It is tempting just to say, ‘another new book by Russell Hoban!’. After all, like Alasdair Gray he has such a distinctive voice that his work is instantly recognisable, and anyone who knows his stuff will need no further information.
This one follows the pattern he established with Turtle Diary, and which has become particularly apparent in his recent books. It’s a short work set in the same areas of contemporary London that both Hoban and his characters habituate. Alternate chapters are narrated by the two protagonists (though in this instance the chapters are considerably longer than in any of his last half-dozen or so novels, which allows a more fluid rhythm to develop). And it is a story in which two characters involved in the arts meet in unusual circumstances, develop a hesitant relationship, drift apart, then are pulled together again. And as before, characters from other recent novels have walk-on parts in this tale, in this instance there are references to Linger Awhile and Her Name Was Lola. In fact, everything from Angelica’s Grotto onwards, that’s seven books over nine years, feels like it is part of the same ongoing and interconnected work.
Most of these books have dealt with sexuality in old age (Angelica’s Grotto, Linger Awhile) or at least in middle age, so one of the things that makes My Tango with Barbara Strozzi a little different is the relative youth of the protagonists. Though both are old enough to be coming out of other, failed relationships. (It is notable how many of Hoban’s novels, especially the later ones, are concerned with a second or third chance at sexual happiness; and how much this second chance is tempered with settling for less than one’s youthful dreams.)
In this instance Phil Ockerman is the author of worthy but dull novels whose wife has just left him as this novel opens. As is always the case with a Hoban hero he goes to an art gallery where he fixates on a portrait of the 17th century composer, Barbara Strozzi. (That man has an erection, says a passing child. Nonsense, says his mother, I’m sure it’s just his mobile or something.) Strozzi composed baroque songs, but Ockerman’s fascination with her leads him to tango (you just have to accept these sorts of leaps in Hoban’s work), so he starts going to tango classes in Clerkenwell, where he meets Bertha Strunk who immediately reminds him of the Strozzi portrait. (In passing I note that not only is the Strozzi portrait real, but so is every recording of her music and of tango music that is mentioned in the novel, and the tango classes take place in that same crypt in Clerkenwell under the tuition of the same two teachers. Hoban makes very little up, and you get the impression that though he is three times the age of his protagonist, he has dogged his footsteps pretty closely.)
Bertha (whom Ockerman quickly starts calling Barbara) makes a living painting artificial eyeballs, a career she took up after accidentally gouging out the eye of her art teacher who was trying to rape her at the time. Subsequently, however, she became the mistress of the art teacher, who went on to make a fortune from pornographic paintings featuring nude portraits of Bertha that were sold to Middle Eastern millionaires by an agent who, coincidentally, is also the agent of the aspiring South African singer that Ockerman will later meet up with; Hoban doesn’t so much write plots as entanglements. After leaving her art teacher lover, Bertha marries a bouncer but he turns out to be abusive and she is on the run from him, and still bearing the last set of bruises he inflicted, when she meets up with Ockerman.
To call their relationship tentative would be to suggest something far stronger and more stable than it actually is. On their first date they watch a film, The Rainmaker, which features a wife and her lover murdering her abusive husband. The prospect that Ockerman may find himself having to murder the bouncer hangs over their relationship and the rest of the novel. It doesn’t help that Bertha is unwilling to commit, and they end up drifting apart. Bertha returns to her art teacher, Ockerman tries to pick up a young singer. But they drift back together again (there is always a lot of drift in Hoban’s novels, and rather less agency than you might expect), the husband ends up dead, they split again, then at the end come together once more.
But by now we’ve discovered that Ockerman’s next novel is called My Tango with Barbara Strozzi, which alternates his view of the relationship with what he imagines Bertha’s view to be. So all of a sudden we can no longer be sure that, even with Hoban’s inordinate precision, we are seeing things as they actually are. A strange book – but I suppose that goes without saying. But, as always, a satisfying book.
First published at LiveJournal, 27 February 2008.