One Writer's Travels in the World of Words
FOR LOVE AND MONEY: A WRITING LIFE by Jonathan Raban, New York: Harper & Row, 341 pp., $22.50
THIS book solves a problem. How to write about the writing life? Use fiction, as novelists Paul Theroux and Peter Handke have done recently? Or the sermon/lecture form, like Annie Dillard?
A third way is offered by Jonathan Raban in ``For Love and Money.'' He teaches by example. He includes samples of his output from the last 20 years - fiction, reviews, feature stories. His book, he says, is ``partly a collection, partly a case-history.'' It succeeds on both counts.
Despite its complexity, this book does tell a story. Raban experienced two ``calls.'' Because of the first, he left a teaching job and went to London to try his luck as a freelancer. Because of the second, he left London and went to sea. The dirty dishes had piled up with the unpaid bills, but his escape returned him to his vocation. Having decided to be a writer, he needed something to write about. He would become a travel writer and his forte would be travel by boat.
In the case-history parts of this collection, Raban analyzes different kinds of writing assignments and what he learned from them. He became a fine book reviewer. Reviewing for the New Statesman, he would see his idol V.S. Pritchett turn in his reviews. ``There was no mistaking a manuscript by Pritchett - it was overlaid with small embellishments in longhand, many of them crossed out and recorrected, to the point where the sheet of paper was in places blackened.'' Raban compares the reviewer to the cartoonist. ``The reviewer has to capture a good likeness in as few strokes as possible, with the stamp of his own style in every line, to be vivid, intelligent and impossibly concise.'' And he correctly notes that ``it is in the reviews, more than in the seminar-rooms or in Foundation-funded colloquia, that the main dialogue about modern literature is sustained....''
Raban could go on to greater things, but this collection makes clear, both from the number and relative excellence of the book reviews, that this form of writing, in which the reader finds his thought articulated against the imposing reality of the book, rewards the writer far more than the small pay he receives for it.
Then there's journalism. ``With luck, with imaginative commissions, journalism nourishes rather than vitiates the writer's other work. Its technical demands are absorbing.'' When Raban tried his hand at writing lucrative plays for radio and TV, he found it frustrating: His language (this was early in his career) was stiff. He learned the same lesson from print. ``Trying to make real people sound real on the page,'' he says, was a big challenge. On the plus side, from journalism he learned the place of fiction in reality. ``Writing from memory, trying to re-create events on the page as you remember them and building them into the form of a story, is an act of imagination, however closely you try to stick to what seems to have been the facts.''
It all comes together in Raban's true calling, travel writing. He comes to its eloquent defense here against chroniclers like Paul Fussell, who proclaimed that travel writing is dead. On the contrary: ``Life, as the most ancient of all metaphors insists, is a journey; and the travel book, in its deceptive simulation of the journey's fits and starts, rehearses life's own fragmentation. More even than the novel, it embraces the contingency of things.'' It also embraces a multitude of forms; ``It accommodates the private diary, the essay, the short story, the prose poem, the rough note and polished table talk with indiscriminate hospitality.'' As a case book of a great travel writer (his ``Old Glory: An American Voyage'' was a bestseller) and anthology of reviews of travel books, ``For Love and Money'' constitutes a superb introduction to travel writing. Raban is a true connoisseur.
Things really get serious when Raban writes of the sea. He says it would be ``wonderful to salvage just a small fraction of that sense of the philosophical bounty of the sea''; readers of his novel ``Foreign Land'' (1985) will agree he has done so. In novel and memoir Raban writes eloquently of the cold, complex, mysterious metal thing called a sextant. He describes how it works. He says that with his sextant, the 17th-century navigator was ``an exemplary symbol of solitude and independence.'' Raban confesses to being a ``closet-Ptolemaic. This geocentric, egocentric view of the world was infinitely preferable to the icy abstractions and gigantic mileages of the physicists.'' The navigator ``stood outside [the world's] social and political arrangements, conducting himself in strict relation to the tides, the moon, the sun and stars.'' He tests the contemporary validity of this image of the navigator in his novel. From the course his own life has taken, it's clear that this anachronistic vision has present applications.
``For Love and Money'' is an invitation to travel through a world of wonderful books, ideas, places, and people. To use Raban's words about another writer, it's ``full of wonder, surprisingly humble.'' It tells us about the writing life in the best possible way: by praising others who live by writing and showing how hard it is to live up to the standards implicit in the best of them.