Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Guinea Pigs

There has been a lot of talk in the blogosphere about underrated books, but no one is talking about Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. How it works: A puts up a post. Readers send comments. If one mentions a book it has had its 2 seconds of fame: other readers think they must come up with a different book.

Meanwhile Blogger has introduced a poll widget. When I mention Riddley Walker in conversation people who've read it say YES, it's a work of GENIUS -- but most people haven't heard of it. That said, I don't tend to go about dragging Riddley Walker into the conversaton. This is what polls are for. So I have put one in the sidebar.

Riddley Walker takes place in a landmass that had been Britain before a nuclear holocaust. Scientific knowledge has been lost, but traces of it survive in the language as mythological explanations for what now makes no sense ('the party cools of Addom and the many cools of stoan'). It begins like this:

On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen. He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he wernt all that big plus he lookit poorly. He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and made his rush and there we wer then. Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy. I said, 'Your tern now my tern later.' The other spears gone in then and he wer dead and the steam coming up off him in the rain and we all yelt, 'Offert!'

12 comments:

Lee said...

If even two seconds of fame ... but thanks for reminding me of Riddley Walker, I've always meant to read it and now will.

(O.T. Have you discovered a reasonable English library in Berlin?)

Ithaca said...

(Publisher to HD: I enjoyed the digressions, but... HD to publisher: What digressions? No T. is O.T.)

I recently got round to getting a card for the Gedenkbibliothek, which has a large English-language collection as well as books in other languages, DVDs, videos -- amazing.

Mithridates said...
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Mithridates said...
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Mithridates said...

I deleted my post b/c I saw that I spent more time complaining about Hoban's other books than I did praising the truly brilliant Riddely Walker. Anyway, I'm posting a little something about it on my brand new blog. -Patrick Jehle

I read RW a while back after you recommended it. Astonishing. But although it's too much to ask of an author for TWO masterpieces - too much to ask for ONE, really - I was very disappointed by Hoban's other books for grown-ups (I haven't read his children's books yet). They made me think harder about why RW was such a breakthrough. None of them, for one, took anything like the risks with language that RW did. But I guess the great thing about a great novel is that you can read it to pieces and never get tired of it - so it's sort of like having written more than one book, only better.

Jenny Davidson said...

I read RW as a teenager in thrall to Anthony Burgess's (demented and magical) 99 Novels (best in English since 1945, though hard not to feel he pasted in quite a few pre-published reviews to fill up space--I have said before & will say again that whatever you think about Norman Mailer, Ancient Evenings is pretty certainly NOT one of the best novels in English since 1945...); indeed, a work of great genius. As is "Bread and Jam for Frances" in my opinion.

Ithaca said...

Mithridates -- I don't think anything else by RH is in the same class as Riddley Walker, no; there are things I liked in some of the other books, but they do seem slight in comparison.

JD -- I don't know 99 Novels, I'll have to look out for it.

"Post-Google" by TAR ART RAT said...

Gedenkbibliothek... might I suggest hitting up the DVD shelf at odd times- lets say 2pm on a Tuesday for best selection- otherwise can be a feeding frenzy or just barren in the evenings. Unfortunately I have seen nothing to suggest that they might wave my late fees simply because I am an American using the Amerikanishces Gedenkbibliothek, schade.

Jenny Davidson said...

99 Novels is one of those books that pretty much sort of changed my life. (But reading Anthony Burgess had that effect in general.) I think it's different in age of internet--but in the 80s, even though interesting books were THERE at the public library, it was hard to know what to get hold of without a reliable guide. And Burgess is just wayward enough to be better than a more reliable one--this book is why I was reading "Lanark" and "Gravity's Rainbow" and Kingsley Amis's "The Alteration" when I was fifteen, much better for my literary & other education than the kind of stuff they give you even at a good school...

Mithridates said...

Bloom's whacky but sometimes useful Modern Critical Views introductions served much the same purpose as Burgess's 99 Novels did for Jenny. Thus I went around, age 14, with my copy of Ancient Evenings, thinking it was a flawed but visionary work by a America's foremost Gnostic seer. I see clearer now. (Executioner's Song, on the other hand, is authentically good. Doesn't Burgess include it?) I also used to read stuff about the Kabbalah and Gnosticism b/c I thought that if I ever wrote a novel, Harold wouldn't think it was great if it didn't somehow implicitly or explicitly subscribe to the view that there is a god within. ("What I like about X is that it's totally Kabbalistic": typical critical assessment, age 14.) But I DID read a lot of good stuff: Gravity's R., Miss Lonelyhearts, As I Lay Dying, The Sound & the Fury--none of which were on offer at school.

Joseph Ryan said...

I looked him up on Amazon and had a look at the prose in the book, and it looks like something i could really get into (i always know from the first page); thanks for the tip; its approaching my door as i type this.

Jenny Davidson said...

Burgess has "Ancient Evenings" too! What WAS it with that book?!? Can't remember now if he also has "Executioner's Song," though it's quite possible, he does have 2 for a few authors he really likes. I gave my copy away to one of my students who was over for pizza at the end of the year & was wistfully and longingly eyeing it, I felt it deserved to find a new home...

I took Bloom's Shakespeare class in graduate school and it was quite wonderful, I must say. Of course all sorts of random people sit in, including (that semester) a fellow who I believe was a divinity student & who had the most beautiful golden lab puppy--somehow he persuaded Bloom that it was all right for him to bring it to class, it sort of nestled (in a bulky and charmingly gangly way) on the guy's lap! Bloom has an amazing way of reading Shakespeare aloud, it's quite flat, almost monotonous, and yet it brings out the meaning in a way that even the best actorly delivery cannot. His views on Falstaff and particularly on Lear (it's a very Edmund-centered Lear!) were totally formative for me...