Simon Raven

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Julian Symons

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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, and Raven in a semi-autobiographical book called The English Gentleman … writes amusingly about the vanity of his aspiration, which is perfectly expressed in the fact that a gentleman is never concerned with gentility. Both detest the spread of lower-middle-class morality that might be called Hooperism. In opposition to the various vulgarities of the modern world Raven invokes an ideal classicism, Waugh an ideal aristocracy. Both seem to believe that there are religious answers to the problems of the individual psyche. Both show a simple national patriotism ('British and proud of it,' as one Raven character says). The difference is that the abominable Waugh used his generally detestable or absurd ideas about society as material for considerable works of art, while the much more genial Raven has been able to produce only a collection of strip cartoons.

One should be clear about this. Simon Raven's talents are both inadequate and unsuited to his subject. The 'Alms For Oblivion' novels are consistently easy and amusing to read, but artistically they are negligible. Most of them contain scenes of political or sexual melodrama of the crudest kind, acted out by characters conceived in terms which are often ludicrous. Their most interesting attribute is an Ouida-like vigour, a sense that Mr. Raven is so enthralled by his own creations that he has come to believe in them himself….

The Survivors [is] a book with less than its author's usual liveliness. The setting is Venice, and the underlying theme [is that] of a rotting rather than a botched civilisation…. There is less sexual action than usual, although not less talk….

A strip cartoon may have the vicious power of caricature, but this one doesn't, because Simon Raven's talent is genial rather than corrosive. He has two veins of talent, one for melodrama and the other for wild lubricious comedy, but neither has been much help to him in dealing with a grand overall theme for which—as that English lady novelist might put it—he just hasn't the equipment.

Julian Symons, "Gentleman's Strip," in New Statesman (© 1976 The Statesman and Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 91, No. 6, June 11, 1976, p. 778.

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