The charmed circle illusion

Frederic Raphael’s latest novel makes for a fascinating blend of social history and soap opera.

raphael (photo credit: courtesy)
(photo credit: courtesy)
NO OTHER WRITER I know of writes quite like Britain’s Frederic Raphael; nor, I suspect, would they dare to even if they wished to do so.
Much of Raphael’s fiction – he’s published some 20 novels and five collections of short stories, in addition to essays, biographies, autobiographies and translations from the Latin and Greek – consists almost entirely of dialogue. But what dialogue! Almost every character invariably engages in badinage of the most brittle, biting, amusing and aphoristic sort – the sort most folks would delight in as canapés and find indigestible as an entrée.
Here, for example, is a character responding to the simple question, “How are you?” from the new novel under review: “My fettle seems to be fine for the time of year. Always allowing for a touch of the Gibbon, dear. Declining, but not yet falling, but never look too closely. As for you, your sere isn’t even yellow yet. How do you do it? No need whatever to say, but be warned, it will be taken down and used, pitilessly, as evidence against you.”
Or consider when a character is told he’s admired for his edginess: “I can be serrated when suitably primed, and seconded.” And then there is the Wildean, epigrammatic paradox: “We can’t always contrive also to dislike what we hate, can we? Or love what we like. Even when we like it very much.”
Such dialogue is served up on every page, in every paragraph, in every exchange in “Final Demands,” just as it was in the previous novels in this trilogy, “The Glittering Prizes” (1976) and “Fame and Fortune” (2007). The constant battle of witticisms seemed perfectly suitable to the fiercely competitive 1950s Cambridge undergraduates who peopled “The Glittering Prizes.” Twenty years on, in the second installment, as the characters became fiercely competitive media stars and political movers, their glibness, if not quite entirely forgivable, was similarly apposite.
Now in the late 20th and early 21st centuries of “Final Demands,” the crew qualify for senior citizen discounts – grown older but not entirely grown up, which makes their diabolically clever dialogue – what? Probably less probable than it ever was. But no less entertaining for all that.
Raphael believes in letting dialogue do the literary heavy lifting, leaving most description, scene setting, character analysis and such to the reader’s imagination. This approach has also served him well in other media, such as theater, TV, radio and film. Early in his career (1965) he won an Oscar for his screenplay “Darling.” Two years later, he earned an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for “Two for the Road,” and the same year he adapted Thomas Hardy’s “Far from the Madding Crowd.” Another high spot in his cinema career was his adaptation of an Arthur Schnitzler novel, “Traumnovelle,” for director Stanley Kubrick’s last film, “Eyes Wide Shut” (1999).
Raphael also adapted his “Glittering Prizes” as a memorable BBC TV series and the next two books in the trilogy for BBC Radio. All of these starred the wonderful Tom Conti as the trio’s central character, Adam Morris.
That central character is to Frederic Raphael what Nathan Zuckerman is to Philip Roth. Like Raphael, Morris graduates from Cambridge, becomes a novelist and journalist and wins an Oscar for his first film. In “Final Demands,” Morris notes: “I’m not a member of the London literariate. I almost am, which proves it. A mandarin who was very nearly a friend of mine said to me when I won the silly Oscar, ‘You’d better get used to the idea that your books will never again be judged on their merits.’”
This does and does not describe Raphael’s literary status. (Back in “Fame and Fortune,” Morris asserts: “Rembrandt’s self-portraits aren’t Rembrandt, are they?”) At age 79, Raphael not only remains prolific, he also consistently earns respectful reviews. But he is not an A-list novelist. Like Morris, he has no knighthood. Like Morris, he evidently thinks of himself as an outsider, resigned to such a position, perhaps even embracing it.
Adam Morris is also a most intriguing Jew of a sort that not a few of us will readily recognize. Morris experiences his Jewishness, as he says, like a pebble in his shoe. “A smooth one, straight from the brook Kedron. Identical with the one that smacked Goliath in the forehead. Nothing like them for rainy days.” Morris, in other words, is constantly aware of his Jewishness – but way down there in his sandal. The pebble is an irritant, but a useful and valuable one. Morris is a devout secularist and English to his fingertips, but will not let the slightest anti-Semitic remark pass without rebuttal. He’s a dedicated Diasporan, but he defends Israel. He’s as tribal as they come, but neither his wife nor his children are Jewish. He’s tremendously interesting.
So are the many plotlines of “Final Demands.” As we whirl through the Thatcher, Major and Blair years, Raphael keeps his many plates spinning. Former radicals become reactionaries, strivers get rich, marriages dissolve, scandals occur, folks run foul of the law, the literati wage war on one another, academics and intellectuals practice their arcane arts. For Morris these years mean flitting from one panel discussion to another literary festival, from one script conference in Los Angeles to a teeth-rattling interview with a Kubrick-like director in France, from a visit to an old tutor back in Cambridge to involvement with financial schemes orchestrated by Morris’s younger and fabulously successful accountant brother Derek. And there’s always the wife and their grown-up kids and their very contemporary problems.
Additional spice comes in the form of new characters who may or may not be based on real figures, such as the Jewish intellectual gadfly who very much recalls George Steiner. (“His work has been translated into 25 languages and is written in 18 of them.”) Or maybe this is self-parody. Raphael’s essays, such as “The Necessity of Anti-Semitism” (1989), can be so dense that readers may well cry out: Dialogue! Badinage!
In any event, “Final Demands” makes for a fascinating blend of social history and soap opera, although admittedly it will not be everyone’s cup of oolong. Even Frederic Raphael appears ready to admit this. Here’s how he has a sharp young literary agent describe Morris’s career: “You’ve spent – what? – forty years satirizing something grand and exclusive and supposedly highminded that simply doesn’t exist, not any more. In the hope of amusing, or even slightly vexing, an in-group of latter-day Bloomsberries that don’t read anything much beyond the F.T and P.I., and doesn’t go bull on culture either, if it ever did. The charmed circle illusion.”
Well, the charmed circle of characters in the Morris trilogy continues to charm this reader – and trilogy, I suspect, is a temporary term. “Final Demands” happily ends with a number of unresolved and even new problems. John Updike’s Rabbit managed to run to four installments. May we wish at least the same for Frederic Raphael’s Adam Morris?