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14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The World, the Flesh and the Devil, 27 Jun. 2013
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This review is from: Alms For Oblivion Vol I (Vintage Classics) (Paperback)
Simon Raven's novel sequence "Alms for Oblivion" is often compared to that other great twentieth-century English roman-fleuve, his older contemporary Anthony Powell's "A Dance to the Music of Time", although there are some significant differences. The twelve volumes of Powell's magnum opus are all narrated in the first person, in strict chronological sequence, by the author's alter ego Nicholas Jenkins. "Alms for Oblivion", by contrast, has no single narrator; indeed, of the four novels contained in Volume I only one, "Fielding Gray", is told in the first person (by the title character, who is perhaps the nearest Raven comes to an alter ego). There is no strict chronological sequence; "The Rich Pay Late", the first novel to be published, is set in 1956 against the backdrop of the Suez crisis, "Friends In Low Places" in 1959, "The Sabre Squadron" in 1952 and "Fielding Gray", chronologically the earliest novel of the sequence, during the last months of the war in 1945. The novels are all much more self-contained than those in "A Dance...."; "The Rich Pay Late", for example, reads brilliantly as a novel in its own right without reference to later volumes, whereas I would not really advise anyone to read "A Question of Upbringing", the opening instalment of "A Dance...." , independently without progressing to the rest of the sequence. Another difference is that Raven's writing is much more sexually explicit than Powell's, something possibly reflecting the difference in generation between the two men.

"The Rich Pay Late" deals with the efforts of two businessmen, Donald Salinger and Jude Holbrook, to acquire a controlling interest in "Strix", an influential economic journal, and Holbrook's attempt to blackmail Peter Morrison, a Conservative MP who has it in his power to block the takeover. "Friends in Low Places" has two interconnected plot strands, one dealing with the selection procedure to find a candidate for a safe Tory parliamentary seat, the other with the efforts of a con-man named Mark Lewson to obtain a letter which might embarrass the British government. In "The Sabre Squadron" a young Cambridge mathematician named Daniel Mond travels to Germany to pursue his researches but discovers to his horror that his work could have disturbing military applications; the title refers to a British regiment stationed in the area, some of whose officers befriend Mond. "Fielding Gray" tells of the schooldays of the title character, a pupil at a public school probably based on Raven's own alma mater Charterhouse, and of his homosexual desires for a schoolmate. (This last has something in common with Michael Campbell's "Lord Dismiss Us", another novel on a similar theme). Although all four novels are quite short, they all contain a wealth of incident and a large number of characters, so I will not summarising their plots any further in this review.

One feature which the sequence does have in common with Powell's is the device of recurring characters. For example, the two main contenders for the Tory nomination in "Friends in Low Places" are Morrison and Somerset Lloyd-James, the editor of "Strix", both of whom later turn out to have been school contemporaries of Fielding Gray. Gray himself plays an important role in both "Friends in Low Places" and "The Sabre Squadron", where he is one of the officers who become friendly with Mond. Robert Constable, a left-wing Cambridge academic, appears in all four novels.

Although Raven belonged to the same generation as the so-called "Angry Young Men", he was not normally regarded as an Angry Young Man himself, probably because the members of that group, such as Kingsley Amis, John Osborne and Alan Sillitoe, were all of working-class or lower middle-class origins, as were their leading characters such as Jim Dixon, Jimmy Porter and Arthur Seaton, whereas the public-school educated Raven was from a privileged upper-class background and generally wrote about characters from similar backgrounds. He was, however, as keen as any of the "Angries" to satirise the follies and vices of the British ruling class, and the four novels contained here contain a fine selection of vice and folly. The themes running throughout are those of the world, the flesh and the devil, or, to translate those concepts into more secular language, of ambition, sexual lust and sheer perversity.

Perhaps the most famous quote about Raven, originally deriving from a review in "The Guardian", was that he had "the mind of a cad and the pen of an angel". I would certainly agree with the point about "the pen of an angel", but the phrase "mind of a cad" has perhaps given rise to the misleading idea that Raven was simply an amused, cynical observer of the caddish behaviour he chronicled. Although he seems to have had little time for the traditional Christian ethic, there is in his novels a clear system of morality based upon an ethos of honour and decency.

At one end of the scale there are a few genuinely honourable men such as Morrison. At the other end are what Raven called "killers", men like Holbrook and Lloyd-James. This term is not necessarily to be interpreted literally; Holbrook might have no objection to homicide, but Lloyd-James would doubtless be too cowardly. A "killer" in Raven's usage is one who has no scruples about using any tactics, however illegal or immoral, in pursuing his or her own advantage, regardless of the consequences to anyone else. (Blackmail seems to be a favourite stratagem of Raven's "killers"). In the middle come those who may be deeply flawed but who nevertheless manage to find reserves of decency within themselves. The hard-drinking political writer Tom Llewyllyn, the muck-raking journalist Alfie Schroeder, Holbrook's promiscuous mistress Angela Tuck and his snobbish, social-climbing partner Donald Salinger all have their faults, but all are capable of decent behaviour which would be quite alien to Holbrook himself.

The above references are all taken from "The Rich Pay Late", but the same distinctions can be made in the other three novels. Mond is another man of honour, Mark Lewson and Angela's husband Mr Tuck are other "killers" (as perhaps are Gray's parents in "Fielding Gray"), and Gray himself is a fine example of the flawed hero. This threefold moral system might in some hands have seemed too schematic, but in Raven's it does not, largely because it is overlaid by another distinction, that between Roundheads and Cavaliers, although Raven himself does not actually use those terms. In "1066 and All That" Sellar and Yeatman characterised the Cavaliers as "Wrong but Wromantic" and the Roundheads as "Right but Repulsive", and there are good examples of both character types throughout these four novels. Constable, who regards himself as a man of high moral principle but who strikes just about everyone else as a moralistic prig, is an obvious Roundhead in these terms; Morrison also has something of the Roundhead about him.

The flawed but attractive Gray, however, is an equally obvious Cavalier. He is probably Raven's best psychological portrait in these novels. He can behave very badly, and yet is would be impossible not to sympathise with him, given his youth, his promise and the forces ranged against him- the intolerance of homosexuality which prevailed in this period, the conformism of the British education system, the Philistinism and anti-intellectual prejudices of his parents.

In these four novels Raven gives a brilliantly incisive, satirical picture of British society in the forties and fifties, often bitingly funny but also at times tragic. "Alms for Oblivion" is one of my great literary discoveries of 2013. I have already ordered Volume II.
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Location: Tunbridge Wells, Kent, United Kingdom

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