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Simon Raven: an entertaining read, but no Powell

Alms for Oblivion is an entertaining but shallow tale, and not a patch on A Dance to the Music of Time

By on Friday, 20 July 2012

As I suggested some weeks ago in the print edition of The Catholic Herald, one really does feel the need to reach for some weighty reading when summer comes, particularly if it is a long cold and wet summer, as ours has been so far.

Thus, on a recent trip to Foyle’s in London, I was delighted to spot the three volume paperback edition of Simon Raven’s Alms for Oblivion, published by Vintage. This roman-fleuve consists of ten novels, and I have just got to the end of the first four, completing the first volume.

Raven is not particularly well known these days. Wikipedia provides a useful summary of his career and output which you can read here. Despite the fact that I have been reading novels for a long time now, I was until recently only vaguely aware of his name, largely through people telling me that Raven was rather a better read than the great Anthony Powell.

In fact he is not. But he is still a very entertaining read. The first three novels are set in the nineteen-fifties, and the fourth provides the back story, which takes place in the summer after the War ends. It is essentially a farrago about love, jealousy and mutual back-stabbing. There is a lot of social climbing and people who are determined to get on in life at the expense of others; friends who will ruthlessly sacrifice friends for personal gain. All of this is quite enjoyable, but the plotting is rather careless, and none of the characters are particularly convincing. None of them compare to Widmerpool in A Dance to the Music of Time, for example.

The major character, who emerges by the fourth novel, is Fielding Gray, and he has the misfortune to be done over by his two best friends as well as to have two of the most ghastly parents imaginable. Yet it is never quite clear, at least not to me, why Fielding’s parents should be so utterly monstrous. There are motivelessly malignant parents in literature – the most famous one being Mr Ryder in Brideshead Revisited – but Mr Ryder is a comic masterpiece. Fielding’s parents are just shabby and spiteful without any true greatness of character. The same goes for the character of Somerset Lloyd-James.

There are in the course of the many pages of this rather shallow and brittle tale a few sideswipes at Catholicism. Somerset is Catholic who prays devoutly in Latin, but is nevertheless addicted to sordid sex with prostitutes, a man of the deepest and most self-conscious hypocrisy.

Raven’s books are interesting too as social documents. His characters are unchaste, with almost no exceptions. Raven’s own life was a rackety one, and perhaps the writing comes most alive when it is dealing with what society in the nineteen-fifties would have described as the basest of desires.

My judgements will perhaps develop as I tackle the two remaining volumes. I will keep readers posted.

  • Hugo Lindsay

    Interesting.  I read most of Raven’s novels many years ago, and more recently I reread a couple when I was in hospital. They were good for hospital: not too demanding and very entertaining, with more than a hint of prurience.

  • aearon43

    During this hot and dry summer here in Chicago, I’ve been reading “Crime and Punishment.” Can’t go wrong with the classics, right? And it’s available free on Project Gutenberg, with a Kindle edition if you have one of those. Anyway, (if you’ve never read it) a touching story of sin and redemption and although it’s set in Tsarist Russia, deals with modern philosophical ideas still very relevant today.