Father and Son: A Memoir
One wonders what author Jonathan Raban is trying to tell us in his memoir, Father and Son. Celebrated master memoir teacher Vivian Gornick tells us in her The Situation and the Story, memoir is intended to “pull from the raw material of life a tale that will . . . deliver a bit of wisdom,” at the very minimum. Well-known memoirist and teacher Mary Karr tells us in her The Art of Memoir, “writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right.”
Surely Raban’s book is a fascinating account of WWII and the war’s effects on one marriage, his parents’, over the course of three years of separation with carefully researched historical references to augment the private story. What’s missing is how that affected Raban in learning and writing their story. We only get glimpses of the father and son’s relationship, which sounds like it was distant and cool; and yet the parents’ relationship, through their letters to each other, sounds very touching as the father tries to shield the mother from what was really happening to him during the horror of that war.
One wonders if Raban, because of his stroke and his annoyed struggles with rehab, is trying to connect with his father by comparing those begrudged struggles with that of his father’s war ordeals, but we never get that connection. We see only rare glimpses of their strained relationship here and there, never really reconciled.
On a precious visit early on during the war when Raban’s parents managed to get away on a holiday without him, Raban writes referring to a letter from his father to his mother, “I think this is the first time that I’m mentioned as an obstacle between them—a trope that will eventually become a persistent theme.” And then later referring to his son as a baby, Raban’s father writes to his mother in anticipation of seeing Raban for the first time, “. . . temperamental, is he? That will have to come to a stop: he’s had his own way far too much already!!” To which Raban writes “Facetious of course, but accidentally prescient of the future relationship between father and son.”
Of course, by 1942 we see the war developing through the father’s letters to the mother along with background information. Having not only strong detrimental physical effects on British troops where Raban’s father is serving, we see the psychological effects to which no one stoically wants to admit. “Siff upper lip” and all that as they say in that society of the times reports his father.
While Raban grumbles about his personal situation at the rehab facility we see the curmudgeon in him emerge at every new request from the medical team as he takes us further into the war story. We begin to understand the father, Peter, and the mother, Monica, and Raban’s developing understanding of his parents, though we still do not learn what he is learning from their ordeals dealing with the war or any effect it had on him either as a child growing up with a father who had to abandon his dream of becoming a farmer after the war, thus becoming a minister, a man of the cloth, with its austere lifestyle. Nor, do we learn what wisdom, if any, Raban obtained in writing his memoir as an old man recovering from a stroke. Did he ever get closure with his father?
In one interesting passage we do get some insight into his thinking. “My father needed to write his daily letters and aerograms as much for his own sake as for Monica’s. He preferred to write them in his private trench, neatly dug for him by his batman Ransone, complete with a long shelf of compacted soil on which to keep his books and photographs along with every letter he’d had from Monica, carefully stacked and bound with rubber bands. Here, he could keep the reality of the war at one remove and live instead with the alternative reality of his marriage; . . . Peter clearly took a writerly pleasure in inhabiting the world created by his own words—a world in which he could spend a blessed hour or two in exile from the war.” Further on the page and the following one, Raban writes sadly of these letters, “Which is why I read his wartime letters with something close to astonishment, for they are lucid, simple, and have an emotional eloquence that I did not know he possessed. His guard is down, his tone intimate and trusting. So his private letters are a revelation. The few letters he wrote to me when I was away at boarding school were almost as chilly as his privateering statistics. . . .”
It is interesting to note that in several places Raban refers to his father as “my father” and then in the same paragraph reverts to him by his first name, Peter, as if to distance himself from the man as father and the man as a man of the cloth. “Peter was a good son of the rectory, obedient to the high church conventions of his father, and he had a natural bent for theology.” Raban’s reference on his father’s reflections on love and death in a letter to his mother in somewhat of a sermon beg some sort of response from Raban as his son—how does he think/feel about all that? But we don’t get that from him.
It takes Raban, a non-believer, reading a beautiful letter his father wrote in 1944 to his mother, his father expecting to die at one critical point during the war to realize the value of his father’s faith and what it meant to him. “How he had managed to fight in a brutal world war, killing people on a daily basis with his field glasses and slide rule, yet was seemingly immune to the doubt that haunted so many of his generation, I couldn’t fathom. It took the arrival of the moths* for me to appreciate the sheer strength of the fortifications of faith he’d built around himself, just as they started to crumble.”
However, the separation that the war imposed on Raban’s parents for the three years during which they could only write to each other pretending to carry on their marriage as if in person, Raban writes, “. . . I appear in it in my increasingly usual role as the gooseberry in the garden, a conspicuous impediment to my parents’ lovemaking.”
And the war’s intrusion on his first three years of life did indeed have an impact as he writes, “It’s a measure of my father’s innocence of child psychology that he could conceive, even facetiously, that a boy aged three would be capable of mounting a ‘tactful retirement’ from the scene rather than a total meltdown.” Later on the same page, “He and I would be strangers to each other until late in my adolescence and his late forties, when, with my financial independence taken care of, thanks to generous local-government student grant, we fell into a sort of reserved mutual regard, especially when we found we had certain books in common.”
Raban mentions his father’s shame or embarrassment for lack of an education in the esteemed schools of Britain potentially holding him back, his “educational mediocrity,” but it didn’t seem to keep him from obtaining a career has a minister following his pre-war career as an educator. Raban also goes on to discuss his father’s political inclinations toward conservatism but never really reveals what he thinks about it from what his father writes in his letters to his mother.
As the war begins to end, his father discovers music, opera in particular, in Rome, Italy and Raban is impressed. “As someone who believed that all feelings should be kept discreetly hidden behind a stiff upper lip, he judged his fellow opera-goers to be childishly incontinent and came out into the street after the long melodrama of Tosca, in particular, feeling rapt but suffering from emotional exhaustion, probably brought on by the effort it took to mask his emotions with a face of faintly amused indifference.”
Later, Raban writes of his father in a new job during the war described in a letter to Raban’s mother, “It’s good to know that Peter could admit to being seriously rattled by his duties at the observation post—the most dangerous job in an artillery regiment . . .” “Although, the acronym for his condition had not yet been coined, he was plainly suffering from PTSD.”
Throughout, Raban’s father had to maintain a huge degree of withholding of what was really going on during the war in his letters to his wife for strategic reasons and for not wanting to alarm her despite the news reels the BBC was broadcasting. This created a heavy burden, and eventually Monica succumbed to deep depression and begged Raban’s father to apply for compassionate leave so that he can be discharged early. It is something difficult for him to do as his honor and pride are challenged but eventually, he does comply. In the meantime, we learn that Raban’s father is an unapologetic antisemite and there is a long passage about this unpleasant segment as it also turns out that growing up his father was accused of being Jewish because of his last name and its various spellings. Thus, being sensitive to that, he does a lot of genealogical research to establish that it is not the case.
In this memoir, Raban has produced an excellent personal account of his father’s wartime experiences as he relayed them to his wife as much as he was allowed, backed by a good historical narrative to augment those experiences. However, there is a missed opportunity for the son to show how those experiences impacted his life, especially as he was undergoing his own recovery from a serious life-threatening ordeal.
*Moths had been attacking a brocade fabric for a long time making several holes and Raban’s father never noticed but it really bothered Raban as a teenager.