I have re-read one of my top 5 favourite books of all time: The Mouse and His Child, by Russell Hoban. It ends with a great vision of a brilliant social enterprise, well worth a read by any those of you who are thinking of tapping up the Big Society bank for a project. The business lesson here is: you gotta walk it before you talk it.
The re-reading has confirmed the book’s place in my personal biblio-cosmology: it’s a significant star, bright, moving, and full of meaning for me. All that and it’s funny, too, as you can see in chapter four, when the Caws of Art travelling theatre troupe perform ‘The Last Visible Dog’ and we see Samuel Beckett both mocked and adored.
Crow flung wide his broad wings like a black cloak. ‘What doesn’t it mean!’ he said. ‘There’s no end to it – it just goes on and on until it mean anything and everything, depending on who you are and what your last visible dog is.’
‘ “Beyond the last visible dog,” ‘said the mouse child to his father. ‘Where is that, I wonder?’
‘I don’t know,’ said the father, ‘but those words touch something in me – something half remembered, half forgotten – that escapes me just as it seems almost clear.’
I first came across the novel when my daughter brought home one of the those catalogues children used to bring home from school – books that were going to be for sale. This would probably be in the early 1980’s, and the book had this same yellow cover in those days, so maybe this, pictured, is the actual one? It says ‘Reprinted in 1983’ and that would have made my daughter 9 years old, a good age for reading this novel. I remember reading it to her, and later to my son, and later still, to a class studying ‘The Novel’ in the Continuing Education programme at Liverpool University. I read extracts from it, with parts of If This Is a Man by Primo Levi, to sixth-formers studying war literature on University study days; it was on the menu when inducting a new intake of staff at The Reader, and when we set up a staff shared reading group it was the first novel we read. Just recently I’ve read it in my weekly reading group with a Drug and Alcohol Service – the first novel we have read (next is going to be Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury), following a range of short stories and poems. I might have read this book 8 or 10 times.
On the first page of my paperback copy, Russell Hoban (who died last year) writes;
Having once been set in motion, we cannot wind up our own clockwork again. But we can make toys whose stillness can be rewound to new motion, toys whose stillness is never final until the clockwork is destroyed…Each toy insisting on its one idea, its one action. Assembled with or without thought by human hands and eyes and minds that put, whether they wanted to or not, some yes or no, some why? or why not? into the toys. Something was put into them.
Toys? He means novels, surely? I seem to remember reading somewhere that Hoban did not like being known as a writer of children’s books ( he wrote the magnificent Frances series, as well as this and other great children’s books, e.g. Mole Family Christmas, another of my favourites, about a fat man in a red suit…), and certainly, his adult fiction deserves more recognition, but this quotation shows why he is such a wonderful children’s writer: he is utterly unpatronising. Perhaps we could just call him a wonderful writer? Some of his books can be read to or by children. But all the same, the books we call his children’s books are very much for adults. It feels as though, with all his jokes and obsessions, he’s mainly writing, as the best children’s writers always are, for himself as a reader.
Russell Hoban was very interested in what it is that was put into us, whatever that is: ‘some yes or no, some why? or why not?’ In one of his greatest books, Riddley Walker, Hoban talks about this thing that is in us, looking out of our eye-holes.
‘You know Riddley theres some thing in us it don’t have no name.’
I said, ‘What thing is that?’
She said ‘Its some kind of thing it aint us but yet its in us. Its looking out thru our eye hoals. Maybe you don’t take no notis of it only some time. Say you get woak up suddn in the middl of the nite. 1 minim youre a sleap and the next youre on your feel with a speer in your han. Wel it wernt you put that speer in your han it were that other thing whats looking out from your eye hoals. It aint you nor it don’t even know your name. Its in us lorn an loan an sheltering how it can.’
This a writer concerned with what Marilynne Robinson calls ‘soul’. I’m going to call it that, too.
The Mouse and His Child is a soul book, and doesn’t have any false dichotomy about this world and others: it’s a spiritual and a material journey, they ain’t separate. It’s a book about coming home, about what home is, and how it becomes home. In the beginning, something is lost – one day you are on the counter in the toyshop, watching imposing but snooty clockwork elephant walk up and down in front of a fine doll’s house, next, everything disappears as you are packed into a box to become a Christmas present. And then you are somewhere else, and eventually broken and found in a dustbin by a tramp who gets you working again – more or less – and sets you down on a road saying ‘ Be tramps.’ So our story – like so many great human stories – begins with the loss of paradise and the emergence of evil. As they set off on the road, the father mouse says;
‘Anything at all might happen, I suppose.’
