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