The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Monday, December 26, 2016

Facing the Raven

When I was doing my Clinical Pastoral Training for the diaconate, the vagaries of my schedule, the location of the hospital I was assigned,, and the available transportation options meant that I tended to work fewer but longer shifts. My choice, not any requirement put on me. But it did mean that, on the occasional breaks and lunch times, I needed a fair amount of reading. As it happened, what I felt I needed, and what I read, was something fairly light, with a hint of darkness. Well, more than a hint, in fact, but not Bierce level bitterness.

For a good part of my time, I read Simon Raven's two linked novel sequences, Alms for Oblivion and The First-Born of Egypt (the latter have not been collected in omnibus edition, though the series is available on Kindle). (Pro tip: between the two sequences, two novels, The Roses of Picardie and September Castle introduce some new characters, and revivify--hey, it's good enough for Bram Stoker--some old characters.) Raven's cynicism and wit had drawnly attention in watching his 1975 adaptation of Trollope's six political novels, The Pallisers, in which he darkened some characters (Phineas Finn) and excavates hidden depths in others (Dolly Longestaffe). My interest was piqued.

So, as I went on this extensive--though by no means comprehensive--journey through Raven's works, I didn't really absorb as much I am doing now, as I am re-reading at least Alms. Oh, I got the main points--Raven's self-hatred and anger at what he, at some level, deemed his wasted potential (his authorial stand-in is a handsome young man who, after his first appearance, in which he betrays his own true love (another schoolboy), is coerced to join the Army, where he gets his face quite literally shot off, and spends the bulk of his appearances (barring flashback novels) as a grotesque) view with his job de vivre, resulting in a curious mixture of rakehell and moralist.

And Raven's finding honor in his outsider characters--physicist Daniel Mond, Indian officer Gilzai Khan, a prostitute named Masie--while his more "honorable" characters often lack it (Captain Deterring, the Marquess of Canteloupe, politician Somerset Lloyd-James). And yet, the failures sometimes do come through--authorial stand-in Fielding Gray, more often than not fails to show courage, but he stands by Mond when it's dangerous to, he pulls off one quite thrilling James Bond-like escape in The Judas Boy that probably explains why he got hired to write "additional dialogue" for On Her Majesty's Secret Service (hilariously, Raven's credit comes before the screenwriter's). But more often than not, Fielding, despite his essential decency, disappoints.

That's because Fielding, like almost all of Raven's characters, betrays those whom he loves and cares for. He has principles, but often fails to live up to them; he fails his friends by seizing a chance to redeem his early tragedy. And all around him are like him--corrupted by lust, whether of the flesh or of power, or for gold, Raven's people are in a sense doomed--their lives are being frittered away chasing that which is already lost. The betrayals meant to seize that which they hope will bring them joy itself deprives them of what they seek. So in Places Where They Sing, Tom Llwellyn (that rarity in Raven, a sympathetic socialist), regrets the death of his marriage, which was founded on his worship of his wife Patricia until intimacy cut her down to human proportions, revealing that he has no real love left for her--and the lack of love wears her away. Critics often write about Raven's wit but the cynical humor is founded on tragic sensibilities.

I can think of one exception, though: The adroit way Raven depicts the seemingly ill-assorted, but actually quite well suited couple, the publisher Gregory Stern and his upper-class wife Isobel is most interesting, because they probably enjoy the one fully functioning, healthy heterosexual relationship portrayed with any depth in Raven's fiction. There are many well realized unhappy relationships, along the way, but the Sterns are each attentive to the emotional needs of the other, and until Gregory's death in First-Born, they are devoted to each other, in their own idiosyncratic way.

No, the piece I missed out in my first reading is how well Raven had laid out the architectonic scheme of the thing long before the later novels were written. A story glancingly told in Sound the Retreat frames all of First-Born and dominates the last volume, The Troubadour.

Raven's flirtation with the supernatural (deepening in the last volumes) is normally held in tension with his extreme realism about the seamy side of life and his sad recognition of the fallibility and capability of pretty much everyone. He ends Alms in The Survivors with a poetic conceit that
I set out nearly 3 years ago, and which feels even more timely and poignant now:

In the last novel, The Survivors, at the memorial service for one of the few steadfastly moral characters in Raven's opus, Daniel Mond, all of the compromised, blackguardly, roguish, and even occasionally good characters are gathered together in Venice. As all of the characters stand about, exchanging witty banter, seeking to advance their own interests, or find a partner, Raven writes, "a curious thing happened." He provides capsule descriptions of the various conversations, involving all present, except for Piero, a young Italian prostitute, and adds:
while all this was going on:

A dark stain crept up the creek towards the landing stage, at first just a trickle of black, then spreading until it covered the entire width of the creek, coming fast and strong with the tide as more and more poured in behind it, lapping against the banks where the birds nested, lapping round the shining boats, finally coming right up to the steps of the landing stage and settling there, barely an inch below the bottom rung, silent, filthy and opaque.

And yet nobody noticed except Piero, who was staring down from infirmary window and saw that the black stain was all over the lagoon, whichever way he turned his eyes.

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