Friday, November 16, 2018

FFB: The Roses of Picardie - Simon Raven

THE STORY: Two academics follow a trail of clues encoded in 16th century paintings, ancient manuscripts and medieval legends hoping to find the location of a lost treasure – The Roses of Picardie (1980), a necklace of rubies that carries a deadly curse.

THE CHARACTERS: This adventure novel of epic scope follows two teams of treasure hunters led by the two academics Jacquiz Helmut, the Collator of Manuscripts at Lancaster College, and Balbo Blakeney, a biochemist now disgraced and dismissed from his post for alcoholism. Jacquiz is teamed up with his wife Marigold and they travel from England to Greece to France pursuing stories and legends while sifting through all the material for clues. Balbo begins his quest as a solo adventurer but is soon paired up with Sydney Jones, an ex-professional cricket player turned spy. Jones has been sent to find Balbo and bring him back to the UK by a secret society interested in Balbo’s WW2 era work as a biochemist and — bizarrely — rat behaviorist. Along the way these two pairs of treasure seekers meet up with an outrageous cast of supporting characters that include a foul mouthed dowager, a Greek midget and his vampire servant, a Greek man intent on learning English while picking up as many scatological slang phrases as he can, and a mysterious young man with a beautiful face and the body of a god who manages to turn up everywhere at the most surprising moments.

INNOVATIONS: Raven has subtitled The Roses of Picardie “A Romance” and it is true in every sense of that literary term. Perhaps a better, more accurate subtitle might be “A Romantic Odyssey” for it also belongs to that long line of heroic epics involving quests dating back to Homer. With its rousing mix of bawdy humor, intricately detailed medieval history of the mythical Comminges dynasty who originally owned the necklace, and the teeming anecdotes of arcane folklore The Roses of Picardie is one of the most exhilarating adventure novels of the late 20th century. I’ve not encountered a book so rich with eccentric characters, laugh out loud farcical comedy, and eyebrow raising moments of unexpected thrills in a very long time. One moment the reader is taking in a rich history of the Comminges family and the next there is a Chaucerian incident involving stopped up toilets and ancient manuscripts being used as toilet paper substitutes. In one section you get the history of Devil worshipping Albigensians and then a few pages later you learn of the legend of a French dragon known as the Tarasque and its relationship to St. Martha. The book defies categorization with its marvelous mix of vulgar jokes and farce, sophisticated wit, erudite history, academic satire and multiple lessons in arcane legends and superstitions.

Most remarkable is that Raven seems to have invented the kind of novel that Dan Brown would be credited for decades later in his series of pulp thrillers featuring the symbologist Robert Langdon. There is one sequence, in fact, that most definitely foreshadows The Da Vinci Code when Jones and Balbo “decode” the portrait of Andrea Comminges and discover through hidden images and initials one of the locations where the necklace was hidden. It’s one of the finest examples of this kind puzzle solving that combines a knowledge of cryptography, symbology and ancient history, all of it based on the true facts of artists who left behind messages in their paintings.

THINGS I LEARNED: Where do I begin? I’ve already mentioned several bits above and to go into any further detail about anything like the Tarasque or the Albigensians or the difference between Eastern European vampires and Greek vampires would rob anyone of discovering those juicy tidbits on their own. The entire book is one huge “I never knew that!” moment after another.

I will, however, mention that I happily became acquainted with the existence of the French poet and novelist Paul-Jean Toulet (1867-1920) whose poem "En Arles" is featured in the narrative. One line "Parle tout bas, si c'est d'amour" immediately reminded me of Kurt Weill's "Speak Low When You Speak Love." The final stanza ends with the phrase "Au bords des tombes" which serves as both the title of the final section and as a resounding image that haunts the treasure seekers who have been literally and metaphorically digging around the edges of graves and cemeteries over the course of the entire novel.

Simon Raven (1927-2001)
THE AUTHOR: Simon Raven was born in London in 1927. He studied at King’s College Cambridge where he majored in Classics. (He shows off his knowledge of Latin and Greek a lot in The Roses of Picardie). After graduating university he joined the army and served in the infantry in Germany and Kenya where he commanded a rifle company. He began his writing career as a book reviewer in 1957 and published his first novel The Feathers of Death in 1959. Raven is perhaps best known for his family saga of sorts known as “Alms for Oblivion” which feature recurring characters over ten novels spanning four decades. Readers of supernatural fiction might know him for his handful of ghost stories and the novel Doctors Wear Scarlet (1960), a combination of academic satire and vampire tale. Additionally, Raven wrote for TV and movies with teleplay adaptations of Trollope (The Pallisers), Huxley (Point Counter Point), Nancy Mitford (Love in a Cold Climate), and Julian Symons (The Blackheath Poisonings) found on his long résumé.

EASY TO FIND? The Roses of Picardie was published only in the UK.  I found not one US edition since its original appearance in 1980. Paperback editions seem to be plentiful in the used book market. The UK first edition (Blond & Briggs, 1980) is a rarity based on my internet searches. The most recent reprint was a paperback from House of Stratus in 2012. I found no digital editions at all.

15 comments:

  1. "In one section you get the history of Devil worshipping Albignesians"
    In fact, Albigenssians worshipped the Devil, or so the Inquisition said.

    Some of the characters from "Alms for Oblivion", which also has supernatural and thriller elements, appear in The Roses of Picardie. Raven was expelled from his public school (homosexuality), sent down from Cambridge (drunkenness and idleness), and had to resign his commission in the army (welching on his gambling debts), and found himself forced to become a novelist, because he was unfitted for any occupation suitable to a gentleman. He chose to call himself "Captain Raven". Michael Barber wrote an entertaining biography called - of course - "The Captain".

