Brian Martin

Frederic Raphael settles old scores with a vengeance

The nonagenarian’s critical faculties are as sharp as ever in these imaginary letters addressed to Kingsley Amis, Jonathan Miller, Doris Lessing and many others

Frederic Raphael. [Getty Images]

Last Post is a collection of reminiscences, anecdotes and a settling of old scores by Frederic Raphael in the form of imaginary letters to many of the people who have been part of his long life. You might expect a nonagenarian’s critical faculties to have ‘mellowed by the stealing hours of time’, but far from it. Raphael’s intelligence and acerbic wit are undiminished. 

George Steiner suffers a sustained attack for being gauche, malicious and too obviously ambitious

Those who have crossed his path will be aware of his ability to ‘verbalise easily’ and, as he himself confesses: ‘It is one of my failings that I know how to hurt people.’ Jonathan Miller is criticised for being insufficiently conscious of his Jewish heritage. Miller in turn described Raphael as displaying an unattractive ‘piranha-like savagery’ in his disapprovals. Kenneth Tynan comes under fire for his ‘smart-assery’ and ‘clenched fist and limp wrist’. But Raphael’s final assessment of him could be taken as a sort of tribute: ‘You were a one-off all the way, merely unforgettable, you bastard.’ George Steiner suffers a sustained attack for being gauche, malicious and too obviously ambitious, blessed with ‘a moist and spatulate tongue’ of ‘garrulous versatility’. Raphael subscribes to Isaiah Berlin’s view of Steiner as a ‘genuine phoney’.

After reading this book it becomes easier to understand why Raphael may have thought it fortunate that he somehow failed to gain a First in Moral Sciences at Cambridge. If he had, he could have been ‘lost in the rooms and corridors of academe’, as he writes to the Bedales classicist Kenneth McLeish. The truth is that Raphael possessed many gifts – those of a novelist and screenwriter as well as a classicist who translated Catullus and Petronius – and perhaps it was difficult for some of those addressed in these letters to keep up with him.

There are sideswipes at Kingsley Amis, who, like all alcoholics, ended up ‘living in pickle jars’; and his son Martin also comes under attack.

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