social Club records,” he smiled, “Ry Cooder and all those guys.”

I was staggered. Russell Hoban had heard of Ry Cooder! One of my own personal guitar heroes! Of course, it made sense: if Russ had been a guitarist rather than (or maybe as well as) a writer, the veteran Cooder would have made an album with him years ago.

“I guess it’s easier to write with foreign language songs playing,” I said. “Er, I mean, I’m not saying you don’t speak Spanish, but – ”

“That’s all right, I don’t! This is all very kind,” he said.

“You’re welcome. And this is from me,” I said, handing him my gift.

“Ah, this is great,” he said. “I haven’t got any Leonard Cohen, and I know he’s a very good songwriter.” He lifted his spectacles and brought the CD case almost to the end of his nose to read it. “I know Suzanne, of course…”

“Leonard Cohen celebrated his 66th birthday just a few months ago,” I said.

“Well, he’s young yet!” chuckled Russ.

“Have you had any other presents?” I asked.

“I got one from my son Jake, and a cake this morning from Gundel. The others haven’t arrived yet…”

“Have you been up long?” I said. “Are you working this morning? I hope I haven’t got you up early on a Sunday…”

“No, I’ve been up since eight,” he said. “I’m working on my National Gallery address. Come over here, I’ll show you.”

He padded past the shelves that may or may not have been real and over to his desk, at right angles to the bay window which gave onto the street. “I used to have my desk right under the window,” he said, “and I’d wave to people as they walked past. But they didn’t like that, you know? So I moved further inside…”

On the long, wide desk was a PC, a flatbed scanner, a laserjet printer, and a stack of well-worn black hi-fi separates. Several printed sheets of yellow paper were scattered around. The rainy light crept over everything, and despite the hour another anglepoise lamp shone over the monitor, giving the impression that in this room it was permanently three o’clock in the morning. “I’ve got the flying toasters here saving my screen,” said Russ as he sat down in a castered, swivelling office chair. On the monitor, silver two-slice toasters, their flame-like wings gracefully flapping, floated diagonally down through blackness.

“I’m a big toast fan myself,” I said approvingly.

He nudged his mouse and the screen opened to reveal a classical-looking painting featuring three or four semi-naked women in a rustic setting, pink bottoms facing us. “This is The Judgment of Paris by Rubens,” he said.

“Oh, yeah,” I said, trying not to sound too lecherous. “They were great, the Rubens bottoms.” I mean, I’m not an art expert, but I know a good bottom when I see one. The name Rubens almost sounds like a bottom itself.

“I’ve got the entire National Gallery collection on CD ROM,” he said, “and I’m switching between that and writing my address.”

I looked around the room, trying to take it all in. If I’d been there all day I couldn’t list everything that was in it. The desk faced a wooden mantlepiece over which hung posters of King Kong and the Vermeer Girl. The right third of the wall was blank, eight blobs of Blu-Tack in the space where another image had been and gone. “What was in the gap?” I said.

“Oh, a poster I was given years ago by Jake,” he said. “I keep forgetting to put it back up.” He got up and went round the illusory bookshelves and squeezed between the back of the desk and the mantlepiece. “Let me see if I can do this without crippling myself…”

“Oh, don’t do that, please,” I said. “The Kraken would never forgive me.”

He bent down and produced a poster of an old Guinness advert with a toucan and carefully wedged it between various ornaments on the mantelpiece – including the Meissen girl – for refixing properly later. I went to help him juggle everything. At the other end of the mantlepiece was a framed black and white photograph of a younger Russ with a cigarette in his fingers, sitting with a very attractive woman. “How is your wife?” I said.

“She’s very well. Why,” he said suddenly, “have you heard that she was ill or something?”

“No, not at all.” My head was full of questions and they came out in a mostly random order. “Do you still paint or draw?” I said.

“No,” he said. “All I do is write. A lot of what I do is wrong... but all I do is write.”

“This is an amazing room,” I said. “Some writers prefer to look at nothing while they work, don’t they? But that’s not your thing.”

“I prefer an enriched environment,” he said. It certainly was that. “It’s sort of Squalor-R-Us!”

“I don’t think it’s squalor,” I said, “I love it.” I turned to look at the wall behind us, most of it covered by a huge map of a region I didn’t immediately recognise. “What’s the map of?”

