Blessed with a lyrical flowing style, Jonathan Raban published nine travel books and three novels in his lifetime. He left Britain – and his second wife – in 1990 to emigrate to the American west coast and was drawn to Seattle where he lived until his death in January this year aged 80.
Raban was noted for his pitch-perfect ear for dialogue and flights of the imagination, but also for evocative powers and sardonic humour. Aside from early academic monographs and plays, he wrote literary criticism and compiled anthologies. His first non-academic book Soft City (1974) was a meditation on the impersonality of cities, while Arabia Through the Looking Glass (1979), about Middle East culture, was acclaimed by the critics.
He is best known for his journeys by boat, his so-called “narrative vehicle”. An acute prose is evident when he chugged Huck-Finn style down the steamy Mississippi for Old Glory (1981). This was followed five years later year by Coasting, for which he sailed alone in a two-masted ketch around Thatcher’s Britain at the height of the Falklands War. In 1990 Hunting Mister Heartbreak documented the story of his crossing the Atlantic in a container ship, while Passage to Juneau (1999) is based on a treacherous journey along an old fishing route from Washington’s Puget Sound to the Alaskan Panhandle.
A quixotic and nomadic seafaring writer, Raban was fascinated by the lives of the people he met. Frequently he digresses into documentary reportage, navigation, art and philosophy. However, he bridled at being called a travel writer because he found the term too limiting. His style was far removed from the gimmicky quip-lash writers of the 1990s, and he regarded his work as an open literary form with wide parameters that allowed him to write between genres. In Passage to Juneau, framed by the failure of his third marriage and the death of his father, he broke his journey to return to England for the funeral, devoting a lengthy chapter in the book about their troubled relationship.
This is the fertile material that Raban develops for his posthumous memoir, an amalgam of reminiscence, history and parental influence. The spotlight is mainly on his relationship with his father, Peter, a British army captain during the second World War who later became a canon in the Church of England. Raised in an Anglican vicarage in Norfolk and moving around various parish postings, the young boy grew up with a sentimental version of England’s past but rebelled against the pretensions of his upbringing.
Alternating chapters deal with his time in hospital, contemplation of his early days and his father’s wartime service, making it two books in one. The opening sentence grabs the reader: “I was transformed into an old man quite suddenly, on June 11, 2011, three days short of my sixty-ninth birthday.” He describes how he suffered a stroke at his home which was diagnosed as a double haemorrhage in his skull. This left one side of his body paralysed and as a hemiplegic confined him to a wheelchair.
His thought-provoking approach, with trademark whimsy, illustrates his watchful eye. He writes of his time spent in intensive care, followed by six weeks in rehab, which he said was his first real experience of institutionalised life since boarding school in Worcester. And he was offended by a nurse who asked him: “Do you want to go potty now?”
With a powerful sense of sailing deep into his past, he recounts childhood life in Norfolk during the war years, looking back at high teas of grilled sardines with his granny. His father kept a “mighty archive” of letters and aerogrammes, which his son has plundered, quoting correspondence when his parents were courting. They show the texture of life in England with worries by his mother, Monica, over furnishing their house and income tax issues.
Army censorship forbade him to mention placenames or troop movements in his letters, so his epistles are declarations of undying love for Monica. Composed while in dugouts at the Battle of Anzio, he indulged at night in “a regular tryst of marital telepathy”. His son refers to one nine-page letter of his father’s as a long sermon, and analyses their literary merit, referring to them as “verbal artefacts” liking them to arias in a libretto.
A word stylist, Raban writes with delicacy but over-uses the phrase “it must have seemed”, while his prose is sometimes florid. He is frequently melancholic and meditative, but his distinctive writing is characterised by precision and clarity.