Review: Going Up

Upside of intellectual life


By Frederic Raphael
The Robson Press, £25

Frederic Raphael's engaging new memoir tells us of his early years: "going up" to Cambridge and then, bit by bit, in the literary and cultural worlds to which he aspired.

The first thing to say is that I found the book a real page-turner. The second is that the highly cerebral author of The Glittering Prizes and much else would never resort, as I have just done, to lazy cliché; au contraire, he is more likely to display the ubiquitous eschewal à la fois of both intellectual and verbal indolence.

I caricature of course. But so does he: sharply, wittily, allusively. Thus, the "hermetic habits" of Jonathan Miller "never inhibited him from retreating into any available limelight", while Bernard Levin, after noting in the Spectator that there was no longer any antisemitism in Britain, had turned from "yesterday's Taper into today's Doctor Pangloss".

Raphael tells us of his trials and triumphs while growing (and going) up, of tensions with his parents, of early amatory and intellectual struggles, of his travels, of playing bridge (his "regular drug") and of his love for "Beetle", who later becomes his wife. Determined to make his mark as a writer, he gradually comes to the attention of such literary power brokers as Kenneth Tynan, Karl Miller and Tom Maschler, and we read en passant about "Bertie" Russell, "Morgan" Forster, "Larry" Olivier and many another grandee of the time.

Finding a true identity was no easy matter for this American, British, Jewish writer

Yet Raphael recognises that he is at heart something of a loner, more at home when observing the glitterati than when mixing with them. As for his own work, here too he is a shrewd, almost merciless observer acknowledging that, for all his "lust to be eligible for print", much of his early writing proved "jejune" and his first novel a "nugatory squib".

Finding a true identity was no easy matter for this American-born, British-raised, Jewish writer. Raphael seems to feel fully at home only when close to the Mediterranean and the book ends with his acquisition of a house on a remote Greek island. "Greece," he writes, "became my Zion."

Deeply conscious of his Jewishness, yet determined to transcend it, Raphael tells good Jewish jokes, is sensitive to instances of antisemitism and includes among his dramatis personae the likes of Victor Gollancz, Wolf Mankowitz and Arnold Wesker. Yet his personal role model seems to have been that courtly, non-British-born, non-British-based yet archetypally British novelist Somerset Maugham, whom the 23-year-old makes a pilgrimage to meet in the great man's villa at St Jean Cap Ferrat. Sixty years later, this memoir is sprinkled with reverential references to "Willie", "Mr Maugham"' and all stations in between.

The book is in some ways oddly produced. Its 26 short chapters are numbered (in Roman numerals) but untitled and there is no index while, for all Raphael's frequent and punctilious usage of foreign words and phrases, Hitler is the un-italicised, un-umlauted "Fuhrer". Perhaps such minor anomalies are indicative of an opinionated author who sees himself as "dolefully determined not to make concessions". If so, long may he continue to (not) do so. For Going Up is packed with vividly and often provocatively expressed close encounters of the intellectual kind enabling readers d'un certain age to relish the cultural nuggets of yesteryear.

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