If one is to believe Joseph Epstein’s introduction to “Distant Intimacy” – one of the most wickedly entertaining books anyone is likely to concoct all year – he and his 335-page email correspondent Frederic Raphael still haven’t met. Nor have they even talked on the phone.
“We know each other only from our discrete – if far from discreet – scribblings and occasional emails,” writes Epstein, who made the first move toward acquaintance – and ultimately an intimate frienship made out of written words – when he wrote Raphael of his admiration for a lecture of his. Raphael then suggested they exchange emails animadverting on the literary and cultural lives of their times and, by obvious implication, any other damn thing that offered itself for discussion. Raphael seems to have been inspired by a similar book of correspondence between Bernard Henri-Levy and Michel Houellebecq. It would be an “autobiographie involuntaire” as well as essays-in-counterpoint, improvisational 21st century Montaigne for four hands.
There seems to be a lot of this going around. J.M. Coetzee and Paul Auster – who HAD met briefly at a literary conference – recently published the result of the same general idea as a rather brilliant letter exchange called “Here and Now” that roughly compares to “Distant Intimacy” the way a house full of big cats at the zoo compares to the monkey house.
As splendid and amusing and wide-ranging a correspondence for our benefit as Auster and Coetzee exchanged, they are a small fraction as absorbing, witty and scandalously readable as Epstein and Raphael are right from the beginning.
Epstein, 76 – who claims to have been told once he was “the American Frederic Raphael” – writes fiction but is best known for fiendishly witty and erudite essays and best sellers like “Snobbery” and would-be best sellers like “Gossip” as well as editing, for many years, the quarterly “The American Scholar.” Raphael, 81, is superficially another species altogether – best known as the British author of the extraordinary autobiographical TV mini-series with Tom Conti “Glittering Prizes” (one of the all-time masterworks of television-as-art-form) and the screenplays for John Schlesinger’s “Darling” and “Far From the Madding Crowd” and Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.” He’s also, though, known as a novelist, intellectual-for-hire and polymathic author of “A Jew Among Romans: The Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus.”
Puns, wordplays and jokes good and bad erupt right from the start as well as nasty omni-directional put-downs and slams at other writers, living and dead and all-points between (Edmund Wilson, Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick, Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Annie Leibovitz and Harold Pinter are all swatted around gleefully before we’ve even hit page 10).
It’s all hilarious, if somewhat empty sideline japery from literary kibitzers never destined – or even meant – for the first rank but far too erudite and brilliant to be quiet either. Lest any onlooker at all this serve-and-volley feel too much self-satisfaction about noticing the vacuity of so much relentlessly playful self-regard, it perishes quickly with the realization that either one of the participants would be able to lambaste, lampoon and generally incinerate the whole spectacle with a good deal more eloquence and panache.
That particular game is played on the highest level here. The result is no small hard-won wisdom on one hand and delight on the other (which often rises to the unseemly level of reader guffaw).
And then, as early as page 13, a not-at-all funny thing happens in what has promised to be a cavalcade of short burlesques. Raphael begins one letter about their exchanges in the most sober manner possible: “Another thing we have in common is our membership in the sad fraternity of parents who have buried a child. … The true loss incurred by my son’s death is that of his daughter, left a fatherless child and it is a loss I can’t bear to think of for long.” Epstein begins his response, “I had no idea about your son having died. Might I have divined something from the measurelessness of your response to all kinds of things, a sense of proportion that I wish I shared? When Sarah died, I felt too many confused emotions ever to have faith in the specificity of all those emotional stakes supposedly so sharply defined from each other: rage, pity, shame, disillusionment. Grief is edged by other ingredients, some as disreputable as resentment, some frankly disloyal. I recall wanting to be among people who didn’t know what had happened so that I could smile and, God help me, amuse or charm.”
So it seems that we are not going to be in a 335-page game where nothing is really at stake after all. And so we aren’t.
Nor, in truth, is all unmitigated edifiction and urbane delight. Epstein, who once won what is likely to be eternal obloquy among homosexuals for genuinely breathtaking intolerance (wishing for anything in life but homosexual male progeny), is not a man who has any business at all even pretending to have ideas about rock and roll in history (he wants it all marked B.R., before rock, and A.R., after rock). There is much in the way of specificity that he can’t begin to grasp.
Nor is Raphael immune to the charmless and the ghastly when he writes about savaging a biography of Arthur Koestler that claims Koestler was “a sexual ruffian who tried to pleasure Mrs. Michael Foot, the film director wife of a labor politician” by first bumping “her head on the kitchen floor.”
“What else can you do with that kind of cookie?” Raphael somewhat appallingly asks his American correspondent in Chicago, a question that clearly indicates the editor of the volume was willing to apply a hands-off “anything goes” policy no matter what.
The amount of literary and cultural gossip within is, then, accordingly gigantic but some of it is as much anti-gossip as gossip. For instance, Epstein defends a mutual friend from the depredations of Saul Bellow in his novel “Ravelstein” where, says Epstein, Bellow was getting back at the fellow for refusing to heal a breach with the Nobel Prize winner, even on his deathbed (a dark fellow was Bellow, according to Epstein, despite his more benevolent self-portraiture in his books).
These old boys are of a generation disinclined to anything but rank disdain for whatever might smack of “political correctness,” which makes their relentless vaudefille bravura a job of work sometimes.
But, in its specifics and generalities both, this is as wildly readable an exploration of antic literary wit as you’re likely to find these days – a kind of epistolary “Satyricon” from the life era that brings heart bypasses and cranky prostates.
Of opposite kidney altogether among epistolary treasure houses is “The Letters of William Gaddis,” a book even the writer often wished would never come to be before finally tacitly approving its planned existence.
It was Gaddis’ incomparably bad luck to write one of the greatest – but most difficult – novels of the 20th century in 1955, “The Recognitions.” And then he watched as its reputation initially tanked except among a tiny passionate minority while its influence eventually spread through Thomas Pynchon, William H. Gass, Don DeLillo and all manner of others, without ever casting large numbers of readers back to the immense and astonishing original. Gaddis never lived to see how much of David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest” might have owed to “The Recognitions.”
“What is it they want from a man that they didn’t get from his work?” the central artist asks in “The Recognitions.” “What do they expect? What is there left of him when he’s done his work? What’s any artist but the dregs of his work? The human shambles that follows it around. What’s left of the man when the work’s done but a shambles of apology?”
Here are the letters of the very great – and heroically ignored – literary figure who wrote that without apology. It’s another world entirely from the wiseass self-proclamation and literary performance art of “Distant Intimacy.”
“Remarks are not literature,” lamented Dorothy Parker once, before almost all that remained of her were the smart remarks.
Which is still far more than is generally known about William Gaddis.
Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet
By Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein
Yale University Press
335 pages, $30
The Letters of William Gaddis
Edited by Steven Moore, afterword by Sarah Gaddis
Dalkey Archive Press
545 pages, $34.50
Jeff Simon is The News arts and books editor.