Adrift on a sea of grief

Andrew Gumbel talks to travel writer Jonathan Raban about his most personal voyage yet
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The Independent Culture

In April 1996, Jonathan Raban set out on one of his (by now) familiar sailing voyages with the intention of writing a book about turbulence and chaos. His latest investigation of man's relationship to the sea, he thought, could have no better narrative frame than a journey through the notoriously treacherous Inside Passage from Seattle, his adoptive home, to the tip of the Alaskan panhandle.

In April 1996, Jonathan Raban set out on one of his (by now) familiar sailing voyages with the intention of writing a book about turbulence and chaos. His latest investigation of man's relationship to the sea, he thought, could have no better narrative frame than a journey through the notoriously treacherous Inside Passage from Seattle, his adoptive home, to the tip of the Alaskan panhandle.

As it turned out, chaos caught up with Raban in ways more intimately personal than he could possibly have imagined. A few weeks into his trip, he learned that his father was dying of cancer and rushed home to England to be near him. Six weeks after the funeral, at what he hoped would be a pleasurable reunion of his own small family in Juneau, his wife announced that she was leaving him.

The writer no longer had to seek out chaos; chaos came directly to him. "The human being in me was knocked sideways," he says, "but the writer in me had to acknowledge that there was an uncanny aptness to these events." And so Raban, author of such acclaimed non-fiction as Coasting, Old Glory, and Hunting Mr Heartbreak, is left with the uncomfortable knowledge that his latest book, Passage to Juneau, gains immeasurably in power and narrative fascination from his own suffering and the suffering of those immediately around him.

The book starts out as a characteristically complex reworking of the conventions of travel literature, recounting the course of Raban's own journey in tandem with the tale of Captain George Vancouver's pioneering voyage up the Inside Passage in 1792. But as the journey is first interrupted and then overshadowed by more personal concerns, the lugubriousness of the enterprise - the preoccupations with desolation and death that come with the steepening landscape of the Pacific Northwest - takes on an eerie, deeply felt emotional resonance.

Passage to Juneau is more profoundly autobiographical than anything Raban has written up to now - an element of the book that is of a piece with his conception of his work as a mixed bag of literary genres pieced together in pursuit of a higher thematic and structural goal, but one that inevitably pushes the boundaries of where writing for public consumption ends and where personal, even confessional reflection begins.

Raban admits to having "qualms" about some of the possible reactions to his book, particularly from his mother, who was about to see it at the time of our meeting, and from his daughter Julia, who is only five but will one day have to deal with the fact that many of the emotions underpinning her parents' broken marriage are now in the public domain. "It is easy to sit down and write things which, if faced with the prospect of immediate publication, might give you terrible pause," he said. "I spent a lot of time reading passages aloud over the phone to the one brother I can talk to, checking my memories with his. I did not in any way write this 'for' them, but I am anxious about their response all the same."

He insists nonetheless that his writing is more than a straightforward account of his personal life. It is autobiography with a thematic purpose - hence the discreet omission of much of the interpersonal contact between himself and his family in Market Harborough, or of the literally "unspeakable" conversations between himself and his wife in Juneau. His accounts are generously sprinkled with other reflections, notably literary analyses of Shelley in the shadow of his father's death, and of Evelyn Waugh and William Cowper in the wake of his wife's abrupt departure.

This unflagging confidence in his literary abilities does not mean the material is any less volatile, or less revelatory about himself. Raban admits to personal vulnerabilities one might never have suspected from the supremely confident, practical-minded and intellectually rigorous narrative voices of his previous waterbound adventures. "I am afraid of the sea," he states on page 22. "I'm not a natural sailor, but a timid, weedy, cerebral type, never more out of my element that when I'm at sea."

Fear is, of course, a crucial element of the literature of the sea. But Raban admits to other shortcomings. Though he can handle port and starboard, he has difficulty distinguishing left from right. Nothing appals him more than gung-ho sailing types, with their salty adventure stories, their polo shirts and their year-round tans. The sea is a theme, a fascination and a vantage-point, not a recreational environment; his boat, a 1972 Scandinavian cruising ketch, is no pleasure palace but a "working vessel - my narrative vehicle".

Such illuminations are useful for understanding much of Raban's previous work: his restless intelligence, his fascination with water as the place from which the land comes into focus, his sense of being an outsider peering into British society, or into the America that has dubbed him a "resident alien", or into his own past and current self. Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, when Raban was being defined, along with Bruce Chatwin and, to a lesser extent, Paul Theroux, as part of a new generation of travel writers, his ambition was to follow the example of Robert Lowell, whom he knew well, and write about himself in a way that managed to be illuminating of a larger social whole without lapsing into confessional pomposity.

"Travel", to him and to Chatwin, was not a question of recounting grand adventures and explaining foreign cultures, as it had been to Richard Burton or Robert Byron in the 19th century; rather, they hoped to create a new genre that gave a unifying voice to a mixed bag of literary modes - travelling tales, fiction, history, literary criticism, autobiography, and more.

Within that paradigm, Raban has managed to reinvent himself, or at least shift gears, every 10 years or so: quitting his university teaching job in the early 1970s to become a full-time writer, taking to the sea to write Coasting and his novel Foreign Land in the early 1980s, leaving Britain to move to Seattle at the beginning of this decade. Now, at the age of 57, he seems to have upped the stakes yet further through rigorous, unflinching self-examination.

Part of the new territory staked out in Passage to Juneau is the product of experience; never has he seemed so certain of his literary talents or his narrative techniques. The effortlessly mellifluous sentences, with their poetic echoes of the moods and movement of the water, crash and fall on to the page as compellingly as before, but the book also burns with a great interior passion that seems fresh and new.

Some critics might react to Passage to Juneau as an example of excessive over-indulgence, the product of a severe intellect too much enamoured of its own meanderings. At well over 400 tightly printed pages, many of them devoted to analyses of Vancouver's voyage or the cadences of Cowper's poetry, it is one of the longest books he has written. In person, as in print, Raban can seem overbearingly precise, even crotchety at times, like a schoolmaster forever berating his pupils for failing to pay attention. But that hard edge, the product no doubt of so much isolation, both at sea and at his writing desk, is tempered by a sharp wit and sociability that informs his prose with much of its compelling readability. Erudition made habitable by such fine style can make converts of even the most resolute landlubber.

For all its dark seriousness, Passage to Juneau is, Raban insists, a profoundly comic work. The book opens with a dimwitted farm-boy type obviously out of depth as he tries in vain to locate the fishing vessel that has promised him work; by the end, it is clear that Raban himself, too, is "a lummox getting his comeuppance". If this produces any hint of laughter, it is certainly not joyous, but rather the cosmic laughter that comes from contemplating the unfathomable depths of the sea and its mysteries. "It's about how we survive and deal with chaos," Raban says; a grim humour indeed.

'Passage to Juneau' is published by Picador at £16.99