1976 novel glitters with his unique genius for loaded remarks
Hyperaware Cambridge striver maps group’s life progress
Saying much more with very much less
In Manhattan sometimes it seems the less you pay the more you get. This is certainly often true in books. We paid a dollar (and the book was labeled 50c) for a paperback copy of Frederic Raphael’s masterwork Glittering Prizes in Housing Works, where we went to listen to a panel on privacy and the internet, only to be bored by the trivia from the supposed authorities at the table. We lucked into the perfect antidote riffling through the dollar trolley.
We knew Raphael not only as the American born (1931) author of the TV series made from his book but also as the wit of sociology who scripted (and won an Oscar for) Darling (1965), Julie Christie’s first major film. Playing a lead role opposite Dirk Bogarde and Lawrence Harvey, Christie proved their equal in dominating the screen, but the real star of the movie was the script. Seldom has there been a wittier script than Darling’s. It might almost be viewed as the screen equivalent of The Importance of Being Earnest. Not quite a necklace of verbal diamonds on that celestial level, perhaps, but certainly a string of pearls with shiningly clever lines which delineated the petty decadence and ambitions of swinging sixties London spot on.
The book is a similar tour de force, quite exceptional in showing off Raphael’s ability to signal huge swathes of attitude and even genuine emotion in a remark as short as a couple of words. Even the reviews which uniformly praised it as brilliant at the time failed to realize how unique it was and has been since, as far as I know. Anyone who reads it will find themselves talking in pithier terms and writing more succinctly, too.
(Here you seem to have forgotten to add some examples. – Ed.)
Simply put, in Raphael’s hands, less means more. The less he writes, the more meaning he packs into it. All with a Pinteresque illumination of meaning in its spaces.
So what ever happened to Raphael?
Well, well. Just as we suspected. He won an Oscar for his screenplay for Darling. The bio reveals he was born in 1931 in Chicago but schooled in England at Charterhouse and then St Johns College, Cambridge, and wrote other screenplays including Nothing But The Best, the excellent 1964 film, Far From The Madding Crowd, and Eyes Wide Shut, the last film by the estimable Stanley Kubrick, though reckoned by many the director’s only flop.
The latter resulted in Eyes Wide Open, a memoir of Raphael’s collaboration with Stanley Kubrick (he wrote the first draft of Eyes Wide Shut, apparently, which the director then adapted to his own purpose) which so alienated people concerned with the movie as well as family and friends of Kubrick (Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg among them) that Raphael was not invited to its premiere! Subsequently he wrote the introduction to a new translation, published by Penguin, of Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story, the basis for Eyes Wide Shut, and a Wall Street Journal book review in 2011 entitled How Stanley Kubrick Met His Waterloo, a comment on a book which is an archive of Kubrick’s effort to do a film on Napoleon. The review highlights Kubrick’s ignorance of France and history, but still ends by saluting him as a grandmaster of film.
Anyhow, we realize we should give an excerpt from Glittering Prizes to show what we mean, so we are looking for one on the Web to save typing it out. Every remark is a double entendre, a pun of an unexpected sort. As a way of spicing up conversation, it is always fun. But Raphael always makes it mean something more than a joke.
Oddly enough this kind of density of expression can come off as too precious, and certainly listening over again to the panel where Raphael speaks on Glittering Prizes on this podcast: Raphael, Cont, Bryan Cheyette on Fame and Fortune at Jewish Book Week one can form a mild distaste for Raphael’s spontaneous remarks which are as pointed, brief and perfectly phrased as his writing, since one senses that they are indeed supremely self conscious and even defensive in a way that their very quality can get irritating, but this may be because the topic itself is inevitably as tasteless as the cultural prejudice it embodies.
Or it could simply be that if you have lived in America long enough the “you know”s and “I mean”s and “anyway”s fake casualness and preciousness of English literary chat on the Beeb – caught perfectly in style in Darling as Dirk Bogarde listens to a tape of such a program – followed by perfectly formulated comment becomes irritating, since it is unnatural to those who never attended Oxbridge and aims at a false impression of modesty and honest confiding which actually overlays an arrogance and on a deeper hidden level a fear that disturbs one’s focus on what is being said.
Possibly it is a mistake to be too brilliant since it can come off as a defense rather than a natural talent, and distract from what one is trying to get across, at least in person, though on the page it seems more attractive, if only because it saves the reader’s time.