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The Captain: The Life and Times of Simon…

The Captain: The Life and Times of Simon Raven

by Michael Barber

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This is unusual for a literary biography in that it was written and published while the subject was still alive (Raven died in 2001). Since the subject in question was a writer who always found that it helped sales to have a dodgy reputation (to which he had contributed himself with several volumes of "candid" memoirs), this was probably a help rather than a hindrance to Barber, as far as gathering facts was concerned.

We get a very nice, straightforward account of Raven's life up to 1996, with a brief account of his works where they fit in. As well as Raven himself, Barber has consulted many of Raven's friends and contemporaries: the acknowledgments page reads like the index of Who's Who, but fortunately Barber restrained himself to a modest 250 pages of actual text. Whilst he evidently didn't take absolutely everything Raven told him at face value, this isn't a particularly incisive or critical account: Barber clearly likes and admires Raven and is a touch overawed at having been allowed to write this book.

So I'm sure there could be another biography to be written here, always assuming that Raven's reputation holds up well enough to create a market for one. And that's the big problem: who still reads Raven? As an Edwardian rake born fifty years too late, he was already out of place in the literary world of postwar London; we might be more ready to accept his sexual libertinism nowadays, but we are more puritanical in other ways and have trouble with his unabashed selfish elitism, his love of gambling, food, and wine and his (pretended) detestation of hard work. He was an intellectual snob who kept the wolf from the door by writing scripts for TV costume dramas, but never owned a television set. And of course he wrote far too many books.

There's a lot of silliness in the novels, and the later ones don't really stand up to close examination. But Alms for Oblivion is a sequence that is worth reading for more than just its thinly-veiled portraits of Raven's schoolfellows and its over the top sex scenes. Raven was always a fine prose writer, and as Barber points out as well, Alms is a very interesting portrait of how the clever young people of Raven's generation jockeyed themselves into position to run the country in the postwar years. ( )
1 vote thorold | Sep 6, 2009 |
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