Simon Raven Essay - Critical Essays

Raven, Simon


Raven, Simon 1927–

Raven is a British novelist, playwright, screenwriter, essayist, and editor. A first-rate storyteller, he is known for his fast-paced social satires of the upper and upper-middle classes. Despite a simplistic approach to character and plot development, Raven's novels succeed as well-plotted entertainments, and have brought him a wide readership. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

James Kennaway

[If] you can plough through the first 130 pages [of The Feathers of Death], most of which are irrelevant, you will then be drawn into Mr. Raven's horrible world. As you lay down his book, you will bow in admiration to the clarity of his characterisation, the simplicity of his prose and the design of his plot. I greatly fear that he is a writer with a future, and I only hope I can discourage him.

His story is of a homosexual love affair (here we go again) between a god-like subaltern and an earth-child drummer. It is set against a background of peace-time soldiering in a troublesome colony where the regiment (which is neither cavalry nor infantry) is involved in some wog-suppression. It reaches an excellent climax in a sharp action against the natives, and the description of this battle … is masterly. There is no question at all that Mr Raven knows all the details of this sort of action and of other aspects of peace-time soldiering. There is also no question at all that he manages to present us with a totally false picture of British officers and men. A spell in the army and a spell in the classical sixth have produced not, as we might hope, a certain maturity of view, but an ugly case of astigmatism….

Dismissing all the intolerable and repetitive table-talk (and looking back on his first novel it is this stuff, not the sodomy, that will, I hope, turn Mr Raven into a pillar of salt), I'd take issue with him on the behaviour of his troops….

During the court-martial of Alastair Lynch, which forms the last section of the book, there are more brilliant moments, and at one point the hero almost changes from young god to young man. We can nearly put a face to him. It is more the pity, therefore, that Mr. Raven undoes his good in the last few pages by a single act (in itself too melodramatic for any heterosexual story) which serves to make his hero god again. It is his novel that he stabs in the back.

James Kennaway, "Old Harrovian," in New Statesman (© 1959 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LVII. No. 1455, January 31, 1959, p. 164.

John Coleman

Brother Cain is the oddest book I expect to read this year. Jacinth Crewe, after expulsion from school, premature departure from Cambridge, and enforced resignation from the Army, is taken on … by an international organisation bent on combating 'democratic excess and Communist exploitation.'… After a staggering indoctrination course, some tests and assorted sex, he ends up in Venice, confronting his assigned victims at a masked ball. With Jacinth's character, with his easy bisexuality, his Cambridge nostalgia and dreams, his peculiar concern with guarding his 'honour' (while fairly coolly going through with one of the nastiest acts imaginable), it would take an analyst to deal adequately. There are faint echoes of both Daisy Ashford and Ian Fleming in the chilly, jolly tone: 'after a busy evening spent buying cars and clothes, they had some dinner'—Mr. Raven frequently tells you what they had for dinner, and very nice too—but there is something that is Mr. Raven's own in the twists and turns down to a nightmare finale. Once past the early dream-sequences and organisational oratory, which I found elaborately dull, though ingenious, one is sucked along to the end. It is an unwholesome, caddish, talented book. (p. 559)

John Coleman, "The Facts of Fiction," in The Spectator (© 1959 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 203, No. 6852, October 23,...

(The entire section is 414 words.)


The very bulk of Raven's writing might suggest what a reading of his novels confirms: they are uneven in quality, occasionally repetitious and forced, and sometimes no more than entertaining. Only a few of them exhibit all of Raven's appreciable gifts as a novelist working together in harmony. These flaws should not, however, be allowed to obscure the fact that Raven is a serious and interesting novelist, whose works have yet to receive, at least in North America, the attention they deserve. (p. 106)

The action of Raven's novels all takes place within a world of privilege, leisure, and power, and it is his principal intention in them to describe, scrutinize, and judge the men who inhabit this world. The settings of major scenes are often described by Raven in careful and loving detail…. Raven is very good at rendering these settings and the activities they encompass…. Sometimes the function of these descriptions is purely decorative, but more often they are linked to the central themes and conflicts of the novels in such a way as to deepen and enrich them. When setting and theme are fully united the former become images of order, tradition, and seemliness (a favorite word of Raven's), or of their perversion. (p. 107)

What Raven anachronistically calls the "lower orders" seldom appear in his fiction except as private soldiers or servants. Another substantial portion of the human race who do not figure prominently in the fiction are women, for the enclaves of privilege about which Raven writes are almost exclusively male…. The inadequacy of his portrayal of women is one of the more serious shortcomings of Raven's fiction.

Raven's male characters tend to be completely worldly, untouched by anything that could be called Christian morality. For Raven, as for the classical Greeks he so admires, Christianity is folly. The only standard of conduct by which he is prepared to evaluate his characters is summed up in a comment made about a central figure in Close of Play: "no morals, only aesthetic preferences and personal loyalties". The core of personal loyalty is male friendship, a subject Raven treats with the greatest seriousness…. The love of friends may take the forms of worldly versions of philia and agape, but often in Raven's novels there is an admixture of eros as well. Homosexual love affairs dominate three of the novels, and are rendered with subtlety and skill. They are always handled from the point of view of the seducer, who develops an overwhelming passion for a beautiful young man. In each case the affair ends tragically. Together with the theme of betrayal, with which they are in each case closely linked, these affairs have for Raven an obsessive fascination, out of which have come some of the best and most compelling moments of his fiction. (pp. 107-08)

According to Raven, the main reason for the fragility of the code of personal loyalty is that the social ideals and sense of responsibility upon which such a code must be founded have largely disappeared from the modern world and become irrelevant to it. This is the subject explored in The English Gentleman. As a social analysis of twentieth-century Britain, this work leaves much to be desired (it is based almost entirely on the author's own experiences), and its main thesis doubtless strikes many readers as hopelessly reactionary or wilfully perverse. On the other hand, there seems to me to be a good deal of insight in The English Gentleman, a work which is of the first importance to an understanding of Raven's novels.

