Jonathan Raban defied death to write one last book. ‘Father and Son’ is worth the wait


Father and Son: A Memoir

Written by Jonathan Raban
Knopf: 336 pages, $28

If you purchase books linked to on our site, The Times may receive a commission Bookshop.orgwhose fees support independent bookstores.

On June 11, 2011, three days short of his 69th birthday, Jonathan Raban woke up feeling unwell. He did what most of us would do in the next few hours — nothing, hoping it would get better.

It didn’t happen. After trying the food and failing to move a knife onto his plate, the acclaimed critic, essayist and travel writer asked his teenage daughter Julia to drive him to a hospital north of Seattle, where he was diagnosed with a massive hemorrhagic stroke that left him paralyzed. on the right side of his body.

“You should have come earlier: the sooner we see a patient, with a stroke, the more we can do,” said the attending doctor. For a man who relied on his brain and his body for his life’s work, the news couldn’t be worse.

But Ravan, who died in January At the age of 80, a man is not easily frightened; Miraculously, most of his reading and writing abilities were intact. He embarked on a grueling and exhausting campaign of recovery, and as his struggle began in a rehabilitation ward in Seattle, he began to record his own experiences and revisit his English father’s letters written in the trenches of World War II. Ravan hoped to draw courage from his parents’ wartime experiences — and better understand his father.

“Father and Son,” the posthumous memoir that has emerged, follows the author in the ward five weeks after the onset of his stroke. Twelve years on, composed with the help of voice dictation software, is a singular achievement, especially now knowing that complications from the stroke eventually killed him. Everything that is unparalleled about Ravan’s work — his keen eye for detail, his ability to synthesize, his sense of humor, his vast reservoir of knowledge and his love of travel — is there.

It mirrors other Raban books (“Old Glory,” “Bad Land,” “Passage to Juno”) in that the narrator, a Brit who moved to Seattle in the 1990s, is a very prickly character indeed. As he himself admits, Ravan grows up quickly. While she bonds with a number of attendants and therapists, some of whom become friends, others are judged and instantly sought after (“stupid” and “officious” are mild terms applied to nurses who issue disagreeable orders or invade her privacy. does).

At times, this excited reader wanted to speak in the vein of, “These people are trying help You.” On the other hand, some of the comments from his caregivers are unforgivable. A doctor, meeting Raban for the first time, says: “Ah, yes, um … Jonathan. You’re the one who used to be a writer.” Although the comment “went through my head with the force of a grenade,” Raban replied: “I hope very much that I’m still a writer.” He never stopped falling behind, and his distaste for authority and refusal to accept the status quo were probably the things that fueled his recovery.

Raban’s chapters on his battle with the medical recovery complex, as well as his own body, involve his father’s three-year WWII journey from Dunkirk to North Africa to Italy and the Middle East. Peter Raban’s pieces provide a wonderful mix of Jonathan’s memories, his research, and his father’s eloquent letters to his mother.

Peter, who became an Anglican priest, was a prolific writer for most of his life, but his letters to his wife during their three-year separation are poignant, fluid and immediate, forming a “powerful archive” – a window into the depths of love as well as a British A ground-level view of the battle for the officer.

Ravan’s father censored himself for security reasons and to avoid Monica’s concerns, setting aside the horrors of war in favor of the everyday Britishness of an officer’s life. In North Africa, he wrote “his personal moat, neatly dug for him by his Batman Ransom, complete with a tall clay shelf to hold his books and photographs with each letter he wrote from Monica, carefully labeled. and bound with rubber bands. .”

Raban fills in the blanks with history (Tony Judd’s “Postwar,” Rick Atkinson’s Liberation Trilogy), biography (Andrew Roberts on Churchill) and vivid memoirs of other soldiers who served in the same ranks as his father. He remembered the depression, the filth and the terror. These sections are gems of historical synthesis and insight into what made his father tick, from his unparalleled devotion to his wife to his class slurs, racism and anti-Semitism.

As for Jonathan Raban’s life, while “Father and Son” recounts his early days and his last years, there are voids that will never be filled. He writes that he was estranged from his father and there was a sort of reconciliation, but he no longer goes. Maybe he ran out of steam or thought he had said enough. Maybe he put it behind him.

Regardless of its ellisions (or what may be due to them), “Father and Son” has a sense of validity; Its power is redoubled by the knowledge that Ravan has spent the rest of his life trying to complete it. As she deals with her own pain, anger, and determination to play the hand her failing body has dealt her, the word bravery comes to mind again and again, and perhaps that is her true legacy. As father so son.

A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist living in Seattle, Guinn writes about books and authors.

Leave a comment