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This delightful book of writer-to-writer correspondence joins a full shelf of volumes in the genre, yet it is perhaps the first set of such letters ever transacted via the Internet. Also unusual, at least for correspondents in the twenty-first century, is that Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein have never met, nor even spoken to each other. But what is most rare about this book is the authors' abundant talent for entertaining their readers, as much when the topic is ...
This delightful book of writer-to-writer correspondence joins a full shelf of volumes in the genre, yet it is perhaps the first set of such letters ever transacted via the Internet. Also unusual, at least for correspondents in the twenty-first century, is that Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein have never met, nor even spoken to each other. But what is most rare about this book is the authors' abundant talent for entertaining their readers, as much when the topic is grave as when it is droll.
Raphael and Epstein agree to embark on a year-long correspondence, but other rules are few. As the weeks progress, their friendship grows, and each inspires the other. Almost any topic, large or small, is considered: they write of schooling, parents, wives, children, literary tastes, enmities, delights, and beliefs. They discuss their professional lives as writers, their skills or want of them, respective experiences with editors, producers, and actors, and, in priceless passages scattered throughout the letters, they assess such celebrated figures as Gore Vidal, Christopher Hitchens, Susan Sontag, Annie Leibowitz, Malcolm Gladwell, Harold Bloom, George Steiner, Harold Pinter, Isaiah Berlin, George Weidenfeld, and Robert Gottlieb, among many others. Epstein and Raphael capture a year in their letters, but more, they invite us into an intimate world where literature, cinema, and art are keys to self-discovery and friendship.
Well, we did the common festival, and the common turkey, and all was well; and that's fine for a year, if we live so long. New Year's Eve is going to be an oldsters' dinner party, which is about the pace we can trot at. And so it goes. I am deep in the heart of Flavius Josephus, with notes as fat as the national debt (choose your country, it's still fat), and beginning to see him in manageable form, that of the First Journalist, which takes us all the way to Karl Kraus, Robert Fisk and who knows who. I have two questions. The first: did my quaint lil ole publishers Carcanet send you a copy yet, or indeed so soon, of Ticks and Crosses? If (as I suspect) they did not, I will hie me to the PO with a copy for you this week. The second is tricky (time bomb within) and concerns a book I recommended in the TLS international show-off selection, the correspondence between B.-H. Lévy and Michel Houellebecq, or letters to that effect. Primo, have you seen it by any chance? If not, you might enjoy it, but it ain't over yet, because here's what puts the ouch in the kicker: might there be some fun, not to mention $$$ etc., in a year's (say) correspondence between ... you cannot have guessed. Well, might there? Chicago, Chicago and how cookies do crumble and what if and what about books and writing and coincidences and divergences; something piquant, is there not, in two friends who have never met, who do not need (and seem to have no inclination) to put each other down, compete, or anything, and yet ... Unparallel lines that don't meet and can't wait for infinity. So there you have it: the embarrassment of the year that ain't even begun yet. I think that the correspondence might be something of an autobiographie involontaire and might discover us to ourselves as well as to each other, if that's something either (no, both) of us want. Say, well, er, um and no damage or offence will be done or taken. It's cold here and I am perhaps warming myself up with rubbing hands that should never meet. Basta così. Don't say yes and don't say no and I shall know I have the man I think I have. Busy? Sure I am and sure you are, but isn't there a lot of slack to be cut in this: really we do and really do not know each other. Well, once I press that button this thing will go and nuttin' I can do to stop it. But, seriously, treat this as a joke, unless it makes you laugh. Tout à toi, bonne année,
So, dear Freddie, let us begin.
I, too, have nothing to declare the title of a memoir, I believe, by a Jew-hating Greek named Taki Somethingorotheropopoulos and even less to confess. As for wives, we seem to have in common what a weird kink, especially for writers! loving our wives and not wishing to disgrace or otherwise degrade them, unlike old Edmund Wilson, whose idea of a swell time was describing bonking his various wives in his published journals. I feel as you do about your wife in not wanting to drag my wife Barbara into my scribblings; she has a refinement that naturally turns her away from all publicity. Besides, we both seem to have more Jews than sex in our heads.