Its main argument is that there is no place in the modern world for the traditional qualities of the gentleman…. The modern age is characterized by a "preference, both popular and aristocratic, for what is spurious", and a "corresponding contempt for what is genuine". Decadent aristocrats and film stars are tolerated and even applauded by the public because their distinction is based solely on the accident of birth or personal appearance. But individuals possessing unusual personal qualities like intelligence, discipline, and self-respect—which are independent of possessions and not simply an accident of birth—tend to be ridiculed and held in contempt. Citizens of the welfare state are resentful of intrinsic superiority, for "merit is inalienable, an ever-present menace to the self-esteem of the mediocre." Standards based on character and honour have been replaced as models for emulation and admiration by worthless and tastelessly materialistic ones. (p. 108)

Raven's views on the current state of British fiction—outlined in "Reflections of a Middle-Aged Novelist",… closely echo the argument of The English Gentleman. The novelist's primary job, says Raven, is to maintain the interest of his reader. To do this he must build his work upon conflict and struggle. Because they lack these essentials, Raven admits to being dissatisfied and bored by the great majority of novels written by his younger British contemporaries. These writers know nothing of physical conflict, and in their work emotional conflict often fails to rise above "a state of masturbatory discontent". Being "progressive children of the age", they find moral conflict meaningless because of their absolute acceptance of welfare state notions of truth and justice. Novels founded on conflict inevitably suggest the unacceptable idea that, at least in some respects, some people are superior to the rest. In short, "what is destroying the quality of the novel, just as it is destroying the quality of life itself, is egalitarian dogma; for the chief fascination of novels, as of life, lies in the presentation, and the celebration, of human inequalities." (pp. 108-09)

None of [Raven's first four] novels is comparable to the best of the Alms for Oblivion series, though they all treat the two themes which dominate much of Raven's fiction: moral degeneration and the decline of personal loyalty. Doctors Wear Scarlet and Brother Cain are the least successful of the four because their thematic concerns are awkwardly and imperfectly embodied in the stories which contain them. (p. 109)

The principal trouble with Doctors Wear Scarlet is that until its final scenes [the two stories presented in the novel] are not properly united or effectively counterpointed….

The faults of Doctors Wear Scarlet are also present in Brother Cain, with the addition of greater implausibility and of excessive didacticism—something most unusual in Raven….

Brother Cain is basically an Ian Fleming-type adventure-fable, with an anti-hero rather than superman as protagonist. But there is a consistent theme running through the novel, although Raven is unable—as with the theme of moral degeneration in Doctors Wear Scarlet—to link this theme effectively with the narrative (p. 110)


(The entire section is 2857 words.)

Peter Straub

Bring Forth the Body is the penultimate volume in Simon Raven's Alms For Oblivion series, but it stands quite easily on its own as a separate novel. In fact, there's maybe too much ease: Captain Detterling and Leonard Perceval conduct a quiet investigation into the causes of Somerset Lloyd-Jones's suicide, and the book is simply a series of false leads which finally wind around to revelation. The tone, in this roundup of characters from earlier novels, progressively darkens; and Raven invents an effortless stream of comic moments….

Peter Straub, "Hot & Cold," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 88, No. 2276,...

(The entire section is 106 words.)

Peter Ackroyd

There are a great many novels concerned with political intrigue, but none of them have Mr Raven's peculiarly steely glint. He is a master craftsman, who can change scenes and characters without overt discomfort; his prose is always amusing, elegant, intelligent and never below the belt. Where else except in a Raven novel [Bring Forth the Body] could you find an old whore called Maisie who calls everyone "duckie" and paints her clients, as it were, in oils? Or a maid known as Dolly who is both honest and hardworking? A certain Peregrina Lloyd-James who is bored rather than tired, and a detective sergeant who looks like a "jacketed barrel"? Anglo-Saxon attitudes are alive and well and being ruthlessly sent up....

(The entire section is 298 words.)

Julian Symons

The Survivors is the tenth and last volume in Simon Raven's 'Alms For Oblivion' sequence, and the death of culture is somehow mixed up in it with the extinction of the English gentleman. 'Such gentlemen as survive, though honourable and decent men, can only be seen as futile anachronisms when once one properly appreciates the present conditions of society,' Mr Raven wrote 15 years ago. His view has hardened since then, and his gentlemen are no longer honourable and decent….

The view of society put forward in these novels is not dissimilar to that found in the work of another Tory with a romantic view of the English gentleman, Evelyn Waugh. Both writers hankered to be 'gentlemen' themselves,...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Michael Barber

For all his worldly pagan sermonising, Simon Raven is as obsessed by sin and retribution as a hell-fire divine. This has been apparent from the very beginning of his Alms for Oblivion sequence, in the first volume of which the coarsegrained Jude Holbrook … is cruelly punished for his shystering by the death of his beloved young son. Since then all the protagonists, as well as a few more secondary players like Holbrook, have been weighed in the balance and found wanting. And while most of them have richly deserved their respective come-uppances, it's interesting that what has sometimes tipped the scales against them is a minor misdemeanour—minor, that is, by conventional standards but not, one supposes, by...

(The entire section is 625 words.)