Acerbic enemy of cowardice

The latest volume of Frederic Raphael's diaries is a book full of bite and feline gossip

David Herman

“Against the Stream”: Frederic Raphael’s new volume begins in 1981, when the author is at his height

When Frederic Raphael applied to Cambridge, he wrote at the top of the first page of his essay, “Art is one of the four things that unite men.” (Turgenev). Years later he said, “I didn’t know anything about Turgenev. I didn’t know what the other three things that united men were. One of them, you can depend on it, is anti-Semitism.”

This is pure Raphael. Smart, funny and absolutely honest about anti-Semitism. You can almost hear the lines being spoken by Tom Conti as Adam Morris in The Glittering Prizes, the 1976 BBC drama that made Raphael a household name.

Against the Stream, the latest volume of Raphael’s series of diaries, Personal Terms, begins in 1981, just a few years after The Glittering Prizes. Raphael is at his height. He had written several very successful screenplays, numerous TV dramas and almost 20 novels. He had a place in the Dordogne, another on a Greek island and a home in South Kensington. The 1960s and ’70s had been kind to Raphael.

Some years later, a critic asked, “Does anybody talk these days with the nervy brilliance and bite of the characters in a Frederic Raphael novel?” The obvious answer is yes, Frederic Raphael does. Against the Stream is full of those clever lines. “Her benevolence is without remorse,” he writes of Shirley Williams. “Deprived of the ‘Y’ in my typewriter,” he writes, “I am like a runner with a small, sharp pebble in his shoe.” “Success,” he writes, “leads some people to put on weight; [Michael] Frayn has put on height.”

It is a book full of bite and feline gossip. Someone tells him they have got Arnold Wesker to write the script for a movie. “‘Well,’ I said, ‘all you need now is someone to do the rewrites’.” Anthony Burgess “treats homosexuality with a coarseness that makes cardboard out of flesh.”

There are some people who clearly fascinate Raphael. He writes with real insight about George Steiner, who, he writes, “never fails to carry his puncture kit; most people’s are to repair punctures, his vocation is to deliver them.” But there’s real admiration for Steiner — for his erudition, of course, but there’s a kind of affection too. One reason, surely, is that Steiner, like Raphael, was one of those Jews who wasn’t afraid to talk honestly about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust at a time when hardly  anyone in Britain did. “I’m actually an extremely timid person,” he once said. “But to be a Jew in the 20th century means knowing that the opposite of cowardice is not courage. It’s doing what you have to do.”

The Glittering Prizes was one of the first major TV drama series to talk about anti-Semitism, not just in the Oswald Mosley figure played superbly by Eric Porter, but in the whole atmosphere of 1950s Cambridge which the first episode so brilliantly evoked.

Against the Stream
nags away at the question of anti-Semitism. Sartre, he writes, had bravely taken on the subject, but “in 1940, he had gained academic preferment after his path was racially cleansed by the removal of Jewish profs.” Several times he refers to the attempt by Cambridge philosophers to Christianise their master, Wittgenstein. He appears on a BBC radio discussion with a former Cambridge teacher. “He made bold to say that I had shown little of the aggression of my undergraduate self. ‘I know,’ I said, ‘I didn’t mention the Jews within the first five minutes of the programme’.”

This exchange raises an interesting question about awkward Jews: Raphael, George Steiner, Jonathan Miller, Arnold Wesker. They all have a reputation for being difficult. Are they difficult because they have spent years speaking out about anti-Semitism? Or is speaking out what defines them as difficult?

People often say Raphael (and his characters) are too clever for their own good. The references to Sartre and Wittgenstein are sharp and witty. We could do with that intelligence and wit today as we try to weather the Corbyn storm.

The Glittering Prizes ends with a remarkable passage from Adam Morris’s new book: “They asked him how he had managed for so long to lead a double life. He replied that nothing could be easier. As long as he could keep just one chamber of his castle locked and its contents safe from scrutiny.”

Against the Stream offers many insights into Raphael’s “double life”. An American who made his career in Britain. A Jew who went to Charterhouse and Cambridge. A Hollywood script-doctor who reads Ancient Greek for fun. Vain, sharp-tongued, but the sort of truth-teller Britain needed then and needs now. 

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