Simon Raven KERRY McSWEENEY - Essay

KERRY McSWEENEY

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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)

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(The entire section is 2857 words.)