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In pursuit of precision


Art – telling the good from the bad
Frederic Raphael Writer
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There isn't anything worse than death, as long as it comes quite quickly. I mean, I was knocked down in the street the other day, well, a month ago or so, crossing Gloucester Road to go to the post office, with the lights, no traffic, bold and brave as ever. Off I stepped from the hither shore to reach the thither, but I never got there because I was knocked down by a lady riding a bicycle, coming round the corner from the Cromwell Road. How she hit me, it required skill. I'm crossing the road. There's nobody else crossing the road. There isn't any traffic. And whack! She comes into me and bonk, I'm down on the ground. Now if I'd been dead and down on the ground, that would've been quite comic, wouldn't it? Crossing the road, knocked down by a bike? No, actually, I wasn't dead. I wasn't even very badly injured. But I sort of think if death comes like that, that won't be very terrible. For me.

And William Boyd, whose father was a doctor when Sarah died, he and his wife – a debt of gratitude we shall always owe – came round that day and spent all day with us in this room. And Will Boyd said, 'I understand how you feel and that you feel. Not that I understand what you feel. But just allow me to say that what you're sorry for is not Sarah. It's very understandable, what you're sorry for is you'. It's not entirely true, though it was certainly something to bring one to order. Because I have to say that as far as Sarah's concerned, the work she didn't do... she did a huge amount of work, an unbelievable amount of work. Painters are extraordinary. She did wonderful work and practically none of it is not of the first order, mainly because she destroyed things. But it's terrific. But I do think of the work she could now be doing. And that – well, perhaps it's not quite true but it's a bit true – that brings the lump to my throat more than being sorry that I don't actually see her. Her children are remarkably talented at drawing. Again, I don't know why, but they are. And they reflect aspects of her, but they are not Sarah.

I had a feeling with Sarah that I understood what art was in a general kind of generic sense. I... the sense we both had of the work was very similar. I mean, maybe she learnt some of it from me – it would be odd if she hadn't learnt anything, but it was her own thing. And that rapport – because I don't know many people in the arts – is something I miss, God help me, quite as much as I miss, so to speak, having dinner with her. We understood each other. She would come into my room in France and say, 'Got time for a chit-chat'? And you know, I always did. I don't have time for a lot of chit-chat in the mornings. But with Sarah – she was only there for a while – I always did. She just had a sort of dignity about the work which was implacable. And one of my favourite stories is, she went to a show done by a friend of hers, a painter, and he said to her, what do you...what do you think of the work, Sarah? And he...and she said, oh, it's really nice. I really like it, really like it. And he said, no, no, really. What... I really would be glad if you would tell me what you think. And she said, Oh no, really, I... it's... really, really nice show. I'm glad it's going so well. And he said, Sarah, I want you to tell me what you really think. And she said, why isn't it finished?

Now there's an old glib saying about no work of art is ever finished, it's only abandoned. But the glib answer to that is, 'And yours looks like it was abandoned'. And our job, as writers, as painters, as musicians or whatever, is it should not look as though we just stopped. It should look as though we finished. And John Carey can paddle about with his silly little canoe up and down the same stupid creek that he's been in for 50 years and I don't give a shit what he's got to say and I don't give a shit what Waldemar Januszczak or whatever it is has got to say. He sent Sarah's daughter and me to see a show at the Serpentine Museum by two people called Chapman, brothers. They are now called, in my private vocabulary, the Chap chaps. And Annie and I went up there. She'd just got a First in Art at the City and Guild. We schlepped up there because this fucking little Polack tells us that we've got to go and see this show. His article, I need hardly tell you, contained more cliché's even than a secret agent's memoirs. We go up there and it's all what my mother again, using the Yiddish which she would never have been caught speaking in unmixed... or in mixed company, would call shtuss. Yiddish has a particular selection of extremely opprobrious terms. And you know what shtuss is and I know what shtuss is and that's...when it's shit, it's shit, isn't it? I mean, shtuss. It's better than shit. It's, kind of, shtuss.

This show was hopeless. Hopeless. I mean you wouldn't have... If somebody had said to you, I'm so glad to see you here, Mr Raphael. After all, you are my favourite writer if not the greatest writer who's ever lived. Why don't you take something home with you? The answer would be, I'll take what you've just said but that'll do. There was nothing you wanted. Crappy little pieces of made-up shtuss. So I wrote to this man, Waldemar Januszczak or whatever his name is – I never trust people with more than... you know, four vowels in a row seems too many in a name to me. Anyway. I'm... who knows who he is; doubtless a very good little man. I wrote him a letter, quite polite actually, pointing out that he uses a great many clichés, and itemising what they were – but he would want me to do that in order to improve his English – and also saying that the Chap chaps was a load of shtuss and why on earth did my daughter... my granddaughter and I schlep all that way, because he told us it was really the leading example of modern English art. I did not use any offensive terms. I was a bit British, I admit, in the way in which I spoke to this gentleman. But he didn't answer my letter. I don't think that you cannot answer a civil letter. I think if somebody writes and says, You slimy little Polack, why don't you go back to wherever it is – that you don't have to answer, I grant all that. Kubrick didn't use to answer letters. Oh, there's a wonderful story about Kubrick.

Born in America in 1931, Frederic Raphael is a writer who moved to England as a boy. He was educated at Charterhouse School and was a Major Scholar in Classics at St John's College, Cambridge. His articles and book reviews appear in a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times and The Sunday Times. He has published more than twenty novels, the best-known being the semi-autobiographical The Glittering Prizes (1976). In 1965 Raphael won an Oscar for the screenplay for the movie Darling, and two years later received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Two for the Road. In 1999, he published Eyes Wide Open, a memoir of his collaboration with the director Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's final movie. Raphael lives in France and England and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1964.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: William Boyd, Sarah Raphael, John Carey, Waldemar Januszczak, Chapman brothers

Duration: 6 minutes, 56 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2014

Date story went live: 10 September 2014