Thursday, December 15, 2011

Farewell, Russell Hoban (1925-2011)

Very sad today to hear of the death of one of my favourite novelists. Russell Hoban may have been best-known for his children's books, but his adult fiction retained their sense of playfulness and fantasy - something most of us lose with the passing years. His Turtle Diary was the first that I read - about two lonely Londoners who set out to rescue the turtles from the zoo, but don't quite release themselves while they're about it. The Medusa Frequency is a virtuoso take on the Orpheus myth - again featuring a compassionate portrait of contemporary London, but with twists of fantasy that are by turns chilling and glorious in their audacity. Here is a full obituary from The Guardian.

But musicians might know Hoban best for his libretto for Sir Harrison Birtwistle's astonishing opera The Second Mrs Kong, written for Glyndebourne and premiered in 1994. Details of the plot and structure are here along with some excerpts; and the libretto was published by Universal Edition. Hoban plays with concepts, reality and imagery the way a circus performer might perform on the high wire. The only safety net is the term 'magical realism', except that there isn't much realism in there - it's slanted entirely to the magic. In the opera, The Idea of Kong falls in love with Vermeer's Girl with the Pearl Earring, aka Pearl. I still remember well the wild, high, shimmering voice of the singing mirror; and the deep-bronze, luminous tone of Philip Langridge, who sang The Idea of Kong in a gorilla suit...

I once went to Oxford to see the Glyndebourne Touring Opera's Kong with a writer friend who was also a big Hoban fan. That day there was a problem in the theatre and they couldn't get the set of the previous night's opera off the stage, so the cast delivered a semi-staged version in costume in front of the curtain. It was still fabulous. And we spotted Hoban in the bar so went up to him (my pal was braver than I was) to express our enthusiasm. We found him a charming, generous man, with the same twinkle in his eye that you can find in his glittery writing.
MIRROR: It is not love that moves the world from night to morning, it is not love that makes the new day dawn. 
PEARL: Not love?
MIRROR: No. It is the longing for what cannot be...
PEARL: The longing for what cannot be?
MIRROR: The longing for what cannot be. The world needs the power of your yearning, the world needs the power of your love that cannot be fulfilled.