The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Some Further Thoughts About Simon Raven

I have now read 20 volumes of Simon Raven's novels--his ten volume "Alms for Oblivion" series (10 volumes; my copies are a three volume paperback omnibus, alas), the related First Born in Egypt series (7 volumes, obtained in one fell swoop from a kindly book dealer in Ireland who had them all in first edition--and now has them no longer), two books that occur between the two larger series, and include characters from them, The Roses of Picardie and September Castle (patience and abebooks got me both in first edition, quite inexpensively--the same price as a paperback, really). Oh, and Doctors Wear Scarlet, which I have as an ebook on my Kindle.

Now, Raven is an oddity in so many ways that it is hard to say anything about him without being misleading. He is profoundly politically and socially conservative, profoundly cynical, profoundly irresponsible, and profoundly despairing. He is a traditionalist in every way, except for his utter flouting of tradition, rationalist except for his recurrent interest and absorption in the supernatural, funny as hell, except when being tragic--

See what I mean?

My curiosity about his writing stemmed from re-viewing The Pallisers with la Caterina. In this viewing, I noticed all of the changes, some subtle, some obvious, that Raven's script made in Trollope's storyline--the use of Dolly Longestaffe, a minor character in only one of the books, as a viewpoint character who prompts much exposition and comments on the storyline, the darker motives of Phineas Finn in marrying Mary Flood-Jones (in Raven's telling, he's gotten her pregnant, and so much do the decent thing; in Trollope, he feels bound in honor to Mary), etc. I wondered about his novels, and, after downloading and reading Doctors Wear Scarlet, wanted to grapple with his other works.

It's been quite a ride. His oddity as a writer reflects the man:
A pair of novel cycles, Alms For Oblivion and The First-Born of Egypt, eventually ran (somewhat loosely) to 17 volumes. They take on a mystical edge, and supernatural occurrences always held a fascination for Raven. He said of his writing, "I arrange words into pleasing patterns to make money", and although he never found a huge readership, he did grow more industrious.

The public became familiar with his TV adaptations of The Pallisers and Edward and Mrs Simpson, and he also wrote dialogue for the Bond film On Her Majesty's Secret Service. His memoir, Shadows in the Grass was described as "the filthiest cricket book ever written", and Prion Humour Classics recently published a selection of his non-fiction writings, which include a treatise on recognising rent boys.

A gambler, flâneur, cricketer, controversialist, imbiber and fine host, he revelled in pushing his restaurant bills to astonishing levels. Of gambling, he cheerfully described "the almost sexual satisfaction which comes from an evening of steady and disastrous losses". Passionate yet aloof, dissipated yet energetic, Raven represents the perfect paradox of a certain type of Englishness. After obeying his publisher's restraining order for 34 years, he returned to London and died in an almshouse for the impoverished, regretting nothing. He wrote his own epitaph: "He shared his bottle, and when still young and appetising, his bed."
Raven had an appealing honesty as a writer. His stand-in, Fielding Grey, is no hero--in fact he misses several opportunities to be one, and can be appallingly selfish. Yet he, like his creator, has a certain charm.

Raven was an inspired choice to adapt The Pallisers, departures notwithstanding, because he shared Trollope's interest in depicting characters changing over time--his Captain Detterling, for example, develops, decays, and dies most credibly--his flaws and virtues evolve and devolve over the years depicted. He waxes and then wanes, in just such a way as the real man would likely do. Most of his old standbys do; if and when they die, they die of beign themselves, rather like Trollope's Mrs. Proudie. Raven brings that sensibility to the series, and, as a result, the series feels Trollopian even where it strays.

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