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Art is like love and love and is like luck


Not settling for mediocre in the arts
Frederic Raphael Writer
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[Q] It occurs to me that an art critic, whom you might have quite a bit in common with, also on Web of Stories, is Brian Sewell.

Yes, I don't know Brian Sewell. I know Bill Packer who's a very different animal. I have problems with Sewell because I think that his defence of Blunt was deeply disingenuous and I suspect that we might get to that at some point, a little bit too soon. I mean, he suggested that Blunt should be left alone on the grounds that he was an old gentleman who needed to be left in peace. Is Max Clifford an old gentleman who deserves to be left in peace? Was Jimmy Savile and old gentleman? I mean, I don't know at what point you deserve to be left in peace. Because what you have actually done, consciously and deliberately, was a few years ago now and also, you'd sooner not be reminded of it. People don't seem to need to be left in peace about the centuries they scored on their first test match against Australia. It's odd, isn't it, that we're supposed to leave certain people are dispensed from being criticised because of whatever suits Mr Sewell to say, but other people not. I think he's quite a smart fellow, Sewell. But he's not... he's not the kind of lemon I want to squeeze on my salmon, I don't think.

[Q] He'd certainly share your views on the Chapman brothers and the nonsense that...

Well, yes, I mean... but that's because, I mean, any man who halfway loves what he's been involved with all his life is going to notice these things. I mean, I noticed there's a woman called – are we still running? – a woman called Alice Munro who won the Nobel Prize. Oh, the Nobel Prize. Oh, what a great writer. Don't you wish you were as good as she was? So I thought, yes, I'll have a little look at this. So I...my wife, I think, was reading her short stories. So I picked up this woman's short stories – have I said this before? – and I noticed, first of all, that it said, 'He was going to go to England' – semicolon – 'but he died instead. Now, shall we have a little look at the use of instead there? Because, of course, he didn't intend to go to England and die instead. He intended to go to England; but he died, is the correct assertion. 'Instead' adds nothing except the idea that it was a substitute. But it was not a substitute. It's what prevented him doing what he intended to do. That is not the same thing. Later on I read, she was driving somewhere or other, not in a desert or anything and 'her mouth felt like a tundra'. A tundra? I had to go and look up the dictionary in case a tundra was also some kind of affliction of the lower lip, which I wasn't aware of. No, a tundra is one of those tumbly, thorny things that are on deserts. Now, I would like to ask the members of the panel to imitate what it would feel like or look like to have a mouth like a tundra. What? What? The answer is, she didn't have a mouth that felt like a tundra. And if she did have a mouth which was swollen, uncomfortable or anything else, through her head did it go the thought: oh, it feels a bit like a tundra actually? No. It's just bollocks. It didn't feel like a tundra. What she decided to do, Miss Munro, in very, very dull prose, is suddenly to say: I know what I'll do. A salt shaker!  Put the salt on it! Look at that! Like a tundra. Fabulous. Am I a writer? Should I have the Nobel Prize? Why not? And the answer is, you have it sweetheart. That's fine. After all, Canadians, it's their turn to have a Nobel Prize. You got it. If you think I'm going to read your deeply dull short stories because you got the Nobel Prize, I'm not. I'm not. Because it's no good.

There are perfectly good ways in which one can test whether one wants to be bothered with things any more. People who love music do it all the time. And doubtless people who love all sorts of other things do it all the time. In writing, we know very well when it's being properly done. And one's job as a writer, by the way, is not never to write, 'He was going to go to England; but he died instead', it is never to let somebody else read that you've written that. In other words, one of the beauties of age as far as a writer is concerned is – back to Casals – we may not write with the same pristine verve, we may not any longer imagine that we're going to write the great English blah-blah-blah, or the great American thingamabob, or the world-beating bump. But we do know what won't do. And my image always is of carpentry, which is quite close to writing prose. You run your fingers over the surface of the thing you've just sanded or polished and there's a little snag. Now, the first time you do that you may think, oh, no, it's nothing. It's just a bit of fluff on the... on the surface. You do it again and you feel the thing at the same particular point – there's something wrong. If you now say, 'Agh!' then you're not an artist. If you say... well, you're getting there. It doesn't make you an artist, but it doesn't actually mean that you don't even know what it is to sit correctly, do your work. That's what you have to do.

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: Nobel Prize, Brian Sewell, Alice Munro

Duration: 5 minutes, 45 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2014

Date story went live: 10 September 2014