Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Simon Raven

A friend asked in an e-mail earlier this week whether I had read Simon Raven. The name was familiar, and I knew he was an English novelist, but that was about as far as I could get. But when my friend pointed out that there are those who plump for Raven over Anthony Powell--who say that Raven's roman-fleuve, Alms for Oblivion, is better than Powell's . . . well, I had to go check this out for myself.

I've grabbed the first novel in the sequence, The Rich Pay Late (1964), from the library, and it'll go to the top of my post–George R. R. Martin stack. Before that, however, I thought I'd take a quick trawl through the home shelves to figure out where I'd encountered Raven. I started with Powell's diaries and memoirs, but his only appearance there is as one of many who congratulated Powell on being named a Companion of Honor in the early days of 1988.

Raven does, however, turn up in Michael Barber's biography of Powell. Barber is describing the pervasively present absence of Nick Jenkins, Powell's narrator in A Dance to the Music of Time, and he brings in a "pungent" description by Raven of Jenkins's tone:
It's the tone of a gentleman's club, really, with a slight breath--not exactly of the slums creeping in--but a breath of corruption. It's a bit like sitting in, say, White's or Brooks's, and every now and then somebody opens the window and a rather nasty smell--not exactly of shit--well, yes, of shit, but also of corpses--comes into the room. And somebody makes a polite observation as to the nature, respectively, of shit and corpses and closes the window for the time being. That's how it strikes me.
Despite the tone of disapproval, Barber says that Raven admired Powell's novels--though from that account it's hard to escape the conclusion that he didn't get them. His example isn't wholly inaccurate, but it leaves out the breadth of Powell's range of subject and interest: the oddities that are simply oddities, not signs of corruption; the things done for love (often self-love) rather than power or status; the comedy of expressed individuality. Raven makes it sound like Powell seeks credit for exposing hypocrisy, while leaving the genteel world essentially intact. Far from it--rather, Powell is interested in making us see the complexity and strangeness that underlie even worlds (and people) we think we know well.

Barber goes on to draw what seems a useful distinction:
Raven is explicit. Powell is implicit. In Raven's fiction the source of the nasty smell--a steaming turd, a festering cadaver or whatever--is there on the carpet for all to see. In Powell's fiction we never really establish what it is or where it comes from, only that it stinks. Raven's characters simply ring for a servant to clear up the mess, following which they settle back in their armchairs as before. He is, for all his lurid effects, a cosy writer. Powell, most emphatically, is not. His characters will probably have to live with that smell whether the window is open or not because it may, after all, be the drains (but try telling that to the club secretary). "The world is never a very nice place," he said more than once. "Tony's far more melancholy and serious than I am," was Raven's comment.
Raven also turns up elsewhere in Barber's bio, and while neither of these instances is useful for comparison's sake, they're too irresistible to pass up. Of Violet Powell's ability to demolish the character of an absent person in conversation, Raven said, "Chop, chop, chop--until there was nothing left but a bit of gristle." And then Barber offers Raven's recollection of an excuse that Violet once told him Cyril Connolly had given for not being able to write: "He told her he couldn't write for a month after he'd come."

The Guardian's obituary for Raven was also written by Barber, and it's a joy, opening brilliantly:
The death of Simon Raven, at the age of 73 after suffering a stroke, is proof that the devil looks after his own. He ought, by rights, to have died of shame at 30, or of drink at 50.
Barber also described him as combining "elements of Flashman, Waugh's Captain Grimes and the Earl of Rochester."

The reference to Waugh made me think that even though they're of different generations surely Nancy Mitford would have encountered such a creature, or at least enjoyed gossiping about him. Initially I struck out in her letters, too, until I turned to the slim volume of her correspondence with bookseller Heywood Hill. Raven turns up there in a letter from Nancy of January 15, 1971. Having been asked by her neighbor, Mme. Suchard, to recommend some "light English books" for her nephew and godson of seventeen, "a lazy boy who is learning English," she had ordered some Penguins from the bookshop, which, on arrival, she dispatched to her neighbor.
The next day she loomed, saying, "These books--you know we are not very go-ahead in my family--could you very kindly see if they are really suitable for a young boy?" Well, two of them had disgusting naked women on the cover. I got away with them (as they were called things like Rose of Tibet) by saying the women were goddesses. The third had a picture of a boy dressed for cricket fondling a naked lady (my dear, lucky it was a lady, in view of the contents) & written on the cover "A novel of strange vices" which of course even Mme Suchard could translate. I simply grovelled--said I couldn't believe it of MY MOTHER's old bookshop, one of the most respectable in London.
And then there's the punchline:
Well, I couldn't be bothered to send back strange vices & I read it--too brilliant, screamingly funny & disgusting beyond belief. It's called Fielding Gray by S Raven--I do recommend it.
And that is why I knew and remembered Raven's name!

More to come on this front later, I expect.


  1. I've read the first 3 volumes of 'Alms', and then got derailed by moving house and having the rest of the books in a box.... somewhere. They are huge fun. Though much more violent and sporadically demented than Powell's sequence, the comparison is not an unreasonable one. Confusingly, the internal chronology of the Alms books is different from the publication order--suggesting he hadn't planned them out ahead quite as well as Powell, either.

  2. I saw on the Wikipedia page for Raven that the chronology was out of line with the publication order. Did you read them in publication order, or chronologically? (Not, I think, that I have much choice right now, as The Rich Pay Late was I think the only one that the main Chicago Public Library branch had.)

