Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein are rude about nearly everybody in their new book.
“Distant Intimacy, A Friendship in the Age of the Internet,” subverts the trend against public displays of erudition and anything smacking of “elitist” humor.
The trans-Atlantic e-mails that make up the volume are the product of 100 years of authorship between the two, covering every genre. Raphael is a novelist, classicist and an Oscar-winning screenwriter, known for “Eyes Wide Shut” and more. Epstein is a renowned essayist and short-story writer. Their book casts aside the career-conscious prudence of younger men.
The result is a scandalous irreverence -- both toward the usual targets and the pseudo-democratic postures and inflated reputations they see around them.
The index reads like names on a war memorial, the victims all being famous folk who get gunned down in a phrase.
For Epstein, E.M. Forster was “More than a bit of a creep, and another of the false gurus of our times.”
“Maoism was his Viagra,” is Raphael’s take on the libidinous Jean-Paul Sartre. As for Henry Miller, the author of “Tropic of Cancer” reminds him of a “turd in the bidet.”
Epstein says intellectuals like themselves cannot leave the house without their Lugers loaded because many phonies in their line of business are getting away with it.
There is praise for the deserving dead, from Montaigne to T.S. Eliot -- though the latter gets bad marks for his anti-Semitic interludes.
There is much about Jews, some self-mocking, most aimed at prejudice in its many guises. Richard Dawkins is attacked for his howler when he asked what the world would be like if atheists like himself enjoyed as much influence as the Jews? One answer, of course, is that Stalin and the Nazis showed us.
There is high seriousness too about the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the Athenian politician and general Alcibiades. Still, our authors are unable to stay po-faced for long, with juicy speculation about how the Jewish Hannah Arendt could end up sleeping with pro-Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger.
Passing felicities keep us entertained, such as Epstein’s dig at those who spend their entire lives in the classroom --“a womb without a view” -- or his description of TV newscasters as “hairdos pulling in heavy bread.”
Britain gets a bashing from Raphael, who was born in Chicago and wonders whether he shouldn’t have stayed, rather than confine himself to this “tight little island.”
The English have dwindled, he writes, into “a state without honor, without grace, without fric (cash).” And without good novelists, in Raphael’s view.
Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and A. S. Byatt are brushed aside, but Julian Barnes gets the full treatment: “Mr. Skimpy Flashplot, words administered by dripper, French polish a specialty.” A.N. Wilson, critic and novelist, “has become a luminary without casting an interesting light.”
Epstein believes that poetry is finished: while versifiers today are two a penny, he notes, nobody can come up with a single line from memory written in the last 50 years.
Popular writers like J.K. Rowling fare no better. As for Harry Potter, “I dislike the little f***** intensely.”
Not all British names will resonate with Americans, and vice versa, though the wit is wicked. The gossip our authors exchange about them is meaty stuff -- Epstein’s most recent work is “Gossip: The Untrivial Pursuit.”
Perhaps the volume should have come with a warning wrapper noting that writers of a certain age have ceased giving a damn. If you are easily shocked or offended, stay away from this book.
“Distant Intimacy: a Friendship in the Age of the Internet,” by Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein, Yale University Press, 335 Pages, $30 or 20 pounds. To buy the book in North America, click here.
(George Walden is a former U.K. diplomat and Conservative minister. He is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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