Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.2.17


Michael Barber, The Captain: The Life and Times of Simon Raven. London: Duckworth, 1996. Pp. vi, 250. £18.95. ISBN 0-7156-2707-4.


Reviewed by Barry Baldwin, University of Calgary, bbaldwin@acs.calgary.ca.

Near the end of this Vita, Jasper Griffin is quoted for his description of its subject as "a classicist's classicist." I'm not sure how well known (if at all) Simon Raven is on this side of the Atlantic. Most of his books are in my local public library, and a smattering in the better bookshops, but I've never seen a word about him in any North American magazine or newspaper. Consciously or not, though, veteran devotees of PBS' Masterpiece Theatre have seen at least one of his many dramatisations (an activity compared by Raven to composing Latin verse), namely that of Trollope's The Pallisers. For present purposes, the point of Raven (to borrow a phrase that frequently recurs in this biography) is that he is the perfect example of a 20th century author whose entire life, philosophy, and writings are animated by the languages and literatures of Greece and Rome. The name of Simon Raven may never have graced a professional classical journal, but he has for many years been publishing erudite and readable pieces on classical topics, most recently (in the London Spectator) a review of Bracht Branham's new version of Petronius, a writer for whom Raven, surprisingly, does not much here care, though in his memoir Shadows on the Grass he describes an erotic arabesque involving the gym master and a group of (very) aroused schoolboys as possessing "great Petronian power." Barber includes a generous extract from the verdict on a book Raven, given his own erotic career and compositions ("flawed by salacity," opined Marguerite Yourcenar), was born to review, namely J.N. Adams' The Latin Sexual Vocabulary.

As Barber emphasises from the outset, the key to Raven's style, and thus to Raven himself, lies in his education, at the famous English public (i.e. private) school of Charterhouse (the great classical scholar Peter Green, who appears interestingly in this book as a primary source, was three years his senior there), at a time when proficiency in classics was still, just, regarded as the pinnacle of sixth-form achievement: "At the age of 12, a boy would be expected to recognise zeugma, hendiadys, litotes, oxymoron and hysteron proteron, and to distinguish iambics from alcaics and alexandrines from hexameters or hendecasyllabics." A typical exercise sprung on the pupils "by way of a little prep" was to Translate Juvenal 3 and 10 at sight while committing to memory the Johnsonian imitations London and The Vanity of Human Wishes. It is a pity that more of our own classicists do not go through this kind of philological training: did they but do so, we might have more real scholarship and less of the trendy critical rubbish that now passes for it. Incidentally, the head Classics teacher, A. L. 'Uncle' Irvine (in Raven's opinion, his best and most affable mentor), published a still serviceable edition of Tacitus, Histories 1 and 2, a welcome reminder that good professional scholarship is not restricted to the universities. Raven credits his own (inimitable, in the view of most reviewers) style to the constant translation that classicists used to have to do: "You learnt to be precise, and if necessary, flexible, in your use of language... One does yearn for this kind of thing in our new age of imbecility, unction and cant. I find Greek and Latin literature a very healthy antidote. Thank God for a classical education."

Raven's education was not just a matter of philological exactitude. He and his kind thought and argued with their masters about what the values of classical paganism stood for, in contrast to the challenge posed by Christianity, the one residuum of antiquity that still bears upon billions of 20th century lives. Here (from his autobiographical novel, Fielding Gray) is a lightly fictionalised version of one such debate the young Raven had with his headmaster, the celebrated Robert Birley:

"Where do you stand -- the question must be asked -- in respect to Christianity?"

"Not an easy question, sir. I find it hard to understand its prohibitions, its obsession with what is sinful or wrong. The Greeks put their emphasis on what is pleasant and seemly and therefore right."

"Christ, as a Jew, had a more fastidious morality. And as the Son of God He had authority to reveal new truths and check old errors."

"Did he?" I said.

There was a long silence between us.

"The Greeks stood for reason and decency," I said. "Isn't that enough?"

"Reason and decency," the headmaster murmured, "but without the sanctity of revealed religion ...? No, Fielding, it isn't enough."
There (one hopes) is a debate that still continues, between equals as well as teachers and taught. Especially since there is both more and less to the classical legacy than this. Raven found congenial the gloss another of his masters used to put on the Horatian odi profanum vulgus et arceo: "And why did he hate them so? Because they stank." As Peter Green has trenchantly remarked: "Snobbery, elitism and contempt not simply for trade but for all applied science, plus obsession with order and stability are all significant but often overlooked elements of the classical tradition."

These aphorisms and exchanges will give classical readers some idea of the treats and provocations in store for them in this supremely readable (one might never have guessed, were it not for the dust jacket, that this is Barber's first book) biography. If posterity should ever produce an "Aspects of Twentieth-Century British Classical Scholarship" in emulation of the recent (Liverpool, 1996; cf. my review-article forthcoming in EMC/CV) Jocelyn-edited volume on that of the Nineteenth, both Raven and his biographer should be in it. Indeed, though he did not stay on to finish (or even start) it, Raven himself had intended to write a dissertation on the influence of the classics on Victorian public schools and their products. There may be a sample of it in this exchange between master and pupil in his novel Close of Play:

"If there is a negative in the indirect statement, we do not normally use dico followed by a negative but nego followed by an affirmative."

