Before we recorded our podcast going over the early 2013 NYRB Classics releases (you can listen to it here), I had never heard of Russell Hoban. Now, it seems I hear about his novel Riddley Walker all the time. Why, I even listened to Michael Dirda on a podcast the other day (here) and he said something to the effect that, while he would never venture to guess what books will be read in a century, if he were to venture a guess, he’d guess Riddley Walker.
So who is this Russell Hoban? Incredibly prolific, Hoban wrote everything: novels for adults, including mainstream, fantasy, and science fiction; stage plays; librettos; essays; a script for an animated film; and lots of children’s books. Well, having just heard about him, I’ve also just finished my first book by him: today NYRB Classics is publishing a new edition of Hoban’s Turtle Diary (1975), which may be the best book I’ve read this year.
The central premise — though not the focus — of Turtle Diary is simple if a bit strange. William G. and Neaera H., two lonely souls in London, independently decide to go to the London Zoo, steal a trio of old sea turtles, and set them loose in the sea. William and Neaera find each other and decide to work together.
To me that sounds like a sappy journey to self-fulfillment (stay with me). In fact, if you watch the trailer for the 1985 film adaptation (here on YouTube), starring Ben Kingsley and Glenda Jackson, you’d get the sense that this is a quirky, sentimental, half-baked, comic adventure story. As fun as such a thing might be, such is not the case. After all, being attracted to the source material, it was the great, morose, quiet Harold Pinter who wrote the screenplay. There are moments of comedy in Turtle Diary, and the wit — even in passages about, say, suicide — often comes across as an amusement, but I feel it is more on the mark to bring up two of my favorite novels about existential despair, Moby-Dick and The Rings of Saturn, and say that these two lonely souls have been, for years and years, contemplating the whiteness of the whale and the rings of Saturn. Turtle Diary takes us into the minds of two people who have been staring at the abyss for so long, they have made the emptiness a part of themselves.
Turtle Diary is told as a series of first-person passages, alternately by William G. and Neaera H. Each voice is distinct, even though each shares the quality of a kind of loneliness and despair that is so pervasive and long-standing it comes off as only slightly less distant than happiness and hope. As Neaera says, “My despair has long since been ground up fine and is no more than the daily salt and pepper of my life.”
A quick introduction to William and Neaera:
William G. (I don’t think it says how old he is, but probably mid-forties) works as a clerk in a bookstore. Several years ago his wife and two daughters left him. It’s been at least three years since he’s heard from them, and he doesn’t even know where they are now. Terribly lonely and filled with self-loathing and a general loathing for the false promises of life, his early passages are bitter and biting. He does not want to interact with anyone. He lays in bed at night and thinks of how disappointing his life has been. He blames his current state on his family’s absence — that is, until he is honest with himself and understands that even when he was with Dora and the children he had a biting sense that his life was a disappointment, already winding down into nothingness. In this passage he yearns for over a paragraph before simply saying to himself, “rubbish”:
The past isn’t connected to the future any more. When I lived with Dora and the girls the time I lived in, the time of me was still the same piece of time that had unrolled like a forward road under my feet from the day of my birth. That road and all the scenes along it belonged to me, my mind moved freely up and down it. Walking on it I was still connected to my youth and strength, the time of me was of one piece with that time. Not now. I can’t walk on my own time past. It doesn’t belong to me any more.
There’s no road here. Every step away from Dora and the girls leads only to old age and death whatever I do. No one I sleep with now has known me young with long long time and all the world before me. Rubbish. I remember how it was lying beside Dora in the night. O God, I used to think, this is it and this is all there is and nothing up ahead but death. The girls will grow up and move out and we’ll be left alone together. I remember that very well. It’s the thisness and thisonlyness of it that drives middle-aged men crazy.
Neaera H. is forty-three years old and she’s never married, though we get the sense she almost was once. Or maybe that’s just her view of events. At any rate, she’s a successful children’s books author. When we first meet her, she says, “I am tired of meek and cuddly creatures, my next book will be about a predator.” For most of her life she’s been making impermanent plans while waiting for the permanent things to appear. She’s long since accepted “[t]he longevity of impermanent things!”
While William and Neaera have each had relationships, they are past the point of dwelling on them. None of these past events ever comes completely into the foreground. They are not things to be overcome; rather, they are just there in the narrative, as they are in life.
And that is one of the book’s primary strengths. It’s a slice of life story, despite the shared “turtle thoughts.” We get a sense of what these characters are dealing with in their every-day life. Even the build-up to the turtle liberation is internal. It’s anxiety, it’s fear, not excitement, that permeates life at the bookshop or life contemplating the next children’s book. In fact — and this is devastating — the turtle plans may well be, at least subconsciously, a way for William and Neaera to stave off suicide, but in forcing them out of their miserable comfort zones, it may actually bring suicide closer. That’s what Hoban is exploring here.
To better explore the effects of this one-time event, Hoban doesn’t allow the turtle liberation to some glorious event that ends the book. He takes us to what Neaera calls the back side of the event, showing us that whatever moment of glory they experienced, it would be fleeting, and they’d have to return to London:
Well, then. This was the back of the turtle thing. Not quite despair as I had thought before. Just a kind of blankness, as blank and foolish as a pelmet lying face-down on the floor with all the staples showing.
It’s a sad book, there’s no getting around that. The happiest character is the man who takes care of the turtles at the zoo, and his reasoning is that he doesn’t mind being alive. Neaera is intelligent enough to recognize that not minding being alive doesn’t mean life meant a great deal to the zookeeper.
And yet, somehow — I haven’t put my finger on it yet — this book is warm, even uplifting. Yes, I’ll say it: this book, this book that ends with a suicide, is inspiring. These characters may not think life is anything grand, and they certainly have good reasons for their beliefs, but they are putting up a fight. The unsentimental, unflinching look at this fight is beautiful to behold.