Jonathan Raban Novelist and Travel Writer Died at the Age of 80

Jonathan Raban, a British travel writer, critic, and novelist known for writing books like Passage to Juneau and Coasting about his honest experiences traveling the world, has died at the age of 80, his agent has confirmed.

Raban was born in Norfolk, England, in 1942. His father was an Anglican priest, and Raban grew up in several Church of England vicarages. The family didn’t have much money, but they had “upper-middle-class connections” like a coat of arms and a house that used to be a country house.

“We belonged nowhere,” he wrote in his 1986 book Coasting. “We had the money of one lot, the voices of another – and we had an unearthly goodliness which removed us from the social map altogether.”

Raban, who died on Tuesday in Seattle, went to the University of Hull, where he met Philip Larkin, and then went to the University of East Anglia to become a professor. But he spent his vacations writing fiction and articles for newspapers.

In 1969, he moved to London to become a freelance writer and stayed with the American poet Robert Lowell. Raban was inspired by Lowell’s ability to “turn the turmoil of his life into art.”

Soon, he was going places and writing about what he saw. He went through the Middle East in Arabia: Through the Looking Glass (1979), down the Mississippi River in Old Glory (1981), around the British Isles by boat in Coasting (1986), and across the Atlantic in a container ship in Hunting Mister Heartbreak (1991). Raban then unpicked the history of south-eastern Montana in Bad Land: An American Romance (1996).

His 1999 book Passage to Juneau started out as a story about navigating Alaska’s Inside Passage. However, his trip was cut short by the death of his father and the end of his marriage, which turned the book into a look at death and being a father.

“It’s the great consolation of the writer, I think. You’re given these catastrophes – and they’re gifts,” he told the Guardian in 2006. “I mean, your father dies and your wife leaves you, all in a couple of months. There was a bit of me that was thinking, ‘God, this is going to be good for the book.’”

Raban won a lot of praise and awards for his work, which was a mix of his own problems, sharp observations of the people he met, and beautiful descriptions of countries and seas. The New York Times once called him “a sort of English Capote: vivid, funny, accurate, full of hyperbolic wit and outrageous metaphor, no reticence at all. But at least as important is the author’s ability to make an instant connection with virtually any human being whomsoever.”

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Some people didn’t like how he wrote about the people he met, befriended, and sometimes fell in love with on his trips. “How are you going to report life if you report it as a series of wonderful people?” Raban once wrote to the Washington Post to answer a critic who was very upset. “Some people are repulsive. Some are lovable.”

His journeys also often happened at times when there was trouble in the world he was exploring. For example, Old Glory, which is about his trip down the Mississippi, took place before Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, and Coasting is about a year he spent going around Britain as the country was getting involved in the Falklands war.

Raban also wrote three novels: Foreign Land (1985), which was up for the Booker prize, Waxwings (2003), and Surveillance (2006). After meeting his third wife, who was from Seattle, he moved to the US in 1990 and stayed there for the rest of his life. Raban had a stroke at home in 2011, and from then on he used a wheelchair. When he was 50, Julia, his only child, was born.

“I see a travel writer as someone who’s sampling other people’s holidays and writing a bright little piece about the glories of Weston-super-Mare or something,” he told the Guardian in 2016.

“I always thought of it as escaping from genre together, the mixture of memoir and traveling – not going to get anywhere, but going for the going’s sake. Perhaps the notion is pretentious, but it’s of what a journey could really be: a miniature scale-model life, which you would survive miraculously at the end.”

Clare Alexander, who is Raban’s literary agent, said that she remembered that after Raban’s stroke, a doctor had told him, “You used to be a writer.” Jonathan replied: “I very much hope that I’m still a writer.”

“And so he was to the very end, completing his memoir shortly before his health began to fail,” Alexander said. Alexander said that the day before he died, he told his daughter Julia to send an email to all of his friends. “Even though he knew he was facing the end, he bid us all farewell in perfectly judged sentences and paragraphs.”

Raban’s autobiography, Father and Son, is set to come out in the fall of this year. His daughter said that on his last day, he watched a bald eagle play in the wind from his hospital window before it flew away over Puget Sound, near Washington state.

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