I visited Jonathan Raban a year after his stroke in 2011. Though confined to a wheelchair, the Queen Anne-based British author of Bad Land, Passage to Juneau, and other masterpieces insisted that he alone make dinner with the arm and leg that weren’t paralyzed by a brain attack that lasted the better part of a long summer day. He also ordered me to stay away from the stove, which was warming an Indian-style lamb stew and cooking basmati rice. He never trusted me in his kitchen.
What he wanted from me, the man young enough to be his son, was a lively conversation about local and national and international politics, the books he was reading, the book he was writing, and a cigarette from the pack I just happened to bring with me. (Raban: “I’m trying to quit smoking, but do you have a cigarette on you? Me: “It just so happens that I do”—I almost always leave my cigarettes at home in a sin drawer that also contains a variety of joints.) He also did not want me to uncork the bottle of red wine. He could do that with his one good hand.
When we got around to the topic of books, Raban talked at length about contemporary brain science literature. I asked if he had heard of the then-new and exciting American philosopher Alva Noë. He hadn’t. He was interested. What was Noë about? In 2009, I explained, he published a book, Out of Our Heads, which presented this original theory about the stuff of cognition: The brain is not inside your head but outside of it as well. We have, in a sense, a participatory brain.
This is what I wrote about Noë for The Stranger in 2009:
The main project of Alva Noë’s new book Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness is the liberation of the brain from the prison of Cartesian internalism [and also dualism]. For him, the brain is seen not only as a part of the body but also a part of the outside world. The two, internal and external, can not be separated. The mind is not a static container of impressions but a constant engagement with what is outside. The mind is you, your body, and the world around your body.
Just as I was about to describe the juiciest part of this theory, I caught a great change in Raban’s face. It had transformed from interested to: Not having any of it. Had I lost my mind? The brain can only be inside the head. The very idea of an outside was just out of the question. My visible disappointment of his complete rejection of Noë made no impression on Raban, who dismissively twirled the stem of a wine glass. Now was the time to switch the topic.
The stroke had, it seemed, spared the part of his brain that communicates (talks, reads, and writes), a key feature of a brain that’s obviously not isolated but always already with other brains. (I kept the social brain theory to myself that night.) This must mean he’s working on a book or essay. And he was. What was it about? Something of a cultural history of smoking, Raban explained. The gist: He came from a generation of heavy smokers; all of his friends smoked, his father smoked, his grandmother smoked, and so on. Raban also believed the stroke was the heavy price he paid for his own and long addiction to tobacco.
After dinner (which he served), several glasses of wine, and a couple of smokes, we called it a night and I walked down to the bus stop that starts the Metro’s Route 3 bus. (It’s next to Seattle Pacific University.)
Seven months after Raban died (January 17, 2023—the day the stroke apparently caught up with him), I read his final book, Father and Son: A Memoir. It’s just over 300 pages, and it says very little about smoking and smokers, who appear only as ghostly asides in the text: “Caroline [Blackwood] had died in a New York hotel room in 1996, aged sixty-four, of lung cancer brought on by a defiant lifelong addiction to cigarettes.” The book is also missing an important final chapter that would have provided a very revealing twist to its main theme: the relationship between a father and his son. But Peter Raban, who died in 1996, and Jonathan Raban, who died at Swedish Hospital on First Hill at the age of 80, are, in this work, less father and son and more, chapter after chapter, two ships passing in the night. The father’s time mostly occurs between 1939 and 1945; the son’s time happens between June and August of 2011. The father spent his years fighting Nazis in North Africa and Italy (he also had a spell in Palestine after the war concluded). The son spent his summer weeks in Swedish Hospital’s rehabilitation ward.
The chapters concerning Peter Raban (in his mid-20s) and the letters he exchanged with his new wife, Monica, (the two married and conceived Jonathan not long before he was deployed), are written with the mastery one expects of a Raban novel or travel memoir: his impeccable historical scholarship, his erudition of all things nautical and geographical, and, most importantly, his command of the language.
The sections concerning his stroke and time in the hospital, however, are unusually conversational. Indeed, while reading these chapters, I could see his ghost talking to me from across the dinner table on the third floor of his Queen Anne home. I could see the wine glasses, the smoke hanging over his head, the nearly full ashtray, the thickish carpet, and the dreamy poster for his penultimate novel, Waxwings, which hung over a wine rack. This sharp split in style is not found, in my opinion, in his other memoirs, particularly Passage to Juneau, which shares a similar structure with Father and Son. Was this split a consequence of his stroke? Not sure. And nor, to be honest, is Raban.
In the case of my own stroke, I’ve now spent more than eleven years asking myself two questions every writing day: What have I lost? and Am I fooling myself? But I find both questions maddeningly unanswerable.
This preoccupation with the true state of his mind is a major theme in the book. Raban makes it clear from the beginning that what matters to him most is his brain. The body can pretty much rot in hell, for all he cares.
When I got home from the rehab ward, all I really wanted was to be able to return to a life of solitary scholarship, of reading and writing. Sailing and hiking were activities I could readily forgo, and so were driving, eating out in restaurants, and shopping (what else was Amazon for?). When I boiled my life down to these bare dimensions, I needed to learn just three things: to be able to walk a bit, to make competent “transfers [from bed to wheelchair, for example],” and to negotiate stairs. Anything else would be gravy on the side.
We never had a conversation about his dogged Cartesianism, but if we did I would have told him that the theories of brain scientists who see the brain and body as one, such as Antonio Damasio, the author of Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain, have the most explanatory power. But that conversation will never happen. And, I must admit, that it probably would not have happened even if he were still alive. Goodnight, my old friend.
Father and Son: A Memoir by Jonathan Raban will be released September 19 on Knopf.
John Freeman, Charles Mudede, and Julia Raban will discuss Father and Son at Elliott Bay Book Company on Tuesday, October 24 at 7 pm.