Atlantic cross currents

A UK-US email correspondence between two fine writers contains enjoyably sharp literary gossip


Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein are both distinguished Jewish writers in their 70s, Raphael is a novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter; Epstein a fine essayist, superb short-story writer and some-time academic and editor. They share a dislike of most of their better-known and better-selling contemporaries, believing poetry and much else took a wrong turn about half-a-century ago, and reserving a particular hatred for enemies of Jews and Israel.

These views, and much else, they pour out in lengthy, weekly emails to each other, which are collected in this delightful, stimulating book, every page of which crackles with wisdom, wit and bile, the last being the most enjoyable.

They’ve never actually met, or even spoken on the telephone. Epstein lives in Chicago; Raphael divides his time between London and the Dordogne. After Epstein congratulated Raphael on an essay, an occasional correspondence developed and Raphael suggested formalising it with a view to publication.

The gossip is wonderful. As Raphael admits, “the literary vocation is a call to malice and envy as well as, we like to think, Higher Things.” These pages contain malice, envy and Higher Things in about equal proportions. Raphael is a man for whom the word, broiges, might have been invented: he seems to have fallen out with just about everyone he has ever dealt with, and relates the ruptures with panache and style. Epstein seems calmer, more at ease with himself but is still capable of the magisterial put-down.

They scatter grapeshot like men who’ve been waiting a long time with loaded weapons. Gore Vidal “is best likened to a car with a dead engine whose horn nonetheless keeps sounding off” (Epstein); Isaiah Berlin “was the Gentile idea of a Jewish joke” (Raphael); Saul Bellow was “touchy, unkind, nasty, and black-hearted” (Epstein); “Kingsley Amis was the worst influence on the English novel since the war” (Raphael). Neither has much time for Harold Pinter. Why was he so angry, muses Epstein. “Pure self-righteousness, is my guess.” Spot on.

They don’t hate everybody though Raphael doesn’t seem to rate anybody much since Alcibiades; Epstein admired his fellow Chicagoan, the late Edward Shils, sociologist and polymath. But there’s another, more vulnerable side to both men, which emerges as they gradually discover more about each other, for instance that they have both lost children, Raphael his daughter Sarah, a gifted artist, Epstein his son Burt, aged 28.

Two threads run through the book: the first is their belief that the world of demanding cultural values has disappeared, replaced by inward-looking novelists, poets who have never written a memorable line, and media barbarians. The second is an exploration of what it means to be Jewish in the modern world.

They no longer care what anybody thinks of them. “Hope this doesn’t sound too smug,” writes Epstein, “but I think I have the good opinion of most of the small number of living writers I admire, and the hatred of many of those whose enmity makes me proud.” This volume will bring them many new admirers, whether they like it or not.

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