The Art of Digital Correspondence

Two literary men who have never met exchange emails for a year. Worth reading? Yes, it turns out that this old fashioned idea still charms and delights in the digital age. Matthew Walther on the missives of Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein.

05.12.13 8:45 AM ET

Technology, Martin Heidegger argues in “The Thing,” cannot bring people closer together. In 7,000 words of characteristically abstruse prose, he takes radio, film, and television to task for bringing about what he calls “the restless abolition of distances” while failing to supply any corresponding sense of intimacy.

About technology, as with so many other things, Heidegger may have been wrong. Distant Intimacy, a collection of emails exchanged over the course of 2009 by Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein, suggests that familiarity and even friendship may be attained electronically by two writers who have never met one another. Here Raphael, the British novelist and screenwriter best known for The Glittering Prizes and Eyes Wide Shut, and Epstein, the engaging essayist and former editor of The American Scholar, correspond with all the ease and affability of a well-acquainted literary pair like Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford.

Raphael and Epstein are what one might call major minor writers. Where major writers grapple with one or two great themes, usually succeeding, occasionally falling flat, minor writers—major ones anyway—wander from subject to subject, distinguishing themselves through style. Raphael  has written film and television scripts, comic novels, memoirs, literary biographies; Epstein has produced hundreds of essays, some of them book length, about everything and everyone from divorce and snobbery to Maurice Bowra and Malcolm Gladwell. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in these pages we see them taking up the causes of their own favorite major minors. Raphael, for example, is very fond of Harold Nicolson, while Epstein seems to prefer Isaac Bashevis Singer to Flaubert.

'Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet' by Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein. 352 pp. Yale. $30.

Just as they are both effective partisans on behalf of writers they think neglected, as critics, both Raphael, an old TLS hand, and, especially, Epstein, American dean of the 4000 word essay-review, are well known for puncturing inflated reputations. In Distant Intimacy they are never more amusing than when in put-down mode. Who else but Raphael would dismiss the late Christopher Hitchens as “a lazy facile journalist who, I confess, bugs me only because he is a professor already at NYU or some such place near a good deli”? Who else but Epstein would write off George Steiner and Harold Bloom as “the Frick and Frack of Heavy Erudition’s Almanac”? What other pair of writers could engage in a tag-team trashing of “Hanabanana” Arendt, who slept with “Herr Professor Creepstein” (Heidegger) and “wasn’t really all that smart,” but whose “heavy-artillery German education impressed all the boys who had gone to City College on the subway with their chopped-liver sandwiches in brown bags”? Even when one disagrees with Raphael or Epstein’s assessments, it is impossible not to take delight in their joyful malice.

As one might expect in a collection of emails exchanged by two professional writers, much of this book is simply given over to the two men’s talking shop: commissions offered and accepted or rejected, editors bargained and compromised with, checks cashed. (There is even some discussion of who is featured when on Arts and Letters Daily.) Younger freelancers will drool at the rates obtained by these two old pros, and more experienced book chatters will nod sympathetically when Raphael writes of his frustration with the editors of Commentary, who ask him to explain a reference to Cyril Connolly for the benefit of the ignorant.

While Distant Intimacy is full of gags, crotchets, and throwaway judgments, all of them amusing, these emails are also the occasion for serious discussion of issues ranging from life and literature to death and anti-Semitism. Both men have buried a child and are increasingly conscious of their own impending mortality. (When these emails were originally exchanged Raphael was 78, Epstein 72). Both have also been the object of anti-Jewish bigotry, Raphael especially, as an English Jew attending boarding school before and during the Second World War. While neither man has made up his mind about the existence of God, both express their impatience with crowd-pleasing polemical atheism and appear to be respectful of those who are religiously observant, Jewish or otherwise. Epstein’s agnosticism strikes me as being a bit softer than Raphael’s, but both seem to accept Wallace Stevens’s dictum that in an age in which faith in God is impossible, faith in literature must take its place. Throughout, these weighty matters are examined candidly and wistfully, with the wisdom that only age and inwardness can bring.

This is a very odd book: a technological triumph achieved by septuagenarians, a parcel of sunshine delivered by curmudgeons, a book about work written by two men eligible for public pensions, a paean to friendship offered up by two chums who have never talked on the telephone. Raphael and Epstein may not prove that the art of correspondence as we know it will survive into the digital age, but they do prove that two writers who are insightful and witty in print can be equally insightful and witty online. A cause for hope, then.