22 February 2009

Going West

Jonathan Raban: the studious Englishman abroad. Discuss.

Before the topic is even broached, Jonathan Raban declares: “I absolutely detest the term ‘travel writer’.” This, from a man speaking a continent away from his English birthplace; from a writer whose accounts of trips to Arabia and the United States, of solo voyages around Britain and down the Mississippi, have been acclaimed for their originality and style. He leaves at home gimmicks such as Bill Bryson’s quips, Redmond O’Hanlon’s derring-do or Paul Theroux’s superiority complex. Instead, Raban travels as the studious Englishman abroad, taking with him a well-mannered curiosity, wry humour, a linguistic ear and interests that suggest an English Lit/History double doctorate.

rabanIn an essay 15 years ago, Raban called travel writing “a notoriously raffish open house where very different genres are likely to end up in the same bed – literature’s red-light district”. Sounding like an impatient academic pontificating from well-worn lecture notes, Raban expands on his thesis: “I’m not a travel writer, but I do believe in the travel book.” They certainly exist in the minds of booksellers and librarians, he says, but examine those books and they encompass an immense variety of writing styles.

Raban rattles off the company his books keep on the travel literature shelves. There is “the classic young person’s travel book, which is basically descended from the picaresque novel; the adventures of a rolling stone in foreign territory; the political journey; social history; some very explicit fiction writing, particularly Waugh, Greene and Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana; landscape writing, which is almost the verbal equivalent of landscape painting; and the travel book which belongs in the genre of memoir. That’s by no means a finite list.”

If defining Raban’s approach was a multi-choice question, the answer would be “all of the above”. He is interested in books that do many things, within the one set of covers; where the author is simply a writer, and doesn’t have to say, “I’m a historian, I’m a fiction writer, I’m an autobiographer, or I’m a travel writer.” He strives for a form which is flexible, yet maintains a single voice. “There’s nothing worse than the prospect of a book which is a bit of fiction there, a bit of history there, and a bit of criticism there,” he says. “That would be a horrible notion.”

Bad Land, Raban’s first book in six years, displays the mix of disciplines he describes. Like his last book, Hunting Mister Heartbreak, it is less a travel book than a stylish study of immigration. In Heartbreak, Raban arrived in the United States on a container ship, then spent lengthy periods in New York, small-town Alabama, in Seattle and on the Florida Keys to portray the experience of being a permanent alien. A discreet note on the dust jacket hinted at the book’s unwritten conclusion: “He is living in Seattle.”

Raban married and settled on the west coast, becoming an immigrant himself. For his new book, he looked to the nearby state of Montana, but not the Rocky Mountains and sunlit fly-fishing rivers of the tourist posters. Montana3Instead, he was interested in the vast, empty landscapes which no conventional travel writer would visit. He wanted to discover the lost stories of an earlier wave of immigration: the dispossessed of Europe who, early this century, were enticed by spurious promises of cheap farmland.

By 1908, the railroad had reached Montana, and to make it pay, the rail companies needed to populate the state, so lobbied the government to dispose of unwanted land. Glossy brochures showed fields of bounty, creating a land rush. However, the aspirant farmers soon found their dreams of cultivating the soil literally turning to dust. Years of drought saw the thin topsoil disappear in the wind. In less than a generation, most had abandoned their homes, beaten by the harsh climate, crippled by their debts.

To understand the experiences and attitudes of the homesteaders, Raban combines the skills of an archaeologist, detective and social historian with the scholarship of an academic and the imagination of a novelist. He reads old diaries, publicity handouts, ancient farming catalogues, bookkeeping ledgers and children’s textbooks. He wanders across barren fields with the pioneers’ descendants, drives along dusty roads into panoramas of nothingness. Never has bare dirt provided such literary pay dirt.

This time, Raban found that his love of language was stimulated by the written evidence of the homesteaders’ existence, rather than the peculiarities of the spoken word, “Think about that long list of farm machinery being advertised, then read it in your head aloud and see how melodic it is.”

The creative techniques of historical fiction writing were both “inevitable and necessary,” he says. “A lot of these lives were so irrecoverable that the only way of recovering them was by imagination, which I think is a legitimate weapon in any real writer’s toolkit.”

