Monday, April 22, 2013

`To Give Pleasure Is a Fine Thing'

“So few of our putative great writers have been able to dig out from under the debris of their own egotism to discover larger themes.” 

One of the pleasures of writing and reading private correspondence is the refuge it affords honest thought. Faux-sensitivity is pandemic and seldom shy about publically imposing its strictures on the private realm. The sentiment above is self-evident but probably should be uttered with some degree of caution. Only family and trusted friends are likely to offer sanctuary for truth-telling. Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet (Yale University Press, 2013) collects a year’s worth of emails exchanged by two friends who have never met nor spoken to each other – Joseph Epstein, the American essayist and man of letters, and Frederic Raphael, the American-born English novelist and screenwriter. Together they puncture such overinflated reputations as Gore Vidal, Susan Sontag, George Steiner, Edward Said and J.K. Rowling. Of the latter’s best-known creation, Epstein writes: “As for Harry Potter, I dislike the little fucker intensely.” Now that’s my idea of literary criticism. 

The judgment at the top is written by Epstein in response to Raphael asserting that “one could compose a pitiless anthology of what will be left of our literary giants, once time’s erosions have worked on them for a few centuries.” Hemingway he distills into “`Grace under pressure’ (the primal scene revisited?).” Between friends, profanity and irreverence can assume their rightful place. In reply, Epstein says Papa was “a stupid man, deeply prejudiced and vastly self-deceived, with a talent for lyrical description but not much else.” As Raphael wrote earlier: “I am not very ashamed of a certain kind of malice, as long as it comprises accuracy.” That characterizes much of Distant Intimacy – accurate malice, much of it pun-filled and very funny. One doesn’t have to agree with every critical conclusion. Both are wrong about Saul Bellow, Philip Roth and Kingsley Amis, but one feels no offense. Even their missteps amuse. Here’s a common-sensical Epstein sampler drawn from the book: 

On recent fiction: “My general line is that our great contemporary novelists have abandoned the great themes in favor of declaring `Look at Me! I’ve just had a fucking epiphany!’” 

Of Sir Walter Scott, whom he calls “a genuinely dear man,” Epstein writes: “He also had a true novelistic sensibility, and understood that nothing pleases so much in literature as the creation of solid characters and that facts always come before ideas.” 

After describing the pleasure he takes in reading the stories of the wonderful Francis Wyndham, Epstein says: “To give pleasure is a fine thing, n'est-ce pas? Some of the writers dearest to me -- Max Beerbohm, Sydney Smith -- are minor writers. Proust may have set out to be a minor writer but somehow slipped off the track and became almost in spite of himself, capital M Major. I wonder if I mayn’t be a minor writer myself, though I may write too damn much to qualify.” 

And here, a tour-de-force of invective on a favorite Epstein theme: “I happen to think the writing of poetry in our time has descended to the level of stamp-collecting or acquiring antique cars -- it is, in other words, not much more than a hobby in which only fellow collectors (or, in the case of poetry, fellow scribblers) are in the least interested…But in the end it all means nothing, nada, zilch, because, to play upon the words of the federale in Treasure of the Sierra Madre, no-one needs their stinking poems. Because, too, with a few notable exceptions – Larkin is the only one I can think of at the moment – no-one not in the poetry biz can cough up a single line or phrase from a poem in the last half century.” 

If the prospect of spending a few hours in the company of two smart, well-read, worldly, plain-speaking, enthusiastically funny friends sounds attractive, please read Distant Intimacy. You’ll laugh and you might, for a moment, entertain the hope that literary culture is not quite extinct.

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