Over the holiday season, the reviews pages were full of lists of books of the year (inexplicably, no-one thought to do a list of “best books on Gödel’s theorems in 2007”). I’ve read embarrasingly few of the listed books, though Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers is on the table, still waiting for me to quite finish his wonderful Natasha’s Dance.
The latest list was in The Times over the weekend, a rather bizarre list of the fifty Greatest British Writers Since 1945. They also published a further list of also-rans. One very odd omission who didn’t even make their long list was Jonathan Raban. His Old Glory and Passage to Juneau (for example) are wonderful books. Here’s part of what Douglas Kennedy said about the latter in the Independent:
Raban is, for my money, one of the key writers of the past three decades – not only for his immense stylistic showmanship, but also for the way he has taken that amorphous genre called “travel writing” and utterly redefined its frontiers … Passage to Juneau is his finest achievement to date. Ostensibly an account of a voyage Raban took from his new home in Seattle to the Alaskan capital through that labyrinthine sea route called the Inside Passage, it is, in essence, a book about the nature of loss …You close this extraordinary book marvelling at this most distressing but commonplace of ironies. He’s home, but he’s lost. Just like the rest of us.
But I don’t think “stylistic showmanship” is quite right. The prose is faultless, “as beautiful and clear as the blue ocean on a crisp morning” as another reviewer put it, but not showy, and never inviting you to admire its cleverness. Raban, for my money, is worth a dozen Martin Amis’s.
[Later I hadn’t noticed that, as it happens, Raban wrote an illuminating piece on Obama in this last Saturday’s Guardian.]