Simon Raven was something of a liability, a man whom low-grade scandal followed around like a hungry dog. He was expelled from public school for (oh, the irony) ‘homosexual practices’ and, a few years later, was forced to resign his commission in the army on ‘moral grounds’ (he had run up substantial debts and rather let the side down). A rake, a charmer and, judging by his florid complexion in later years, a heavy drinker, Raven was a bit of a monster, a dissolute man who floated through life merrily spending more than what he earned and, when absolutely pressed, would begrudgingly (and probably effortlessly) sit down and write a book.
His greatest achievement is the ten volume ‘Alms For Oblivion’ series, a heavily biographical, occasionally wayward set of novels which loosely detail the lives of a group of upper class characters from the years 1945 to 1973. Characters fade in and out, and the later books get weirder and weirder (the story arc was not published in chronological order, and can be read as single works of fiction) but even at their most conventional they are never less than slightly bizarre.
Earlier this year, I decided to read the ‘Alms For Oblivion’ series in story order and then blog about it, which is what I’m doing now. If you’re even vaguely interested, and think ‘I might go and get some of those books’ then act upon it – they’re cheap and readily available and will definitely repay your investment, especially if you go for the Harper Collins imprints from the late eighties: they're not particularly attractive, but you needn't get upset if your miniature dachshund pees on them (I'm speaking from experience).
(Published 1967; set in 1945)
Initially, I found it slightly difficult to get to grips with the book: I’ve never been to public school, I’m not upper middle class and I’m heterosexual, so it was difficult initially to completely emotionally latch onto the story and the characters. The characters, setting and fact that the affair is homosexual in nature are ultimately irrelevant, however: the book is about unfairness and the inequality of love – how one person can have dominion over the other, and how desire can over-ride decency, i.e. the compulsion to get ones end away can sometimes lead to cruelty and exploitation. Fielding’s crime is not that he has an affair with another boy, but that he treats the boy so badly, just as, later on, Fielding will be treated badly by his father and mother and others and will be more or less powerless to save himself. Swings and roundabouts, as they say in cliché land.
The object of his desire, Christopher, is a simple, sensitive soul who genuinely loves Fielding; Fielding pursues him, fucks him and, when it becomes apparent that the relationship is harming his prospects, drops him. Christopher is devastated and has a nervous breakdown. When he is later caught soliciting outside an Army base, he goes home and shoots himself.
From here on in, it all goes tapered at the top and heavy at the bottom for our ‘hero’. His father exacts a petty revenge on him by ignoring his plans to go to University, instead lining up a career for him as a tea grower in the colonies. When his father dies of a heart attack after being caught by Fielding in a compromising position, Fielding finds that his previously sympathetic mother has become an equally tough proposition – they quarrel, and he slaps her, the final nail in his academic coffin: whereas the University might accept a man who had a gay affair that ended in suicide, they will not support the application of a man who hits his Mum. Out of options, he joins the army.
Essential to the series in that it introduces most of the key players at their youngest and rawest, ‘Fielding Gray’ is a book that drifts along, full of digressions and irrelevances (there’s a long description of a cricket match, for instance, that seems to go on for about ten pages), then stops and, without warning, kicks you in the teeth. There’s very little in this world more maddening and frustrating than injustice, and this story is full of it. It’s a shitty world, Raven seems to think, and it’s best to realise that very early on. He’s quite right, of course, and although his reaction to it (fuck everything that moves; pinch everything not nailed down; do the dirty on everyone you know) may not be everyone’s idea of how to live, but it’s an understandable conclusion to reach.