One of the unexpected bonuses of having to do with print is the books that arrive unsolicited. An advance copy of Distant Intimacy from the Yale University Press has just taken me by surprise. Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein have been exchanging e-mails over the course of a year, the former in London, the latter in Chicago. I can’t think of a better snapshot of the cultural landscape of today’s English-speaking world. The mix of humor, regret, praise, and sniping is to be found nowhere else that I know of.
Both have a lifetime’s experience of this landscape on which to draw. Epstein was editor of The American Scholar for 23 years, he’s published a great deal in every sort of outlet. Raphael is the author of many novels, film scripts, a huge range of journalism, with classical studies including a book out a few weeks ago about Flavius Josephus, the Jewish soldier who threw his lot in with the Romans and turned historian. They belong to the old school but are well able to navigate today’s shallows. Gossip is one benefit that comes with experience like theirs, offering comic insight into Harold Pinter, George Steiner, Vladimir Nabokov, and a hundred others of their likes and dislikes. “I’m not a passionate admirer of Isaiah Berlin,” Raphael opens up , to go on, “Had he been a washbasin, Isaiah would have only one tap and it would’ve been tepid.” One of his best cracks is about Jean-Paul Sartre: “Maoism was his Viagra.” Epstein commemorates the great Ed Shils and his falling-out with Saul Bellow. If Bellow was to spend two hours on the lap of the Queen of England, Shils boiled it down, he’d have two observations, that the Queen had no understanding of the condition of the modern artist, and that she was an anti-Semite. Shils it was who improved on goyim, the Yiddish word for non-Jews, by calling another minority gayim.
You enjoy the book, I can hear the accusation, because these two are your friends and under the panache of with-it prose they’re a couple of old-style conservatives. Raphael is indeed a friend and I hope one day to meet Epstein. The poet Dom Moraes was a prodigy, India’s answer to Arthur Rimbaud, and I once said to him that I never wrote about books by friends. Oh, he said, I only write about books by friends. Literary reputations on both sides of the Atlantic are bringing me round to that point of view.