Final Demands is the third volume in Frederic Raphael’s trilogy, which began with the publication of The Glittering Prizes in 1976.
Final Demands is the third volume in Frederic Raphael’s trilogy, which began with the publication of The Glittering Prizes in 1976. The second in the series, Fame and Fortune, did not follow until 2007; and showed a distinct shift in mood — a silting up of bitterness and disdain.
In The Glittering Prizes, Raphael was more tenderly ambiguous towards the ambitions of his characters. Perhaps this is because their obvious faults (and particularly those of his central character, Adam Morris) are so forgivable in the young. They are evidence of youthful insecurity: all that striving for effect, the exhausting and competitive badinage, the nervous one-upmanship, the pretentiousness, the chippiness. Adam’s hypersensitivity about his Jewishness (as another character points out, he’s always the first to bring it up) is particularly touching: it is obvious that he is unsure not only how much or how little it might mean to others, but how much or how little it means to him.
When undergraduates are not pretentious, they are often would-be ironic — undercutting their own over-reaching. Their brand of cynicism is as naive as credulity. Just down from Cambridge, Adam’s film-making friends, Mike Clode and Bruno Lazlo, want to make ‘a film that says it all about the futility of London — ambition and success and money.’ ‘All the things we want,’ as Adam points out.
The hypocrisies of the young are more ebullient and more poignant than those of middle age. By Fame and Fortune, Adam has the fame and the money; and has sold out. He is still chasing after the false gods he satirises — ‘the shit at the end of the rainbow’, as his youthful self blithely put it. He has an Oscar, and an adoring wife; yet success is always ‘something that happens to someone else’.
Dead-sea fruit, or sour grapes? The novel’s attitude towards fame and fortune is mixed. Adam squanders his talents writing lucrative screenplays; yet the novel does not quite condemn him, for false values are all his socially and morally claustrophobic world seems to know. (Even in The Glittering Prizes, none of Adam’s contemporaries apparently subscribe to the most radical of all adolescent naiveties — the idea that one’s life might be best spent Doing Good. Even Dan opts out only because he wants his life to be ‘ordinary’.)
Fame and Fortune brings Adam Morris into the Thatcher years; yet there is little sense of the extraordinary optimism of that era. It was a time in which a grocer’s daughter could become prime minister, barrow-boys become millionaires, and everyone, apparently, became ‘aspirational’, if only in aspiring to own a house. The copybook gods of sub-prime mortgage have now taken revenge on such hubris; but despite all the new-money vulgarity and the intellectual affectations, there was something at least ambiguously exciting about those times.
In Fame and Fortune, however, all worldly aspirations are merely despised, albeit eagerly sought after. Many of Raphael’s intellectually privileged characters have been to Cambridge; most of them, nonetheless, aspire to become ‘media celebrities’; and they almost all converse in the same way — a relentless josh-and-joust, like a media-world version of Elizabethan ‘vaunt-and-taunt’ rhetoric (as a genre, it rapidly becomes just as unrealistic and indeed monotonous). The puns seem kneejerk, and Adam weary even of himself. The sour tang in this novel savours of both envy and self-distaste.
In Final Demands Adam’s world is even more enclosed. The two characters who, in The Glittering Prizes, broke free from the media rat-race, Dan and Joyce, who actually lived in a cottage, even on weekdays, got by on a schoolmaster’s salary, and had no television, are now securely back in the fold. Dan is a successful actor, Joyce a ubiquitous television presenter. There are some new characters. There is a literary agent called Terry Slater, for example; but he too says things like, ‘You’re still knocking discreetly on a cardboard door that’s got “Come In and Help Yourself” written all over it.’ Slater is thoroughly symptomatic of the novel — a blank slater. He has lips that are ‘tight, carefully amused, and pink. They seemed to promise a limited edition of intimacy.’
