More than 35 years after he first wrote about the experience of being a Jewish Oxbridge scholarship boy adrift in a hostile Britain, Frederic Raphael is still battling outsider angst.
His semi-autobiographical protagonist of his book The Glittering Prizes, Adam Morris, morphed from Cambridge graduate to successful middle-aged writer in the sequel, Fame and Fortune. But success in Thatcher’s Britain did not dampen Morris’s suspicion that “Jewboy” cracks were being bandied just out of earshot, and at 78 Raphael still rails about the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment of the Britsh media.
“The Jewish thing is inexplicable,” he says. “I don’t go to synagogue, I’m not interested in any kind of community and I don’t care if the Chief Rabbi considers me a proper Jew, although Jonathan Sacks and I are friends in an informal sort of way. I don’t feel I owe anything to being Jewish. But I’m locked into it. One can’t disown one’s heritage, and I don’t take kindly to the suggestion that Israel is a criminal state. Ever since school I have been cautious about mixing with other people — I fear them. I don’t feel I was bullied at my public school, Charterhouse, so much as persecuted; it is why the Jewish thing has persisted with me.”
Morris, now a pensioner, reappears in the last book of the trilogy, Final Demands. Not that a trilogy was conceived when he wrote The Glittering Prizes, explains Raphael, who is still furious that the hit TV adaptation of 1976 which won him a Royal Television Society Writer of the Year award has never been repeated by the BBC. “At least not on TV — it was done for radio a few years ago. That’s when I was asked by the producer if I thought I could revisit those same characters 30 years on,” he says.
“I could, because I had taken on board what Evelyn Waugh said: ‘Never kill people off in your books, because you never know when you might need them again’.”
This week sees the simultaneous publication and BBC radio serialisation (with Tom Conti) of Final Demands. But it is almost certainly these particular Glitteratis’ last hurrah: “With Adam Morris past 70, I can’t see a fourth book set in a nursing home!”
Not that Raphael himself shows any sign of heading for residential care, or even retiring. “I’m working more than ever now, not less,” he says, speaking from his home in the Dordogne, where he lives when not in Britain.
Writing radio scripts simultaneously with the novels they derive from seems only logical to Raphael, who won an Oscar for his 1965 screenplay of Darling, and was nominated again for the bittersweet Two for the Road in 1967. That same year, he wrote the screenplay for Far from the Madding Crowd, and in 1999 worked on Stanley Kubrick’s last cinematic effort, Eyes Wide Shut.
But he seems a lot less proud of his screenwriting than his 20-odd novels and many scholarly works: “Screen-writing is more like solving puzzles,” he says dismissively. “It’s enjoyable, so long as you don’t let it break your heart.” This might be a reference to Darling, which did not turn out quite as he originally wrote it.
Raphael was born in the United States and attended a New York school run by Liberal Jews. His family moved to Britain in 1938, his father telling his seven-year-old son: “There’s one consolation — you’ll grow up to be an English gentleman rather than an American Jew.”
Raphael married Sylvia Glatt in January 1955 and they have just celebrated their 55th anniversary. The secret? “Marrying the right woman in the first place,” he jokes.
They produced three children, Paul, Stephen, and Sarah, a talented painter who died in 2001, aged just 41. Raphael has said that he worked through his grief partially by writing Fame and Fortune.
“It would be foolish to say there are not echoes of Sarah in Adam Morris’s daughter,” he says.
His next project is a life of Flavius Josephus. Talking about the Jewish Roman general brings Raphael back to antisemitism: “Even at the time of the Roman Empire Jews represented only 10 per cent of the population,” he notes. “Our misfortune is never to have been in a majority.”