Meg Sanders co-writes (with Annie Ashworth) both fiction and non-fiction. Their sixth novel, under the name Annie Sanders, is Getting Mad, Getting Even, to be published by Orion in September. Below Meg discusses Russell Hoban's The Mouse and his Child.
Meg Sanders on The Mouse and his Child by Russell Hoban
I first read The Mouse and his Child, by Russell Hoban, as a student. Although it appears to be a children's book – illustrated, map at the front, concerning the misadventures of a toy and featuring talking animals – it had a cult status among arts students at the time. It probably still does. I'm sorry to say that this was not really due to the book's own merits, which are many, but rather to the fact that it contains several very witty references to the works of Samuel Beckett and, more obliquely, those of James Joyce. At the time, second only to celebrating Bloomsday, frequent mention of 'The Last Visible Dog', a spoof absurdist play within the novel with more than a passing resemblance to 'Happy Days', was essential proof of literary credentials. So this was the spirit in which I – and probably all my peers – read The Mouse and his Child back in the day. Like cultural train-spotters, our main priority was to tick off allusions and unearth ever more obscure parallels. To quote from the book:
'What's the message?' said Mrs Crow.
'I don't know,' said Crow. 'But I know it's there, and that's what counts.'
Happy days, indeed!
Yet the story grabbed me. For a start, it's a thrilling tale of danger, suspense and bravery. It tells of a clockwork toy – a recurring theme in Hoban – that starts off comfortably in a toy shop then suffers a series of mishaps and adventures. These involve a villainous and vengeful rat, a clairvoyant frog, a robbery, a war between shrews and mice, theatrical crows, a philosophical muskrat, a melancholy bittern, and a motherly wind-up elephant. In the course of this eventful narrative, the mouse and his child are discarded, broken, threatened, chased, enslaved, plunged into a pond, scooped up by a bird, almost blown to smithereens (by the aforementioned rat), but ultimately triumphant in their quest to become self-winding. The world of animals and toys, alarmingly similar to ours, has the same internal logic and cohesion as that of Wind in the Willows, with a similar aura of menace but also the same cast of very human (odd choice of words, I know) characters who help, support and, ultimately, triumph just by looking out for each other.
As if that wasn't enough to recommend it, the writing is breathtakingly beautiful. With a clarity and rhythm that speed the story along, there are also achingly lovely moments of narrative that have to be relished in full.
Coincidentally, just after I'd decided to re-read this book, a friend called to say that he'd managed to get tickets for Waiting for Godot – the Stewart/McKellen production – in its opening week. I was reading the book before and after going to see the play (which was fantastic, by the way), and my mind has been kind of pinging back and forth between them ever since, checking off points of contact, to be sure, but also the essential differences.
Unlike Beckett's Didi and Gogo, stuck in time and place, the mouse and his child keep moving onwards through their adventures, set on their way initially by one of the very few human characters, a tramp whose appearances frame the whole narrative and who winds them up, sending them off with the simple benediction: 'Be tramps'. Trials, tribulations and disappointments they face together but they never give up. To quote Beckett himself: 'Go on failing. Go on. Only next time, try to fail better'. When, at the very end of the story, the tramp sees them reinstated, at last, in their dolls' house with their 'family' around them, he speaks for a second time: 'Be happy,' before setting off on his way again.
When I first read the book, I found it unbearably sad. Perhaps I was seeing it from the point of view of the agreeable melancholy that characterizes so many arts students. This time around, I was uplifted by the outcome of hard-won happiness. By the end, the mouse and his child may have lost their finery of velveteen trousers, their patent shoes, even their original motion, but they've achieved their goal of becoming self-winding, of finding territory, family and belonging through their love, courage, perseverance and the kindness of strangers. And for all the major characters, there's salvation at the end. Even without the literary references, The Mouse and his Child is a story to read again and again.