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    1. Is that second paragraph copied verbatim from some website? "...unfitted for any occupation suitable to a gentlemen" sounds archly highbrow, prejudicial and absurdly antiquated to me.

      I knew of Raven's rakish life as a libertine and I think I'd find his biography an equally outrageously fun read as this novel was. Thanks for the tip on that book.

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    2. "...unfitted for any occupation suitable to a gentlemen" was a quotation - from memory, so it may not be entirely accurate - of Raven's own explanation of why he became a novelist. Raven himself relished his reputation for being archly highbrow, prejudicial and absurdly antiquated (with a few more vices for recreation) and played down to it as much as he could. Michael Barber's obituary of Raven in The Guardian is online: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2001/may/16/guardianobituaries.books and portrays him more-or-less in essence.

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  2. I also recommend THE CAPTAIN as an excellent biography of Simon Raven. I recently finished reading the entire ALMS FOR OBLIVION sequence of novels and enjoyed them a lot. Not as great as Anthony Powell's DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME but on the same level. Simon Raven was a fascinating character who spent all his money made from novels and screen plays. He died destitute in an old age home.

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    1. Thanks, Walker. I’ll look for a cheap copy of The Captain. Copies are plentiful. In the meantime I’ve just purchased copies of Doctors Wear Scarlet and his other Gothic influenced novel September Castle. Eager to read both of those and hope they are as wildly inventive and literate as Roses of Picardie.

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  3. Despite not having heard of most of the authors you review here, John, I visit your blog anyway because your reviews are so well composed and filled with interesting stuff. And you've introduced me to several new authors, including Francis Vivian. I enjoyed The Singing Masons, and have downloaded The Death of Mr. Lomas despite the only Amazon review, which trashed it. I'm certain I will be able to refute his (or her) "argument." And now, Simon Raven. I'm off to the Kindle bookstore...

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    1. I’ve enjoyed all the Francis Vivian books I’ve read so far. The person who dissed it is probably one of those miserable people who hate everything they read. Hope you can find some Raven books in eBook format. I’m not sure there are any, but I never really check too thoroughly for digital books.

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    2. I found two, and downloaded Shadows on the Green.

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  4. An excellent review; I have a somewhat conflicted relationship with Raven, finding his personal (elitist, reactionary) outlook - essentially that upper-class englishmen have carte blanche to do whatever they please and any attempts by women, minorities, or the plebs at interference are gross violations of the natural order - to be exasperating at best, but still have read close to two dozen of his books and enjoyed the majority of them. I came to his books as a connoisseur of british supernatural fiction, and think he's highly underappreciated in that capacity, showing both the influence of MR James and writers of 'strange stories' like LP Hartley and Robert Aickman. In that regard, Picardie/September are both entertaining and well worth seeking out, as are Doctors Wear Scarlet and the superb novella The Islands of Sorrow; the Alms for Oblivion books even enter into weird fiction territory at times, the concluding novel in particular ending on a wonderfully otherworldly and ominous note. Above all though I think his finest book is Brother Cain, a sort of spy novel that is the antithesis of James Bond - its view of the world of espionage is even bleaker and more despairing than that of John Le Carre.

    (doubleposted, apologies!)

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    1. I commiserate with you. I had a huge problem with one aspect of this book. I failed to mention his odious views of Jewish people in this book. I do my best to look the other way with that kind of prejudice but towards the end of the book it’s very hard to overlook and even harder to forgive. His frequent use of the word “nigger” is also unforgivable. But there’s no doubting the outlandish ideas in this phantasmagorical novel are truly original and bizarre and thrilling. It’s maybe shameful of me to admit, but his wild imagination is something I really am in awe of despite his bigotry and elitism. I’m compelled to read more! I’ll keep my eye out for Brother Cain.

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  5. I first read Simon Raven when I was teenager (I'm in my fifties now) and have, by and large, enjoyed his books hugely. My recent edition of "Alms for Oblivion" Vol 1 carries a quote from "The Guardian" (a liberal newspaper) "Raven has the mind of a cad and the pen of an angel". If you expanded that to include reactionary I think you'd just about have it.
    Some of the novels in "Alms for Oblivion" could count as thrillers. The "Rich Pay Late", "Friends in Low Places" and "Bring Forth the Body" are political thrillers; "The Sabre Squadron" and "The Judas Boy" are espionage stories; all of them also contain elements of the continuing saga of the various characters.
    Raven also wrote a six part thriller serial for BBC TV, "Sexton Blake and the Demon God". The series was novelised but not by Raven. The story had a similar structure to "Roses" in that it concerned a race by two groups to find a supernatural power, discovered by an ancient Egyptian Tu Fu Edas. All I remember of it was that it was a thoroughly enjoyable romp. (And if you want to read about Sexton Blake see the chapter on him in ES Turner's "Boys Will Boys" - the history of boys magazines in Britain.)

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    1. I discovered his screenwriting resume when I looked him up on IMDb.com. I’ve already ordered one of the few copies of the novelization of that enticingly weird Sexton Blake TV series. Thanks also for the tips on the “Alms” book with thriller and espionage motifs. I’ll have plenty of Raven to investigate in the wintry months ahead.

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  6. So interesting. I read several of the Alms for Oblivion series and did not like them. But this sounds excellent, just the kind of book I like in the 'enjoyable farrago' category.

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    1. “Enjoyable farrago” is a perfect summation! Though it’s not really “a confused mixture” as it is an “intricately planned conglomeration” of moods and topics. In my brief discussion of the plot I foolishly failed to mention that the book turns out to be an elaborate detective novel. Many of the odd incidents are clues to a bizarre solution of why the necklace was hidden and why the two teams were being pursued by the mysterious young man and an androgynous looking girl.

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