  3. I was reading them in publication order, but only because I was unaware until I got to book 3 that it wasn't the only way! I suspect it doesn't really matter, for what it's worth.

  4. Thank you for the link to that wonderful obituary. My mother has just been reading a book by Stephen Fry and mentioned to me yesterday that Fry cited Raven as infinitely preferable to Powell. What you think of this recommendation, depends on your attitude to Fry, of course.

  5. Anonymous7:40 AM

    I’d argue that the individual sentences by Gray are crisper and more to the point than Powell’s. In the same way, Gray’s novels each have a particular plot and self-contained resolution, often involving one character betraying another. Gray is more obviously funny and also disgraceful. He’s not so interested in the matter and processes of recollection and perception, but in action. Both obviously touch on the change in social attitudes and upper middle class society over the period. However, Gray’s disgraceful quality is undercut by his self-awareness that this behaviour contributes to the decline of England and also to his ideal of “the gentleman” – a lot of it is about life and manners in the military. Unlike Powell almost every novel has some sort of uncanny element or area – a spooky valley or temple or a myth or supernatural experience recounted by the locals. In some of the books it’s barely there, but as the series goes on and in his even later books this does obtrude. At least two of the books you can skip as not contributing much to the roman fleuve element: “Come Like Shadows” is about filming a movie in the Medierranean because that’s what Raven was doing at the same time in the century, and I’m afraid I forget the other one.

    - matthew davis

  6. OK, having been inspired by this post, I went back, found all my Ravens, and read them through: I enjoyed it a lot, and have to say that reading them in internal chronological order (ie starting with Fielding Gray, published fourth) is definitely the way to do it. Lots of cynical (and sporadically disgusting) fun.

  7. I actually was just about to embark on the third (in publishing order) of the set, having very much enjoyed the nastiness of the first two. But now you're making me think I should alter my plan and shift to chronological order. It may depend on availability . . . Raven's not got a strong presence here, even in libraries.

  8. I suspect he must have written them in the internal order, or at least have created an incredibly detailed plan for them all, as the references in 'The Rich Pay Late', for example, seem to refer to 'Fielding Gray' and 'Sound the Retreat' in such detail as to suggest they were already written.

  9. Okay, so it's now May and I've read the first four (by publication order, not chronological order), and I now know that once I get through the ten books (which I have here in three volumes), I am likely to read them all again. FIELDING GRAY, which I just finished this morning, may indeed be a masterpiece in what it says about living as a young gay man in pre-1967 Sexual Offenses Act Britain, in the manner it depicts what lies behind the purported hero image (and youthful sexiness) and those who seek power, and in balancing terrible behavior (a regular and juicy quality in the Raven universe) with an honest (but my no means didactic) empathy. It is an astonishingly honest, very readable, and surprisingly moving book, even with its bleak wit. And after four volumes, it is absolutely Powell-like in the way a character's actions beckon back to previous character actions -- although it reveals far more monstrosity than expected!

    I've loved all these books so far, although THE SABRE SQUADRON was good not great (even with the interesting philosophical front and the indelible view of post-Nazi Germany).

    Does anybody know if Raven planned this all out before he wrote the ten, as JRSM suggests? I'm hoping to find out at some point this year, as the Raven books are something of a side reading/research project right now. And, Levi, how far are you now into the Alms for Oblivion sequence? It's criminal that these aren't as discussed as they need to be. They seem like Waugh-like entertainments. But the more you plunge in, the more you find considerable depth.

  10. Sorry to be slow to get back to this, but I'd put the set down after the first two novels in the UK omnibus I have--The Rich Pay Late and Friends in Low Places--and only just finished the third one, The Sabre Squadron. Ed, you're right that the last of those is not as good--what's strange to me is how different it is tonally, as if it's from a completely different series if not writer.

    Fielding Gray is up next, but I may after that opt to take JRSM's suggestion and read from there on in internal chronological order. I'll be really curious to see if it seems to me, as it did to JRSM, that there were all well planned from the start. You can get that feeling reading A Dance to the Music of Time sometimes, and while some of that is true, I think a lot of it is simply Powell realizing opportunities for echoes and developments that he'd inadvertently planted for himself in the earlier volumes. Wonder whether that's the case with Raven?

  11. Anonymous6:42 AM

    I have read the whole Alms sequence, in their printed order, twice, several years between readings. I find they get better with age. But, as with some authors, some readers might have objections to the morals and values that are torn down. Raven is a quality writer and free in his dispensation of vitriol.

  12. Anonymous5:39 PM

    just bought all three volumes and read The Rich Pay Late in one worrying whether I should have read Fielding Gray first...Doh!!

  13. Philip Kiszely6:51 AM

    I'm reading 'Alms' myself at the moment - I've read 4 and I'm thoroughly enjoying the series. I'm also collecting the Anthony Blond first editions. Raven's a relatively new find for me, and I'm delighted to have found him. Agree absolutely he's a quality writer, and that there's a lovely sense of depth to the series. Also, I like the fact that he's unfashionable - a true indicator, if ever there was one, that he's an excellent writer...

  14. My poor effort in this vein is "Shadows on the grass" at Absolutely love Alms for Oblivion and most of the one off ones, but it must be said the First Born etc. books are ...shall we say lacking a certain discipline?