“That’s from Riddley Walker,” he said, and straightaway the south-east corner of England started to shape itself. “And these are some Waterhouse nymphs…” Attached to the map were some new-looking posters of various 19th-century paintings of young women with near-translucent skin, looking beautiful and tragic by ponds. I turned round again and noticed on the corner of the desk the ancient Apple II computer from which Herman Orff received messages from the original Kraken itself, its dancing phosphors now long-extinguished but, I felt, still there in spirit.

We went back to sit down again by the television. Above the doorway behind me was another image that seemed familiar, a print of a desert scene, a lion with a man in a robe laying down with a lute beside him. “Is that an African image?” I said.

“That’s Rousseau,” said Russell, “the French customs officer.” I liked it that he didn’t describe Henri Rousseau as “the French painter”. Only a true art obsessive would describe a painter by the job he did for a living rather than the one he was more famous for. “That’s The Sleeping Gypsy.”

“Oh, right!” I said, my brain flagging. “From The Medusa Frequency? Herman is sitting in Melanie’s flat, and she says she’s not sure whether the lion is dreaming the gypsy or the gypsy’s dreaming the lion…”

“You know,” he said, “it’s really strange when I have people round and they point out things from my books that I’d forgotten about myself. How’s your poetry going, by the way?”

A year back I’d sent Russ a poem of mine called The Baleful Head, which itself had been inspired by a Burne-Jones painting. “Oh, fine,” I said, “thank you. I haven’t been doing so much lately though, I’ve been writing more prose. It’s taking a long time to get something cohesive together.”

“What do you do for a living again?”

“I work for a press-cuttings agency.”

“Which one?” he said. I told him. “Ah,” he said – and told me he used a rival firm. So that was how he kept up with everything! “What do you do there exactly?”

“I summarise articles for putting on clients’ websites,” I said. “Which can be a bit mind-numbing after a while…”

“I’m sure it can,” he nodded sympathetically. Then he gave me the critical gaze again. The second chapter from Amaryllis Night and Day, “Empty Spaces”, flashed through my mind: “Those of us who think about the empty spaces tend to paint pictures, write books, or compose music. There are many talented people who never will become painters, writers, or composers; the talent is in them but not the empty spaces where art happens.” Was he wondering if I was one of those people? Was I wondering if I was one of those people? Did I have talent, but not the empty spaces? Maybe I had plenty of empty spaces but no talent...

“Well,” I said, “I’d better let you get on.”

We stood up, I took my overcoat from the armchair, still sparkling with raindrops, and immediately regretted it because Russ was holding out his hand to shake and now I’d made my hands wet. I dried them as best I could on my jeans and shook his big hand. He had a firm, sure handshake. “Thank you so much,” I said. “It’s been fascinating.”

“Thank you,” he said. “And please send my thanks to The Kraken.” He pronounced it kray-ken; I'd always presumed it was 'kracken'.

“You’re very welcome,” I said. “Your work means a great deal to a lot of people.”

“Well, it helps,” he said.

I noticed a box full of books at his feet, as if even all the bookshelves in this room couldn’t contain every volume he wanted to read. On top was a copy of Justin Cartwright’s Half in Love which I recalled from the Waterstone’s reading. “What was the connection between you and Cartwright, by the way?” I said.

“None at all. They organised the reading independent of me.”

“It was disappointing that he didn’t read for longer. He didn’t seem to want to be there, did he?”

“I don’t think he did,” said Russ with the surprised upturn. “I heard him say to his wife that he was knackered because he’d done some long TV interview that day.” It was funny hearing an English slang word like knackered in his American accent, slight as it is.

“Nice problem to have!” I said.

“Yes!”

“Good luck with the National Gallery lecture,” I said on my way out.

“Thank you.”

It seemed hours had passed. I’d only been in his house ten minutes but it was both the longest and the shortest ten minutes I think I’d ever known. It would be indiscreet to say how long I could spend in that room, just listening and looking and reading and watching. A thousand things I hadn’t said flooded my mind, and I had about five seconds to say them.

“If you ever fancy a pint,” I said, “give us a buzz… or send me an email.”

He just smiled.



Existential disclaimer: these conversations with Russell Hoban were not official “interviews” and the dialogue was recounted from memory and paraphrased in places. In fact, it may all have been an illusion. Or a glim...

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