One morning in June 2011 the British writer Jonathan Raban woke with a bewildering sense of frailty and lost balance. As he climbed the stairs to the third floor of his house in Seattle, the city he’d made his home since 1990, his left shoulder “kept on bumping against the wall”; at supper that evening the knife in his right hand slid uselessly across his meal, “flatly refus[ing] to carry out the order transmitted to it from my brain.” Just shy of his sixty-ninth birthday he’d suffered a hemorrhagic stroke, paralyzing his right side. It was a condition from which he never fully recovered.
Raban, who died in January 2023 at the age of eighty, was perhaps the most subtle and percipient writer on travel of his generation. He hated the term “travel writer,” which seemed to him to constrict and trivialize the profession, and once referred to travel writing—with approval—as “a notoriously raffish open house where very different genres are likely to end up in the same bed.” He himself was a novelist, a playwright, an essayist, and a critic, but throughout the 1980s, together with Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin, he was credited with reviving travel writing as a literary genre. There were notable practitioners in the generation before him (Patrick Leigh Fermor, Jan Morris, Norman Lewis, and Ryszard Kapuściński spring to mind), but Raban’s brilliantly digressive, sometimes confessional style—with its descriptive exactitude and sardonic undertow—signaled new possibilities.
I first met him when he was a lodger with Robert Lowell in London in the early 1970s. Lowell had responded warmly to Raban’s radio review of Notebook (they then went fishing together), and they remained friends through Lowell’s return to the States in 1977, the last year of his life. For Raban the US held a special allure. Compared with a seemingly stagnant England, he relished America’s vigor, its emotive landscapes and shifting migrations. In Old Glory (1981) he sailed down the Mississippi in a sixteen-foot aluminum skiff; Hunting Mister Heartbreak (1990) was a footloose reimagining of immigrant experience, from New York to Alabama, the Florida Keys to Seattle; Bad Land (1996) explored eastern Montana and the disillusioned dreams of its early-twentieth-century settlers; and Passage to Juneau (1999) recorded a thousand-mile sea voyage along the Inside Passage to Alaska, a journey interrupted by his father’s death and ending with his third wife leaving him.
Writing, for Raban, was all-consuming. In the grueling twelve-year aftermath of his stroke he wrote Father and Son: A Memoir, composing it with voice dictation software. It is, typically, an ambitious and multifaceted work. In forty-three alternating chapters Raban describes two disparate ordeals: his own six-week experience in a rehabilitation ward and his father’s experience as a young artillery officer in France, Tunisia, and Italy during World War II. Both men are wrenched from accustomed life, and both survive the dislocation.
But there the parallel ends. Raban’s father, Peter, fought a grinding and often dangerous war. He enlisted in 1939, the year he turned twenty-one, and endured the debacle of the British Expeditionary Force in May 1940, retreating out of Belgium before a blitzkrieg of German tanks and Stukas. At Dunkirk his unit managed to board a destroyer back to England and en route rescued a sinking passenger ship packed with two thousand French soldiers. In February 1943 his regiment sailed for Algiers and fought in the arduous campaign that saw the Axis armies capitulate at Tunis. Eight months later he was serving in Italy, at the beleaguered beachhead of Anzio, from which the Allies broke out toward Rome only after months of entrapment.
Peter Raban was doggedly courageous. His was the most dangerous job in an artillery regiment, establishing an elevated observation post close to enemy lines, or even within them, to call down artillery fire on a calibrated target. But he recorded his experiences only sparsely, in abbreviated notes made more than fifty years after the war, so that his son often has recourse to the more expansive memoirs of fellow soldiers fighting in the same campaigns. With these, and with his own research, Jonathan injects his father’s ground-level story into the setting of the wider war.
Above all, Father and Son relies on a cache of family letters. All through the war Peter Raban was writing home to his young wife, Monica, whom he married in March 1941; Jonathan was born in June 1942, less than a year before his father’s departure for North Africa. Such letters were heavily censored and betray nothing of Peter’s situation or of any danger. (Curiously, my own father fought at Anzio, too, and my mother read letters blotted by the censorial pen.)
Peter’s letters to his wife, in their loving passion, were a revelation to his son. Jonathan did not recognize the lovesick artillery captain at all. His father’s occasional letters to him at boarding school in the 1950s, he recalls, had been uniformly chilly. But his mother’s letters back to his father brimmed with reciprocal passion, and sometimes with near-hysterical grief at their separation. Raban writes soberly:
Reading these letters, I tremble for the flesh-and-blood couple who will have to live up to the ideal they are setting for themselves in their writing when they eventually meet again in person. Letters, however intimate or conversational, are formal, considered verbal artifacts, and my parents’ letters are like arias in a libretto—moving when performed on stage with an orchestra, but touched with the absurd when acted off it.
