Distant Intimacy: An object lesson in knowing when to quit

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Epstein is the one with the glasses, Raphael the one with the eyebrows.
  • Yale University Press
  • Epstein is the one with the glasses, Raphael the one with the eyebrows.
"Knowing when to quit—that, I'd say, is the name of the game."

Joseph Epstein wrote that in an essay called "I Like a Gershwin Tune." You can find it in his 1998 collection Narcissus Leaves the Pool. Like most of Epstein's personal essay collections, it was witty and erudite, and also warm. He considered subjects that seemed unworthy of consideration—naps, Anglophilia, the art of name-dropping, and in the case of "I Like a Gershwin Tune," the popular music of his youth—and gave them depth and substance.

I read them all. In the mid-90s he was my teacher, first in a college seminar with the deadly sounding title Fundamentals of Prose, and then in an independent study, which amounted to sitting in the cafe at Borders talking about books. Listening to him talk was like reading him, except that he listened to us and appeared to take our opinions seriously and wrote encouraging comments on our weekly essays. So of course I wanted to read what he had written, to find out what kind of person was sitting at the head of the seminar table.

(I guess I should say here that I lived in a happy apolitical undergraduate bubble then, and that, plus the fact that Internet search engines still sucked, shielded me from some of his other work, namely the essays in right-wing magazines such as Commentary and the Weekly Standard, and the notorious 1970 Harper's piece in which he wrote that he considered homosexuality a curse.)

It's been about 13 years since we've spoken, but I still go back to his essays sometimes. It's like visiting my old friend. But now that I've read his latest, Distant Intimacy, a collection of a year's worth of almost daily e-mails with the English writer Frederic Raphael, I sincerely wish he'd taken his own advice and quit while he was ahead. The Epstein in this book is not someone I'd care to know. He's small-minded and petty and bitter. He would have ended up on the dartboard my first postcollege roommates and I planned to set up in our apartment and decorate with portraits of our most-hated professors—well, if we'd ever gotten around to doing it.

In case you missed it
  • BBC
  • In case you missed it
We might have included Raphael as well, or at least made up some sort of drinking game involving his insufferable use of French phrases and gratuitous mentions of The Glittering Prizes, a BBC miniseries from the 70s about a group of Cambridge friends in the 50s for which he wrote the screenplay and upon which, apparently, his reputation rests. He also wrote Two For the Road, a great, wise movie about the dissolution of a marriage over the course of several road trips through France. Oh, hell, because of that, I'm disappointed in him too.

From a disinterested point of view (different from uninterested, a distinction Epstein taught me), Distant Intimacy is not a very good book. One of the joys of reading collected correspondence is the sense that you're snooping, because most letters were not intended to be read by anybody but the recipient. (See the excitement over the recent publication of Willa Cather's.) Epstein and Raphael always intended for their e-mails to be published.

The purpose of their project is never made clear, though the gimmick is that Epstein is in Chicago and Raphael is in London and that they've never met or even talked on the phone. (E-mail, such a novelty! Maybe in a few years, we'll get a book entirely made up of Gchats or Twitter DMs.) Epstein writes in the introduction that earlier he'd proposed a similar correspondence with John Gross, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, which would illuminate "the literary and cultural life of our respective countries, England and the United States," but that his correspondence with Raphael was much more personal.

These e-mails concern the following subjects: wives, children, money, the basis of their reputations as men of letters, the burdens of fame, their mutual Jewishness, their mutual scorn and hatred of Gore Vidal and Susan Sontag and Philip Roth and Vladimir Nabokov and Saul Bellow and pretty much every other writer or intellectual who is more famous than either of them, and saying nasty things about former colleagues who have just died. The Guardian did a Digested Reads version, which, unfortunately for everyone involved, isn't too different from the original.

Why, oh why, did they decide to do this? Why did Yale University Press decide to print it? (And, in deciding to print it, why didn't anyone bother to copyedit? Does nobody there know it's Annie Leibovitz, not "Leibowitz"? Especially Epstein, who in class lectured on the importance both of accuracy and of being well-informed?) Why did they want the world to know that they're a pair of bitter old men, unable to see the irony of passages like this one by Epstein?

I found what I had to say [in my Paris Review interview] so intolerably dull that I killed the interview. . . .The fact is that any allure that the Paris Review interviews had, ended with the generation of Evelyn Waugh. Who could possibly care what such writers as William Styron, Salman Rushdie or Joyce Carol Oates and other subsequent interviewees have to say about the so-called art of writing, or even the art of talking about oneself?

Why couldn't anyone have saved them from themselves? As Epstein himself pointed out all those years ago, there's definite value in knowing when to quit, instead of exposing yourself to the world as a cranky old man.

And (since we're getting all personal here), what about my damn memories? Was one of my favorite teachers from college, one of the few who actually appeared to see me as a thinking human being instead of a mere undergrad, really just as nasty and small-minded and backbiting as the rest of them (like the guy who stormed out of class because we were insufficiently impressed by his interpretation of Andrew Marvell's "The Garden")? Could someone be that much of a fraud? How could you sustain such a front through hours in the classroom and dozens of essays?

How I'd love to read a vintage Epstein essay on building a persona. (Isn't that what everyone does on social media now anyway?) His brilliance as a writer is to find depth and substance in things that most people assume are trivial. But instead he gives us crap like this, all surface and self-absorption for no purpose.

At one point, Raphael writes that "Roth did a clutch of good recentish novels, starting with American Pastoral, but nowadays he doesn't seem to know, or care, when he is turning out product." Yeah, he's right, Exit Ghost and Indignation aren't so great. But at least Roth knew when to quit.

Aimee Levitt writes about books every Friday.

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