The death earlier this week of Jonathan Raban has been announced. He was a well known British-born writer of travel books and novels, although according to several of his obituaries he objected to his works being labelled “travel books”. The New York Times obit, for example, explained:
Mr. Raban’s literary narratives of the places he visited and the people he met combined travelogue, memoir, reportage and criticism. What he was not, he insisted, was a travel writer.
“Travel writing seems to me a too-big umbrella, full of holes to let the rain in,” he told Granta magazine in 2008. “Anyone commissioned by a newspaper to write up meals and hotels in foreign holiday resorts is a travel writer. Anyone who does a guidebook is a travel writer.”
He had an affinity for V.S. Naipaul, Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin, whose books take the reader to places far and wide but transcend the travel genre.
“Chatwin and Sebald knew that ‘travel book’ and ‘travel writing’ were terms of literary abuse and did their best to rescue their books from the category,” Mr. Raban said in the interview. “I know that feeling.”
Waugh also distinguished his “travel books” such as Labels, Robbery Under Law and A Tourist in Africa, which were written to order under contracts with e.g. shipping companies, from his other travel writings such as Remote People, Ninety Two Days and Waugh in Abyssinia. While not disowning the former three commissioned works, he did take care to exclude excerpts of the first two from the 1946 collection When the Going Was Good. No doubt, the later-published A Tourist in Africa would have suffered the same fate had it been written before the war.
The most detailed of the obituaries was that appearing in the Guardian. This also addresses the same issue discussed in the NY Times and goes on to discuss Raban’s less well-known fiction:
His first novel, Foreign Land (1985), follows an eccentric expat Englishman, George Grey, who leaves the Caribbean to return home, much to the consternation of his daughter, and sail a just-bought boat around Britain. Raban recapitulated the story himself in Coasting, in which he sails around the country, which, as the Falklands war erupts, seems an increasingly insular island nation. The book marks the perfecting of his classic English voice, that of the friendly faux-bumbler whose self-deprecation is itself a form of humble-brag, which has served British humour from Arthur Marshall to Bill Bryson; it made him a neutral sort of observer to Americans he met…
His 2003 novel, Waxwings, takes its butterfly title from Nabokov’s Pale Fire: “I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure of the window pane.” Drawing on Bad Land, it is the story of an expat Hungarian-British man, in the dot.com boomtown that is Seattle, with an American wife, and an illegal Chinese immigrant worker who begins reconstructing his house. Raban was a distant relative of Evelyn Waugh, and the book recalls Waugh’s Men at Arms, where the social whirl does not stop for the newly launched war. My Holy War (2006), about the 9/11 attack and the US invasion of Iraq, was almost a companion piece.
In 2006 he published his third novel, Surveillance, in which a journalist tracks down a reclusive writer who has been kept hidden by his publisher lest he destroy the credibility of his Holocaust memoir. Its prime concern is the many-faceted ambiguity of liberty in the war on terror. “The world changed,” he said. “It didn’t change with 9/11. It changed with the Patriot Act, with the homeland security measures and the war on terror.”
The Daily Telegraph also contributes an interesting discussion.
Raban had settled in Seattle after a divorce from his third wife and helped to raise their daughter from that marriage who also lived there. His writing career was interrupted by a serious stroke in 2011. Although he continued to contribute book reviews and articles to literary journals (particularly the New York Review of Books), no new book has appeared since he suffered the stroke. Fortunately, this book drought is about to break with the appearance later this year of his autobiographical memoir to be entitled Father and Son.