One often hears the caterwaul that the harsh new technology of emails has killed the gentle old craft of letter-writing. Joseph Epstein and Frederic Raphael — septuagenarian pen-pals who have never met, the one based in Chicago and the other dividing his year between South Kensington and Périgord — have set out to prove the doomsayers wrong by publishing their email traffic for the year 2009.
Epstein and Raphael start with one disadvantage, perhaps. They have the wit to be great letter-writers, but not the frustration. It is unfulfilled talents or time-wasters, failing to find other means of self-expression, who excel as correspondents. Epstein is an essayist, editor and short-story writer whose earnings from his magazine work, as revealed in his emails, made this reviewer’s eyes goggle with envy. Raphael is the novelist, classicist and Oscar-winning screenwriter from whom superb essays and books are still pouring forth. It is not from men so replete and exuberantly confident that the rueful half-lights of a great letter-writer can be expected.
Epstein and Raphael are bruisers, not bruised. Epstein writes of a good friend whose career fell flat: ‘He was unmemorable, I think, because his writing had no fist: no anger, no attack to it; it was too well-mannered, too quiet, too wanting in point of view.’ This could never be said of the pugnacious, dogmatic, loud-spoken exchanges in Distant Intimacy. Puns, quips, jibes and corny Jewish jokes sustain the pen-pals’ gleeful repartee about publishers, editors, celebrity agents, Hollywood producers, phonies and crooks. Epstein’s character-sketch of Alfred Appel, compiler of a volume called The Annotated Lolita, and a champion bore of monumental egotism, is a jewel of portraiture.
Epstein, in his coruscating Essays in Biography published last year, gave a mordant account of his quondam friend Saul Bellow. In Distant Intimacy, too, he writes of Bellow with deadly effect — not least as an inveterate womaniser of narcissistic type, who needed affirmation that women were attracted to him but had little interest in sex, and (according to one girlfriend) ‘didn’t seem to know a clitoris from a kneecap’.
There are unforgiving reproofs of publicity-conscious writers such as Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag and Richard Dawkins. Both men’s derision of the bombast of Christopher Hitchens is a salutary antidote to his posthumous Dianafication. Their fellow polymaths Isaiah Berlin and George Steiner are equally deplored, but they disagree about Clive James. ‘I do not despise or even dislike him,’ writes Epstein, ‘I merely mistrust his energy and cultural omniscience’; whereas Raphael explains that he has good reason to feel gratitude and affection.
It is not all denigration. Roger Federer is a hero to Epstein: ‘the very type of the Apollonian’. Epstein suggests, too, and it is a tenable opinion, that underrated Willa Cather may have been ‘the best of the last century’s American novelists’. Raphael calls his fellow scriptwriter Ronnie Harwood ‘a man of the utmost charm and diligence’. The compliments, when they come, are as valuable as most rarities.
There are disarming passages: Epstein’s descriptions of his lunches once a fortnight with a sharp-witted 90-year-old blind ex-postman called Matt Shanahan; Raphael confessing at the age of 78, ‘I still read and annotate books like a student who just might catch up, if he works at it’, and still trying to write taut sentences that ‘will survive the long haul’.
After reading Edward Said’s Reflections on Exile, Raphael concludes that Said is ‘a parody, a mirror-reversed image, of the Jew: argumentative, witless, perpetually rancorous, falsely-forgiving, grievance collecting.’ Distant Intimacy is a very Jewish — though not Judaic — book (Epstein once signs himself, ‘Jewily yours’). ‘What I fear is the elimination of the Jews by assimilation and the lessening of anti-Semitism,’,Epstein declares. ‘I shouldn’t like it if the Jews were like everyone else … Preserve the Jews, I say, in all our brilliant, maddening, infuriating, vulgar, sweet glory.’ He recalls that when he gave a lecture urging his audience not to seek ‘absolute congruence of opinion’ among their friends, lest they narrow their range of friendships, but instead cultivate interesting alternative outlooks, he was afterwards accosted by the Zionist neo-con Irving Kristol, who issued a non-negotiable rider: ‘Except, of course, for Israel-Palestine’. This is a subject on which the pen-pals are intractable.
Neither Epstein nor Raphael will mind a jot that some readers will find their testiness, scorching contempt and Israeli sympathies make Distant Intimacy near intolerable. Others will feast on the bright ideas, unflagging wit and word-perfect characterisations. Raphael in one message says that their email traffic ‘resembles Heraclitus and Callimachus, capping and recapping and in a kind of complicity without any purpose other than mutuality’. It does, too.