Jonathan Raban was largely responsible for changing the nature of travel writing. Back in the 1970s when he began, the genre still viewed the world from under the tilt of a Panama hat. (‘I looked at the tops of the columns. Were they Doric or Ionic?’) It was considered as ill-bred for a writer to reveal anything about themselves as to have illustrations — ‘the best travel books never do’.
Raban tore a lot of this up, and with glee. He had worked closely with confessional poets from America like Robert Lowell and John Berryman, producing what is still one of the best essays on Lowell’s late poems about his messy divorce. He had even been Lowell’s lodger for a while. Now he took the same transatlantic approach to travel writing, and elicited the same chorus of disapproval the poets had experienced for being so personal. Yet it was patently as absurd for a writer not to tell the reader if he was going through some emotional turmoil as it would be for a traveller not to tell a companion on that same journey. Even if they were English.
He also took as his subject matter not the Mediterranean or the Middle East, the traditional stomping ground for the men in linen suits, but the brash new world. He returned to America again and again with something of the questioning obsession that Naipaul brought to his books on India.
The best of all his American books is perhaps Hunting Mister Heartbreak, which takes its title from a poem by John Berryman. At the start of the book he announces that there is a sentence which always stirs the imagination of Europe and which promises to deliver the unexpected: ‘Having arrived in Liverpool, I took ship for the New World.’ Raban unpicks the appeal of these lines. It is not just that they are ‘so jaunty, so unreasonably larger than life’. It is that what turned the Atlantic passage into the great European adventure was not so much the nature of the country that awaited the immigrants as the character of the ocean, ‘a space too big for you to be able to imagine yourself across’.
And this has been Raban’s other great obsession: the sea. He recounts in his collected essays For Love & Money, the nearest he has come to an autobiography, how he first came across sailing by accident when on a journalistic commission; and discovered that being on a small boat in a big ocean suited both him and his writing. The element of risk and unpredictability prevented any journey from becoming stale.
For Coasting, he set off around the shores of Britain just as the Falklands War was starting and so the book became an extended meditation on a country he saw as ‘a dark smear between the sea and the sky like the track of a grubby finger across a windowpane — a distant, northern land’. It was ‘a test, a reckoning, a voyage of territorial conquest, a homecoming’. At one point, he hallucinated that his small boat had actually stood still and the entire landmass of England was steaming past him to head south and take part in the conflict. He has never been afraid of such bold literary strokes. As his writing matured, you could see him adopt some of the cadences of Robert Lowell’s poetry: the sudden shifts of thought and attention from the personal to the political, from history to the here and now.
There is a trope which often recurs in Raban’s sailing books. A spell of bad weather upsets his cabin so that books and possessions are flung about. As he tries to restore order, his thoughts inevitably turn to the disruptions in his own life, like the divorces and his difficult, distant father. But then, before he can become too maudlin, the title of one of the books will suggest a renewed investigation of that subject and he will surge away on a tide of intellectual curiosity.
As these beautifully reissued editions from Eland show, Raban’s muscular and intelligent style remains an inspiration. Even his asides are glorious, as when he tries to make eye contact with New Yorkers at a subway entrance and ‘they swerve away in their sockets, as quick as fish’.
In his books he always pursues the detailed and sustained interrogation of a country and of himself: how America worked; what it wanted; what he wanted from it. He was never content merely to observe, let alone grandstand over some epic journeys, although his sailing exploits off the coast of Alaska and journey right down the Mississippi command respect for the achievement as much as for the writing.
Old Glory, the book that resulted from that journey down the Mississippi, was a bestseller of its day in 1981 and established him as a master of his craft in every sense. Along with Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin, he helped revive travel writing as a flexible form with infinite literary possibilities.
Despite the most English of roots — he was the middle-class son of an Anglican vicar — he fell in love both with America and an American and, this being confessional travel writing, paid equal attention to both the country and the marriage in the resulting books. He now lives in Seattle and despite ill-health has continued to produce both novels and essays.
Without Raban and his cohort, we would have no ‘psychogeography’, no Geoff Dyer playing coy games with his persona in Jeff in Venice, no Cheryl Strayed licking her emotional wounds in Wild. Some, of course, may blame him for this. But the best travel writing, he constantly reminds us, is more than just looking out of the window. It means also looking at our own reflections.