FATHER AND SON: A Memoir, by Jonathan Raban
The problem with being a book critic, Dorothy Parker wrote, is that the work gets in the way of your reading. Jonathan Raban’s posthumous memoir, “Father and Son,” is a book I would have tracked down even if this weren’t my job.
Raban, the British travel writer, novelist and critic, a longtime resident of Seattle, died in January at the age of 80. His death stung because he was the kind of writer we don’t have in quantity. Raban was dry, an articulate amateur, a gentle misanthrope. He was eager to crack euphemism on the snout. He was a man of parts, one who acquired new interests without relinquishing old ones. He was a sailor, and his byline promised crisp winds and flat, salty water ahead. It’s our luck that he left this lively and bittersweet memoir behind.
This is really two books that are stacked, like mozzarella and tomato, in one pile. The first is a sharp memoir about illness and recovery. Raban had a stroke in 2011, at 68, that left him shrunken, lopsided, drooling, unable to walk. He’d been stupid about his health. It wasn’t necessarily that he was a big wine drinker and a lifelong smoker. (Indeed, after his stroke, he smoked an Upmann demitasse cigar on the drive to the emergency room.) It was that he’d left his high blood pressure unmedicated. I find myself furious at him for this. This is surely a displacement of my fury at my own father-in-law, who had a ruinous stroke after the same neglect.
The second book is an account of his parent’s marriage, and of his father’s experience in World War II. Raban’s father was among the British soldiers rescued at Dunkirk, and he saw a good deal of action elsewhere, including the Battle of Anzio. The illness memoir is the better half because it relies on firsthand experience. We find ourselves inside the mind of an outraged, indefatigable commentator on life. The material on his father can’t help seeming distant by comparison, even though it relies on letters and other primary documents. Raban never quite finds the links between father and son that would suggest a continuity of soul between them. Forgive me if I scant the parental and war material in this review.
Raban had been feeling poorly for hours, nearly an entire day, before he allowed his daughter to drive him to the hospital. His balance had been uncertain. His hand had gone to sleep. He’d forgotten to tip at a restaurant. When his doctors chided him for not coming in sooner, because time matters with stroke treatment, he replied: “If I reported to a hospital every time I felt slightly unwell, I’d be a permanent resident there.”
Raban’s mental faculties were largely unimpaired by his stroke, though he became worse with numbers. But one side of his body was paralyzed. He would need to learn to walk again, dragging a slow foot along behind him. He would need to learn to manage what caregivers call “transfers” — getting from wheelchair to toilet, or into cars. The stroke “catapulted me,” he writes, “into this new terrain of age and decrepitude.”
He felt lucky to be alive, however, and even buoyant. Being hospitalized awakened the travel writer in him. “Strangeness,” he writes, is always “a surefire source of pleasure.” He lived largely inside his head already. If he could still write, read, see friends and drink the occasional bootleg glass of red wine, perhaps all would be, within reason, well. As George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1918 to a playwright friend who’d had a leg amputated, “For a man of your profession two legs are an extravagance.”
Raban chafed at the condescension of caregivers, with their baby talk. (“Do you want to go potty now?”) But he revered the good ones. He found himself unaccountably emotional. “Somehow, the stroke seemed to have replenished tear ducts that had lain dry for 60 years like the parched creek beds of a Montana summer suddenly running with water again,” he writes, “and in the next few months I’d find myself starting to blub at the slightest sentimental provocation.”
His wit was unimpaired, for sure. He writes: “When you find your eyes misting over at the sight of Judi Dench in some long-outdated episode of ‘As Time Goes By,’ it may be time to call for professional help.” Upset to be asked about his bowel movements, because it seems beside the point, he replies: “OK, then. Mine are always paragons of their kind.”
This memoir has a lot to say about the consolations of reading. He finds himself revisiting the work of Tony Judt, the historian and essayist who, like Raban, was a British expatriate. Judt had a crueler fate. He died at 62 from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Raban had once been a committed foe of electronic books, but his stroke changed his mind. Speaking about Judt’s book “Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945,” he writes:
In print and paper, Judt’s book was just short of a thousand pages — not quite a Gibbonian “Decline and Fall” length, but getting on that way. Hard to read in bed with two hands, let alone one. The near weightlessness of Kindle books endeared them to me now as it never had done before, and “Postwar” in electronic form happened to lay out its paragraphs as if they were independent building blocks, with full double spacing at their tops and bottoms, which drew my attention to how self-contained each stage of Tony Judt’s argument was designed to be.
He critiques stroke memoirs. He disliked Jean-Dominique Bauby’s “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly,” finding it “implausible on more levels than I could count.” The best, in his view, is Robert McCrum’s “My Year Off,” about which he writes: “There is not a word of woo-woo in it, and its English tone of matter-of-fact irony and ordinary modesty make it the most companionable first-person stroke account that I’ve read.” That description fits Raban’s own book.
The sections about his parents are most alive as a love story. They were newly married when Raban’s father went to war. He was away for three long years. Raban describes how their hopes and desires played out through their correspondence. “It was where they made love; discussed income tax; painted, wallpapered, furnished and planted their new home; chatted about everything from politics to changing nappies; it was where they lived in and for each other.”
Reading these letters, Raban writes, “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.” I was moved by this detail: Every night at 10 p.m. while he was away at war, the couple kept a regular “tryst” — they would both think intensely about the other at that moment.
Raban worked on this book for 12 years after his stroke. Every writing day, he asked himself two questions: “What have I lost?” and “Am I fooling myself?” He found both “maddeningly unanswerable,” but the result of his labors makes the responses clear: a) very little, and b) no.
FATHER AND SON: A Memoir | By Jonathan Raban | 323 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $28