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"A long journey out of the self"
on 18 September 2012
I discovered Jonathan Raban through "Arabia", confirmed his brilliance in "Bad Land" and read "Driving Home" in the hope of rekindling some of the old magic. This is a collection of essays published in magazines and newspapers in the period 1991-2009, following his decision, as a middle-aged "Brit" to move to Seattle.
For me, Raban is at his best as a travel writer, the observant rolling stone who combines descriptions of landscapes and people met in passing with history, politics and culture to create a vivid sense of place. This is typified by the essay used for the book title, in which Raban drives a round trip from Seattle "a western city built in the wilderness and designed to dazzle" , over the Coastal Range and the Cascades, across various river valleys to the dead level plateau of the Christian Right where it is "a big thing to raise a tree", since only stunted sagebrush grows there naturally. To give us background, he weaves in anecdotes about the explorers Lewis and Clarke, and introduced me to two neglected literary talents, the poet Roethke and the novelist Bernard Malamud, whose writing captured the spirit of the north-western states.
Raban's political articles on the aftermath of 9/11, the newly elected Obama and characters like Sarah Palin are entertaining, informative but perhaps not as "striking" as some of his other work since so much has already been written on them by others, plus this material will date quite fast.
His essays on famous literary figures probably require some prior knowledge of their work. For instance, I enjoyed the article on the in many ways rather unpleasant Philip Larkin, and was interested to learn how much he feared death and pleased to be taught to appreciate his poem "Aubade". However, the piece on William Gaddis left me cold and caused me to begin to skip in search of essays with more immediate appeal.
In the main, Raban can make watching paint dry interesting, but the occasional piece requires too much effort to be worth the trouble. The least successful category seems to me to cover those on a specific theme like "On the waterfront" which appears too much of a contrived exercise in writing.
If these essays were thrown together in a single book to earn a few bucks, I don't blame Raban. His tendency to write articles based on his daughter, or to name-drop holidays with "the Therouxes" detracts somewhat from his writing.
Despite a few reservations, there are sufficient excellent passages in this book to make it worth reading and keeping on one's shelf to revisit later.