All this threatens to reduce Raban’s own rehab experience in Seattle to a trivial sideshow. In his drastic depletion, he charts its day-to-day drudgery with obsessive precision. But if this is a story in a minor key, its author’s alert intelligence, his prickly sensitivity, his roller coaster of small triumphs and setbacks, create their own claustrophobic drama.
The stroke’s initial shock leaves him curiously lightheaded—a common symptom—and tearful at any sentimental incitement, a mood of irrational well-being that intermittently persists:
I could make light of the paralysis. My life, such as it was, had always taken place primarily inside my head; my body, with its hungers, aches and upsets, was the mind’s inconvenient accessory. So long as my brain was intact (and it remained to be seen if, or how far, that was true), I could get by…. The elation hasn’t completely abandoned me even now, more than twelve years later.
This lightness was accompanied at first by periods of overwhelming lethargy. His thought processes, he felt, were unaffected, but numbers were a near mystery. He couldn’t add or subtract or remember them. During four sessions of occupational and physical therapy each day he felt himself almost helpless. His brain might send orders to a right-side limb, but the limb would not respond. One night he felt that he was at last opening and closing his right fist; then he looked down and saw the hand utterly inert, and “the sensation of movement began to die in my head.”
Laboriously, the regime of physical therapy trained him to lever himself from wheelchair to bed or lavatory and back, and even, for a few fearful steps, to walk with a cane. The final challenge was to climb and (especially) descend steps, if he were to return to the steep stairs of his own home. The threat of having to endure assisted living spurred him on.
He was doubtless a troublesomely thin-skinned invalid—“even in the fog of annoyance and fatigue I was aware that I was being a lousy patient”—and the hospital staff fall unwittingly under his hawk’s eye. His response to those he likes is visceral and immediate, “established in every instance by the briefest possible signals exchanged on our first meeting—a tone of voice, a casual remark…and the same applied to those to whom I had taken an instant dislike.” He warms to several of his nurses, to the nerdish occupational therapist who practices electronic stimulation, and above all to his attractive physical therapist, whose bell-like laugh lifts his susceptible spirits. But others—the overbearing, the condescending—rankle him unbearably, including the woodenly insensitive ward psychologist.
In his fragile state, this fiercely proud and independent man bridles at the infantilizing language of some of the staff (“Do you want to go potty now?” “You wiped yourself?”) and at their speaking as if he wasn’t there or wasn’t quite responsible. And the redbrick hospital reminds him bitterly of his hated boarding school. Even the patients’ uniforms of elasticated sweatpants and the routine disruption of nurses’ checkups seem an assault on his dignity.
Above all he wants to understand what has happened to him. He fears that the hemorrhage in the left hemisphere of his brain must have damaged his vital skills of writing and memory, but he cannot be sure. At worst, after falling out with a temporary therapist, he loses all confidence:
I had no way of telling if the stroke was the cause of my brain turning into mush, or if the stroke was merely coincidental and the real cause was my reintroduction to life in a prison substitute, for the first time since I was unwillingly sent off to boarding school at the age of eleven. Certainly my symptoms now closely resembled those I experienced then, a kind of mental unraveling and an achingly deep self-mistrust.
Interleaved with this ordeal and with his father’s war are Raban’s childhood memories. His modest home in a Norfolk village—a rural hamlet smelling of horse dung and the local gasworks—is gilded, at first, in the seemingly exclusive love of son and mother. He conjures a rural England that already seems remote: a country of petrol rationing and horse-drawn plows and milk floats. A German prisoner of war camp in the village has, in December 1945, not yet been closed down. Its former inmates, awaiting repatriation, crowd the shops and teach the little boy to sing “Stille Nacht,” while American GIs from the neighboring air base scatter candy to the local kids. Also potent in the boy’s memory is his mother’s Ford Popular, smelling of dog and leather, for which she saved up gas coupons. Visits by this jalopy to a grandmother carry memories of a seashore where the barbed wire and antitank blocks are just being cleared away, and where rock pools shine to his boy’s eye with secret, depthless life.
