Sunday 22 July 2018

Going Up by Frederic Raphael

I hesitated over buying this book. I really get a kick out of reading biographies of screenwriters, and Frederic Raphael is one of the great British screenwriters: Nothing But the Best, Darling, Two for the Road, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Glittering Prizes.

But this first volume of his memoirs ends in the early 1960s, just before his career really gets started...

In the end I went for it, though, and I'm glad I did. It brings vividly to life a certain strata of English culture and society in the postwar years, and I found it fascinating. 

Memoirs are a mine field, because as we all know, memory distorts or fades. Not to be too self serving, but my own volume about working on Doctor Who, Script Doctor, works well because I kept diaries during those years, and they provided crucial source material for my book. I recorded incidents and dialogue exactly as they happened, when they happened. And that makes all the difference...

Frederic Raphael has done the same. In his early years he modeled himself on Somerset Maugham and this entailed observing life dispassionately and religiously writing up a detailed journal. Which proves priceless for Going Up (and hopefully for future volumes).

The title refers to 'going up' to university, in Raphael's case, Cambridge. To me this was one of the less interesting sections of the book, somewhat stopping the narrative flow and, I felt, leaving it rather becalmed by snobbery.

Raphael is never less than wickedly amusing in his observations, though —  "As a social climber, I have no head for heights" ...  "Envy and moral presumption are the twin propellers of journalism." 
And he's objective enough to be caustically self-critical. To fill his weekly column in a university magazine he soon begins attacking his friends. "I learned how easily journalism became a solvent of loyalties"

Anti-semitism is one of the key themes of the book, and it's shocking to learn how prevalent this was in British society after World War 2, when evidence of the Holocaust was just beginning to surface into public consciousness. 

As just one example, Raphael was deprived of a scholarship to Oxford because of the prejudices some evil bastards at Charterhouse, the private school he attended.

Frederic Raphael is such a great screenwriter that I was startled to discover he thinks of this as a reluctant sideline and sees himself primarily as a novelist. So it's only fair that I mostly illustrate this post with covers of his early novels.

But it's Freddie's deft and effective screenplays which really made an impression on me, and the cinema-related anecdotes are the bits of the book I was most hungry to read.

So I was fascinated by Raphael's description of how a chance viewing in a Paris cinema of the "asymetrical elegance" of Michaelangelo Antonio's movie L'Avventura "rekindled my interest in cinema."

However, on the same page of this book we are given a long anecdote in French which, if I want more than a ghost or a gist of it, will either have to be laboriously typed into Google Translate or read over the phone to a bilingual friend. Or I suppose I could learn a new language — I'm currently learning Spanish. 

But I wouldn't need just French and Spanish. Freddie also demands that the reader is fluent in Latin and Italian if they want to fully grasp what's happening in his book. 

Isn't this the most egregious form of snobbery? The kind where the writer is willing cut off his own art from a sympathetic, engaged and eager reader just to show how smart he is — and how ignorant they are?

It would have been a simple matter for the publisher to include a table of translations at the the back of the book. And, while they were at it, an index — which would have explained the mysterious Mr Gutwillig, and prevented numerous other characters from appearing and disappearing in the reader's comprehension like figures in a dense fog.

Nevertheless I'm looking forward, with sympathy, engagement and eagerness, to  Raphael's next volume of memoirs.

(Image credits: The colour cover of Going Up is from Amazon. The black and white cover is from BiteBack Publishing. Obbligato is from Mr Pickwick's Fine Old Books via ABE. Thank you, Mr Pickwick! The Limits of Love is from DP Paperbacks. The Earlsdon Way is from Penguin First Editions. The Trouble with England is from PsychoBabel & Skoob via ABE. Indmann is from Amazon. The L'Avventura poster is from CineMaterial, where they have a fabulous selection.)

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