Books: A spat about terms

The Necessity Of Anti-Semitism by Frederic Raphael, Carcanet pounds 18. 95
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In Many ways, Frederic Raphael the critic would be the best person to review this anthology of essays by Frederic Raphael the writer. As it happens, a good proportion of them are reviews, principally of books, reprinted from a range of journals and periodicals. And they confirm that Raphael is a considerable cultural commentator.

Sharp in perspective - and often in tone - his judgment is almost unerringly sound (which may mean nothing more than that I agree with most of his estimations, even though some are conducted somewhat en cavalier, as Raphael himself might put it).

He is also constantly concerned to expose cant, wherever and whenever it appears. Indeed, the first offering in this provocatively titled volume is "An ABC of Modern Cant". Clearly, "cant," judging by the number of times he employs it, is one of Raphael's favourite words, almost certainly the favourite. There are others: "duplicity" is one, "quondam" another, and he is also very fond of "en tete," which is perhaps the most frequent example of his preference for the lofty, foreign phrase over the simple, direct statement.

This is part of the problem with this sprawling, amusing but ultimately indiscriminate collection of discriminations. Surely Raphael the expansive, articulate critic would come down hard upon Raphael the writer's obsessive use of certain terms, mainly for disparagement. The fact that this is so apparent here, and that there is a good deal of more general repetition - we are reminded at least three times, for example, of Namier's claim that the Jews do not have a history, only a martyrology - is testimony to the amorphous character of the book. Surely Raphael the discerning lecteur would rail at the editing which allowed this (and the occasional misprint and other slips and inadequacies).

As to that title (which renders the book dangerous to read on the Northern Line), Raphael makes it immediately clear that he is indulging in a spot of literary finessing upon Shelley's pamphlet on "The Necessity of Atheism", but the argument it supports, substantially in the title essay but extensively throughout, is actually one of the book's strengths.

Raphael is unsparing in attacking, not so much anti-Semitism itself, but the excuses for anti-Semitism. His technique in uncovering apology and evasion is forensic and irrefutable. There are several places - not just in relation to anti-Semitism - where he presents his evidence with a clear-eyed refusal to allow conventional pieties or politeness to mitigate the offence. This is when his prose is most elegantly sculpted.

As can be imagined, this makes for beautiful dismantling jobs. I particularly enjoyed, in this regard, his verdict upon Richard Sennett, author of Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilisation - "his intellectual hubris makes Oedipus look like a model family man with nothing to be ashamed of".

There is plenty of fine writing, too, beyond the invective sphere. An essay on the theme of nostalgia is an affecting combination of recollection and speculation, and another on Byron manages to be both fresh and scholarly. As might be expected, Raphael is consistently strong on philosophy. Most of the material in this area is personal, informative and entertaining. His comments on Heidegger, for instance, provide a masterly illustration of the discreet use of a literary red-hot poker.

But we are back with invective again and with the ad hominem technique often used by Raphael. Inevitably, this sometimes colours his judgment of the work in question, even though elsewhere he is singularly alert to the important distinction between the artist and his art. His failure to make this distinction fully in the case of T S Eliot - and to a lesser extent that of Evelyn Waugh - in my view leads him to make an unwarrantedly low evaluation of the writing. In a third case, that of Gore Vidal, he ties himself in knots rebutting a personal slight. (Mind you, if you are looking for a trio deserving of the ad hominem treatment, that of Messrs Eliot, Waugh and Vidal would be hard to beat.)

The Vidal essay reveals a more egregious failing in Raphael's style, that of attempting to hurl a petard with which he is already hoist. He says of Vidal that "his literary luggage is swanky with Latin tags". Quis separabit, Frederice? Similarly, he accuses Leavis of cultural name-dropping, gently upbraids Byron for "opinionated eclecticism", and disdains Joseph Losey's "need to condescend" - all cracks in his own mirror. And, with reference to Christopher Ricks's edition last year of Eliot's most negligible early poems, he refers to the "so-called 'spat' concerning Eliot's anti- Semitism".

Note the inverted commas around the word "spat," rather as if Raphael is holding it with tongs, or in the fashion in which Holden Caulfield's teacher held his essay in Catcher in the Rye - as if it were a turd. You would think that Mr Raphael would have no truck with such slang usage. And yet, for every effective and witty pun in this collection, you can find at least half a dozen grating attempts at hip or hot gossip.

Thus he declares that "the cant requires that Kant be mentioned"; tells us that, in Australia, a watched-for rare bird was a "no-show"; and that Dionysios "grooved into Europe from the East at about the time of Buddha's birth". I prefer "spat" any day.

That's what you get with this book: the full, inconsistent but generally toothsome flavour of Frederic Raphael. Arrogant, self-referential and inclined to hang around Pseuds' Corner, he is nonetheless penetrating, illuminating and stimulating. We need more like him.

But with his disposition to French life, perhaps he should seek out a chef de cuisine before embarking upon a similar venture in the future. Had one been available to pare down the ingredients of this rather indigestible stew, the result might have been a little minceur, but it could have been exquisite.