Jonathan Raban, the Expat as Amphibian
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee.
John Donne’s poem of 1623 had a flash in the pan moment in 1940. Ernest Hemingway called his Spanish Civil War novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. There are critics today who think the title proved to be the best thing thing about the novel. The death-signalling ring of a church bell wouldn’t be heard in our cacophony whilst alternatives like “That ambulance shrieks for you” sound like the raving of a heavy metal band. Obituaries, however, never go out of fashion and grey survivors among writers are condemned to turn them out like so many groans. Weaving fond memorials hardly leaves time for one’s own dying.
Writer Jonathan Raban’s life ended in Seattle in January 2023. He was born in 1942 in Hempton, Norfolk, the son of Reverend Canon Raban, a British army captain. Jonathan spent most of his eighty years fitting his Englishness into an expatriate’s skin while trying to articulate in depth just what he was doing. The strain of his task left him often seeking oblivion by sailing the oceans of the world in solitary confinement far from all lands, mother-, father- or adopted.
Raban closes a cycle that began with our patron, Bishop Berkeley. The over-confident Irishman set out in 1728 to establish himself as a permanent resident of the New World. He intended to sprinkle the soft dew of civilization over America from his Anglo-Irish height. He would educate the native people and bring them the good news of Christianity. In his spare time he would deal in property of which there was too much for the natives to look after themselves.
It came as no surprise to harder-bitten European colonialists that Berkeley’s expat dream ended just thirty-three months later when he left his beachhead at Newport, Rhode Island to return chastened to the British Isles. He had written “Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way” but would be mum about his failed overseas escapade as he huffed and puffed in print for the rest of his life. He sounded off on much else from his tar-water panacea to the subtleties of idealist philosophy.
Both Berkeley and Raban, centuries apart, were sick with the romance of the New World. Raban had no evangelising intent, having had his fill of religion from the job his father did. Canon Raban’s role in the power structure as an army officer also left his son wary of officialdom in any form. So Jonathan Raban was unlike Berkeley who saw North America as a blank slate on which a man of substance could design a utopia that much resembled himself. Raban saw it as a smorgasbord of human diversity set in spectacular landscapes where he could find a new identity (1). His English life and, in truth, Englishness, save the language, bored him. But both the exulting imperialist and the refugee from post-imperial stagnation were dipshit crazy about America.
Raban was one of the best English stylists of the late 20th Century (2). He was also a travel writer who wished to be seen simply as a writer, one of unlimited scope (3). He was right that his books owed "something to the novel, something to the essay, something to the memoir, something to history, and biography, and criticism, and geography.” The quibble was that their very richness might have blurred their effect.
One of nature’s cuckoos, Raban was born with a yen for a foreign nest. His flirtation with North America began at seven when he was entranced by the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Mark Twain’s novel led him directly to his own adventure thirty years later. He sailed down the Mississippi from Minneapolis to New Orleans in a 16-foot aluminium skiff powered by a 15 h.p. Johnson outboard motor. His encounters with the twenty-six locks before St Louis and near obliteration by towering tugboats altered his idea of America’s pristine simplicity. He felt frail facing mid-America’s gigantism and its weather. He wrote his journey up in Old Glory: An American Voyage, 1981.
Raban’s return to England was like a retreat from an exciting but difficult paramour to resume a used-up marriage. Margaret Thatcher whom he loathed was in power and stirring up imperial nostalgia with a war against Argentina in the Falklands. In 1982, Raban sailed alone on a 32-foot restored sea-going ketch to encircle the island of Britain. In his solitude he brooded on his childhood. His father’s salary as a vicar of the Church of England was meagre and yet the family spoke and was expected to live like the upper middle-class. Jonathan was forbidden to play with children from the working class. At forty he repeated the classic complaints about the British. “[S]nobbishly wedded to an antique system of caste and class….aggressively practical and philistine….When it comes to sex, they are furtive and hypocritical….”
However, an attentive reader will sense more behind the case Raban built against England. His cuckoo nature was yearning for a new identity. In 1985 he published a novel entitled Foreign Land and it was unclear whether that alien place wasn’t England. The hero, a purebred Briton, ends by sailing off from Rye in East Sussex to a new life elsewhere. By 1986, when Raban’s 1982 trip circling Britain was published as Coasting, his decision was made. He would stop the coquetry and consummate his affair with America.
