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The fall of modern civilisation set in 20th-century Venice

Simon Raven’s 10-novel sequence Alms for Oblivion offers a window into upper-class mores, and also a terrible denunciation of modern life

By on Thursday, 15 November 2012

The island of San Francesco del Deserto

The island of San Francesco del Deserto

I have just reached the end of Alms for Oblivion, which is the 10 novel sequence written by Simon Raven. I first wrote about this back in July when I was four books into the sequence.

I cannot claim to be an unqualified admirer of Raven’s work, but he is certainly entertaining, and he also provides us with a window into upper-class mores.

What is notable is that Raven’s interest in Catholicism grows as the sequence progresses. The final novel, The Survivors, is set in Venice, and is essentially about death and deception. Not only is the whole of Venice physically in peril, but the whole city seems to be built on deception, exemplified by the baccarat bank that one of the characters is running, and by the phoney title that another leading character has inherited. Nothing is what it seems. Meanwhile a character from a previous novel has taken the Franciscan habit and is now living as a friar on the islet of San Francesco del Deserto, which is where the final scene – fittingly a funeral – is played out.

Funnily enough, I have been to San Francesco del Deserto. It is a small island, home to a small church and friary, and is popular for weddings. It has its own website. It was here that St Francis landed back in 1220 and founded a hermitage. It is not accessible by public transport, and is to my mind, like the island of Torcello, rather bleak, lonely and depressing. Raven describes it as being in the laguna morta, the dead lagoon, which is not quite accurate, but nevertheless justified poetic licence.

Venice was founded by refugees desperate to get away from the barbarians, in the twilight of the Roman Empire in the West. If Raven sees 20th-century Venice as emblematic of the fall of modern civilisation, he is certainly mining a fruitful seam. His introduction to the second tome of Alms for Oblivion represents a terrible denunciation of modern life, and the penultimate novel ends with the chilling words that God is not mocked. We may think we get away with it, Raven seems to be saying, but we ought not to deceive ourselves. A strange pronouncement for a man who allegedly lived for pleasure, but there again, perhaps the disillusioned libertine is also a prophet.

  • EndTimes101

    It’s no wonder the church (and therefore the world) is in such a mess when even amid the dire straits and spiritual desert we find ourselves in, our appointed shepherds are too busy or distracted by vain entertainment to engage in the good fight (ever heard of prayer and sacrifice?). God help you on judgement day when you have to give an account of your time spent and explain the fall of the souls under your influence…..

  • JonathanBurdon

    Blimey. He only read a novel, you know. I can’t recall ever hearing that it’s a mortal sin. An interest in literature strikes me as a very good and healthy thing to be honest. Why would you want stop Catholics reading?

  • Alexander Lucie-Smith

    Thanks, JB.

  • EndTimes101

     It IS a mortal sin to be reading and promoting worthless entertainment while the Church is burning down in front of you and countless souls under your significant influence are being lost in the flames. It is called a grave sin of Omission. Apparently you have never heard of it….

    Never mind the rewriting of the 10 commandments, or the occasional Neo Marxist claptrap that springs forth from this blog, or even the scandalous promoting for the Anti-Christ Bill and Melinda gates foundation. Oh no, the gravest crime here is the constant stream of egotistical drivel wasting a privileged platform, only to be replaced intellectual posing of utterly vain and worthless subjects in the vain attempt to display how worldly, well read and cultured one might be.

    Judgement day….coming soon to your local civilisation. Be prepared to give full account of your time and life, and ALSO the condition of souls under your care and responsibility.

  • Father Stephen

    Well, I am stricken with guilt and have decided to ” ‘fess up”. I am a priest of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church here in America  - Land of the Free and Home of the Depraved.  I must admit to reading novels. In fact I have read hundreds of them and most of them were read during my 34 years as a priest. Hang on, it gets worse. I occasionally read Tintin (in French, bien sur) and have watched a little television from time to time. EndTImes101, surely you jest, but if not, get thee to a psychiatry. You might even read a novel for therapy. Perhaps, something by Robert Hugh Benson, or Evelyn Waugh, or maybe Herge.

  • EndTimes101

     Deliberately misinterpreting my point and then mocking me as insane does you no credit and will not silence me (the moderators usually take that role – so they must be on holiday at the mo).
    Hang on, it gets worse…..did you hear the one about the guy that went into a temple and overturned tables, and whipped people just for providing the public service of changing money? And you say i need Psychiatry !!! Oh hang on, did you say your a Priest? I think he might need representing……when you have finished entertaining yourself perhaps you could show up for work sometime this century?

  • EndTimes101

     As usual the moderators delete my reasoned response while leaving the post mocking me as insane online. Dear moderator, does your conscience EVER trouble you?

  • EndTimes101

     Actually dear moderator, i was not calling for you to ban the Fathers post for mocking me. I believe in robust debate and discussion otherwise how can you ever resolve anything? Unless there is swearing or threats or someone is consistently seeking to offend without any explanation can you please STOP moderating/deleting every post that is slightly edgy.
    This highlights a huge problem in our modern world that has deeply infected the Church, that people feel they can’t say certain things for FEAR that someone somewhere might find it offensive. It is a form of mind control used typically selectively against traditionalist and conservatives. Your moderation standards just reinforce that unwarranted censorship and kills any prospect that this false paradigm might challenged……