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Kill or cure

Frederic Raphael was the first man to use a four-letter word in The Spectator: the work of his fellow playwright Stephen King-Hall, he wrote in 1957, made him ‘puke’.

9 April 2011

12:00 AM

9 April 2011

12:00 AM

Ifs and Buts: Personal Terms 5 Frederic Raphael

Carcanet, pp.185, 19.95

Frederic Raphael was the first man to use a four-letter word in The Spectator: the work of his fellow playwright Stephen King-Hall, he wrote in 1957, made him ‘puke’.

Frederic Raphael was the first man to use a four-letter word in The Spectator: the work of his fellow playwright Stephen King-Hall, he wrote in 1957, made him ‘puke’. Scorching dismissals and mordant discomforting truths have been flowing ever since from the novelist, Oscar-winning scriptwriter, playwright, classicist and critic, who will turn 80 later this year. Some of his most enduring work only began to appear in 2001, when Raphael published the earliest extracts from the working notebooks that he began compiling as a teenager. The fifth volume, Ifs and Buts, covering the years 1978—79, confirms the series as a minor masterpiece of razor-sharp reportage and waspish comedy.

Raphael avows himself in Ifs and Buts as Jewish, Anglo-American and un-English. Perhaps because he has, since the 1960s, rusticated for long seasons in a rural commune in Périgord Noir, his notebooks resemble those compilations by French intellectuals —Valéry’s Analects and Mauriac’s Bloc-notes — which combine aides-memoires, philosophical speculations, ballons d’essai for future work and character sketches. He is supremely decisive in his choices — the perfect sentence, he has written, is one against which there is no appeal — and disdains the English impulse to strike attitudes without thinking. ‘The English discover what they have decided,’ he suggests, ‘by seeing what they have done. The French analyse and then act, they think; the English act and then justify their actions.’


His notebooks are not a rag-bag of smart London chatter. The Cannes film festival, Chicago law courts and Hollywood provide scenery as well as London and Périgord. Kubrick, Pacino, Schlesinger, Tynan swirl through the pages. The duplicity of film-makers and television executives has seldom been caught so piercingly. ‘I like him,’ Raphael writes of a television collaborator, ‘because I have no present reason to dislike him. My geniality is a function of distrust, just as his camaraderie betokens his guilt.’

The Widmerpool of these notebooks is George Steiner, an increasingly estranged friend whose appearances signal some of Raphael’s deadliest analyses of motives. There are shrewd comments on the Shah’s overthrow in Iran, Bhutto’s execution in Pakistan, Jeremy Thorpe’s trial in Minehead, and the general election of 1979 which brought Margaret Thatcher to power. Only Raphael could make such a trenchant comparison between Jim Callaghan and Marshal Pétain.

Raphael’s Jewish identity is omni- present. ‘Who’, he asks, ‘can look at Transports d’Enfants on the back of a school bus and not see it as a prelude to murder?’ Many of his reflections on the singularity of Jewish destiny have a clinching exactitude, but sometimes they show intractable agitation. His proposition that ‘the persistence of anti-Semitism is essential to Christianity’ is countered by Anglicanism, for which the keynote is provided by indifference.

‘Such a wholesome man, you know that even if he cuts you, it won’t go septic,’ Raphael writes of his fellow playwright Michael Frayn. His own cuts are envenomed, for he is a practitioner of kill or cure. His intelligence burns with implacable fire: he concedes nothing to political conformity or the desire to please. His notebooks set a standard, raise a rallying cry and deserve to be better known.


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