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"Against the Stream": Frederic Raphael's new volume begins in 1981, when the author is at his height

When Frederic Raphael applied to Cambridge, he wrote at the top of the first page of his essay, “Art is one of the four things that unite men.” (Turgenev). Years later he said, “I didn’t know anything about Turgenev. I didn’t know what the other three things that united men were. One of them, you can depend on it, is anti-Semitism.”

This is pure Raphael. Smart, funny and absolutely honest about anti-Semitism. You can almost hear the lines being spoken by Tom Conti as Adam Morris in The Glittering Prizes, the 1976 BBC drama that made Raphael a household name.

Against the Stream, the latest volume of Raphael’s series of diaries, Personal Terms, begins in 1981, just a few years after The Glittering Prizes. Raphael is at his height. He had written several very successful screenplays, numerous TV dramas and almost 20 novels. He had a place in the Dordogne, another on a Greek island and a home in South Kensington. The 1960s and ’70s had been kind to Raphael.

Some years later, a critic asked, “Does anybody talk these days with the nervy brilliance and bite of the characters in a Frederic Raphael novel?” The obvious answer is yes, Frederic Raphael does. Against the Stream is full of those clever lines. “Her benevolence is without remorse,” he writes of Shirley Williams. “Deprived of the ‘Y’ in my typewriter,” he writes, “I am like a runner with a small, sharp pebble in his shoe.” “Success,” he writes, “leads some people to put on weight; [Michael] Frayn has put on height.”

It is a book full of bite and feline gossip. Someone tells him they have got Arnold Wesker to write the script for a movie. “‘Well,’ I said, ‘all you need now is someone to do the rewrites’.” Anthony Burgess “treats homosexuality with a coarseness that makes cardboard out of flesh.”

There are some people who clearly fascinate Raphael. He writes with real insight about George Steiner, who, he writes, “never fails to carry his puncture kit; most people’s are to repair punctures, his vocation is to deliver them.” But there’s real admiration for Steiner — for his erudition, of course, but there’s a kind of affection too. One reason, surely, is that Steiner, like Raphael, was one of those Jews who wasn’t afraid to talk honestly about anti-Semitism and the Holocaust at a time when hardly  anyone in Britain did. “I’m actually an extremely timid person,” he once said. “But to be a Jew in the 20th century means knowing that the opposite of cowardice is not courage. It’s doing what you have to do.”
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