A ‘limited edition of intimacy’ is what we get throughout much of this novel. Constricting self-consciousness governs Adam Morris’s relationship with his creator. He is, of course, not Frederic Raphael; but the similarities are too manifold to ignore. This makes a reviewer self-conscious too. Every single thing that one might want to say against Adam is second-guessed in this book, said either by Adam himself, or by a chorus of those media characters whose conversations sound increasingly like resonances in Adam’s head — the solipsistic Ordeal of Adam Morris. Their jeering aphorisms have the nightmarish quality of imagined repartee inwardly replayed and buffed up in the small hours, endlessly saying things like ‘The moving finger writes, and having writ, does a bit more of the same, only rarely as good.’ They give voice to carking self-doubt: ‘You should write something on a subject that liberates you to say what you really think and feel, full throttle’ (but of course this criticism is itself part of the carapace of self-consciousness that inhibits his creator). And they hideously caricature Adam’s worst mannerisms: the sesquipedalian, bullying showiness (embodied in the steamrollering author Samuel Marcus Cohen); and the appalling tendency to interrupt other people’s introductory sentences with punning twists upon mere locutions (in the egregious Australian talk-show host, Alan Parks).
In The Glittering Prizes, Adam is consistently shown getting such repartee wrong. He is rude, but naively so: ‘He expected to be liked for saying that kind of thing.’ In Final Demands, however, Adam still seems incapable of understanding how irritating it is to interrupt his agent, who rings up saying, ‘I had Connie Simpson on the telephone’, with the smart riposte, ‘You’ll never make the gossip columns that way. Try having her on the kitchen floor. Many have apparently.’ It is a clear indication that he is not interested in whatever Jason has to say. He may be signalling disdain for Connie; but it does not occur to him that he is also being obnoxious to the man on the other end of the line. We cannot understand the language of others at all unless, as Empson once remarked, we are ‘always floating in a general willingness to understand it.’ Adam never, ever floats: he is always flailing — not drowning, but (‘look at me!’) waving.
Yet there are unexpected moments of drowning too, which are brilliantly done, and genuinely moving. In Fame and Fortune, when Adam’s son Tom, who had been brainwashed by a religious cult, returns home, Adam is shown out of his depth; not so much ‘full throttle’ as throttled by emotion.
In Final Demands, too, a few tremors of insecurity do break through Adam’s stifling egotism, in which even self-blame becomes a form of self-regard. It is not his family that manages it. Readers of the trilogy will long ago have given up any hope that Adam’s wife, Barbara, will puncture his self-absorption. She long ago became an appendage to his ego. Her mild criticisms of him are only echoes — an ‘under-lay, or cuckoo-spell’ — of those which Adam directs at himself. Even in this novel, younger women still throw themselves at Adam (who still has a full head of hair and no liver-spots on his hands), while he implicitly congratulates himself on remaining faithful to his wife. There is, unfortunately, as little chance of her being unfaithful to him as there is of Barbara cuckolding Tom Good in The Good Life.
Adam’s son has faded into the background. Tom Morris has married the grand-daughter of a Nazi — who is less a character than an all-too convenient novelistic peg for Adam’s hang-ups. His daughter, Rachel, tests him in other ways, with her complicated love life. (Yet when Joyce contemplated abortion in The Glittering Prizes, her decision was more absorbingly rendered than Rachel’s). Rachel’s relationship with a brilliant drug-taker provides an elegant demonstration of an addict’s destructive self-absorption; but Rachel remains so coolly in control, with a sort of intelligent selfishness, that neither Adam nor the reader fears for her.
The sudden death of one of his old friends, in his presence, shows Adam at his most unlikeable. Raphael brilliantly conveys the sheer shock of the accident; yet in Adam the death provokes only the reaction ‘I feel as if ... I don’t know, I missed something.’ This is his inadequacy: that inadequacies in himself seem more important to him than the death of a friend he always thought of as ‘a kind of joke’.
But intimations of mortality creep under Adam’s guard. There is a deer hit on the road; there is the figure of Anna, the once-brilliant undergraduate who became an alcoholic bag-lady, and is now dying — a memento not only of death but also of genius beyond celebrity. There is a terrifying encounter in an underpass; and a truly superb description of Adam leaving his doctor’s consulting rooms in a London now ‘brighter, more interesting and more menacing.’
He walked, like a rehearsing ghost, through a world that had no notion of his fear. The indifference of other people passed for a reprieve from a sentence that had yet to be handed down. He sat in the train like a secret agent, enlivened by the fear of detection and by affectations of indifference. It was a silly achievement to choose to act in a way that excited not the smallest remark.
At such moments, ‘affectations’ and ‘silly achievements’ are suddenly touching; and the old Adam of ‘apprehensive arrogance’ briefly walks again.