"Legendary cult author Russell Hoban, whose apocalyptic novel Riddley Walker was described by Anthony Burgess as 'what literature is meant to be,'" has died at the age of 86, reports Alison Flood in the Guardian. "Hoban, born in Pennsylvania but a resident of London for more than 30 years, first made a name for himself with his children's books; his series about Frances the badger and his novel The Mouse and His Child are acclaimed as modern classics. Riddley Walker, set in Kent 2000 years after a nuclear holocaust and told in a distinctive version of English, was begun in 1974 and published in 1980 to huge praise. It has since been included in Harold Bloom's survey of literature, The Western Canon."
The Telegraph calls Hoban "a maverick writer of extraordinary imaginative gifts and highly original turn of phrase; although he was sometimes compared to Tolkien and to CS Lewis, he conformed to no obvious literary tradition and was neglected by academics. His was a unique vein of magical fantasy, taking themes (the nuclear holocaust, the massacre of Antioch) that seem too devastating for contemplation, and turning them into allegories in which humor was combined with intense imagery and narrative momentum. Each novel was a singular creation, often with a plot so surreal it defied synopsis."
"Mr Hoban had several distinct careers," notes Bruce Weber in the New York Times. "Trained as an illustrator, he wrote copy for advertising agencies and produced paintings for books and magazines, including several for Sports Illustrated and for Time magazine. His illustrations included a portrait of Holden Caulfield, the fictional protagonist of JD Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, and cover portraits of Joan Baez and Jackie Gleason that the subjects, Mr Hoban said, did not like…. His Turtle Diary (1975) was about two lonely middle-aged people obsessed with freeing sea turtles from the zoo and returning them to the ocean. It was made into a 1985 movie with a screenplay by Harold Pinter, starring Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley."
Update, 12/18: "Last year I did an event at the British Library to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his masterwork [Riddley Walker]," recalls Will Self in the Guardian, "and met Hoban for the first time. He was wry, gentle and wise – one of William James's 'once-born,' notwithstanding a life that had had its fair share of emotional turmoil…. I felt awed by Hoban's equanimity in the face of growing infirmity. He spoke about his writing methods, saying that he never planned anything, just sat down at the typewriter and worked it out on the page. Then he confided: 'I'm working on something now, and I worry I may drop dead before it's finished … but come to think of it that's true of any book you write.'"