Simon Raven

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2857

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...

(This entire section contains 2857 words.)

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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)

In The Feathers of Death and Close of Play, the themes of moral degeneration and the decline of personal loyalty are handled in a more competent and convincing manner. The Feathers of Death, Raven's first published novel, is set in a British regiment stationed in a fictitious country that resembles Kenya. The events of the novel are wholly contained within the life of the regiment, whose activities and personalities are fully and convincingly rendered. This imparts to the novel a cohesiveness and a realism lacking in the novels discussed above and helps Raven keep his main thematic interest—the moral degeneration of Alastair Lynch—clearly in focus, and to maintain a mounting tension and a sense of impending disaster. (p. 111)

Close of Play is the last and best-constructed of the four early novels. Raven's touch is lighter and surer, and he has fully mastered his tendency to overwrite and to include too much irrelevant detail. The handling of the narrative is crisper and more assured, and for the first time Raven uses quick cuts from one character or group of characters to another, a technique that allows him to cover much ground in little time and to do more showing and less telling…. Also, although there are many changes in locale, the novel is dominated by one setting, a preparatory school in Kent and its cricket field. This setting becomes an emblem of the harmonious world of loyalty and responsibility which is threatened by those to whom these ideals are meaningless. Most importantly, in Close of Play theme and story are fully integrated. The study of honour and loyalty is carefully worked out through the contrast of two characters of similar background and occupation, who are both untouched by conventional morality, have the same superior aesthetic preferences, but differ completely in the matter of personal loyalty. In the novel's final scene, its sympathetic characters successfully conspire to murder the man whose disregard of the claims of honour and friendship has caused others much sorrow. In Raven's subsequent novels, however, it is not often that the forces of honour and probity can manage to maintain their standards or to cleanse even a small part of the Augean stables of modern life.

Since 1964, Raven has been at work on a series of novels, the scope and theme of which he has outlined:

Alms for Oblivion will be a series of ten novels … to cover the English upper middle class scene since the war. The series is not planned as one long saga; each volume will present an independent story. The ten major characters are all loosely connected with one another by birth or upbringing. If there is one theme which will dominate the series it is that human effort and goodwill are persistently vulnerable to the malice of time, chance, and the rest of the human race.

This general description can be supplemented by means of a brief comparison with two other long and as yet uncompleted novel sequences by older contemporaries of Raven: Anthony Powell's [A Dance to the Music of Time] and C. P. Snow's Strangers and Brothers.

Like Powell, Raven centres his attention on a world of wealth and privilege. Both writers have small interest in morals, and Raven pays only slightly less attention than Powell to "aesthetic preferences". Male friendship, and the corrosion to which it is subject by time, is Powell's central preoccupation, as it is Raven's. But there is little of Powell's careful distancing, delicate patterning, or Proustian subtlety to be found in Raven, whose focus is much more squarely on the world as it is, rather than on its reflection in the mind of a cultivated and discriminating observer, obsessed by nuance. Like Snow's, Raven's novels are more loosely interconnected than Powell's, and more closely intervolved with political events and social change. Snow's fascination with power is matched by Raven's, and they both prefer to study it in closed and predominantly male worlds. Both use unadorned and workmanlike prose style, though here Raven is clearly superior to Snow, being by far the more lucid and articulate. Another advantage enjoyed by Raven is that his characters are free of the obsessive moral scruple—rooted in the hypersensitive conscience of the middle-class liberal—that tends to make Snow's characters rather colourless, pompous, and dull.

Although Fielding Gray (1967) was the fourth in the Alms for Oblivion series to be published, it is the first in point of the date of its action. It is Raven's finest and most powerful single novel, and the highpoint of his achievement to date. It tells a story of homosexual passion and the betrayal of friends, most effectively combining the themes of moral degeneration and the decline of personal loyalty. (pp. 111-13)

The Sabre Squadron (1966), set in Germany in 1952, is the next novel in the series, and is full, indeed too full, of colour and excitement. The main fault of the novel is that Raven has attempted to do too many things at once. A story of lonely scientific discovery is mixed with the study of a socialist conscience confronting the harsh realities of the Cold War in a way that is reminiscent of Snow's The New Men. The central action is a variation on the spy story genre…. In all of this, the familiar themes of male friendship and personal loyalty—though handled by Raven from a new and suggestive point of view—tend to become obscured, and though the novel is much superior to Doctors Wear Scarlet and Brother Cain it cannot be counted among Raven's genuine successes.