In Hunting Mister Heartbreak of 1990 he moves in for the embrace. The title came from J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur’s Letters from an American Farmer, 1782. Crèvecoeur was a French diplomat and his Letters were as much fiction as documentary. But he was the first to see Americans as the product of a “melting pot”, an idea that Raban took up and ran with. He left Liverpool on a New York bound merchant ship trying to imagine and identify with what so many immigrants had felt in the past. Once arrived he changed his role and became the visiting London literary man in Manhattan. His two-month stay proved to him that the city with its “intensity and social savagery” wasn’t the America he was after. He sought a smaller apple, a place “least like Manhattan” and went to live in Guntersville, Alabama, populated by 6,491, for the most part white supremacists. Thanks to a New Deal TVA dam built in the 1930s, it was surrounded by water that made sailing possible.
Raban had tried to get inside an immigrant’s mind. Now he identified with an outsider trying to be accepted in a small town hostile to strangers. Was he serious? Hardly. There was no real desire of this liberal Englishman to settle amongst Confederate flag wavers. He was a writer after copy. But his talent or weakness was for impersonation. After months of facing the local bigots with a non-combative smile, he finally dropped the good-guy act and took a plane for Seattle.
In his search for what Henry James called “The Great Good Place,” Raban found himself again amongst immigrants. They were the Koreans living on the Pacific Coast, and he took a sharp look at their difficulty of shifting from a rigid family orientated society to America’s free-wheeling individualism. Raban thought that Seattle might be for him the Jamesian right place:
“It was an extraordinarily soft and pliant city. If you went to New York, or to Los Angeles, or even to Guntersville, you had to fit yourself to a place whose demands were hard and explicit. You had to learn the school rules. Yet people who came to Seattle could somehow recast it in the image of home, arranging the city around themselves like so many pillows on a bed. One day you’d wake up to find things so snug and familiar that you could easily believe that you’d been born there.”
In his usual approach, he imagines he is a multitasking Seattle writer and takes a liking to himself in that new role. After a last fling in Key West, Florida, like a stag party before the wedding, he will return and give himself to Seattle “… [T]o have and to hold …for better, for worse…till death do us part….”
Of course, Seattle also gave ‘skid row’ to the language and will have “reality lessons”, in Saul Bellow’s phrase, to teach Raban. He was able to fit into the identity he imagined. His reputation in London was sturdy enough to keep British readers from forgetting him as he assumed expat status in the Pacific Northwest. In 1996, he published Bad Land: An American Journey that returned to the immigrant theme with brilliance, wrote two more novels, Waxwings and Surveillance, and much else.
For all his disregard for convention, Raban then behaved like a male Everyman. He married Jean Lenihan, a Seattle arts journalist, two decades his junior and made the late in life discovery of fatherhood, becoming obsessed with the role and his daughter Julia. This entailed a realm on dry land with a house on Queen Anne Hill and all the vexations of a householder. Being a rooted resident of Seattle deprived the city of its great-good-place allure. It became just another urban backdrop in the struggle for existence and the odd marital skirmish. Raban, at 54, could no longer flit at a whim onto his 35-foot ketch to commune with the sea.
Nevertheless, on April 1, 1996, he set out, on a solo voyage that would provide the frame for Passage to Juneau: A Sea and Its Meanings of 1999.
“Traveling always entails infidelity. You do your best to mask the feeling of sly triumph that comes with turning your back on home and all it stands for; but disappearing into the crowd in the departure lounge, or stowing your bags in the car at dawn, you know you’re a rat. I was an experienced deserter, but never until now had I been squarely faced with my treachery.”
The journey was from Seattle to Alaska through the Inside Passage. The route stretches for a thousand miles often in the open sea but more often in backwater between the much indented mainland and a multitude of islands large and small. It suited Raban who was an unhurried seaman with one observant eye on the land and the other on himself.
The trip to Alaska was full of much more than Raban at the tiller acquainting us with the moods of the sea. Solitary, he came to a conclusion about himself:
“Escape, rebellion, the cult of the new life at the expense of the old, were the commanding American themes….Leaving Britain for the United States was an attempt to make a clean break with my past, as going to Canada never could have been. In Seattle, I thought, I could shake off the dust of England and make a fresh start. Late in my day as it was, I heard America’s old cracked siren-call and believed that over there I might yet accomplish something new and unexpected.”
His stopovers ashore introduced dozens of characters. The shoreline had belonged to Indian tribes whose past and present Raban sets down with concern and erudition. He interweaves his voyage with a similar one that the explorer Captain George Vancouver made in 1791-95 on HMS Discovery. Raban’s encounter with Alaska doesn’t hide the raw vulgarity of the predatory population who live there dependant on tourists whom they have good reason to despise.
Raban had to interrupt his journey half-way through to fly to England where his father was dying. The meeting with his English family that he treated harshly in his books wasn’t easy. It added to the perturbation he felt resuming his Alaska trip. He especially missed his daughter Julia and arranged for her and her mother, Jean, to fly to meet him in Juneau. Nerves stretched, he prepared their arrival with care.
