In his Daily Mail weblog, Peter Hitchens wonders whether the popularity of the recent BBC series on the Jermy Thorpe scandal might presage a revival of the Alms for Oblivion novels by one of his favorite under-read authors, Simon Raven:
The enjoyable revival of the Jeremy Thorpe follies, or rather, of Peter Bessell’s account of them, shows that Raven was not far off the mark of truth. In fact much of the Thorpe story could have been written by Raven, especially the homosexual elements, an area of English upper-class life which nobody else really wrote much about until quite recently. Evelyn Waugh, whose expeditions into homosexuality were deeper and longer than he cared to recall or relate, was very coy about putting much of them into his books, even the most autobiographical of them. The famous reference to such things in ‘Brideshead Revisited’ is so elegant and allusive that the casual reader can easily miss it, as I did the first two or three times I read that profound and important book.
It is an interesting point, but then when thinking about it, I concluded that reading Raven’s series would be more like “Thorpe Without End.” I had tried to read Raven’s novels in the 1980s as a follow-on to Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time. I eagerly and optimistically bought a complete set (9 or so volumes) of Raven’s Alms for Oblivion series off the shelf at Blackwells and lugged them home. I started it three times but gave up somewhere in the middle of volume three. In an earlier post (“Better Without the Sex”), which Hitchens links in this latest one, he explains why. In this passage he is comparing Raven’s novel cycle to those of Powell (which Hitchens didn’t like at all) and C P Snow (which he liked, but less than those of Raven):
I should also mention here that neither [Powell’s nor Snow’s cycles] contain the passages of sheer filth that Raven liked to indulge in. Now, when I say filth, I mean filth. I know that lots of people get up to odd things in their bedrooms, and up to even odder things inside their heads, and there it is. Sexual fantasies are frequently rather startling, and some people may long to know the details of other people’s – but I prefer not to. Personally, I’d cheerfully Bowdlerise these books, removing various scenes of voyeurism and embarrassing sex, even (though reluctantly) excising the various spanking fantasies of one particular person who is singled out for rather a lot of this sort of thing. It’s not that I enjoy the fantasies, just that, attributed to this particular person, they are especially funny. And I’d more or less dispense with the eighth book in the series, ‘Come Like Shadows’ , apart from the final scene in which the appalling yet marvellous Lord Canteloupe of the Estuary of the Severn delivers some excellent advice on how to deal with foreigners, in this case Americans. Suitably pruned of their bad sex, they might have a higher reputation, a higher reputation which in my view they deserve.
I think this is a fair description of my problem with Raven’s novels. The books were well written and the characters were well drawn, but they simply couldn’t stopping groping and prodding each other and then describing it in graphic and rather lurid detail. If you are prepared to deal with that, as Hitchens suggests, then his proposal for a revival might work for you. On the other hand, there is something to be said for Waugh’s method for dealing with these topics, as Hitchens notes in his comparison quoted above. He comes back to his comparison later in the article:
At one point [a Raven character] is described as consuming his victuals ‘with silent, reverential greed’, a description which I think is quite worthy of Evelyn Waugh. In fact, while there are occasional lapses, much of Raven is comparable to the early Waugh, though more realistic than (say) ‘Decline and Fall’ or ‘Vile Bodies’, and less self-consciously artistic than ‘Brideshead’. It is the occasional sheer crudity of events and characters which (I suspect) make people think he isn’t quite first rate. [Emphasis supplied.]
In his 2013 post, Hitchens makes another interesting comparison to Waugh. He notes that Raven was clearly not religious:
Yet he plainly loved much of Christian England. In what is, in some ways the central volume of the series ‘Places Where They Sing’, the very title is a quotation from the Book of Common Prayer, and contains a very early denunciation of the pestilent use of modern Bible translations. There are references to John Bunyan, and a clear appreciation of the beauty of religious architecture and art, and of the need to preserve it from destruction. He must be the only 20th century author apart from Evelyn Waugh who would even try to refer seriously to the concept of honour, and he plainly loves the badges and trumpet calls of chivalry, already vanishing from England in his own boyhood, but just faintly echoing.
If you’re at all interested in trying Raven’s books, read both of Hitchen’s articles, then try it out with one volume. Borrow it from the library if at all possible. Hitchens says they do not need to be read in order but the characters do carry through. In a comment addressing the question of where to start, Hitchens offers alternatives:
The chronological beginning of ‘Alms for Oblivion’ is ‘Fielding Gray‘, which (while extremely powerful) is perhaps the most, er, homosexual of the series. As each book is self-contained, it doesn’t really matter where you start. But in some ways ‘Sound the Retreat;, set in the final months of British Rule in India, is the key to the whole thing. This is the end of a great power, in all its seedy, sinister ludicrousness. My personal favourite of them all is ‘The Sabre Squadron‘ , set in Goettingen in 1952, which also wouldn’t be a bad starting point.
Another mistake to avoid is not to think Raven’s sequel series First Born of Egypt might be an improvement. Hitchens warns several times against that. Unmentioned by Hitchens, Raven also wrote TV adaptations–his best were probably The Pallisers based on Trollope’s novels and the early Thames TV version of Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate. This was better in some respects than the later BBC adaptation–mainly for Michael Aldridge as Uncle Matthew, Michael Williams as Davey and Vivian Pickles as Lady Montdore, all chewing as much of the scenery as they could manage. According to Hitchens, Raven died in poverty, living out his years at the Charterhouse in London where he had gone to school. Like many of his characters, he probably managed to live beyond his means no matter how much of it was available.