On the subject of Jews, though we each have Jewish mothers (also fathers), both born in Chicago I like to think that, had they met, they would have been friends your upbringing as a Jew in England strikes me, from published writings of yours and from our past correspondence, as more difficult than mine. My father, born a Canadian, a Montrealer, had memories of Canuck kids tormenting old Jewish men pulling beards, crying out "sheeny," that sort of delightful stuff and was himself for always ever after on the qui vive for anti-Semitism. His son, though, had very little of it to deal with in Chicago, probably because the neighborhoods he grew up in and the public schools he went to were at least half populated by Jews. I remember driving through other neighborhoods which my mother instructed me were "restricted"; I'll let you guess from whom. And certain Chicago high schools, attended by German and Swedish working-class kids, had the reputation of having it in for Jews. I was never free of the consciousness of being Jewish, but, for the most part, didn't find this much of a burden. I was myself very little affected, at least directly, from blatant, or even subtle, anti-Semitism.
My sense is that in your much better English schools you stood out as a Jew and were made to feel your Jewishness in a way I never was. As a Jew, you, I suspect, never felt entirely at home in the milieu (the writer Josephine Herbst always pronounced this word "maloo," and so I now always hear it: maloo, as in the American folk-dance song that has the line "skip to maloo, my darling") of Charterhouse and Cambridge. English upper-middle and upper-class antiSemitism is not only subtler but more insidious than the American brand. In America, most not all, to be sure anti-Semitism is practiced at the blatant level, and so it allows one to feel easily superior to one's detractors.
I don't mean to strike an invidious note here, but I think between us I am the more Jewish writer. Without Jews to write about, without my deeply Jewish (I do not say Judaic) outlook, I would be out of business. I don't think the same is anything like as true of you, certainly not in your job as a screenwriter or, for the most part, as a novelist. Yet in another sense, you have in recent years turned yourself into a defender if not quite of the faith than of the justice due to the Jews, firing off letters to various editors reminding their writers and reviewers that they have neglected if not overlooked the vicious anti-Semitism lurking in their subjects. I like you in this mode much admire you in it, in fact.
Jews, Jews, might it be they and not literature (contra Old Ez, another unfriend of our co-religionists) who stay news. I shall try to sound the Jew-note (Chicago had a once-famous jazz club called The Blue Note) less insistently in future. But I did think it made sense to clear the deck clear the dreck of this early in the proceedings.
How does the following strike you as a title for our little book: "Dear Freddie, Dear Joe: Chronicle of a Distant Intimacy"?
Jewily yours, Joe
How pleased Freud must have been when he heard Charcot's phrase 'c'est toujours la chose génitale', because, of course, as your unashamed that's a true British term for a Jew who actually says he's a Jew confession (there's another) revealed, what's really toujours is la chose juive. Which leads to: Did Eliot use a small j for 'the jew is underneath the lot', until he agreed to change it to a capital J, because he was imitating the French use of a minuscule when it came to national denominations? Shall we ever know? Shall we ever care? Christopher Ricks promises that Eliot wasn't an anti-Semite (he didn't have the nerve even to be a bully, one guesses, so Cricks may be right) and Anthony Julius, one of that legion of 'our people' I should just as soon see in the ranks of Tuscany, will tell us that of course Old Tom was a bad, bad man, although a good, good poet. Everything is true of everything, some say, following Paul de Man, which is not a scent that appeals to me. Everyone can be what they like, or should be, old/young man Sartre told the waiting world in 1947 when he had to say something existential about anti-Semitism except for the Jews, who had to accept being what other people said they were, if only (we have to believe) up to a point: juif, oui; youpin, punch in the nez, seems the recommended formula. My father, being British, was a great believer in the straight left, a tactic employed by a succession of horizontal British heavyweights (Bruce Woodcock the most fairly famous) in the 1940s, when they confronted men such as (NOT 'like') Joe Baksi and Jersey Joe Walcott, who did hooking and bolo-punching and all those rather uncomely things and so flattened our (as they had then become for your Chicago-born Semite correspondent) boys who had been deprived of steak and so not only failed to punch their weight but didn't have the weight to punch.