But a revealing passage in Bad Land shows how the temptation to manipulate the facts for the story’s sake can turn into flights of fancy. Montana1aHis dramatic description of an arduous trip through the Rocky Mountains in the 1920s by a Model-T Ford turns out to be wasted words. When Raban excitedly relates the difficulties of the journey to a local, he is told, “I don’t think so – Rogers Pass wasn’t built until sometime in the 1950s. You got the wrong pass, bud.” Raban goes back to his motel, to suffer “a night of chagrined dreams”, just like the homesteaders.

“That was an important moment for me,” he says. “I thought I’d achieved something in the writing of it. What I was trying to do was expose the fact that the whole of the book is a piece of artifice. Books are pieces of artifice, they’re not the unfiltered truth.”

Bad Land is subtitled “An American Romance”, a reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Blithesdale Romance (1852), about an experimental Utopia in Massachussetts. To explain the connection, Raban gives a Coles Notes summary of 19th century American literature: writers felt a responsibility to reflect the “Platonist” philosophical foundations of the United States. “But of course, there’s the other romance,” he says. “When you hear somebody is having a romance, you know that it’s all going to turn out badly.”

As he showed in For Love & Money, Raban’s 1987 collection of essays and memoirs, his writing draws on both his childhood and his early career as an English lecturer. Growing up near the Roman city of Winchester, his hobbies sound like something out of Just William. He would spend his school holidays on digs with the Winchester Archaeological Society, which was “desperately trying to excavate the remains of Roman villas before some monster in the 1950s shoved a new office block on top of them. I used to go on long, solitary treks on my bike to known Roman sites, looking around for where rabbits had dug their holes. You could find all sorts of things quite easily: Roman coins, pottery, bits and pieces.”

To Raban, his writing is too “utterly inconsistent” to call a career. Looking for a pattern in his work, he refers back to his abandoned university thesis. The title – “Immigration as a theme in the Jewish-American novel from 1870 to the present day” – may never have earned him a PhD but it provided rich background material for Hunting Mister Heartbreak. He saw the novels of Bellow, Malamud and Roth as re-enacting the old world/new world themes of the early immigrant writers.

soft-city2 Raban has written scholarly works on Mark Twain and Robert Lowell. But his first book after leaving academia was Soft City (1974), an awkward mix of sociology and “travel”. He then wrote plays for radio and television, which gave him experience at “finding voices for people, including – it turned out – a voice for myself. It taught me something about the freedoms of fiction, dealing with made up people, that I found very useful when it came to dealing with real people.”

It was Raban’s interest in immigration that provided the spark for his breakthrough book, Arabia (1979). The mid-70s influx of Arabs in London inspired him to visit the Middle East and reverse the experience of alienation. Now, after six years settled in America, Raban says he is no longer detached in his adopted home. “I’m not sitting out as a foreigner, observing the manners of a strange society any more. I’m in the middle of that society trying to figure out how I got there.”

The crucial requirement of an immigrant is to remain inquisitive about their new country. “If you’re not going to be curious about it, you’re dead. I continue to be just fascinated by America, by the daily fabric of life on the street. The restaurant, the supermarket, it all interests me. I’m not quite interested to the same degree when I’m back in London.”

His solo voyage around the British Isles was “a very deliberate act of of alienation” at the heart of Coasting (1986). “Putting oneself at sea in the first place, then nosing the boat into port after port, treating each port as both a foreign and a welcoming place – that gives you an automatic gratitude and quickening of interest towards the place. I couldn’t possibly have been interested in those places if I’d driven from London. coastingDriving to say, Rye, all you see is a picturesque, dull tourist town. Getting into Rye by water, though – which involves nearly running yourself aground 100 times and having all sorts of fatal accidents and drowning – by the time you get the ropes of your boat tethered and you step ashore, Rye is like Samarkand.”

For his next book, Raban will once more head out to sea, and further west. Another sole-charge sea voyage is right on his Seattle doorstep: the passage up to Alaska. He explains that the demanding route has been in use for thousands of years by Indians, in the 18th century by explorers Vancouver and Puget (“two utterly different men”, one of Augustan sensibility, the other a European romantic who kept very good journals). More recently, it has been plied by “fishermen, tugboats, cruise ship tourists and wilderness freaks like me. It’s an enormously culturally rich piece of sea, used as much now as it ever was before. So it’s suiting my purpose almost eerily well.”

Jonathan Raban's Bad Land: An American Romance is published by Picador. Raban pic from Granta, which has an excerpt of Bad Land here. © Chris Bourke 1996; originally published in the NZ Listener.

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