So we come to the end of the glittering prize-giving. Frederic Raphael's waspish hero has gone from 17 to 70 as the trilogy which began with The Glittering Prizes comes to its sparkling end. There is no Cambridge equivalent of Oxford's Brideshead Revisited. Perhaps we didn't have enough lords. Like My Friend Judas, Andrew Sinclair's roman à clef also set on the banks of the Cam, The Glittering Prizes was our downmarket equivalent to what a Raphael character refers to as "Weeviling Waugh".
These more low-rent undergrads went on to shine in literary London, films, television and academia. There was spiky Adam, novelist, scriptwriter and dead ringer for Raphael, down to the scholarship and Oscar; his brother Derek, richer and more Jewish; Mike, the wonderfully crass film director; and Aussie Alan the blunt broadcaster. They made a triumphant return in Fame and Fortune. Final Demands chronicles their last bows in the 1990s.
Ideally, all three books should be read with Tom Conti's beguiling voice in your ear. He played Adam Morris in the 1976 television series and in radio versions of the two subsequent novels. Raphael seems to write each novel and its script at the same time, and it shows in the dazzling dialogue. Page after page goes by with everything is in quotation marks. Characters polish their sentences carefully before utterance. Adam, while comforting his daughter, who has phoned to tell him of the death of her partner, finds himself at the same time editing lines of dialogue in a film script on his computer screen.
Yes, the puns based on Classical quotations can seem over, or super, the top, even if they purport to be ironic or to mock pomposity. But there is enormous satisfaction, rather like deciphering a tricky crossword clue, to the reader who recognises the passing Virgil reference. My Latin A-level was not entirely wasted.
To be critical, as are Raphael's characters, it has to be said that all that glisters here is not necessarily gold. "I make a molehill out of a Montaigne," is smart in an academic sort of way; "Jew-veenal" for "Juvenal" is juvenile. Given his erudition, Raphael will be particularly waspish when he notices that the dustjacket credits him with translating not the Satyrica but the Stayrica of Petronius.
The gloriously improbable dialogue can seem just improbable. Even a demented don is unlikely to remark "A well-shaped person in the pectoral department" to the father of the shapely woman in question.
Then, just when you feel you can't take yet another piece of italicised Italian wordplay, Adam is brought crashing down to earth with a very human crisis, such as a mugging, which makes him throw away the throwaway Latin lines. Yes, Raphael Major gets the prize, possibly for bravery in the face of the enemies of promise.