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They’ve Got Mail

The Internet friendship of Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein.

By 4.8.13

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Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet,
Frederic Raphael, Joseph Epstein
(Yale University Press, 335 pages, $30)

Eavesdropping on other people’s e-mails -- if truth be told -- can be one of life’s guilty pleasures, so it was with some eagerness that I plunged into a book-length collection of confidences between two masters of the writing trade. Over a period of one year, these two heavyweights reveal their intimate thoughts to each other and don’t seem to mind that we will eventually see it all on the printed page.

Such was the appeal, at least for me, of Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet, a 50-50 joint effort by Joseph Epstein and Frederic Raphael. Epstein is best known for his literary essays and short stories and his 22-year tenure as editor of the quarterly American Scholar. Raphael is a British novelist and screenwriter with one Oscar to his credit and contributions to high-minded journals on everything from cinema to philosophy and the classics.

The concept was simple. Having never met in person nor spoken on the phone, they agreed to write weekly reports on their ideas, opinions, and memories, e-mail them to each other and, with little or no editing (judging by the repetition), go to press. Raphael muses along the way that emails can unleash confidences “that are likely to be inhibited when you face someone in the flesh, even if he shares your distaste.”

I know of no other case in which two Jewish guys in their 70s, both straight and both with successful careers behind them, would dump their brains with such abandon. They are both refreshingly politically incorrect. Reading their exchanges, it seemed they occasionally forgot that their communications were not private.

E-mail writing, texting, and twittering has done permanent damage to written prose, as any English teacher will tell you, but these two writers, thankfully, are dinosaurs. They write crisply with wit, knowledge, and a reverence for the language. In fact their e-mails retain a lightness partly because of the wordplay, as in Raphael’s crack that they were engaged in an e-pistolary exercise.

“Everything reminds you of something,” writes Raphael, which explains how they could fill 316 pages and compile an index of some 1,800 entries without apparently trying very hard. If nothing else, this is a tribute to spontaneous free-association. Much of their content refers to writing gigs they had underway at the time, to merciless assessments of friends and enemies, the plight of the Jews and quite a few hilariously inappropriate Jewish jokes. I kept this book at my bedside and consumed it -- to borrow a favorite Epsteinism -- in twenty-page “draughts” over a few weeks.

Much of the repartee is highbrow, concerned with philosophy and the ancients, disciplines in which both are comfortable. This form prevents discussions from becoming stuffy or long-winded, however. In one memorable aside, Epstein quotes a line from Saul Bellow who, when asked if he liked the films of Ingmar Bergman, quipped, “Nope, I like my Kierkegaard straight.”

The only subject off limits was discussion of their marriages. Epstein called their loyalty to their wives a “weird kink” by today’s standards and said these e-mails “would not disgrace or otherwise degrade them, unlike old Edmund Wilson, whose idea of a swell time was describing bonking his various wives in his published journals.” 

And with that caveat, they were off and running, God knew where.

A sampling follows:

ON BEING JEWISH

Raphael recalls that had a close working relationship with a non-Jewish fellow-classicist. “He told me once that I was the nicest Jew he had ever met. And then rang back to apologise because, on playback, it didn’t sound quite as he meant it to. Oh they do have trouble with us, don’t they?”

Epstein ventures a view on why Americans were so slow to recognize the persecution of Jews during World War II. Bruno Bettleheim “had a difficult time getting word published in America about what was going on in Europe. People hadn’t then, I think, developed the taste and appetite for bad news that we now have, and bad news of that magnitude -- genocide -- especially when it was about an already despised people, must have been the easiest of all to avoid.”

Regarding writers who kept “a cold spot in their hearts for the Jews” one reads them anyway, Epstein writes, “otherwise it would be Goodbye English, and most of American lit.” … “As an occasional writer about writers—which we both are -- it does seem to me sensible, however, never to let the little presence of the virus known as the Jew Bug pass without comment.”

