25 January 2023

Jonathan Raban



Jonathan Raban died last week.  He was eighty – not a bad run.  He didn’t hit my radar until Old Glory, but certainly other people knew who he was already.  He resisted being called a travel writer; like Bruce Chatwin, he was somewhat sui generis, a writer of moods, and weather, sudden storms and inner barometrics.  He wasn’t always the easiest guy to get along with, it’s said, but he gave as good as he got.

Old Glory is about a boat trip down the Mississippi, an homage to Mark Twain and Huck Finn, and it establishes the narrative persona Raban adopts as his continuing cover, skeptical and na├»ve, transparent and concealed, a way of revealing himself, the traveler not so much a catalyst as a blank sheet of paper.  We might be reminded of Twain in Roughing It, as well, neither of them ready to spoil a good story for lack of the facts. 

This bemused self-deprecation is of course a fiction, or a convenience, it wears out its welcome – it’s maybe a Brit thing, too, that affectation – and Raban discards it, later on.  By the time of Passage to Juneau, eighteen years on, the voice is no longer passive, and it’s fairly caustic, a burden of greater self-awareness.  Juneau is about transition, voyage as metaphor, and ends in personal loss.  Raban puts irony aside, and steps out of hiding, from behind the literary device, and a safer distance.  It’s unnerving, a closer intimacy than perhaps we bargained for, accustomed to chilly remove. 

Somewhere in the middle, he wrote the novel Foreign Land and a memoir, Coasting, which are back-to-back, and hold a mirror up to one another.  Both books are about a sailing trip around the coastline of Britain.  Coasting also serves up a savage take-down of Margaret Thatcher and the British national blood-lust over the Falklands.  Foreign Land is more muted and less tethered to any specific politics, and for my money, a good deal more affecting; it has a specific warmth, generous and without grievance. 

He called the lure of the open road (or the open water) a path to “escape, freedom, and solitude.”  He seems to have had a less than joyful childhood, and his taking leave of things is a constant, one restless eye always tipped toward the horizon.  I wish him, at the end, safe harbor. 



1 comment:

  1. I haven't read Jonathan Raban - I'll check him out. I did enjoy Chatwin's works, as well as Paul Theroux (both travel and novels - "Saint Jack" is a wonder), but my favorite has always been Peter Matthiessen (not his novels, but oh, "The Tree Where Man Was Born" and "The Snow Leopard" among others...).

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