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.
Certainly they both write without shame. Perhaps if they actually knew each other they wouldn’t have felt the need for quite so much mutual flattery: Freddie to Joe: “you are a man who, while striking no fancy attitudes, provokes excellence”; Joe to Freddie: “I happen to have derived much pleasure from you, your irony, your style, and your wit . . .”; Freddie on Freddie: “I write like a man who never wanted to do anything else much, except make love, of course, and a name, I guess . . .”; Joe on both: “If we may be said to have positions in the world, then, I like to think, the term anti-bullshitter describes these positions.” About other writers, they talk with all the candour you would expect from a closed-doors conversation between old friends — i.e. they bring up other writers almost exclusively in order to disparage them, being cruel to minor figures and dismissive of major ones. Epstein’s year-long crusade against Saul Bellow (Feb: “a narcissist”; April: “the fraudulence behind his literary enterprise . . . a prick”; June: “little-known in the city of his upbringing”; Aug: “downright unpleasant . . .[not] entirely convincing as novelist”) is only the most eyebrow-raising example among dozens. He talks more than once about how “a large heart and sympathetic moral imagination” are the most important qualities in a writer, but himself has scarcely a kind word to say about anyone other than Midge Decter.
Freddie’s epistolary style is ultra-florid: he builds his sentences not so much out of words as out of mots, and if he can’t think of a pun or cute allusion with which to express a given idea, he’ll just slip it into one of the about eight other languages he knows. Here he is on — I’m 90 per cent certain — Julian Barnes: “Mr Skimpy Flashpot, words administered by dripper, French polish a specialty (can there be a speciousality? Hang about, as the Brits say), self-importance in a Gucci bag, Flaubert’s sparrow.” Got that? Joe, who gives the strong impression of having never set foot outside the city of Chicago, is the opposite. Though, like Freddie, he adores puns (“when Pushkin came to shovekin”; “the writing on the Wall St”), his style is functional: he says what he means and he means what he says, and he says it, and means it, over and over again. The book has been left unpolished — to preserve that authentic “correspondence feel” — and as one would expect is very repetitive.
There are some nice things. At one point Raphael tosses out what could easily have been a fine short story, a beautiful anecdote about the confusion between the papers of two similarly named, deceased classicists. But what he, and Epstein, both accomplished literary men, have somehow failed to realise is that while a reader enters a book of posthumously published letters at his own risk, the invitation from the living author to come and look places a much greater burden on the quality (in all senses) of the material. And it’s a burden under which their book collapses. One of its major themes is success, and the reputations of the authors themselves and of others; that they should be found talking at length about the prizes they’re glad they haven’t won because they were sullied by second-rate recipients, the corrupt elite journals that they’re relieved to have only featured in once or not at all, the other authors who had a lot of sex because they were rich and famous, the other authors who got rich and famous by having a lot of sex — all this is entirely consistent with the vainglorious concept of the book itself.