Frederic Raphael [Interview]
May 10, 2013 Leave a comment
We have spoken with some very intriguing folks here at Trainwreck’d Society. We’ve spoken with great filmmakers, authors, actors, and so many more. They all have been wonderful in their own way. But, this cat is different. This is THE Frederic Raphael. Considered by most (well, myself at least) to be one of the finest and most esteemed authors, essayists, screenwriters,….basically a mastermind of the written word to put it bluntly. He has had works published that date back further than some of our parent’s births. And he has never missed a step.
Mr. Raphael is also no stranger to controversy. When he released his memoir of his time spent with Stanley Kubrick while writing the adaptation screenplay for Eyes Wide Shut, entitled Eyes Wide Open, he pretty much pissed off everyone possible, and still created a masterpiece comparable to the fine work he did writing the screenplay. And now he is back this year teaming up with his colleague Joseph Epstein on a book of digital correspondences, to stir up the pot once again, and to prove that he is and will always be a force to be reckoned with in the literary world. And dammit if some how we managed to get a few words from the legend himself! I could think of no greater individual to have on the site as our 50th interview in our very short history. Ladies and Gentlemen, allow me to introduce the man who should need no introduction if you know how to read….Frederic Raphael!
What was the first book you can remember reading? Did it have any impact on you?
I’m pretty sure it wasn’t A la Recherche de Temps Perdu in Sanskrit. People usually lie about influences. Ever since Harold Pinter told me, in response to a quiz which I put to him for the sake of a good cause, that in his teens he “read Laforgue”, I have been wary of those who laid claim to lofty antecedents. I do remember reading Ferdinand the Bull at a precocious age though. The phrase “His mother, who was a cow…” remains in my mind. As far as novels are concerned, Maugham’s Of Human Bondage was of, as they say, seminal importance: it was well enough done to excite, but not so well that I was deterred from, the idea of becoming a novelist. It seemed to promise that as long as one was unhappy enough, there would be no shortage of subject matter.
In your long and illustrious career you have written in just about every category there is to be read. In your opinion, what is your favorite genre or form of writing?
I am most myself, if that’s a good idea, when I am writing in longhand in squared notebooks. Handwriting encourages both candour and pretentiousness. I like fancy phrases and I like best what is written as well as possible but without any intention to please any paying audience, not that I object to a standing ovation.
What do you consider your greatest non-artistic related influence in your work?
The Jews and their fate. Alas! I imagined that being a novelist would be a way of disappearing inside the work; but the art that conceals art can never quite conceal the artist. I thought I would be rid of the Jews just as, perhaps, Wittgenstein though he would be done with metaphysics. But whereof one cannot speak is a topic difficult to keep silent about.
Your 1999 memoir of your time with Stanley Kubrick, Eyes Wide Open, seemed to gather quite a bit of controversy upon its release. For those unfamiliar with the book and said controversy can you tell us…what the hell happened?
Stanley Kubrick required all those who worked with him to sign a contract which obliged them not to write about the experience. The first draft of the contract concerned Eyes Wide Shut proposed that I concede to him the last word on who had written what lines of dialogue or had what ideas in the script. I told him that, much as I admired him, I could not work with him on that basis. He told me that he would have the lawyers strike out the clause which offended me. In that case, I told him, I was happy to proceed. The lawyers did as they were told, but the same clause contained a sub-section concerning confidentiality. As a result, after Stanley’s death, Jan and Christiane Harlan were unable to prevent me from telling the truth, most of it very flattering, concerning my labours with Kubrick. Their only recourse was to scream and shout with the purpose of “discrediting” my book. In this endeavour they were backed by Tom Cruise, who takes a similar attitude to anyone who seeks to deny the quasi-divinity of Ron L. Hubbard, and by Michael Herr, who wrote one successful book, which was not the “novel” about Walter Winchell (that I just happened to have reviewed unflatteringly). Larry Gelbart told Stanley Donen that my book was “like a glass of clear water”. I took this surprisingly well.
Distant Intimacy: A Friendship In The Age Of The Internet seems to be gaining the same sort of attention. In my personal opinion, I find what you and Joseph Epstein are doing is courageous. Could you tell about this book and how it came to life?
It never occurred to Joe or to me that we were doing anything but not lying to each other while seeking also to amuse and provoke: it used to be known as flyting, but why upset people by knowing anything other than clichés? Our refusal to admire the same modern idols (Pinter, Sontag, Vidal, McEwan, Amis et all) as those who have an investment in them has led to a torrent of witless abuse and accusations. We were accused, for instance, of being “phoney”, which in glossary of modern cant means that we lacked the instinct for vanishing up the asses of the well-placed which makes critics, pundits and presenters into the trustworthy assessors that we know and whose judgments we must honour or else. Daniel Johnson, who commissioned crappy review of our book from a descendant of one of our foremost targets, is both a slow-payer (who whines about his own salary) andthe only man whom I have ever invited to lunch (in a club of which D.J. was not a member) who, in the middle passage of our long conversation, signalled to the wine waiter and ordered another bottle of the same. I should have known at that moment that he was not a man to go into the jungle with.
In your personal opinion, what do you believe it is about the celebrity psyche that makes people believe that some artists should never be criticized?
Robert Graves wrote a lecture way back when entitled “These Be Thy Gods, oh Israel” in which he dared to denounce poets such as Ezra Pound (whose mistranslations from Latin are held, by his admirers, to be better than the original Propertius), the sainted Mr Eliot and other canon-fodder. My views are, of course, by no means identical with Joe’s, but we have both been round the block a few times and know which writer ring true and which do not. Journalists, the breed to which almost all reviewers now belong, care above all to write the kind of thing which will lead editors such Dunghill Johnson to ask them to do the same again. I have committed many sins (it would be nice to think), but I have never written a put-down review because that was what an editor wanted. The British, in particular, have replaced criticism with copywriting and wit with idolatry. Telling the truth endangers people’s investments. Why would you want to do that?
Whenever we get an award winner on the site, we always have to ask…. where do you keep your Oscar? And is there any significance to its location?
I keep it on the windowsill behind family photographs. It emerges only when a producer or director comes to visit. I do not bow down to it or kiss it; but I cannot deny that it came in useful, career-wise: the fact that we own the said window-sill, in a French farmhouse far from the muddening crowd, owes not a little to the wit and wisdom of the Academy.
Can you tell us a bit about your screenplay currently in pre-production This Man, This Woman? How did the idea for this story come along?
A producer rang me to propose a story about a woman whose successful husband leaves her for a quality bimbo and hinc illae lacrimae as no one much in Beverly Hills ever says, however regularly they may be sorry for themselves. I added a few touches (the original bits) and now we are, if you say so, in pre-production; the pre- bit has lasted a good few years. Who knows when or whether we shall be saved?
If you had any advice for young authors with the ambition to write for a living in this day and age, what would it be?
Forget the living and do the writing. The best advice I ever had was from a British editor after he had told me that my 600 page novel was too long. I told him that I wasn’t cutting anything that people wouldn’t like, especially the bits about (yes!) anti-Semitism. He said, “I don’t want you to cut anything in particular.” I said, “Meaning you just want the book to fit into some preconceived market.” He said, “Here’s what I suggest: go through the manuscript and cut ten words on every page. You’ll find you always can.” And he was right. Desmond Flower! Hats off!
After reading my recent review of the latest John Le Carré novel, A Delicate Truth, Joseph Epstein told me that the Jewish version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Sailor was entitled Tailor, Tailor, Tailor, Tailor. I’m still smiling as a matter of fact.