Monday Books: Putting the knife into Stanley

FREDERIC RAPHAEL has already received flack for the New Yorker article which prompted this short, but hardly sweet, monograph of his working relationship with Stanley Kubrick. In 1994, Raphael was hired by Kubrick to work on Eyes Wide Shut, under conditions of paranoid secrecy. Kubrick would fax him pages of Arthur Schnitzler's Dream Story, with the author and title snipped away in case word got out that the director was pressing forward on his old project - an updating of the decadent fin- de-siecle tale by the Viennese-Jewish doctor who was a contemporary of Freud.

Raphael's characteristically waspish comments on Kubrick's anti-Jewish Jewishness have already brought howls of protest from certain quarters in the United States. Raphael naturally holds up his own Jewishness as permission to say what he likes. "With pitiless self-knowledge," he writes in this book, "Arthur Schnitzler once remarked `the eternal truth is that no Jew has any real respect for his fellow Jew, ever'."

In truth, Eyes Wide Open is more about that elusive feeling of "respect" than anything else - in fact, it's quite an elaborate and sophisticated meditation on the whole notion. Raphael feels that, although he respected Kubrick, this may not have been reciprocated. He was not, for example, invited on set when Eyes Wide Shut was made. Kubrick had completely dispensed with his services by that point.

Kubrick had his reasons. I don't get the impression - after reading Raphael's insightful but not brilliant comments on Kubrick's oeuvre, or his wrong- headed dismissal of films Kubrick liked, such as The Red Squirrel and Kieslowski's Dekalog - that Raphael is actually very good on cinema, despite a talent for scintillating dialogue. Perhaps Kubrick sensed this. And the way he harps on about himself as a classicist (with a scholarship to Cambridge) reminds me that a classicist will always misunderstand the Gothic. Despite a mathematical bent, there was much of the gothicist about Kubrick.

The fact is that Kubrick used Raphael simply to provide material. He was never remotely interested in the idea of a collaboration, a realisation that continuously rankles with the writer. Raphael is a proud man who often uses sharp-tongued invective to cover his morbid sensitivity. "I have the whore's consolation," he writes with an acid, languid worldliness that would have made Schnitzler giggle. "Whatever I am, he chose me."

But far from despising Raphael for laying his humiliations bare, as some have, I think he has done something brave and admirable. This is a well- written, slightly bonkers, but certainly lively book. Raphael gives precious insights into what it was like to work with Kubrick, with all its disorientating intensity. I grew fond of Kubrick despite his nebbish craziness, and even grew to see how his craziness made sense.

Raphael's liberal use of a mock-screenplay style to recall the Kubrick encounters is both witty and apposite, since it avoids a journalistic take on the experiences and gives a brisk real-time sheen to the exchanges. Kubrick's ability to talk only in questions, and never answer anything, grows slowly more exasperating as we proceed. One can see why Raphael grew so frustrated without really understanding why.

Kubrick was hiring Raphael like a plumber. He wasn't interested in him as a person. He slave-drove him into producing a hugely polished script which was then eviscerated and roughed-up for the final version.

All of which must be immensely galling to a man who once won an Oscar - unlike Kubrick himself. Darling, written by Raphael and directed by John Schlesinger, was one of the great British films of the Sixties (and recently championed by Camille Paglia in her season for the NFT). It won him an Academy Award: for one brief moment three decades ago Raphael was, to all intents and purposes, a peer of Kubrick's.

How things change.

Raphael's introduction to the new paperback of Dream Story is stripped of all residual peevishness, though it does remain coolly obsessed with middle-European Jewry. "Schnitzler neither denied his Jewishness nor asserted it," he writes. "Denial was demeaning; assertion led to self-deluding vanity." He could as well have been talking about Kubrick: his ambiguity about his Jewishness is more visceral, more American and less chatty than Raphael's endlessly reflexive European discourse. I think what Raphael really can't work out is whether he was being hired as a Jew - as a Jew, by a closet Jew, to de-Jew a Jewish novel.

Raphael may still think that maybe Kubrick failed to respect him, but I think he did, in his own very private and peculiar way. And I think that one day Raphael will realise it and learn to forgive him, and will realise that he did something of soaring worth. He got Kubrick to make one final film.