KP Reads

‘Father and Son: A Memoir’ by Jonathan Raban, His Final Journey


The great travel writer Jonathan Raban survived a stroke while sitting at his Seattle dinner table one evening with his 18-year-old daughter, Julia. Had she been at her mother’s or elsewhere that evening, her father surely would have died alone on his kitchen floor.

Instead, “I was transformed into an old man quite suddenly, on June 11, 2011, three days short of my 69th birthday,” he writes.

Half his body was paralyzed for the rest of his life, but he survived to research and write his final work, this memoir, which he typed with one hand over 11 years until his death in 2023.

After a few days in the hospital, the writer who had already given us 18 works of travel, fiction, and writing instruction was sentenced to a rehabilitation facility on Pill Hill, uncannily similar in age, appearance, and attitude to the English boarding school where he spent the darkest years of his life.

Upon admission, the doctor in charge of his recovery opens his file and says, “Ah, yes, um... Jonathan. You’re the one who used to be a writer.” Raban’s mind was left intact except for issues with numbers and short-term memory, and he retained enough of his former self to convince a nurse to smuggle in a half-rack of red wine for him. The demi-tasse cigars he favored were sadly out of the question.

“The first thing you discover when you are abruptly transformed into a hemiplegic is the terrible, unwieldy weight of your own body,” he writes.

He details the many indignities of attempting tasks an able-bodied person could do in moments, but each of which might take him an hour just to get help to perform. He learns to get out of bed and into a wheelchair with half a body, use a toilet with one arm and one leg, and operate a corkscrew with one hand.

Raban was thus imprisoned, as he put it, for almost six weeks while his 18-year-old daughter became the manager of his life, responsible for his home, his finances, his work, and his insurance while preparing to graduate high school and attend Stanford in the fall.

But Julia rose to the job just as her father came to grips with how much he had lost and how little he would be able to do until the day he died.

It’s that dynamic that inspired this book. It’s not a maudlin account; it’s Raban being Raban, exploring a foreign landscape intriguing to him — in this case, himself — that opens his eyes to life beyond his imagination. As he comes to terms with living in a half-dead body while his daughter prepares for adulthood, he is also confronted by an unresolved past.

He recalls with a new understanding the deathbed of his father and his struggling mother, memories he had filed away decades before. Whatever he has lost, he has acquired a higher language for such moments and, being Raban, digs back into their past and his through his parents’ records and letters to read stories he’d heard a hundred times without seeing what he can now.

There are the difficulties of his parents’ prewar courtship and marriage, followed swiftly both by his own arrival and the outbreak of World War II. His mother is left alone with a chronically ill child while his father, after escaping the fall of Europe at Dunkirk, is sent to North Africa, Italy, and the Middle East as an artillery officer. He will first set eyes on his son when he is 3 years old.

Meanwhile, Raban spends much of his time in rehab navigating the “double ziggurat of six steps up and six steps down,” and a mockup car interior to practice driving, or at least transferring in and out, and concluding that he has lost more than he knows.

“I didn’t know if I’d be able to drive again,” he writes, already mourning the loss of his stick-shift convertible, to say nothing of his beloved 35-foot ketch. “A paralyzed right arm and a semi-paralyzed right leg and foot were going to turn driving even an automatic into a tricky and maybe dangerous performance... I felt like Dr. Johnson’s dog walking on its hind legs, ‘not done well; but you are surprised to see it done at all.’ ”

He concludes, “The more I speculated, the more I convinced myself of the odds against my ever traveling on my own again.”

He had little success traveling over his career with anyone, except Julia.

“Both of us looking ahead through the windshield and not at each other loosened our tongues, whether we were driving to school or Mexico or the Grand Canyon or across England. That slight impersonality, not making eye contact, liberated free association experienced nowhere else except in the car and its passenger seat. I loved our road trips for the conversations they enabled and was aghast at the prospect of my stroke killing them.”

Raban’s childhood in England became difficult as his father continued his long journey home from the war. When Raban commits to a life of writing and spends more time traveling than anywhere else, he and his family reach some silent accommodation. It is a silence that seeps into this work, overshadowing those crucial years.

It is a moving contrast to his relationship with Julia, which is so understated but astute, here at the end of his own travels with a return from a different kind of war.

But the book is unfinished. Raban was trying to write one more chapter when he died, about his son. Older than Julia, unacknowledged for some time, but with whom he was fortunate to find a good relationship before the end.

What a journey that must have been.