"But sir, the book says you can use dico with a negative."

"You can, but it is not customary. And examiners of all people set great store by custom."
A more flamboyant hint may be provided by Raven's purchase of a sword to celebrate being received into an English army regiment, wishing to create a link between himself and the Iliad ("The oldest and best story of them all"). Raven's Homeric enthusiasm and Alexander the Great-like fantasy playing led him to devote a novel (Come Like Shadows) to the theme of filming the Odyssey (cineastes will recall this plot, with Jack Palance and a particularly pouting Brigitte Bardot, in Godard's Le Mepris), although I like Barber's remark that Raven was more like Alcibiades than Achilles. We may add that Raven's commanding officer, one Percy Joes, was a classicist who read Horace and Virgil in his spare time, while another superior (eventually gaoled for homosexual passion for a waiter) was actually named (not nicknamed) Julius Caesar.

Raven's classicism runs through his 25 novels, 5 volumes of memoirs, and 4 of belles lettres. The last two categories reinforce with much learning and wit Raven's views on the vitality of a classical education and its role in shaping his own sturdily pagan philosophy of life, to which he was first drawn by reading Catullus' Vivamus, mea Lesbia. Neophytes wondering where to start in the novels might go first to Doctors Wear Scarlet, set largely in Cambridge and Greece, with much antiquarian lore, and some splendidly rancid portraits of classicists on the make from the dislikeable graduate student (and vampire, albeit not of the Ann Rice variety) protagonist to his well-connected 'fixer' tutor, generally thought to be modelled on L. P. Wilkinson. For those who remember all the 'hyping' of Donna Tartt's The Secret History some years back and now wonder what all the fuss was about, Raven will be a welcome revelation. The leading characters in Fielding Gray and Close of Play are also opportunist young classicals, whose ambitions and J. R. Ewing-like ruthlessness in pursuing them bring suitable Nemesis, a force on whose power outside the world of fiction Raven also insists. A more mature and more amply developed portrait of the classical cad stands at the centre of Raven's second (Alms for Oblivion was the first) roman de fleuve, namely The First Born of Egypt, in the person of the diabolical (literally as well as figuratively) schoolmaster Raisley Conyngham (his hero is the Balzacian schemer, Vautrin), as adept at murder as he is at Greek verse composition.

By way of malicious bonus, staider classicists will find a few inaccurate details, in both Barber and Raven himself, to which they may gleefully point. The former wrongly credits (p. 199) to Nero Caligula's wish that the Roman people had but one neck, and also (p. 233) gives Justinian a wife Theodosia in lieu of Theodora, this latter being the kind of woman who frequently turns up in a Raven novel, e.g. the prodigiously versatile and energetic sex goddesses Angela Tuck and Vanessa Drew-Salinger. As to Raven himself, in another of his Cambridge-based novels, Places Where They Sing, the "celebrated Latinist" Ivor Winstanley expresses grave misgivings over the solitary alios in the line quique sui memores alios fecere merendo which is carved above the portal of the fictional (it stands for King's) Lancaster College. Winstanley, here said to be a Horace specialist, has evidently never got as far as Juvenal who (10. 150, aliosque elephantos) provides an apt parallel. More strangely still, he never once shows awareness that this verse is from Virgil (Aen. 6. 664), or that his own tentative emendation aliquos has better manuscript authority and is preferred by such editors as Austin and Williams. But, then, in Winstanley-Raven's day, Virgil was doubtless perused in the old 'MacMillan Red' of T. E. Page who printed and defended alios without any qualms. Perhaps this celebrated Horatian deserves his fate in the later novel Roses of Picardie where he has been rather mysteriously transformed from great scholar to an unproductive drone, forever promising but never delivering an edition of Cicero's poems (how long ought that to take?), and so in danger of being deprived of his Fellowship.

Whatever their trade, I can't imagine anyone not enjoying at least some of this often Suetonian Life, though romantics might be disconcerted by Raven's assertion that (his words) love was a disease against which he had been immunised by classical literature. Full marks (for the umpteenth time) to Duckworth for publishing this demonstration of the lifelong power of Greece and Rome over not just the words but also the thoughts and deeds of one of the most unusually gifted and giftedly unusual novelists of the present age. Barber signs off with the last 2 lines of a poem by another classically-influenced maverick storyteller of our time, the (alas) late Kingsley Amis:

So here's wishing you many more years,
But not all that many. Cheers.
For my part, I hope that this Raven, still going strong at nearly 70, will (in the gangster argot sense) not croak for a very long time, and for my envoi choose (it seems right, given both the satirist's and Raven's own context) Juvenal 2. 63: dat veniam corvis, vexat censura columbas.