For the sickly child (suffering from a mysterious wasting disease), this was a time of cosseted bliss, when he enjoyed his mother’s exclusive attention and his father was no more than “a distant rumor.” But Raban’s later, colder eye sees his mother’s devotion as intimately linked to anxiety at her husband’s wartime absence, and her lovingly voiced enthusiasms as in part the affectations of her Swiss finishing school. In Raban’s precocious memory she listens two or three times a day to BBC News on the mysterious apparatus called the wireless, trying to glean clues of Peter’s fate and whereabouts.
Other memories flare up in isolation. On Victory Day the boy Raban, not yet three years old, is standing in pajamas at his bedroom window, looking down at the celebrations and longing to join the village lads scampering below (his class-conscious mother has long ago warned him against playing with them). Another time he finds a gas mask in the dining room dresser and tries it on, thrilled by his transformation. But the sight of him in it reduces his mother to convulsive sobs. In another shocking image he remembers the “village idiot” (a common term then) routinely tethered to a stake on the village green—a teenage boy “put out to grass like a goat,” circling it helplessly.
Then, in December 1945, after postwar service in Palestine, his father returns home, arriving on the local platform in a thundercloud of engine smoke. In Passage to Juneau Raban writes:
My father unbent himself—in sections, like a crane—to lift me up level with his face. The ascent was dizzying for me, the ground plummeting away beneath my feet. He was all bristles; his chin blue from the journey, his uniform as rough as cornstalks. I dimly recognized the fruity smell of his pipe tobacco. Riding insecurely on this giant’s shoulders, I was seized with panic.
It was the classic experience of World War infants. Into their Eden comes a shattering stranger, to whom their mother is inexplicably attached. Already his father’s letters to his wife had intimated that the infant Jonathan would get in the way of their relationship: a cuckoo in the nest.
Raban’s father seems to have elicited a lifelong obsession in his son. He occupies some twenty pages in Coasting (1986), on the ruminative circumnavigation of Britain, and twice as many in Passage to Juneau, the voyage that was interrupted by his death and funeral. The letters quoted in Father and Son still rankle Jonathan. The sense of alienation and displacement endured:
He and I would be strangers to each other until late in my adolescence and his late forties, when, with my financial independence taken care of, thanks to a generous local-government student grant, we fell into a sort of reserved mutual regard.
Yet apart from their private passion, these letters, together with his son’s judgment, portray a rather wooden man, repressed and conformist. It is hard to warm to him. His lack of a university education harrows him; his petty snobberies suggest class insecurity; and he is ready prey to the prejudices of his time. The messages from his final wartime months in Palestine are full of thieving Arabs (“wogs”) and avaricious Jews. “It all depends on one’s own preference,” he wrote, “& mine is for neither.” After the war, to his small son’s confused awe, he became a priest—at first rigidly Anglo-Catholic, sporting a bat-like cape in his parish streets and writing Latinate pastoral letters that later draw his son’s derision, but then, increasingly politicized under the influence of a grim urban posting, his beliefs growing more nuanced and less absolute.
Raban’s mother, by contrast, remains in the shadows. The child of an unhappy marriage (as was Raban’s father), she seems to have been an anxious and rather beautiful woman whose devotion to her husband endured beyond his death, her last years divided between grief and Alzheimer’s. But when young she wrote romance stories under a pen name for Horner’s Weekly, a women’s magazine—stories she later disparaged (though she was able to buy the Ford Popular with the money she made from them)—and her letters are often sprightly and imaginative. It was from her, not his father, Raban supposes, that his writing talent came.
Lost memory was Raban’s deepest fear: “several billion neurons had spilled out of my brain, but no one could tell me…which functions had gone with them.” Personal immobility he felt he could endure, but to live without writing, without reading, would be a premature death, and his memoir fills with an eclectic crowd of books: books that were important to his father, snatches of remembered poetry, writers fleetingly mentioned (Siegfried Sassoon, Evelyn Waugh, Philip Larkin), and others who generate longer judgments (Henry Williamson, David Foster Wallace). Surprisingly there is no mention of Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son or of Samuel Butler’s semiautobiographical The Way of All Flesh, works haunted by paternal dominance.
In the hospital Raban took refuge in writers ranging from Anthony Trollope to the historian Tony Judt—in particular Judt’s 2005 Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, “a long book that covered my own lifetime and a good test of my working brain cells after the stroke.” He continued to read The New York Times, The Guardian, and The New York Review of Books, for which he wrote over some thirty years. And inevitably he sought out any work about his own condition.
