Every December Private Eye’s book pages feature the Frederic Raphael Memorial Prize, an award given to the writer who makes the most obscure or pretentious selection as their Book of the Year. In 2012 the honours went to Raphael himself. The book he had chosen was Richard Seaford’s Cosmology and the Polis: The Social Construction of Space and Time in the Tragedies of Aeschylus, a scholarly account of the role of ritual and money in the development of the Greek city-state. It’s unlikely to trouble Fifty Shades in the Kindle charts, and is a perfectly reasonable choice for an accomplished classicist. Why the sniggering?
Raphael does tend to brag, but then he has plenty to brag about. He’s very clever, very accomplished and very successful, and if not quite a national treasure he’s something much rarer in our culture, and to be valued more – a national asset. He also beats Lord Gnome at his own game, referring drolly in the first of the emails he exchanges with Joseph Epstein, now published in Distant Intimacy, to a recent appearance in ‘the TLS international show-off selection’.
Joseph Epstein is Raphael’s match in intellectual range, verbal dexterity and ironic self-promotion, and among this marvellous book’s many pleasures is a chance to acquaint ourselves with a fine writer who deserves greater recognition in Britain. Both men are American, Chicago-born, and both are secular Jews. I mention this because