I find it amazing that Russell Hoban’s singular book Kleinzeit seems to be out of print in the US. Amazon lists the version on the left as the most recent one (2002) but he doesn’t seem to have the same popularity here as he does in Britain (where the Pennsylvania-born writer lives, no surprise). Most of you probably know the Frances books and I’ve certainly gone on at length about my love for Riddley Walker on various occasions, but I hadn’t read Kleinzeit until recently.
While reading it in November, I decided to recommend it to everyone who was doing NaNoWriMo as the perfect inspiration for the difficult task of writing, especially for the first time. It mashes up a sort of Pynchon-esque mystery of coincidences and misheard words with a delightful surrealism: the titular character ends up in the hospital for trouble with his hypotenuse. His troubles begin on the most mundane sort of day when he begins to experience a sudden pain. But then something else happens:
Kleinzeit got out of the train, poured into the morning rush in the corridor. Among the feet he saw a sheet of yellow paper, A4 size, on the floor, unstepped-on. He picked it up. Clean on both sides. He put it in his attaché case. He rode up on the escalator, looking up the skirt of the girl nine steps above him. Bottom of the morning, he said to himself.
Little does he know that yellow sheet of A4 will take over his life: he loses his job, he’s admitted to the hospital, he takes up the glockenspiel and he takes up with Sister (nurses in Britain are still referred to as “sister”), he meets a red-bearded man who lives in the Underground. And everything seems conspired either to kill him or turn him into a writer. It’s not surprising that Hoban has said that this novel is where he found his voice.
One of my favourite passages comes when Kleinziet reads from Thucydides’ The Pelopennesian War as he contemplates Athenians and the blank page of yellow A4:
I promise, said Kleinzeit to his dead mother, I’ll be, I’ll make, I’ll do. You’ll be proud of me.
Suppose [the Athenians] fail in some undertaking; they make good the loss immediately by setting their hopes in some other direction. Of them alone it may be said that they possess a thing almost as soon as they have begun to desire it, so quickly with them does action follow upon decision. And so they go on working away in hardship and danger all the days of their lives, seldom enjoying their possessions because they are always adding to them. Their view of a holiday is to do what needs doing; they prefer hardship and activity to peace and quiet. In a word, they are by nature incapable of either living a quiet life themselves or of allowing anyone else to do so.
Right, said Kleinzeit. Enough, He opened the door of the yellow paper’s cage, and it sprang upon him, Over and over they rolled together, bloody and roaring, Doesn’t matter what the title is to start with, he said, anything will do. HERO, I’ll call it. Chapter I. He wrote the first line while the yellow paper clawed his guts, the pain was blinding. It’ll kill me, said Kleinzeit, there’s no surviving this. He wrote the second line, the third, completed the first paragraph. The roaring and the blood stopped, the yellow paper rubbed purring against his leg, the first paragraph danced and sang, leaped and played on the green grass in the dawn.
Up the Athenians, said Kleinzeit, and went to sleep.
It delights me to no end that Hoban fans go around on February 4th leaving sheets of yellow A4 in the tube and other public places with quotes from the author. I can’t imagine a more wonderful tradition to have connected with one’s books. This novel is quite wonderful and I recommend it highly — and then go get Riddley Walker and the rest of his books! I love Hoban because his stories all make their own singular way, ignoring genres and rules and convention. What better way to write?