Writers from Balzac and Zola to Proust and Powell have distinguished themselves by creating their own worlds, in which characters appear and reappear in different combinations through a number of novels. Whereas Proust and Powell use a narrator as the thread running through work which follows a linear chronological sequence, Balzac and Zola tell many different stories with a variety of central characters.
With Arms for Oblivion, Simon Raven follows the latter model, with few playing a major role in more than couple of his ten novel collection. Alms takes place across just three decades, beginning just after the war, and ending with The Survivors, set in 1973 and published three years later.
As in Anthony Powell's twelve Dance to the Music of Time novels, many of Raven's characters are upper class, and shaped by military service. Raven is a more direct writer, not quite as industrial in his output as Balzac, but with fewer pretensions than Powell (and is the better for it).
Whereas Powell was a snob, and the reader suffers for this, Raven was a cad, and the reader gains (even if those around him didn't; he once sent a telegram to the wife he married out of duty, saying "Sorry no money, suggest eat baby").
He may not have created a character as memorable, and memorably unpleasant as Widmerpool, but Raven's world is vibrant, witty, engaging and disturbing.
In May, Vintage Classics is republishing Alms in three volumes, which goes some way to helping those new to Raven decide in which order to read the sequence. The first to be published, The Rich Pay Late, opens the collection, but the events it describes take place in the mid-Fifties, so is the fourth in a chronological seqence.
I have just finished Sound the Retreat, which follows on from Fielding Grey, our introduction some of the main characters as (public) schoolboys; it appears as the seventh story of the Vintage collected volumes.
Retreat is well constructed but its account of British officers in the last days of Raj makes for uncomfortable reading forty years on. No doubt, the casual racism and sheer contempt for 'wogs' rings true, but when seen through the filter of a Seventies sensibility it jars, as does the ribaldry which also very much of its time.
Instructively, the blurb for my 1984 Panther edition has the recommendation "Literate, racily erotic ... compulsive reading"... from The Listener! The passage this presumably refers to involves a duel in which the slighted combatants race to pleasure three women in less than 20 minutes, watched by their colleagues; Benny Hill with added vitriol.
For now, I can't decide which to read next, but I welcome the reissue. And I am looking forward to tracking Hugh Watson's The World of Simon Raven.
The Guardian's 2001 obituary began: "The death of Simon Raven, at the age of 73 after suffering a stroke, is proof that the devil looks after his own. He ought, by rights, to have died of shame at 30, or of drink at 50. "
It goes on to remind us that Raven's Shadows On The Grass is "the filthiest book on cricket ever written."
I might not like cricket, but I am intrigued...