Simon Raven

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Michael Barber

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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 Mr Raven's. (p. 23)

[Beneath] their baroque trappings his books are as austere and symmetrical as a Doric temple, with every character oiling the wheels of a fine-meshed plot….

[The] sequence as a whole [has] been an ambitious project because the author has tried to do three things at once: catch the flavour of that Upper and Upper-Middle Class world about which he is both contemptuous and affectionate; introduce and develop the nine or so loosely-connected characters who dominate the sequence; and at the same time present ten independent stories in such a way that each would entertain a reader new to the sequence. This is an awfully tall order, especially when you consider that there is no Lewis Eliot figure to hold it together.

So has he pulled it off?—Well, nearly, I think. The Raven charivari is as scandalously compelling as Evelyn Waugh's diaries. Vulgar, but not common (to borrow Waugh's phrase), it can accommodate a whore's parlour as readily as a smart cavalry mess. However, just as Waugh was eminently of the Twenties, so Raven is a Fifties' man. When it reflects events since then, as in Places Where They Sing, his mirror tends to blur or distort.

Judging from the blurb of The Rich Pay Late, it was Mr Raven's original intention to have ten characters appearing as the central consciousness of one whole story. In the event Fielding Gray hogs three books, while Peter Morrison, Daniel Mond and Detterling dominate one each. However, at various times during the four remaining volumes the author does go inside the other protagonists, so by the end of the sequence we do have some idea of what makes them all tick.

The above technique, allied to the fact that the sequence is not one long saga like A Dance to the Music of Time, certainly strengthens Mr Raven's hand in respect of the casual reader. But I'm sure I'm not alone in feeling that the exigencies of the roman-fleuve have determined that individually, not one volume of the decalogue has quite the pith of his first and fourth novels, The Feathers of Death … and Close of Play. Between them, these two books encapsulate the many mansions that make up Mr Raven's House of Fiction: public school; university; the Army; gambling; cricket (cricket fields are to Raven as hunting fields are to Trollope); classical scholarship; Aristotelian tragedy; homosexual love and heterosexual eroticism.

Both The Feathers of Death and Close of Play are elegiac. So too is The Survivors, but not simply because it concludes with the death and burial in Venice of poor Danny Mond. For when, as happens in the final pages, a largely honourable man like Peter Morrison can connive at the destruction of Venice by industrialists in order to retain his office as Minister of Commerce, the writing is on the wall: everything of value will soon be gone, so carpe diem. (p. 24)

Michael Barber, "The Last of the Wine" (© copyright Michael Barber 1977; reprinted with permission), in Books and Bookmen, Vol. 22, No. 5, February, 1977, pp. 23-4.

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