It is forty years since Russell Hoban’s novel Riddley Walker was first published. The post-apocalyptic dystopia, set in a Kent thousands of years after a nuclear holocaust, has been a lowkey but pervasive influence on SF ever since its publication. The novel, which is written in the idiosyncratic dialect of eponymous protagonist Riddley Walker, has enjoyed a cult following for some four decades. Now academics, artists and writers are celebrating that fact with a series of events in Canterbury, where many of the events of Riddley’s story are set some centuries in the future.
On Saturday 24th October, a ‘Sum Poasyum’ will be hosted online by Canterbury Christchurch University, more details about which can be found here.
But Riddley Walker is also of interest to us at Ponying the Slovos, not least because of the demonstrable influence of A Clockwork Orange upon Hoban’s cult classic, but also because of the significant respect that Anthony Burgess afforded the novel. In a series of posts, we are going to examine Riddley Walker in light of our own work on Nadsat, and see what we can learn about ‘Riddleyspeak’, to use Hoban’s term. To begin, let’s look at Burgess’s proselytisation for Hoban’s novel.
In 1983, Anthony Burgess was commissioned by an African publisher to write a collection of reviews of the Anglophone novels he had found most significant since 1939. The commission fell through, but Burgess was not one to waste work, and it eventually found a home with Allison & Busby, and was published in 1984 as Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English Since 1939.
It was and is a quirky book, and the list, like all such lists, is highly subjective and also a hostage to fortune. While the earlier texts included, such as Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, Greene’s The Power and the Glory, or Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls had well established reputations by the time Burgess was writing, the reputations of his later choices were obviously much less well formed. For every Updike there is an Erica Jong; for every Lanark there is an Ancient Evenings.
Despite its somewhat eccentric selection, the list has aged reasonably well, though there are some (to our contemporary eyes) rather glaring omissions. While Burgess offers a minor apologia in the introduction to authors from Australia and New Zealand, who he admits are poorly represented, no such caveat is extended to Anglophone authors from English-speaking Africa, or the Caribbean, or the Indian sub-continent, who are similarly largely absent.
Additionally, Burgess’s list is low on women (more a factor of his era than of an inherent set of prejudices – Burgess was a great proselytiser for writers he admired whatever their background, including people like Olivia Manning and James Baldwin, both of whom can be found on this list, though he did infamously win a Chauvinist Pig award from the feminist Virago Press on one occasion). The anecdotal explanation, that Burgess wrote the book in a fortnight, may well be true. Nevertheless, Ninety-Nine Novels has had a curious longevity far beyond the carefully curated annual lists produced by the broadsheets or literary press.
One has the impression that, in at least some of these instances, Burgess wished to honour the writer rather than the novel. Creation is no more Gore Vidal’s finest work than Life in the West is Brian Aldiss’s. It’s notable, however, that Burgess included quite a number of novels that could be considered SF (or science-fictional), as he was on record as a dismisser of the genre (despite penning two classic SF novels, A Clockwork Orange and The Wanting Seed, as well as a sequel of sorts to 1984 and some SF short stories himself). More on Burgess’s SF career may be read here, from page 28 onwards.
As well as the Aldiss novel, Burgess includes Rex Warner’s forgotten anti-fascist fable The Aerodrome, Aldous Huxley’s dystopias Ape and Essence, and Island, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, L.P. Hartley’s post-apocalyptic Facial Justice, Keith Roberts’ alt-history Pavane, JG Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company and, at that time the only recently published Riddley Walker. Nearly 10% of Burgess’s 99 novels turn out to be SF after all.
That noted, they tend towards a particular kind of SF, one that Burgess himself practised. There are no space operas to be found on his list. No Asimov, Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke. No aliens, no robots, no AI, no posthumanism. Burgess’s list of worthy SF is almost entirely a list of dystopias, which is no coincidence, given that his own minor SF career is entirely made up of dystopian fiction. Indeed, the spirit of dystopia, albeit dystopia evaded, introduces Burgess’s curious collection. Published in 1984, he justifies his arbitrary selection of historical parameters (1939-84) on the grounds that it is “poetic” to commence with a world war and end “with the nonfulfilment of a nightmare.” There is, in other words, no attempt to explain his selection in terms of literary era or historicisation. The primary context offered is curiously a pervading interest in dystopia:
“NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR has arrived, but George Orwell’s glum prophecy has not been fulfilled. Some of us half-feared that, on the morning of Jan. 1, we would wake with our seasonal hangovers to see Ingsoc posters on the walls, the helicopters of the Thought Police hovering and our television sets looking at us.
