Simon Raven was a novelist to whom memorable quotes stuck more readily than riches or renown. He famously had “the mind of a cad and the pen of an angel”. One prominent literary couple set out to “save the English novel from Simon Raven”. His own tongue was just as sharp. Interviewing Kingsley Amis, he asked, unblinking: “How far are you, yourself, a socialist and a welfare state boy?”
That last phrase, which unconsciously locates shifting political attitudes within the context of the public school, could serve as a touchstone for Raven’s fiction. The ten-book Alms for Oblivion series addresses the management of decline through the prism of the establishment. In doing so, it revelled in the contradictions of elite Fabianism. We meet left-wing historian Tom Llewellyn, who lives in a basement despite marrying the daughter of a Tory grandee; Robert Constable, an aristocratic Cambridge provost who painstakingly concludes that independent thinking is as problematic as independent wealth; and Mayerston, a suave agitator who navigates wine lists as confidently as revolutionary theory.
If mendacity is Raven’s target, then conservative characters sit just as plumply within his cross-hairs. Their mental acrobatics are concerned more with personal ethics than politics: specifically, how to hammer their honour codes into a shape that will not impede their progress through life? The stock example is Peter Morrison, a stolid Norfolk landowner who muffles the skeletons in his closet well enough to proceed through the army to Parliament – but is not above engineering a gay crime passionel when required. Aristocratic Captain Detterling follows a similar career path yet, playing for higher stakes, is even more politely opaque. Only a very fine reading of the series reveals a possible manslaughter on the route to him inheriting a title.
Between the shortcomings of left and right wing morality lies a magnificent chasm inhabited by those not bothering with either. Foremost is the series’ most prominent Catholic, Somerset Lloyd-James; who plots out his most nefarious schemes on paper, flagged up by a personal scheme of hieroglyphs. He is of amphibious appearance and pays for sexual mise-en-scenes of startling originality, while at one point negotiating to become the “second-string” lover of an older woman. Swimming in even deeper waters is the gigolo Mark Lewson, whom we meet liberating money from a client to go gambling in Menton; and who successfully elopes with heiresses despite his kisses “tasting horrible”. Both these characters meet an end which fits the pattern of their lives
Such a cast would fly apart without some type of moral pivot. True to Raven’s saturnalian instinct, this is provided by Maisie the Prostitute. Her flat in Shepherd Market is a crossroads for nearly all the main characters, putting her in a position of unique power. Yet – alone in the series – she has a moral code and sticks to it, refusing the numerous opportunities for extortion laid before her. She even demurs from personal advancement – namely becoming a mistress to an aristocrat – because it would mean foresaking her other clients’ need for physical succour and emotional protection. “Whatever you do,” she says, tapping the chest of Fielding Gray before he departs on a trip she instinctively knows will be dangerous, “don’t let them know what’s in there”. He disregards her, and is savaged as a result.
Maisie’s preternatural wisdom points to the series’ deeper currents. Although he gleefully rejects Christianity, Raven’s profound respect for Greek culture – the only thing, in fact, he did respect – left room for a more pagan supernaturalism. He was too aware of hubris and poetic justice to embrace a wholly mechanistic world-view and risk paying the consequences.
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As such, he grants his characters truthful visions, and makes them pay the price for disturbing the old gods, a circumspection that the characters themselves lack. Instead, those most able to protect their cultural inheritance are those most venal in pursuit of its destruction. Foremost is already-rich Lord Cantaloupe, who turns his country house into a theme park. We see The Odyssey being filmed as a Hollywood epic against the backdrop of Corfu’s mass tourism; the production funded by a progressive American foundation. The final novel is a detailed elegy to Venice, also gradually being destroyed by encroaching commercial appetites. Raven has obviously chosen it as a cipher for his life and work.
If Stendhal was right that a novel is a mirror walking down the main street, few have fulfilled the commission as searchingly as Simon Raven. His unsparing eye sits awkwardly not only in our time of artificial moral absolutes but also in his own. The books were the result of the indulgence of his publisher, for whom they apparently didn’t make much money. Pitching an equivalent to today’s publishing world would be a fool’s errand.