Review: Ticks And Crosses

Glittering gobbets of a cultural wizard

By Madeleine Kingsley, December 30, 2008

By Frederic Raphael
Carcanet, £18.95

Frederic Raphael proves no less the pyrotechnic penseur in his private diaries than he is in his 20-odd novels and such cinéaste-favoured screenplays as Darling and Eyes Wide Shut.

Ticks and Crosses, subtitled Personal Terms 4, is a volume of jottings from journals covering the late 1970s. Unless it has been much polished years after the events, it confirms Raphael as one of that impressively rare breed to whom ideas and aperçus spring off the cuff, as fully formed as Athena from the head of Zeus (and appositely replete with classical allusion). Imagine writing all day for a literary living and still having the élan to dash off some bons mots — apotropaic? Clerisy? Chthonicin? — in a late-night notebook!

The title, Ticks and Crosses, is taken from the terse symbols by which Raphael’s Cambridge mentor, Guy Lee, delivered his verdict on translations of Catullus. It’s a great title, for this book is best described as notes in the margin of its writer’s eminently cultured, highly social, fortysomething life. He seems to have lived mostly in the Dordogne with his soulmate wife Beetle (a model for the exemplary Barbara of Raphael’s best-known novel, Glittering Prizes), playing tennis for competitive pleasure and fending off, as much as meeting the minds of, those who would court him from Fox Studios.

He tries out the plots of novels, digresses into a little light history, and reflects on Jewish identity: How did the two Jews in the Politburo of the USSR feel? Was Wittgenstein a true Jew? What is the relationship between Jews and money?

A pageant of glitterati, from Hollywood to the House of Commons, stalks his pages — with walk-on parts for the Wandering Jew and Vladimir Nabokov. Shirley Williams enjoys Raphael’s strawberry tarts and tells louche college tales against Brigid Brophy. AJ Ayer strikes him as “a man who drops so many names he is forever on his knees retrieving them for his index”.

Break bread or a few set points with Raphael and you risk being enshrined in verbal vitriol. Gary Cooper “has all the quick-wittedness of a broom handle”. A producer’s wife was “so soused in perfume that she seemed still to be here two days after they had left.”

Scorsese “sat and sniffed his benezedrine, a gasping, electric dwarf.” Enoch Powell, with whom Raphael appears on Any Questions, exudes “small husky menace” advising doing the show with a full bladder: “you perform better”.

Occasionally, the boot is on the authorial foot: Raphael found sitting for the portrait painter John Bratby, a “spiritually slimming experience; by the time I left, my vanity had lost a lot of weight.”

For all his sparkling one-liners — “Movie people need interior decorators to furnish their souls”; “Couples often go to bed on a mattress of memories”— I found myself unexpectedly moved by Raphael as the loving, trainer-buying father behind the important man of letters and by the ethnic insecurity lurking in his deep pockets of his success. Thus his nightmare: “I dreamed I was in Auschwitz. The number 2 bus ran past the railings.”

In a ’70s take on the old French fairytale, his Bluebeard’s wife is beside herself, not because she’s discovered other women hanging dead behind a locked door, but because she hasn’t. This is essential Raphael: writing through darkness to the human comedy beyond.

Madeleine Kingsley is a freelance reviewer. Frederic Raphael will be speaking on “Fame and Fortune” at Jewish Book Week 2009, on February 23.

Last updated: 3:17pm, February 18 2011