What was I saying, as an academic said to my wife one evening at a dinner party, in the tone of a beak who suspects that one of the class was dozing off while he spills the pearls before the swine. Beetle, as you will, I hope, become accustomed to my calling her, even though she has a perfectly beautiful name, Sylvia/Sylvie, which we use when in France because Les Beatles they can do, but a singular Beetle defeats them (racial defects, see under) Beetle saw him off with something of the order of 'Do you really want to know?' She takes no prisoners, but she treats them well. Oh yes, la chose juive. We shall need to find another topic, and will, not least because our attitudes are so much in accord that, as Noël Coward said of some luckless girl's eyes, you can't get a pin between them. Yet it will recur.
I think (you're right: I know) that it was Albert Camus whom Sartre envied not for his literary ability but for his good-looking successes chez les femmes and his prowess (what else?) as a goalkeeper who said that the only/ great philosophical question was why not to commit suicide, or Gallic words to that effect. When you consider that le bon Albert, unlike Poulou, had actually done some resisting and had come through, we like to imagine, with honour and skin intact, it seems very odd, looking back (and by God I fear I am likely to do some of that), that, having survived the war, suicide should seem a pressing crux. I read recently (and probably a long time ago too, only I didn't remember) that Émile Durkheim, in the course of his sociological researches (another way of flying from his Jewish specificity, according to Pierre Birnbaum in a recent fat study of the order my local Dordogne bookseller calls 'un pavé'), discovered that Jews have/had the lowest suicide rates among all his sample of religiously-designated frogs. Perhaps it smacks of undue assimilation for Jews to kill themselves when so many people down the years have been willing to take care of that side of things for them. Of course, I know, I know, things got worse in the post-Anschluss days when the Austrian gas company disconnected Jewish subscribers on the grounds that they overused their supply and then were too dead to pay for it. I wish that was a joke. The Austrians think it was.
You're very good at culling/embellishing/delivering Jewish jokes. Thanks to them, I can have great social success passing myself off as the J. Epstein/Leo Rosten of my set. How I laughed at Hyman Kaplan, and how right, I suspect, never to read him again! One of the first 'adult' jokes I ever heard was about the man who was always being asked by his friend to come to the ball game, and every time he agreed, he cancelled because 'Levinsky's playing'. I suspect that this is one of the oldest hats on the rack do you know it? It comes in the little bundle of emigrant's baggage that travelled with me from NYC to London. What's a schmuck again? An emigrant from NYC to London in 1938. That's what a schmuck is. No wonder my whole life has been an exercise in cover-up. My mother gave me Franz Kafka's 'Letter to My Father' for Christmas. Imagine if I had the time to write one to mine: it would not be to complain about how his huge personality crushed mine, but to ask how he could do me the cruel service of giving me that British education you, my dear professor in green retreat, think was such a boon.
I wanted to talk about Gore Vidal (toadied at in the NYRB) and Susan Sontag (Never On Susan is the planned movie title) and how she loved André Gide when she was a teenager. In French déjà? It doesn't say in the long, long spread accorded her. The truth is, if you want to be pretentious, start early. More soon.
Happy 2009. Remember our cracker motto for the year: However well things are going, they could be worse.
Allow me to take up where you ended, with Gore Vidal and Susan Sontag, though in doing so I feel that you have set me up by floating two gentle lobs that barely made it over the net for easy overhead smashes.
