Personal strangers and intellectual compadres discover they have a lot to complain about.
This yearlong collection of correspondence between writers who have never met—novelist and essayist Epstein (Essays in Biography, 2012, etc.) and screenwriter/novelist/biographer Raphael (A Jew Among Romans: The Life and Legacy of Flavius Josephus, 2013, etc.)—reveals a blossoming intellectual romance between provocateurs who hold nearly everything but each other in contempt. They loathe Susan Sontag, Hannah Arendt, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and anyone associated with the New York Review of Books; they like Henry James, Proust, ballet, the Greeks, Maugham and Balzac. They weigh grievances on editorial politics and prices, nurse old wounds, and match each other point for point on English and American culture and which of the two is more Jewish. The bonds tighten on more personal matters: Epstein mentions an upcoming birthday, which happens to be on the day before the anniversary of Raphael’s daughter’s death; Epstein knows the feeling of dread, having lost a son of his own. Raphael is the verbal highflier, studding every sentence with arcane references and French phrases, against which Epstein’s casual erudition usually comes as a relief. Both score good lines. Raphael, on Edmund Wilson’s fight with Vladimir Nabokov over the latter’s translation of Eugene Onegin: “E.W. had only himself to blame when Pushkin came to Shovekin.” Epstein, suspecting a writer named Eric Korn is actually a Korngold: “No one of the Hebrew persuasion is named Korn; he must have had the nomenclatural version of rhinoplasty done on his name.” They see through the sham of modern culture but not each other; they are mutual enablers, never noticing that their puns get lamer, spite more stale and grapes more sour.
High-octane lit-chat served cold, heavy on the bitters.