He found an early exemplar in the eighteenth-century critic and lexicographer Dr. Samuel Johnson. Waking without the power of speech one morning in 1783, Johnson at once diagnosed a “paralytick stroke.” Then he composed a prayer in Latin to test his mental state. He did this easily and was reassured by his powers of judgment that it was not very good. Despite physicians “blistering” his head and back with crushed beetles, the overweight doctor recovered within a few days, mounting stairs and a ladder to visit a friend in a garret, to the admiring envy of Raban.
Henry James becomes another exemplar, sadder and more intimately troubling. James suffered a stroke in the closing weeks of 1915, leaving his speech intact but his left side paralyzed. In the following days his mind lapsed into confusion, yet his secretary faithfully recorded his words. They are a tragic flow of nonsense sentences, yet couched in the master’s grand, elaborate manner, as if style were the last faculty to die. Raban, like James’s family, would have wanted them suppressed.
One of the rare accounts of a stroke that Raban admired was Sheila Hale’s The Man Who Lost His Language (2002). Her husband, the eminent Renaissance historian Sir John Hale, was struck by aphasia at the age of sixty-eight, his speech reduced to a single, baffling phrase. In her book she movingly probes the infinitely complex neural relationship between intellect and language in an attempt to understand and cure his state. But Raban’s symptoms were not Hale’s. Raban’s language was lucid, but his body stricken.
For Raban a hard, deep solace came in the work of Judt, whose clear mind endured through his decline from a motor neuron disease, ALS, until his death in 2010. In a spirit sympathetic to Raban, Judt had chronicled his own dying with clinical precision. At night, paralyzed from the neck down, he would imagine himself back in the Swiss holiday chalet of his boyhood and people its rooms with memories and words that became essays in these pages. Raban writes:
For the last decade plus, I’ve looked up to Judt as a mentor and alter ego. He puts to shame my own disablement and reminds me of just how lucky I am to live in writerly solitude on my own terms still. I never met him in the flesh, but his voice, quiet, even-toned, donnish…is a regular visitor to my workroom.
Raban, of course, is exercising his own memory in Father and Son, and the unknowability of memory’s loss pervades his book. Every writing day for more than eleven years, he says, he has asked himself the question “What have I lost?”
The only, tentative reply might come from Father and Son itself. The sudden confinement for a man who loved autonomy and the sea (although he also claimed to fear it) restricts Raban’s descriptive scope to a drab rehabilitation ward. But almost from the first his recollections play out on the page in intimate episodes and images. In the few digressions that describe remembered travel, his familiar talents return. His recollection of driving eastward across Washington State—from rainforest to sagebrush, secular urbanites to a landscape of believers, Democrat to Republican—is replete with evoked landscape, a complex human geography, and a needling critique of intrusive industry. “Driving east one summer twilight into the encroaching darkness,” he writes,
I picked up an English-speaking radio station from the medley of Spanish-speaking voices on the FM band. A phone-in show was going on, with the host performing live exorcisms on his callers: in his commanding basso profundo, he ordered the evil spirit that had taken up lodgings inside a youngish-sounding woman’s heart to be on its way at this very instant…. The fast-failing light and speeding sagebrush gave their own sinister context to the drama on the car radio, and that broadcast from long ago has haunted my view of eastern Washington ever since.
Such journeys energized his practice as a writer. He made notes, but neglected them in favor of a kind of mental gestation that would order and give meaning to his experience. He envied the older writer Patrick Leigh Fermor for the fifty years that elapsed between his boyhood journey and the writing of it. Like Leigh Fermor he could imaginatively elaborate from a remembered image (Raban once described it to me as “changing gear”) until he had articulated less a literal truth than an enriched equivalent.
His hospital paralysis brought on intermittent anguish that he would never travel again in the solitude vital for his writing, nor with his companion Julia, the beloved daughter of his third marriage (long since ended). With Julia he had often taken road trips, one of which he had just written about for The New York Times Magazine when his stroke occurred.* In the privacy of the ward he tried to practice driving—the securing of gears and pedals of an imaginary car—and could not.
Only in one sense is Father and Son an unfinished work. Recently Raban had drawn closer to a long-unacknowledged son, Alex Reeve, and he was planning to describe this relationship in a final chapter when he died. As for his own, priestly father, Raban cites Philip Larkin’s “Aubade,” in which Larkin describes religion as “that vast moth-eaten musical brocade/Created to pretend we never die.” Raban’s father for long years ignored the moth holes, he writes, yet in the end his beliefs came, ironically, to converge with those of his son. He had lost his faith in the Resurrection, and as Jonathan lays him to rest, he interprets his father’s last words as a loving farewell.