Barbara Kay: Two great writers converge to publish epistolary of their e-mail correspondence


National Post - Saturday June 1st, 2013

Joseph Epstein and Frederic Raphael have published a book of their e-mails.

Two of my favourite writers have published a book of e-mail correspondence: Distant Intimacy: A friendship in the age of the Internet.

Joseph Epstein is America’s finest essayist and amongst America’s finest short story writers. Frederic Raphael is English, a prodigiously gifted man of letters in the fullest sense: fluent in many languages (including ancient Greek), novelist, historian, screenwriter (Darling, Two for the Road, Eyes Wide Shut), literary critic and political polemicist, who often deploys his formidable rhetorical skills in denouncing anti-Zionism amongst the lumpenintelligentsia.

The two writers are both of an age and professional status – over 70, enormously successful – where they can say what they think about anything at all, without fear of consequences. Although often described as a conservative, Epstein demurs in one e-mail to Raphael: “I do not in the least think of myself as in possession of anything like a coherent body of political ideas that are represented by conservatism or can be captured by any other going ism. Instead I prefer to think myself an older Jewish gentleman, standing off on the sidelines, viewing the various public escapades – political, cultural, social – and calling out with some regularity, ‘Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!’ You not infrequently do much the same, if with a slightly different accent.”

Although they have never met in person, and neither expresses any great interest in doing so, for fear of being disappointed by or disappointing the other, their friendship is grounded in more than superior intellect and similarity of perspective.

Both Epstein and Raphael are Chicago-born (Epstein never left, Raphael’s family decamped to England when he was a boy), utterly secular Jews who yet self-define as Jewish to the core (exchanges on anti-Semitism in literature are frequent and insightful); both are happily married, monogamous, even uxorious husbands; both have known the anguish of losing a child in maturity; both write like angels with boundless wit, exquisitely honed intelligence and stiletto cattiness about their fellow writers, living and dead.

Everyone loves gossip. Indeed, Joseph Epstein’s recent, eponymous book did justice to the subject as nobody has before. In it, he tells us that when it is more than idle curiosity, gossip reaches the level of social analysis. Amongst the rapidly-firing neurons in the outsized intellects of Mssrs Epstein and Raphael, curiosity can never be said to be idle, and through their creatively pugilistic lens, social analysis is elevated to an aesthetic version of the javelin toss at the Olympics.

In so-called real life Bellow was touchy, unkind, nasty, and black-hearted: a prick in other words, and a particularly malevolent one

Here is Raphael on Philip Roth: “Miserably prolific Philip rarely offers us anything new in the way of compensation for his glum facility for making the worst of life’s bad job, while doing himself extremely well. The curse is that of a man who can’t forget la chose génitale and can’t make anything human out of the target for his increasingly undependable schlong.”

And Epstein on Saul Bellow: “At the center of Bellow’s fraudulence is his creating in his fiction figures clearly intended to be he who are inevitably sensitive, kindly, sweet, not to say great souled, whereas in so-called real life Bellow was touchy, unkind, nasty, and black-hearted: a prick in other words, and a particularly malevolent one.”

Ignatieff, who is, I think, a Canadian Russian intello, probably not of your persuasion, had something in common with Isaiah, if only that air of homogenized mannerliness

A recurrent target for dissection is the internationally renowned intellectual, Isaiah Berlin, about whom both are equivocal. Raphael says of him: “Berlin was an intellectual Jeeves, always more correct than the spoilt young men to whom he supplied the cultural etiquette that would never come naturally to them, yet never quite of their class or number. He was immensely useful, without ever being threatening…Berlin was the Gentile idea of a Jewish joke.”

Ouch. Raphael is equally biting on the “smoothies’ smoothie,” Michael Ignatieff, who wrote a biography of Berlin: “Ignatieff, who is, I think, a Canadian Russian intello, probably not of your persuasion, had something in common with Isaiah, if only that air of homogenized mannerliness, which gave them both the air of being the kind of lofty butler you can rely on not to come in at the wrong moment and never to bring the folded message face up on the wrong kind of salver.”

I can’t remember when I have had more fun with an epistolary exchange. One reviewer said it must be a mark of his philistine character that after his deep immersion in these writers’ “colossal erudition,” he felt in need of a hamburger and some trash TV. Me, quite the opposite. Please sirs, I want some more of this decidedly nourishing gruel.

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bkay@videotron.ca