Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Jonathan Raban

A recent interview in the Guardian told me something that I had feared - Jonathan Raban has been ill. In fact the piece chronicles his recovery from a very serious stroke in 2011.

I have taken my time reading through the Raban catalogue. Part of this may be that the idea of reaching a point where there will be no more Raban to read fills me with pain.

Some people are universally acknowledged as great authors; they often receive awards and prizes. Raban has had his share of such.

My connection started with a review. The review in a newspaper in 1999 was so enthusiastic I felt I had to order it at once in hardback. I did and read half of it over the next few nights, before sleep. Then I decided it was too good to read that way. It needed to be finished uninterrupted and not tired - preferably sitting by the sea. I did that.

Passage to Juneau is a travel book, the story of Raban repeating a yacht journey from Seattle to Juneau in Alaska, reading and reflecting on the works and diaries about the journey along the way and encountering people as he sought harbour. It was also a commentary on where he was with his relationships and a marriage coming to an end. But mostly, it was a series of sentences every one of which was better than any sentence I have ever managed. It was a writer's book. A book for people who like to write. In the company of writers I can read about almost anything. Even boats and travel.

I discovered the huge back catalogue of Raban's writings from the jacket. It was a 'Why did nobody tell me?' moment.

I chose a work of fiction next - Surveillance. Again it was an experience of great writing. It was a giant metaphor for the way, in post 9/11 USA, everybody was watching each other suspiciously. It was still relatively early in the days when prospective dates googled each other.

It was a story about journalism, secrets and relationships. I loved it.

And currently I am reading Driving Home, which is a collection of Raban's journalism in newspaper and magazine. It includes reviews of books, people and places.

You mean that's it? Indeed. So why am I writing about an author of whom I have read two and a half books? Well, it's so you get to start earlier than me. And also because of a sentence in Driving Home. Some context.

I have never heard of, nor read anything by, William Gaddis. And, in effect, the piece Raban wrote for the New York Review of Books called At Home in Babel in 1994 tells me not to bother. Speaking of two Gaddis novels Raban says:

'Scaling The Recognitions and JR, one keeps coming on the remains of earlier readers who lost their footing and perished in the assent.'

Gaddis is going to be tough going. And with other authors this sentence is cruel. In Raban's hands it is an invitation. He goes on to extract the juice from the best of Gaddis' work in such a way as to leave the Raban reader thinking they might dare become a Gaddis reader. Because Raban is, and I think this is the point, a generous writer. He writes to find the good, the best, in people, places, journeys and books. If Jonathan Raban will hold my hand I, not much of a traveller, can journey.

So even though I am new to him and inexperienced I hope he lives long enough to write so much more that, if I read slowly enough I will never run out. I think that's a prayer.

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