Marcus Berkmann

Perfectly unreliable

Ticks and Crosses: Personal Terms 4, by Frederic Raphael

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Ticks and Crosses: Personal Terms 4

Frederic Raphael

Carcanet, pp. 221, £

Memoirs? No one writes them any more. If you wish to distinguish yourself from the sweaty masses, you are far better off publishing a diary, or notebook, call it what you will (Frederic Raphael naturally calls it a cahier). To publish one, of course, you need to have written one, ideally some years ago, full of gossip and spleen and brutal judgments on your contemporaries, some of whom are now dead, and the rest of whom soon will be when they read it. It may not have the form or the contrivance of a memoir — it may, in truth, ramble a bit — but we will forgive this because, its writer will assure us, it was never written for publication. Raphael assures us in all these wonderful, scabrous volumes that they weren’t written for publication, and while I’m sure he’s telling the truth, I can never quite believe him either. As a good friend and contemporary of mine admitted to me recently, when he revealed that he had started writing a diary, ‘It’s my pension.’ It may also be your tilt at posterity, for as Simon Gray and Alan Clark have recently shown, your marginal writings may continue to be read and loved when your more substantial works are completely forgotten.

Frederic Raphael’s diaries do not have the same populist appeal as those of Gray or Clark. Indeed you really do need to be steeped in the era and the culture of which he writes to understand even a fraction of what he goes on about. This fourth volume covers the years 1976 to 1978. Raphael is in his mid-forties; his most enduring success, The Glittering Prizes, has just been televised; he has more than enough work, and nearly enough money, to be going on with. And yet, as in previous volumes, his mental restlessness is unrelenting. Merely living his splendidly bourgeois, highbrow, writerly existence uses up only a fraction of his intellectual energy: it must also be recorded in detail, assessed without favour and usually found wanting. Dissatisfaction is his middle name. ‘In the evening we watched a lamentable football game between France and Denmark.’ At a party so-and-so ‘arrived late, bearing the stubs of hotter tickets, and stayed long enough only to seem impolite.’ The party isn’t much fun anyway. ‘The occasion lacked lustre, if not lust, of an unkindled kind.’

Raphael is, of course, a compulsive aphorist. ‘Men remarry not to get new wives but to become new husbands.’ Sometimes his prose is so dense you wish you had a scythe handy. ‘Scholarship the spine that keeps him together, he is vertebrate with publications. His new book, on Propertius, bristling with bromides, requires a reader sufficiently dated to be scandalised by the no longer scandalous.’ He reminds me a little of Michael Bywater, another man whose mind seems to work more quickly than his ability to write it all down. Also, in his wordplay, of Clive James, although, being notoriously thin-skinned, he has no time for James, who is rude about Raphael’s TV programmes in the Observer. ‘Who is Clive James? I believe he has a beard; or once had one. He is, I think, Australian.’ Elsewhere he quotes Jonathan Miller’s comment to Tom Conti (who played the Raphael-like character in The Glittering Prizes): ‘You only missed one thing in your portrayal of Freddie: the pirhana-like ferocity of the man when crossed.’

His cahiers make no concession to anyone, least of all the reader, who might sometimes pray for a footnote or two. Raphael is not long on modesty, false or otherwise: you suspect that his ego, if not tethered with strong ropes, would float away over the horizon. But he is also the perfect unreliable narrator: bilious, vulnerable, chippy, bitchy, hypersensitive and brilliantly funny and inventive, with at least three or four outstandingly good jokes a page. Buy it and tell everyone you know to buy it, so we can have volume five in a couple of years’ time.