It turned out to be a disaster. Julie hadn’t changed but Jean was all gloom. Her first words were a rehearsed speech about wanting a separation.
"I have to take charge of my own life. I can't go on depending on you for handouts like I've been doing. I have to get my shit together. Like, get a real job.”
Raban listened in shock.
Then Jean added, the knockout blow, “I need to forge a new identity.”
“…America as the land of perpetual self-reinvention had always been my theme. Whenever there had been walking-out to do, I was the one who walked. Now Jean had seen a new life and was going for it, exactly as I had done in the past. Her cruel, cold dismissal reminded me uncomfortably of me.”
Despite his total disarray, especially the fear of losing contact with his daughter— “for me the great reason for existence”— Raban later reflected how he remained a professional:
“It’s the great consolation of the writer, I think, You’re given these catastrophes—and they’re gifts. There was a bit of me that was thinking ‘God, this is going to be good for the book.’”
And it’s in his thinking about writing that Raban has much to offer. He throws light on the too facile distinction made between fiction and non-fiction. Like the travel section in bookshops, it’s a gross simplification.
Of his books, the battle-weary expat says,“That one is a novel and one is ‘nonfiction’ seems to me a rather tiresome librarians' distinction, and I wish they could be shelved side by side, where they belong.”
Raban’s approach breaks down the categories. He gives himself to life for a certain time in an open-minded, vacant way with no thought of writing up his doings. Afterward, in another mood, perhaps a year or two later, he remembers the past and tries to find a spine of meaning in it. If successful, he sets about to reconstruct the events that clothe it—what happened. The place will be real but seen very much with his eyes. Some of the people will be real and others unreal. Raban calls this fictionalised non-fiction or the “shaping” of experience. Before we reject it as verbal sleight of hand we should remember just how memory works, and that Raban writes from memory and not from a notebook:
“Memory and imagination are inseparable powers. Memory shapes, distills, exaggerates, orders—and ruthlessly loses what it doesn't need for its own storytelling purposes. I wouldn't trust memory in a courtroom but I trust it absolutely in a book.”
Of course, the malicious will ask if Jean, ex-wife to be, didn’t shape her memory of arriving in Juneau quite differently.
1. The expat Raban never melted down entirely in the American cooking pot. He held the British middle-class in contempt but wouldn’t dilute their plummy accent with mid-Atlantic leakage. His speech identified him as foreign to the multitude of Americans he chatted up from Manhattan to Alaska. Likewise with his writing. He said of his second novel:
"I am an English writer living in America, but very much an English writer. I see Waxwings as an English novel set in America. While I was writing it, I put myself on a solid diet of PG Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh and EM Forster - a diet about as English as you could get.”
2. Virtuoso prose flares up everywhere in Raban. Countless have been the lovers of the sea. Here in Passage to Juneau Raban embraces it with love-hate:
“I fear the brushfire crackle of the breaking wave as it topples into foam; the inward suck of the tidal whirlpool; the loom of a big ocean swell, sinister and dark, in windless calm; the rip, the eddy, the race; the sheer abyssal depth of the water, as one floats, like a trustful beetle planting its feet on the surface tension. Rationalism deserts me at sea.”
The first lines of Bad Land as he drives through eastern Montana are unforgettable:
“Breasting the regular swells of land, on a red dirt road as true as a line of longitude, the car was like a boat at sea. The ocean was hardly more solitary than this empty country, where in forty miles or so I hadn’t seen another vehicle. A warm westerly blew over the prairie, making waves, and when I wound down the window I heard it growl in the dry grass like surf. For gulls, there were killdeer plovers, crying out their name as they wheeled and skidded on the wind. Keel-dee-a! Keel-dee-da! The surface of the land was as busy as a rough sea—it broke in sandstone outcrops, low buttes, ragged bluffs, hollow combers of bleached clay, and was fissured with waterless creek beds, ash-white, littered with boulders. Brown cows nibbled at their shadows on the open range. In the bottomlands, where muddy rivers trickled through the cottonwoods, were fenced rectangles of irrigated green.”
3. Raban thought ‘travel writer’ a term of “literary abuse” and travel books “literature’s house of ill repute”. His calling wasn’t “to write up meals and hotels in foreign holiday resorts….” He didn’t abandon his books to their own defence but pleaded his case. He called himself “a human geographer,” one “who wrote about place—about people’s place in place, and their displacement in it….” It wasn’t only that he didn’t wish to be sidelined to the travel section of bookshops. He wanted to join the lineage of Michel de Montaigne whom he quotes in his novel Surveillance. Jonathan Raban would have appreciated the irony of his obituaries. Even the high-end sheets headlined, “Travel Writer Dies”.