The Rich Pay Late (1964) and Friends in Low Places (1965) can be. These novels, set in 1956 and 1959 respectively, mark an expansion of Raven's powers as a novelist and a widening of his scope. In them Raven displays previously unsuspected talents, including a gift for comedy. Both novels offer a broad social panorama reflecting a wide range of upper-middle-class pursuits. Their settings are not restricted to school, college, and the army, but encompass the larger worlds of government and business. Raven handles most skilfully a large and variegated cast of characters and implicates them in the novels' main actions without becoming forced or contrived. Both novels are studies of corruption in high places and of the attainment and uses of power. The epigraph for both might well have been Shakespeare's lines from Richard II: "They well deserve to have That know the strong'st and surest way to get."

The action of each novel radiates outward from a central conflict: the struggle for control of an influential economic journal in The Rich Pay Late, and the contest for the Conservative nomination for a seat in Parliament in Friends in Low Places. In each case the ideals of personal honour and loyalty are embodied in Peter Morrison, the friend who had called Gray to account in Fielding Gray. In each conflict Morrison manages to retain his honour, but in both cases he loses power and influence, for the novels show with increasing clarity the impotence and irrelevance of the values Morrison embodies. (pp. 114-15)

[The Judas Boy] mixes together, in an adequate but less than fully satisfying manner, elements from the four previous novels. As in The Rich Pay Late and Friends in Low Places there is a central conflict—the attempt of powerful forces to stop a BBC producer from investigating American collusion in the Cypriot revolt against the British—the implications of which reach out to affect many of the same characters who appeared in the two earlier novels. The novel also includes much intrigue and adventure in the vein of The Sabre Squadron, in both of which novels the sinister American CIA agent, Earle Restarick, appears. Restarick is a paradigm of those qualities Raven most despises. As an American he is de facto "The enemy: he stood for change." A representative of the Americanized modern world, he exploits and betrays friendship in The Sabre Squadron, and in this novel—as a reviewer noted—he "coldly uses sexuality as a weapon against honour". (p. 115)

Places Where They Sing is the least satisfactory novel of the Alms for Oblivion series, although one would have thought its central situation a congenial one for Raven. Lancaster College must decide what to do with a large sum of money. Student radicals demand it be spent to provide new facilities for the maximum number of students, while the college fellows—in whose hands the decision rests—are divided between a limited and seemly version of this demand and the conservative suggestion that the money be spent to restore the College chapel and improve its famous choir. A confrontation ensues.

There are some good things in the novel, particularly its climactic scene in which an uncouth and sinister group of student revolutionaries … disrupt the singing of May madrigals and occupy the chapel. On the whole, however, despite its topicality, Places Where They Sing is not nearly so good as The Masters and The Affair, Snow's comparable novels set in a Cambridge college. Among the more annoying of its features is Raven's overindulgence of his tendency to characterize by sexual fetish. But its principal weakness is that Raven has not thought long or hard enough about the reasons for student unrest and its social causes. As a result, he is forced to rely on caricature and greatly oversimplified ideas.

It is too early to attempt any hard and fast judgements about the Alms for Oblivion series—there are four novels still to come—or even about Raven's achievement to date. Juding by past performance, it is not unlikely that Raven's fiction may develop in new and unexpected ways, and later novels may well force one to look at those already published in a different light. Raven's own evaluation of his work is disarmingly modest. Fielding Gray—latterly a novelist—clearly speaks for his creator in these comments on his craft: "I never said I was an artist. I am an entertainer … I arrange words in pleasing patterns in order to make money. I try to give good value—to see that my patterns are well-wrought—but I do not delude myself by inflating the nature of my function. I try to be neat, intelligent and lucid; let others be 'creative' or 'inspired'." But it is not necessary to inflate the value of what Simon Raven has so far produced in order to say that he is among the most entertaining, interesting, and talented of current British novelists. (p. 116)

Kerry McSweeney, "The Novels of Simon Raven," in Queen's Quarterly, Vol. 72, No. 1. Spring, 1971, pp. 106-16.


John Coleman


Peter Straub