Russell Hoban, known as Britain's strangest writer, shuffles into a tapas restaurant in South London. The tap-tap of his walking stick and the squeak of his shoes precede him.
Hoban, who is 85, has just been dropped off in a wheelchair by his German wife, Gundula. The restaurant is empty save for the two of us and some waiters who watch our encounter with curiosity. I stand up and Hoban immediately takes my arm. Then his hand travels down to mine, clasps it, and holds on. The moment feels intimate, moving, and strange. Very Hobanish.
"Let's go outside," he says, gesturing towards the bright and freezing autumnal day. "It's quieter out there." We shuffle outdoors, hand in hand. His white hair peeps out from under a baseball cap and his facial expression is tired and ironic. He sits down and I prop his stick against his chair and cover him in blankets.
Hoban hardly goes out these days. He uses a frame to amble round the block but that's as far as he can go on foot. His body is slowing but his mind is as sharp as a tack. He probably writes more than he walks and has just published his 16th novel for adults, Angelica Lost and Found. He has written another book too, due out in 2012. "I think it's going to do something," he says. "I hope I live long enough to see it in print."
Hoban seems sanguine about his deteriorating health. "This is what I have to work with. I can't see you very well because my eyes are failing. I can hear you but that's because I'm wearing two hearing aids. I walk with a stick and my wife pushed me here in a wheelchair. But until they drag me away, I'll work with whatever I have." How is his health? "Dodgy," he giggles. Hoban seems perpetually amused by life, like the droll voice of his novels. "But I'm sprightly. I reckon I'll die sprightly. What else is there to do?"
Two days earlier I phoned Hoban. I thought interviewing him at home would be easier for him but instead he gave me military instructions on how to get to this restaurant because his study, which he calls his exo-brain, is a mess. "Full of tottering stacks of books, DVDs and CDs," he says. "I often have to buy things I already own because I can't find them." He blinks at me through jam-jar glasses that make his eyes look wet and owlish. "You're not too cold, are you?" he asks with real concern.
Hoban is a major writer, but only to those who know about him. The son of Russian Jews who emigrated to the US, he was born in Pennsylvania in 1925 and moved to London 40 years ago because of his obsession with English ghost stories. He has been described as a one-off, the best sort of genius, and a maverick but his success remains of the word-of-mouth kind. His first book, The Mouse And His Child (1967), is now considered a children's classic. Harold Pinter adapted another, Turtle Diary, into a screenplay. The novel that confirmed his cult status, Riddley Walker, led Anthony Burgess to claim that "this is what literature is supposed to be". Set 2000 years in the future in a dystopian Kent and written in invented phonetic English, Riddley Walker famously received an enraptured full-front-page review in the New York Times.
"It took me five years to write," he says. "I did research trips to Kent in a van with Gundula and our children. I once rode pillion on a motorbike with a friend. I needed to do a trip into the forest to see if it got so black at night you couldn't see your hand in front of your face. And it did." He chuckles softly. "Oh boy, if I was young again I would buy a motorcycle."
Every year, his cult status continues to grow. Hoban's wry and philosophical fantasies have won him a peculiarly ardent fan base who call themselves Hobanites and run a magazine devoted to his work called The Kraken. Every year on his birthday Hobanites all over the world leave Hobanisms scrawled on to yellow A4 pieces of paper in public places. If you come across a quote pinned to a park bench saying something profound and pithy such as "There is only one place, and that place is time" or "things don't end, they just accumulate" you'll know where it's from. "They also bring me a bottle of whisky, and flowers for Gundula," Hoban says.
Angelica Lost and Found is another odd proposition, unlike anything except a Russell Hoban novel. Inspired by Ariosto's epic 16th-century poem, Orlando Furioso, Hoban became fascinated by an old painting housed in El Paso, Texas, that depicts a scene from the poem in which Angelica, naked and chained to a rock, is rescued by Ruggiero, who flies overhead on a hippogriff.
The hippogriff, as Harry Potter fans will know, is a hybrid of a griffin and a mare but Angelica Lost and Found is neither children's book nor ancient mythic tale. Filtered through Hoban's leftfield imagination, the hippogriff escapes the poem, renames himself Volotore and winds up in 21st-century San Francisco, where he pursues a ballsy Jewish gallery owner called … Angelica. Where on earth did all this come from? He laughs until he coughs. "I saw that painting in 1997," he says. "I felt like doing something with the hippogriff. He was so vigorous-looking. That hippogriff looked like a winner to me. He deserved more attention than he got in the poem." Does he find his own novels strange? "Only after I've written them," is his arch reply.
Hoban never knows what's going to happen in his books. He speaks of them almost as independent entities, as though he sees himself as the chronicler reporting the action as it unfurls. "My job is just to write it down," he agrees. "I fly by the seat of my pants. Suddenly the hippogriff was in San Francisco and I was like, woah! I've never even been there."
The themes in Angelica Lost and Found crop up again and again in Hoban's writing. There's the interest in romance and sex (the hippogriff and Angelica get down to business in seconds), animism, surrealism, art (Hoban started out as a painter and illustrator), and reality. "Like Volotore says, 'reality is a house that has many rooms'," he notes. "If you look at ten people crossing the road each one has something in his or her head that has nothing to do with crossing the road. The ordinary world is held together by what we can agree on, which I call the limited-reality consensus. But there are all sorts of other aspects of reality that are just as real that we can't agree on."
The mystery of consciousness is Hoban's great theme. In Riddley Walker he writes: 'theres some thing in us it dont have no name … it ain't us but yet it's in us. It's looking out thru our eye hoals.'
And in Angelica Lost And Found the hippogriff struggles to adjust to the sensation of occupying human bodies. "I constantly have the feeling that there is something inside me looking out through my eyes. Don't you?" he asks. "I have this identity that's on my birth certificate and passport, but what is it? How does it happen?"
Hoban has often imagined his own consciousness as an animal inside him. "I'm almost 86 and that I'm still here is a triumph of the medical arts," he says. "I've been invaded by every kind of scalpel, I won't bore you with the list. But when I would go into surgery and not know if I would come out, I used to psych myself up with the thought that inside me there is a little lion and sometimes it wants to live and sometimes it wants to die. When I was a heavy smoker it wanted to die. When it wanted to live, I stopped smoking. And when I was going through a serious operation I'd leave it to the lion to decide if I'd make it."
He fell in love with Gundula when he moved to London, and ended up staying and basing most of his novels there. He has four children with his first wife, three with Gundula and 13 grandchildren. "She hates it when I bring her into interviews," he says. "I said to Gundula that when I first met her, I didn't just see her, I saw pages. I felt I could write now that I had the background of a loving partner. Well, she's unique. There's nobody like her."
Before Gundula returns, Hoban tells me about his astonishing writing routine. He doesn't go to bed until 3am and watches two films every night. He still writes every day and sometimes into the night. His hunger for words remains insatiable. "I love wording around," he laughs. "I'm often alone in the house and I'll walk around saying words that don't mean anything. Like bligpho! And zarp! I have a habit of distorting words in my mind."
All of this, I imagine, is what keeps his mind so agile. "I do a lot of memorising," he admits. "I can recite various poems." And without warning Hoban launches into a dramatic, very funny and word-perfect recitation of AE Houseman's 76-line poem, Terence, this is stupid stuff. People walk past, stop and then look back at this charismatic octogenarian poet, reciting verse, swaddled in blankets. Afterwards, he's delighted. He laughs and laughs. "I have a fight scene from Walter Scott's The Lady of the Lake," he continues. "Would you like to hear it?"