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Joseph Epstein (left) and Frederic Raphael: A friendship of financial convenience

Nabokov-Wilson. Pound-Ford. Flaubert-Sand. Adorno-Mann. Shaw-Wells. Published correspondences such as these tend to have certain things in common: the authors knew each other in person, usually very well; they were dead and buried before the letters were unearthed by someone else; someone else judged the particular correspondence worth isolating and publishing, independent of any general volumes of each author's letters. Now Distant Intimacy, a correspondence between the American essayist and writer of short stories, Joseph Epstein, and Frederic Raphael, Anglo-American novelist and screenwriter, "joins," according to its publisher, that "full shelf of volumes in the genre," despite the fact that Epstein and Raphael are both still alive; have never met; decided themselves, apparently against the advice of their agents, to publish their correspondence; and decided so at the outset, before they'd started writing it (the book opens with Raphael's grotesquely coy solicitation: "might there be some fun, not to mention $$$ etc . . . Don't say yes and don't say no and I shall know I have the man I think I have . . .").

It's no wonder, given these shaky foundations, that someone in the publishing house felt the need to slap on a subtitle: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet. "[Y]et it is," the dust-jacket continues, "perhaps the first set of such letters ever transacted via the Internet." Transacted is the key word here, not internet. "Freddie" and "Joe", as they instantly become known to each other and to the reader, sign up to exchange one email a week for a year. In his introduction Epstein mumbles something about how "e-mail encourages a certain literary fluency," but the weekly tempo could (once upon a time, at least) have been managed by regular mail, and its rigid enforcement only adds another layer of artificiality to the "friendship": they write to each other not as the spirit moves them but as a routine job. 

The internet angle is largely a bogus attempt to cast the trivialising fact of the two never having met as something suavely profound. But the book does demonstrate two things about the Age of the Internet, albeit unintentionally. The first is that in the Age of Dwindling Book Sales, professional writers are forced to publish anything and everything they can, and are starting to realise that they'd just as soon have the proceeds from a given brand-name product while they're still alive, rather than waiting until after they're dead, thanks. The second concerns the breakdown of traditional notions of public and private. The Epstein-Raphael emails aren't after all the only trove of recent times — they come hot on the heels of the bin Laden and top lieutenants emails, the Assad family and hangers-on emails, the Generals Petraeus and Allen and hangers-on emails, 250,000 US State Department cables, etc. The point being that "publicly available" is the natural state that all digital communication gravitates towards; an email, duplicated at the click of a button, is top-secret, let alone merely private, only by virtue of an outdated and flimsily human social compact. And while Epstein, bin Laden, Raphael and the rest were writing their soon-to-be-published emails, real friendship really was changing in the context of the internet — but only as yet for much younger people. Epstein and Raphael must be blissfully ignorant of Facebook, where people are encouraged to have one-to-one conversations that everyone else they know can read, to be like the loud-talkers in public places who speak to one person for the benefit of the room. And yet their project is in this sense utterly Facebookian, all the same.

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