Books: The sea and the mirror
A travel writer is not just a bold venturer, but a rat who deserts nearest and dearest. So what happens when the voyager comes home to find that his own marriage has gone west?
Saturday 13 November 1999
by Jonathan Raban
Picador, pounds 16.99, 435pp
I have never really understood anybody who is a convinced homebody. Isn't home nothing more than a internal cul-de-sac of your own making? A heavily mortgaged encumbrance that curtails your horizons and burdens you with the minutiae of domestic life?
To any addicted traveller, the idea of "home" is an endlessly tangled internal argument. Home serves as the source of your personal stability. It forces you to face the importance of individual accountability. It makes you engage with the complicating pleasures of family life. But it's always something you rebel against.
No wonder, therefore, that the literature of travel is all about the need to run away; to flee the shackles of responsibility and the metronomic regularity of day-to-day existence. Yet every chronicled journey (from Homer onwards) is also bound up in the notion of returning - of longing for that which you fled. In this sense, travel is an articulation of one of life's bigger conundrums: the elusiveness of contentment.
As Jonathan Raban notes in his remarkable new book, "travelling 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." Raban himself is, of course, "something of an experienced deserter" when it comes to lighting out into the geographic void. More tellingly, he is (for my money) one of the key writers of the past three decades - not only for his immense stylistic showmanship, but also for the way he has taken that amorphous genre called "travel writing" and utterly redefined its frontiers.
Whether it be tackling the inauguration of his middle age on a voyage down the Mississippi (Old Glory), attempting to assess the foreignness of his own homeland (Coasting), or delving into the American need for personal reinvention (Hunting Mr Heartbreak), Raban has always managed to turn his books into crafty sleight-of-hand endeavours. He layers them with on-the-road narrative, historical and literary analogies, not to mention a judicious dose of confessional-box revelations.
To him, the travel book is not simply a fiction-that-happened (a narrative re-imagining a journey), but also a conduit through which he can grapple with larger questions of personal identity, the pleasures and perils of rootlessness, and our ongoing inability to find that berth marked home.
Passage to Juneau is his finest achievement to date. Ostensibly an account of a voyage Raban took from his new home in Seattle to the Alaskan capital through that labyrinthine sea route called the Inside Passage, it is, in essence, a book about the nature of loss. Setting sail in his boat, Raban senses that he is tempting domestic fate by leaving his four-year- old daughter and his American wife (a marriage which, he hints, has developed some small, telltale fissures).
The passage north affords him the opportunity to parallel his own journey with that made during 1792 by that most arrogant and insecure of explorers, George Vancouver (Raban's recounting of Vancouver's appalling exploits on the Discovery is one of the book's many pleasures). It also gives him plenty of scope for his formidable skills as an assessor of human and natural topography. His barbed account of having his boat turned upside down by a pair of officious Canadian customs officers leads him into a brilliant riff on the curious nature of Canadian-ness - and how, if Americans are Oedipal in temperament, then Canadians are forever playing the role of Telemachus: the loyal son in search of his lost father.
Intriguingly, this voyage north also finds Raban cast into the role of an expatriate Telemachus, when news comes from England that his vicar father is dying of cancer. The journey on the Inside Passage suddenly becomes one into a different sort of Inside Passage. Raban returns home not only to confront parental mortality, but his own sense of separateness both from his family and his native land. Indeed, Raban is virtuosic when it comes to casting a melancholic eye on this island's inherent smallness.
After his father's death, he returns to sea, pushing north to Alaska. His wife and child are due to meet him when he docks at Juneau. The rendezvous happens - but it is not a happy one, as his wife appears strained and tense. They bring their daughter to a playground. As she climbs a slide, Raban tentatively asks his wife what's preoccupying her: "I wanted to talk about separating. Like, I wondered if you've ever thought of separating?" At which point, Raban's stomach goes south.
This harrowing description of marital disintegration only lasts for around seven pages. But it is so stunningly rendered (in terse, exacting language) that it cuts deep into your mind and refuses to vanish. Reading it is the emotional equivalent of stepping into an empty lift shaft, as Raban recounts what it's like to experience that moment when one's life suddenly goes into freefall.
On his solo journey back to Seattle, Raban delves into a battered Penguin edition of Marcus Aurelius (once owned by his father), and stumbles upon a telling passage: "Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature's delight." Loss, of course, is at the heart of all journeys - because loss is what we must constantly confront as we travel through our own narrative. When Raban docks in Seattle, he hoists a duffle bag and - seeing his house in the distance - knows he's about to face a far rougher sea.
You close this extraordinary book marvelling at this most distressing, but commonplace of ironies. He's home, but he's lost. Just like the rest of us.
Douglas Kennedy's latest novel `The Job', is published by Little, Brown
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