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Seasoned recipient of the glittering prizes – a phrase that now belongs to him – Frederic Raphael is one of the few serious novelists to have won an Academy Award for a screenplay: or, to put it another way, one of the few Academy Award winners to have written a serious novel. But his Oscar for the screenplay of Darling, and his national fame in Britain as the author of one of the all-time hit dramatic TV serials (yes, it was The Glittering Prizes), should not be allowed to obscure the fact that his daunting facility in the larger forms is based on his meticulous craft in the shortest form of all, the aphorism. The author of Some Talk of Alexander, a monumental overview which takes in the whole of the ancient Greek world from a position on Olympus, has made some of his most treasurable effects a few words a time.
This gift for compression shows up most conspicuously in the diary volumes he occasionally issues under the general title of Personal Terms, published by Carcanet. Apart from a pertinent introductory book review preserved in the second volume, The Benefits of Doubt, most of the tiny pieces I have chosen here come from the third volume, Cuts and Bruises. Simply to have said of the Hollywood mogul Peter Guber that he “sat very energetically” would be enough to prove an aphorist’s qualifications. A longer stretch, about Andre Gide, from the same volume is added to show another aspect of the continuing work’s many fascinations. Opinions about modern history and politics tend to be worked inseparably into the texture of the prose. Always the most acute analyst of the position of the Jewish intellectual in modern British society, Raphael often, in his diary, does what a diary usually doesn’t do, and goes back to write a memoir. His diary-borne recollections of what his undergraduate career was like in Cambridge are penetrating in detail far beyond anything achieved by any of the rest of us who have ever tried it, and collectively they provide a useful follow-up to his memoir of childhood, A Spoilt Boy (Orion), which needs to be read entire, and not in fragments. It is no denigration, however, to call him a modern master of the fragment.
Frederic Raphael would have been valuable if he had written nothing else except criticism – see especially his works on Byron and Somerset Maugham – but I think this other sideline, as a writer of highly compressed reflective prose, might prove in the long run to be an even better demonstration of how an artist can think continually and rewardingly in terms of aesthetic judgment, moral value and the unpredictable interactions of human character. Proust’s great novel is a fiction essentially made of critically factual remarks, and Frederic Raphael has much of that same rare quality. Another rare quality, for a man of letters, is his generosity, shown here in the introduction he wrote for the belated re-issue of In Love, the wonderful lost novel by Alfred Hayes. Excerpts from that novel are appended.