Further along in their exchanges, Raphael picks up the theme and adds, “I don’t want to reach out to Islam or even to the inhabitants of that orthodox borough of Jerusalem; I want to keep out of their hands, even as I admire Ottoman buildings, the beauty of many mosques, the charm of dem robes dey wear and all that stuff, because finally Islam is parody of Judaism, and so, in many forms, is Judaism.” 

ON WRITING

Raphael muses: “… we are writing in this way things we would not write in another and would not, I am pretty sure, say to each other if I happened to be stranded at O’Hare overnight ...”

Raphael recalls his early ambitions in literature. “I always wanted to be published, not to be successful; I lacked that final thrust of vulgar ambition that might have guided me to bestsellerdom.” Elsewhere, he goes on, “money is one thing, vanity another; but they share the driving, don’t they, when it comes to a writer’s course.”

Epstein confesses: “I am a sucker, not to say a great snob, for elegant prose style, but I continue to feel, probably against lots of evidence, that there is no substitute, even in literature, for a good and generous heart, the possession of which I’m fairly sure V.N. [Vladimir Nabokov] couldn’t claim.”

A print man to his fingernails, Epstein felt offended that a piece he wrote for Newsweek was bumped from print onto the magazine’s website. “Still, if something I write appears only online, to me it feels, and probably always will, as if I have just written something and then blithely dropped it out the window.” He also expects to be paid for his toil. “Once the word gets around that we girls are giving it away for nothing, the phone will never stop ringing—all the boys will want some.”

Raphael deplores the decline of the novel, blaming it on the rise of the pictorial arts rather than penury of talent. “”The truth is that the big bucks are now in film, TV and allied forms of high or low harlotry.”

Epstein has written elsewhere that he rarely plots his essays. He lets the form find itself. Here he adds: “My method of composition is to attempt to write one interesting sentence after another and hope that the interest, so to say, will compound itself and the absence of a high plan will go unnoticed.” He is anything but coy about the quality he produces. He compares himself to the man who says the dinner party was a nightmare and that “if it wasn’t for me, I would have been bored to death.”

Epstein says, despite a lifetime of publishing success, he is still worried about submissions. “This scribbler, after all these years in the business (and still wearing a cardboard belt, mind you), remains nervous about acceptance.”

ON THEIR FRIENDSHIP

Raphael says their correspondence is “superbly anachronistic and also -- why not? -- vindicatory. We have not spoken or met, and yet we have, I suspect, a kind of intimacy which most men never enjoy in the present rush of accessibilities. Nothing sweeter, at times, than to be an anachronism a deux.

Separately, Raphael writes: “… by your voice, which I hear with great specificity, I recognize and smile at you, as if present. ‘A man’s subconscious,’ some smart-ass screenwriter wrote in a terrible movie, ‘is a maudlin swamp.’“

“There is, I suppose, something funny and slightly magic about what feels like a close friendship of our kind,” he continues, adding that he still wonders “as a closet series-plotter, whether the great executive producer in the sky plans for us ever to meet and what kind of wry twist he can put on the encounter if it ever takes place.”

Epstein describes their affinity as based in part as their mission as “anti-bullshitters.” “In the United States, you should know, I am sometimes described as a Conservative. But 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 going ism. Instead I prefer to think of myself as 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 the same, if with a slightly different accent.”

Raphael is running low on optimism at his advanced age. “The older one gets -- what with the grave yawning and all that -- the less one yearns for great fat books written by people other than Gibbon or Proust. Such at least is my aging Jew’s-eye view.”

Epstein looks ahead to a perfect world. “So then Herr Freddie, when you become Minister of Culture for England and France and I for the United States, I say we bring back happy highbrowism, with, for the voters, a copy of Proust in every pot.”

THE BOOK ENDS with an exchange of virtual hugs down the Internet connection. Epstein says, “If I had to find a word, my feelings for you would be brotherly.” Raphael pings back: “However odd our couple, we have become friends almost, oh let’s say it, epiphenomenally; we have talked with such ease … that there was never a decided, formal moment when we passed from acquaintanceship to friendship, intimacy even, of a kind.”

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About the Author

Michael Johnson spent 17 years at McGraw-Hill, including six years as a news executive in New York. He now writes from Bordeaux in France.