Gore Vidal is now in his early eighties, and is perhaps best likened to a car with a dead engine whose horn nonetheless keeps sounding off. His act has been that of the crusty American aristocrat Henry Adams with a bit of Edmund Wilson thrown in, the Wilson who claimed to look at Life magazine and not recognize the America in which he grew up who finds his country vulgar, make that greedy, vile and vastly ignorant. The twist Vidal rang on this great American crank act was to hate America from the left instead of, more traditionally for this role, from the right. Nothing in the country he couldn't look down his nose upon: its politics, its literature, its entertainment, above all its people. All this was admixed with a strong homosexual strain; Vidal used to call himself a "homosexualist," a term that always reminded me of an "aerialist." His gaiety, I always felt, was part of his general complaint it left him more than a touch vulnerable, caused him to loathe from a position of weakness though his complaints have been many. Chief among them is that he has been insufficiently appreciated as a novelist. My own sense is that he has been properly unappreciated. I've read the less than amusing Myra Breckenridge and Julian (about our good friend The Apostate), and one or two other of his novels, and remember from it all only that Julian gets blown a fair amount by young men. Vidal's reputation now stands on his being a putatively great essayist, but I don't think this holds up either. So much of his writing is marred by his nastiness. He has been accused of being an anti-Semite, and I think there is something to it, probably because he resented the novels of Bellow, Roth & co. getting so much more attention than his own. But Vidal is no Jew-hater merely; he is a hater generally, of anyone who doesn't feel about the world as he does. As for how he feels about the world, I should say that he doesn't like it very much, that he finds it stupid and ugly and, greatest crime of all, insensitive to his own glorious talents. As for his talents, I think he is best at homosexual gossip, telling mean stories about Truman Capote and amusing ones about Tennessee Williams. A friend of mine named Eve Auchincloss once told me that Vidal and Jason and Barbara Epstein and friends used to play a little game in which they guessed which figures in recent history John F. Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson were circumcised and which not. Such is decadence, New York Review variety! What fun! Gore Vidal was handsome as a young man, but now in his old age has grown fat and pinch-faced, having come into the body and face he deserves.
If Susan Sontag only looked like Cynthia Ozick (plain, matronly, white hair, large round spectacles), American intellectual life would be a good bit healthier today. We have this new baggy-pants term in America, "public intellectual" I don't know if it has hit France and England yet but our Susan has always been mainly a publicity intellectual. She was able to garner so much publicity, I believe, not on her foolish ideas alone but because of her (when young) good looks. She had the look of the wild bohemian girl that every half-educated man wished he had bonked through college or graduate school. (Surprise, surprise, but sorry boys: she was, we now know, a lesbian all along, despite time-out for a quick marriage to a wildly anglophile sociologist named Philip Rieff and the birth of a son.) When our Susan died, the NY Times ran no fewer than seven photographs with her obituary she was pure intellectual cheesecake. Her last lover, appropriately, was the photographer Annie Leibowitz, who photographed her on her deathbed. She was made to be photographed, just as certain of the authors she wrote about with such elevated enthusiasm Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, etc. aren't really meant to be read but to be written about by our very own Susy in prefaces and introductions. She was four years older than I, but I remember when she crashed the publicity barrier with her not very impressive essay on the extremely unimportant subject of Camp. She then came out with essays "Against Interpretation," holding that aesthetics were all that mattered (a notion she later retracted), the meaning or moral import of a work being negligible. Her intellectual prose gave no pleasure, her fiction even less. I would as lief cut off both thumbs than see the movie(s) she made. She was a wholly derivative person, basing her writing, her life, everything on her impression of the idea of a French intellectual. Her political ideas were all wrong, though gaudily so: the white race is the cancer on the world, the North Vietnamese were a gentle peace-loving people, the United States deserved what it got on September 11. One of her specialties was to say extraordinarily stupid things and then, much later, recant them: sometime in the 1980s, for example, she had a Eureka moment and came round to believe that maybe Communism wasn't such a hot idea after all. She was an exemplar of Orwell's remark that "only an intellectual could be so stupid." The reason she was so stupid, I suspect, is that all her knowledge was acquired in books, very little from the world the rest of us live in. For the past twenty-five or so years, she was easily America's primary celebrity among intellectuals; and behind her celebrity was chiefly snobbery. She was herself a very great snob, though not of the amusing variety. Every story I have ever heard about dear Suzy-Q has her on display acting cruelly to young academics showing her around while visiting one university or another to talk for what I am confident were impressive fees. But then, as we know, a woman who so much loved The People figures not to have too much affection left for actual people. I thought her death would put an end to Susan, for who would want to reread her scribblings, but now the first of what are to be three volumes of dreary journals have appeared. I had hoped to spend these, my hazy sunset years, hearing no more about Susan Sontag, but it apparently is not to be. Sometimes an older gentleman just can't get a break.
Keep the faith.
Excerpted from Distant Intimacy by FREDERIC RAPHAEL JOSEPH EPSTEIN Copyright © 2013 by Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein. Excerpted by permission of YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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