‘But it won’t, ‘said a soft voice close by. ‘Not this evening, my lads.’
A large rat crept out of the shadows of the girders into the light of the overhead lamps, and stood up suddenly on his hind legs before the mouse and his child. He wore a greasy scrap of silk paisley tied with a dirty string in the manner of a dressing gown, and he smelled of darkness, of stale and mouldy things, and garbage. He was there all at once and with a look of tenure, as if he had been waiting always just beyond their field of vision, and once let in would never go away.
The poetry of that last sentence is adult poetry, the poetry of danger, of inevitability, of war, and evil, even behind it’s opaque language of the Nazis and the camps (for yes, they are here, in the background shading of the book). Would a nine-year old-child understand it? No, I don’t think so, not even if they asked you to explain the word ‘ tenure’. Should they read or hear such a sentence? Oh yes indeed, it needs logging away in the back of the mind, for future use.
Would a child psychoanalyst like this book? I’d expect them at least to recognise it. The clockwork of the story allows Russell Hoban to model, through the toys and animals, the movements and stillnesses of our being, as children may do with play. Anyone who has struggled with their life should like it, for every major character in the story has something seriously wrong with them, is broken, or corrupt, or getting by, or self-deluding, or labouring under some tremendous tragedy. The seal, for example, who originally balanced a ball on the end of her nose, (and who in my film of this book, would be played by Marilyn Monroe), gets along by hanging out with a series of males who give her shelter or a good time. She had lived with Muskrat for a while;
Muskrat looked at the key. ‘Of course,’ he said, as he wound it, ‘I remember now: Key times Winding equals Go. She had just such a key in her back.’
‘Who?’ said the father.
‘The tin seal,’ said Muskrat.
‘The seal!’ said the child. ‘Did she have a platform on her nose?’
‘No,’ said Muskrat. ‘There was only a metal rod that turned, and that was how she used to wind up string for me. Many a cosy evening we spent that way. Charming young lady!’ He smiled, lapsing into a silent reverie… ‘She had been travelling with a rabbit flea circus, but the whole concern broke up not far from here. A fox ate the rabbit, the fleas joined the fox, and the seal came to stay with me.’
So, just like real life, then. And just like real life, breakages and flaws don’t have to determine us, they also offer ways in which characters may become their best selves: we don’t get over our failings, so much as learn, as Sam Beckett intimated, to live with them better. And as well as what we know about, things we know not of affect us: out-of-character things happen to and through us, despite ourselves. So Frog, with his fake charms and fortune-telling, turns out to tell true fortunes despite himself.
The frog, as far as he himself knew, had never accurately predicted the future in his entire life. He told fortunes for profit, just as he sold charms and cures, surveyed territories, and performed weddings. The weddings were at least legal, since he was a legitimate justice of the peace; the surveys were more or less exact; the cures occasionally healed; the charms worked as hard as their wearers; and in the matter of fortunes he had learned long ago to say whatever best suited the occasion and the customer. The mouse child wanted a family and house, and Frog desired to please him; therefore he went through the motion of the oriental divination, preparing the while to see in the future a mama, a sister, and a beautiful house.
So the frog intended, but as he looked at the coin and the seeds, he found himself unable to speak the words he had planned. He had practised the seed and coin oracle many times, but never before had he experienced anything like what was happening to him now. All else beyond the pattern in the snow departed from his vision; his ears hummed, and all other sounds vanished, leaving him alone with the voice of his mind and the dark seeds dancing in the stillness of their mystic changes.
‘You have broken the circle,’ he said, ‘and a straight line of great force emerges. Follow it.’
I started this post thinking about the fabulous social enterprise that is built by the end of the book and look! I have wandered into soul journey territory. But perhaps they are close to the same thing. We all need home, love, action and finally, to become (more or less) self-winding. The mouse and his child, the elephant, the seal, uncle Frog and all the other broken crew of adventurers keep going until they find their own home and pull together a patchwork family. They know what others need, and are able to provide it. What they have been through together is what helps them to create a great work-for-good by the end of the book.