My Tango with Barbara Strozzi, By Russell Hoban

Chemistry down in the crypt

Reviewed,Salley Vickers
Friday 16 November 2007 01:00 GMT

Russell Hoban is that rare bird: a writer whose voice is utterly his own. For my money, his wonderfully original novels will endure long after most current high flyers have hit the dust. I owe him two debts. As a mother, for his Frances books about an enchanting baby badger and for the philosophical The Mouse and His Child; as a writer, his adult fiction has been a beacon of encouragement to follow, regardless of fashion, one's own lights.

Hoban's repertoire is suggestive of one of his virtues. He engages the fugitive child in us, and I emphatically do not mean he is winsome. He is a master of the workaday: supermarkets, the London underground, dishwashers – the unglamorous stuff of urban existence, but conveyed with the anarchic and animating touch which is his hallmark. In this, he - oddly - shares a quality with the great mystics: he perceives the numinous within the quotidian, illuminating it with a vision that sparkles with strangeness.

He also possesses a well-stocked mind, and is unashamed of this. Hoban plays with his erudition with a frank enjoyment that precludes any suspicion of swank. In this novel, the name of his principal character, a writer called Phil Ockerman, echoes Philoctetes, the Greek hero with the incurable wound and unconquerable bow. His adversary, whom Phil splendidly, disarmingly, kills, is named Troy.

It is characteristic of Hoban that Barbara Strozzi is not a product of his virtuoso imagination but a historical figure, a 17th-century composer whose portrait has "a slightly sluttish look that was irresistible". Sexual allure is always to the fore in a Hoban novel and Phil's fascination with her becomes gloriously compounded with his tango partner, Bertha, and their lessons in a Clerkenwell crypt.

A resemblance to the seductive musician ensures that Bertha begins to cohabit with her Venetian lookalike in Phil's head. With Hoban, the imaginary is not an outpost of the real but its higher ground. It is no secret that the best sex takes place in the mind, and their erotic dance is conducted as much in the in-between of their connected consciousnesses as in the to-and-fro of bed. This is an eccentric, sharply observed, kind book. We need writers like Hoban.

Salley Vickers's 'Where Three Roads Meet' is published by Canongate

Bloomsbury £10.99 (176pp) £9.89 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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