Frederic Raphael intrigues me. Though I don’t think I’ve read any of his nearly 20 works of fiction, I relished his TV series The Glittering Prizes, as well as his Oscar-winning screenplay for Darling and his Far from the Madding Crowd. His occasional journalism, replete with Latin tags and sometimes entire, un-translated passages in French, Italian or Spanish, is always rewarding. Of course there’s something swanking about this, but it’s also flattering to the reader in assuming you can cope with as many tongues as the writer, who was a classicist at Charterhouse and St Johns Cambridge, and also got a 2.1 in Moral Sciences.
Why did I buy his just-published chunk of autobiography, Going Up: to Cambridge and Beyond – A Writer’s Memoir? The truth is I don’t remember, but I picked it up and read it in two days. When I decided to write about it, I have to confess (surely there is a Latin tag for this) I came to sneer, but stayed to admire.
Like Raphael, I was born in America, though he is ten years my elder, and have dual nationality – though he was forced to choose on reaching the age when he became eligible for conscription, and opted to keep his US passport. The big thing we have in common, though, is being Jewish. And we seem to be Jewish in the same fashion, in the manner defined by his Cambridge contemporary, Sir Jonathan Miller, who says he is “Jew-ish,” viz., non-practicing and atheist.
What first startled, then annoyed me, about this longish volume, is its Jewish version of gaydar. Raphael finds antisemitism lurking behind every
personal slight delivered to him, every institutional practice that disadvantages him, every attitude that annoys and every word that rankles.
Born in Chicago to a mother from Kansas City and an Anglo-Jewish father who worked for Shell and moved the family to New York, in 1938 he considered he was “untimely ripped from Ethical Culture School, on Central Park West, and subjected to an English classical education, first at Copthorne, a Sussex prep school evacuated for the duration of the war to north Devon, and then at Charterhouse, near Godalming, Surrey.” We should all be so lucky.
Raphael’s first encounter with the antisemites, as he recounts it, was being barred from eligibility for a closed scholarship to Christ Church Oxford, because he’d written a letter complaining about an anti-Jewish remark made by the Provost of Guildford at a sermon in chapel at Charterhouse, and refused to apologise for it. Instead he won an open Major Scholarship in Classics to Cambridge. The headmaster of his public school “was advising me to renounce my mission to reproach the Christian world for iniquities visited on the Jews.” The trouble is that, as you read on, he gives every evidence of missionary zeal for just this project; and it grows tiresome despite the sharpness of his observation and the extraordinary detail with which he embellishes his accounts of his long ago pleasures and pains, from his travels, to meals, and conversations (in several languages). Was he keeping a journal at an age when most of us are still learning to read? How else can he remember the minutiae of those days long ago? He appears to have total recall even of business deals and script alterations to a degree that astonishes me, at least. (Several of his notebooks have been published – these no doubt contain the answers to my question.)
Early on he grumbles that, in summer 1945, his father’s old public school, St Paul’s, which had a “long tradition of admitting any number of Jews,” suddenly (and doubly disgracefully given the date), began to enforce a numerus clausus. “Non licet sed perpaucis Judaeis (none but a very few Jews allowed).” Protests were led by A.J. Ayer and Isaiah Berlin (himself an old Pauline). Before winning his £100 scholarship to Charterhouse, Raphael was rejected by Winchester, and is convinced that the grounds were the old, old story.
Antisemitism creeps in its petty pace from page to page of this memoir, but almost effervesces when his girlfriend (later wife, whom he calls “Beetle”) takes a job in the Cambridge Careers Office in order – remarkably, as this was the 1950s – to live with him, and discovers snide, repulsive anti-Jewish comments both in the letters of prospective employers and of the Cambridge referees.
Halfway through my reading, I began to feel that Raphael, if not showing signs of paranoia, was at least hypersensitive to the issue. He objects to Quentin Bell’s “hagiography” of his aunt Virginia Woolf, because Quentin (disclosure, we were on first-name terms) says Leonard Woolf (ditto) “spoke of Gentiles as ‘goyim’. I doubt whether any well-educated English Jewish family of the time used that term.” Huh? I wasn’t there then, but I’d be surprised if they didn’t use that Hebrew plural noun denoting all nations of non-Jews, despite its derogatory sense when used as a lexical item of Yiddish rather than Hebrew. And when Raphael complains about the scene on Stephen Daldry’s film The Hours where Leonard shouts at Virginia on the platform of Richmond Station, the stretched subtext is again antisemitism. I agree that the Leonard I knew wouldn’t have shouted, by the way.
Though it was nearly 20 years on, I spent my apprentice-writer late 20s and early 30s hanging out with the survivors of the Bloomsbury group, and a good deal of time at Cambridge, where I was researching the Cambridge Apostles (“a lifelong freemasonry that disdained publicity but had no aversion to intellectual and social preferment. The two Millers [Karl and Jonathan] could be sure of friends in high, and hiring places”) and Bloomsbury’s guru, the philosopher G.E. Moore (curiously one of the few Cambridge philosophers Raphael doesn’t mention).
In fact, Raphael and I knew or encountered a lot of the same people, from Noel Annan (who was my patron, and, married to a Jewish wife, counts as a philosemite in my estimation) to Moore’s disciple, the philosopher Casimir Lewy (Raphael just this once has a Jew-dar lapse, for Lewy and Levy acknowledged that they shared the same surname – and birthday) to Julian Jebb, Tom Maschler, Bernard Levin, Simon and Susan Raven, and enough others to cause me to feel that I know his world and even some of the places in it. Indeed we have a few friends in common.
But since I first spent a summer in Oxford in 1962, I have not heard a whisper of Jew-baiting (save for a deranged booby with a German name at the Kentucky high school I attended) or encountered more sophisticated antisemitism (except perhaps in an interview for a Rhodes Scholarship with the late Guy Davenport), and have definitely not detected it in the purlieux mentioned and frequented by Raphael. Where Raphael seems still to cringe a little on hearing the word “Jew,” I am more likely to boast of my paternal grandmother having the Unbroken Pedigree.
Is Raphael being chippie, or have attitudes really changed that much?
He confesses he had “small love” for his parents (“good manners had to cover for the small love I felt for them. I have never been interested in the reasons that analysis might have revealed to be behind my indifference”). This passage shows something of the cold fish quality that occasionally chilled this reader. On the other hand, who can resist a memoir that imparts so vivid a sense of place, and which takes the reader to so many interesting places including the antique sites of Greece and Rome? In places it becomes travelogue. Nearing the end of this 432–page book, I began to warm to its author, mostly for the elegance of his mordant prose, though the show-off use of un-translated gobbets of Romance languages includes an entire firm but polite and equally elegant conversation in French with the manager of a Paris cinema.
There are curious aspects to this autobiography, such as Raphael’s attractive uxoriousness. I suppose one difference between growing up in the 40s and 50s and becoming sexually mature in the 50s and 60s is being bypassed by the sexual revolution, but Raphael seems on this account to have had only one sexual partner his life long – and he is now a hearty 84. If so, this is a truly remarkable cause for – perhaps? – congratulation.
Finally, Raphael seems uncertain of the measure of his own achievement, and is disparaging about much of his work in television and on film-scripts. Perhaps he is displaying what Freudian analysts used to call “success neurosis.” This is unjustified. Frederic Raphael is certain to have an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and probably a secure, small place in the history of literature.