CULTURE JUNE 16, 2011
by Frederic Raphael
Carcanet Press Ltd., 185 pp., $32.95
FREDERIC RAPHAEL BELONGS to what is now widely regarded as a dying breed: the self-employed man of letters whose livelihood is made entirely by his pen (or his Microsoft Word). Thus he has rarity value. But Raphael also brings to his job some very formidable assets. To begin with, he is unusually intelligent: his quick and original mind has been honed to a fine edge by his Cambridge training in classics and philosophy, which also gave him a clear, and often caustic, prose style. He has a quietly lethal sense of humor; his witty aphorisms stick in the mind. Like all the best social critics, he is happiest on the outside looking in, and his personal history saw to it that he has always been ambiguously positioned between related yet contrasting worlds.
Raphael was born in 1931 in Chicago, the son of a Shell Oil Co. executive. Posted from New York to London, Raphael père told his son that “at least you can now grow up to be an English gentleman, not an American Jew.” To this end he sent him to Charterhouse, a famous public (that is, private) English school, and from there to St. John’s College, Cambridge. Young Frederic acquired a pure upper-class British accent and a basic pattern of upper-class British social attitudes, while at the same time traveling on an American passport and nursing some longstanding and deep resentment against British hypocrisy and, in particular, the not-so-covert British version of anti-Semitism, which by his own account poisoned his life at Charterhouse. What better training could there be for a combative professional writer?
Raphael always wanted to write, though at one point he briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a professional classicist. This aim was squashed in short order by his friend and tutor at John’s, the Latinist Guy Lee, who told him, with a smile, after Raphael had already published some fiction, “Why be a third-rate classicist when you can be a second-rate novelist?” Not that Raphael’s classical training was wasted; far from it. The verbal dexterity and control implanted by years of Greek and Latin (composition in the style of Euripides or Cicero as well as translation) show out—as they did with Robert Graves—in everything he has written. What they have served him best for is probably not so much his fiction as the scripts he has produced, first for revue sketches at Cambridge, then for movies and TV plays (his script for Darling won an Oscar in 1965), and in general for his prolific literary journalism, where the trick of “accurate imposture” was to prove invaluable.
What else? He has played bridge all his life, at Crockford’s and elsewhere, to near-professional standards. He has written biographies of Byron and Somerset Maugham (whom he visited as a neophyte writer: bridge helped there, too). His six-part TV drama The Glittering Prizes, which traced the careers of various quasi-fictional Cambridge contemporaries, was a smash hit; and when he turned it into a novel (we learn in Ifs and Buts) his former schoolfellow, the novelist Simon Raven, on a congratulatory postcard, “asked whether a novelisation was not rather like masturbating. I replied that it was less enjoyable but better paid.” Unusually for someone in the upper reaches of showbiz, Raphael is still happily married to the delightful lady he wed over half a century ago, and with whom he converted and developed their rural farmstead, deep in the Dordogne, as an escape from London and Hollywood.
This is the man—he will be eighty in August—who since 1951 has kept a series of notebooks, cahiers, not strictly diaries, but rather hold-alls for, as he says, a “mixture of pensèes and showbiz, portraits and caricatures.” How, on such a record, could extracts from them be anything but fascinating? He swears, and I believe him, that originally he had no intention of publishing any of the material thus accumulated; but having read and re-read all the selections he began putting out in 2001 (Ifs and Buts is the fifth volume in the series, covering the years 1978-9) I—as well as many other British readers—am enormously glad he did. His reflections are at least as addictive as those of Samuel Pepys, and often both more astringent and even funnier. Apropos the various actors, writers, and journalists he so brilliantly skewers, one British reviewer remarked that “you cannot expect to write this well and get away with it.” It is more than time that these notebooks found an American publisher.
The first volume is unusual in that it covers no less than nineteen years, from 1951 to 1969. None of the others deal with more than five. But these two decades are of huge interest. In those years Raphael wrote and published no less than eight novels, won one Oscar, was nominated for a second, and closely observed Suez, Hungary, Cyprus, Algeria, the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, the sexual revolution, Kennedy’s assassination, the Prague Spring, and the European and American student revolts, to name only the most obvious events. Why the comparative shortage, then, of notebook jottings? Too busy working, says Raphael: “A writer’s notebooks grow thicker in inverse proportion to his other work.” Between 1960 and 1969 in particular, “there was almost no time at all” for them.
Yet what there is has all the observational accuracy, the psychological bite, the pungent concision, of Raphael’s later notes. Like Pindar, he seems to have had his mature style from the get-go. On Michael Foot: he “refers to the House of Commons as ‘the boys’ club’. Before he goes there he checks in the mirror to be sure that his red, woolen tie is not straight.” When someone remarked that “Ken Tynan was at the top of the ladder,” “I had to say that it was true, but that he had set the ladder against the bottom of the tree.” Of a smart young publisher angling for his work: “He would not like me to be famous before I had to be grateful to him for my fame.” On J. B. Priestley: “In a red tie and blue demob suit, he looked like one of Orwell’s organizing pigs.” John Fowles “wears the beard typical of those with unpleasing teeth.” David Storey “ends by seeming the kind of man who would prescribe dynamite to cure constipation.” You don’t want to know his take on Julie Christie.
But these and other sharp one-liners are merely the sauce on his more extensive and considered reflections. Has anyone ever, in three pages, delivered a more penetrating verdict on T. E. Lawrence, for whom “the complexities of British society had been happily obscured by the sentimental and alien harshness of desert life”? The same kind of ruthless analysis is brought to a devastating exposé of the theatrical “homomafia,” led by “Binkie” Beaumont, that controlled London showbiz in the 1950’s. As the years go by, Raphael’s income soars, but his interests remain steady, with, as a London reviewer put it, ”one eye on life’s greasy pole and the other on the eternal verities.” He and his family put down summer roots on the then unspoilt Greek island of Ios. He translated Aeschylus and Catullus, and produced ad hominem riffs about the great Cambridge philosophers Broad, Wisdom, and Wittgenstein. (Cheekiness will keep breaking in: he once bet someone that he would go on non-stop for two minutes about Wittgenstein on a TV talk-show without the host stopping him, and won his bet.) But by then he was also traveling, all expenses paid, on the Concorde and getting $250,000 for a script. No wonder (as he himself records) that he has been attacked both for pretentiousness and for selling-out.
He has his dislikes all right. Kenneth Tynan, George Steiner, and his former Sunday Times editor Jack Lambert are favorite objects of scorn: they keep popping up like fairground targets, to be shot down with dexterous, and venomously witty, aplomb again and again. Why, he asks (in volume three), do people find the success of fascism so difficult to understand? “No tyranny which promises to divide the goods of the opposition among its zealots has a recruiting problem.” By the time we reach 1978-1979 and Ifs and Buts, his energy is undimmed, his riff on anti-Semitism still going strong (this time with notes for a program, never written, on the Wandering Jew), his exploration of antiquity turning up fresh insights (a striking piece on Athenian theatre as the true stimulus of democracy), his take on Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in 1979 cheerfully acid (“She seems to see herself as a sort of paperback edition of the Queen”). There are fascinating interviews with David Garnett and Rebecca West. Did he, during them, recall his own aphorism: “The attraction of visits to the famous: we have so much to tell them”? The joy of these cahiers is that he does indeed have so much to impart: most of it original, a great deal subversively funny, and every word compulsively readable.
Peter Green is an emeritus professor of classics, a professional translator, and an occasional novelist and poet.