For 35 years a mere novel, an artefact meant primarily for diversion, has been scaring the pants off us all. Evidently the novel is a powerful literary form which is capable of reaching out into the real world and modifying it. It is a form which even the non-literary had better take seriously.”
In this company, Riddley Walker begins to make more sense. However, Burgess appreciated Hoban’s novel more than simply as a dystopia. Here and elsewhere he praised it highly, in particular for its use of language. In its entry in Ninety-Nine Novels, he writes:
“It is a dangerous and difficult dialect of Hoban’s own invention, but it is altogether appropriate to an as yet unborn England — one that, after nuclear war, is trying to organize tribal culture after the total destruction of a centralized industrial civilization. The past has been forgotten, and even the art of making fire has to be relearned. The novel is remarkable not only for its language but for its creation of a whole set of rituals, myths and poems. Hoban has built a whole world from scratch…
This novel could not expect to be popular: it is not an easy read like The Carpetbaggers. But it seems to me a permanent contribution to literature.”
In 1984, in an interview, Burgess compared Hoban’s novel with William Golding’s Rites of Passage, which had won the 1980 Booker Prize. At the time, Golding was a recent Nobel laureate for literature. Both of these facts rankled with Burgess, who allegedly refused to attend the Booker award ceremony upon hearing that his own entry, Earthly Powers, had not won. A few years on, Burgess’s irritation at Golding had not lessened, but he had come to the conclusion that Hoban, rather than himself, would have been a worthy winner, primarily because of his use of language in Riddley Walker:
“Probably the greatest novelists have been opaque writers in a certain sense – in that we have been aware of their language, we have sometimes been brought up short by the language, by a strange word, by a strange rhythm, by a strange construction. And I think almost deliberately a man like Hoban is doing that. I think he goes a bit too far. How the novel did commercially I do not know, but it came up at the time of the 1980 Booker Award, and it should have got the prize. I had a novel in myself at the time [Earthly Powers]. The prize was given to our present Nobel man, Golding, for a very inferior work [Rites of Passage]…
“In Hoban’s book, Riddley Walker, there was a much bigger view of man [than in William Golding’s work], a most bold conception of the problem of building a civilisation after a disaster, and the ultimate boldness was in being willing to invent a language appropriate to the situation of his novel, something that Golding has never done, something that I actually had to do in a book. Riddley Walker is a fine example of what the novel should do.”
The fuller statement can be found here.
Burgess’s comments about being ‘brought up short by the language’ obviously evoke his own influential foray into invented language narration, A Clockwork Orange, but also his stylistical approach to literary fiction generally. Brigid Brophy once bitterly complained that a Burgess novel was half-baked, though its author would no doubt prefer to describe it as ‘hemicaust’. It is true that Burgess appreciated fiction which made demands upon the reader, and forced them to establish a relationship with the narrative they were reading.
In this sense, Burgess’s approach to literary stylistics, especially in A Clockwork Orange, like Hoban’s in Riddley Walker, is in tune with the Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky’s concept of ostranenie, (or ‘estrangement’ – sometimes referred to as ‘defamiliarisation’); this is the idea that great art makes us look at something familiar with fresh eyes by presenting it in a new way. This concept has been highly influential, inspiring not only the Brechtian theatre of the absurd, but also Darko Suvin’s notion of the Science-fictional ‘novum’, the effect or object in a SF text which makes it SF by way of estranging the reader.
In A Clockwork Orange, the stated purpose of Nadsat, according to Burgess, was two-fold – to render the violent action of the text opaque to the reader, and also to implement a form the brainwashing that Alex experiences via the Ludovico technique by forcing the reader to learn his argot. Both of these effects can be considered as forms of ostranenie in action. But what, then, are we to make of Riddley Walker’s argot? Clearly it makes demands upon its readers, but to what end?
In short, what is Riddleyspeak, and is it really a fine example of what literature can do? Also, how does it relate to Burgess’s own invented idiolect Nadsat? Does Riddleyspeak make sense linguistically, and how and why did it cause a flurry of debate among SF scholars?
Let’s discuss that next time.