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.