Russell Hoban 4 Feb 1925 – 13 December 2011
I met Russell Hoban on the occasion of his 80th birthday in February 2005. It was an extraordinary occasion, for many reasons. It was extraordinary because for anyone to spend 80 whole years on this earth is a feat, but even more so in the case of someone whose health had been failing for years. But more than that, it was extraordinary because Russ’s writing had inspired a small collective of devoted readers to organise a marvelous, gentle, soulful and utterly weird event, a Some-Poasyum. So devoted that some of us had flown in from other hemispheres, other time zones, just for the three-day event. A nuttering of weirdoes we were, gathering from near and far, from London and Chicago and Cape Town, from places in Belgium and New Zealand. (You can read more about this astonishing event here.)
I met Russ at one of the weekend’s events, a reading at Nomad Books in Fulham Road. He read an extract from Come Dance with Me, which would be published the following year. He answered questions, he signed our books. I had brought a birthday gift, a dish which I had made from clay. Later, back in South Africa, I received an email of thanks from Russ, which quickly turned into marvelous email correspondence.
Russ quickly became a mentor. He read and commented on my writing, he gently encouraged me, he put me in touch with literary agents. He gave advice, and heads-ups, and thumbs ups (and thumbs downs sometimes too). He warned me that he might not live to see me write my stories into print. He made recommendations, and every now and then, he put something marvelous in the post and sent it. The first of these (which is sitting on my desk next to me) was a Rockwell Kent-illustrated edition of Moby Dick. In one of Russ’s early letters to me, he quoted from it:
“Heart or wrought steel! Canst thou yet ring bravely to that sight, lowering thy keel among ravening sharks and followed by them, open mouth’d, to the chase on this, the critical third day? For when three days blend together in one continuous intense pursuit, the first is the morning, the second noon, and the third the evening and the end of that thing, be that end what it may.”
(I’ve quoted this from memory, so there might be errors.) The thing is , every day is the critical third day, nicht wahr?
Action develops from characters and characters develop from action. Read The Bridge of San Luis Rey if you haven’t. Thornton Wilder. One of my favourite books. Don’t try to drive your writing like a herd in front of you. Let it lead you like a butterfly among the barley rows, like a dolphin frolicking in the bow wave, like music you can almost hear.
Bye Russ. I miss knowing that you are still making magic amongst your yellow paper and your exobrain, living ever so close to your critical third day. Thank you for all the magic.