Another weirdly fabulous novel from Russell Hoban

Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban

I’m gradually working my way through Hoban’s novels. I have quite a lot of them on my shelves, some in the old Bloomsbury editions, others in the more recent Penguin Modern Classic livery reprints. Last year I read his only full-on SF novel Fremder from the middle of his ouevre; this time I’ve gone back to 1974 and his second adult novel, the wonderfully weird Kleinzeit which begins thus:

There it was again, like a signal along a wire. A clear brilliant flash of pain from A to B. What was A? What was B? Kleinzeit didn’t want to know. His hypotenuse was on that side, he thought. Maybe not. He’d always been afraid to look at anatomical diagrams. Muscles, yes. Organs, no. Bothing but trouble to be expected from organs.

Flash. A to B again. His diapason felt hard and swollen. His scalp was dry and flaky. He put his face in front of the bathroom mirror.

I exist, said the mirror.

What about me? said Kleinzeit.

Not my problem, said the mirror.

The new Penguin edition cover

From the first sentences we’re in Hoban’s weird new world of descriptions of bodily parts and functions. ‘Hypotenuse’ is of course a mathematical term, ‘diapason’ musical (principally an organ stop which operates a combo of pipes) – and there’s a lot more to come – you just have to go with the flow!

Kleinzeit ignores the pain, picks up his copy of Thucycides’ Peloponnesian War and goes to work via the Underground, where he finds a pristine sheet of yellow paper which he picks up. All of these things have a significance! Reaching his work where he is a advertising copy-writer he makes an appointment to see Dr Pink re the pain, and after not having had his idea for a dog food ad involving a man pushing a wheelbarrow full of rocks (very like Sisyphus) approved he is sacked. Later Dr Pink sends him to hospital for tests for his ‘skewed hypotenuse’, he will also find he has a case of faulty ‘stretto’ (a musical term from fugues) which will be hard to treat.

I’m getting ahead of myself though. Before he gets to hospital, we meet the other main character of the novel: Sister. As she walks through her ward that morning, she wonders, ‘Which bed will it be?’ Sister, in typical Hoban fashion, is a matronly sex-goddess in a nurse’s uniform, next time we meet her she’ll be ‘coming in Dr Krishna’s arms,’ but when she meets Kleinzeit once he is admitted, something happens.

‘Good morning, Mr Kleinzeit,’ she said. ‘How are you today?’

Kleinzeit was glad he was wearing adventurous pyjamas, glad Thucydides and Ortega were there. ‘Very well, thank you,’ he said. ‘How are you?’

‘Fine, thank you,’ said Sister. ‘Kleinzeit, does that mean something in German?’

‘Hero’ said Kleinzeit.

‘I thought it must mean something,’ said Sister. Maybe you, said her eyes.

We know that Kleinzeit means ‘Little time’ but Sister has found her hero! Their nurse-patient relationship will develop into something else as the novel progresses. But Kleinzeit, now unemployed, has a hard time staying in his bed, frequently nipping out and finding more sheets of yellow paper, which are being dropped by a homeless busker known as Redbeard with whom he strikes up a friendship. When Redbeard ends up in hospital too, Kleinzeit takes over his pitch, busking poems for sale on the yellow paper. Whatever Kleinzeit does though, he ends up back in hospital.

In typical Hoban fashion, he is obsessed with tits, a page 3 girl called Wanda Udders, Miss Guernsey, provides recurring visual relief to the Men’s ward. By contrast, the novel is also full of classical references – the Underground is of course where Orpheus lost Eurydice (the myth of Orpheus being a recurring theme later in Hoban’s work) with Kleinzeit as Orpheus here. Inanimate objects talk; hospital, mirror, yellow paper for instance. Other concepts are personified; Death, God etc. The chapters flow fast. There are over fifty, most just a page or two, swapping quickly between hospital and the Underground, Sister and Redbeard. The wordplay is delicious – other patients have equally apt names and illnesses.

I couldn’t possibly say more about what happens: it’s mad, it’s complicated, it’s hilarious, it’s also touching in places, it’s about creativity. It’s pure Hoban!

Source: Own copy. 192 pages in the Bloomsbury paperback, 208 in Penguin.

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18 thoughts on “Another weirdly fabulous novel from Russell Hoban

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      He obviously found his style of mixing things up with humour, high and low camp and literary/classical reference right from the start. I loved this one.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Turtle Diary is one I’ve yet to read. No two Hoban books are alike though, he’s very unpredictable on the whole it seems. This one is really funny and thought-provoking in many ways.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      This is a really interesting novel for the mix-up of metaphors and classic references. Very creative, if you leave out the tit fantasies.

      • Elle says:

        I mean… they do sound quite obnoxious, but sometimes men write about tits in such a baroque fashion that I move out of irritation into amusement, and it sounds like Hoban might be of that ilk…

  1. Anokatony says:

    When my children were little, I enjoyed reading the Frances books to them. ‘Bedtime for Frances’, ‘Bread and Jam for Francis’, ‘A Baby Sister for Frances’, etc., so I am very familiar with Russel Hoban’s work. I must have read ‘Riddley Walker’ at some point, but not any other of his works for adults.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      I’ve read and enjoyed two of Hoban’s children’s books (The Mouse & his Child and the posthumous Soonchild). Riddley Walker is in my top ten ever books.

  2. Calmgrove says:

    Hmm, this sounds sufficiently abstruse to pique my curiosity, not just because he deliberately muddles mathematical, musical and anatomical terms together. You’re almost convincing me to take the plunge into Hoban’s skewed universe!

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Most of his novels are 200 pages or fewer too, they’re a quick but enriching read for the most part, always quirky, always with a great subtext. You should try one. (Riddley Walker is one of the longer ones at 250 pages or so, and is a slower read due to being written in a new pidgin English – but bloody brilliant!)

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      Riddley Walker is a challenging read, but ultimately very rewarding. I’d love to know what you think of it. (Like A Clockwork Orange, once you get into the language it becomes easier.)

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      He’s so quirky and inventive, that you just have to enjoy his books. He wrote many much-loved children’s books in the 1960s before turning to adult fare in the 1970s onwards, and I think he retains a certain childish sense of fun.

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