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The treason of the clerks


The elegance of good art
Frederic Raphael Writer
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I'm not sure I knew much about Goya. I mean, I think I'd seen the Penguin thing in particular – the execution of the... the insurrection in whenever it was, 1802 I think it was, something like that. But when I went to the Prado, I went very quickly to see the Goyas and I was... I love the pessimism and the bleakness of it. It's an odd thing to say but that's how it was. I sort of thought this was the... what the Frogs call the vif du sujet. And talking of the Frogs, I later... I met a... this guy, Herb Oppenheim and he always had the Guide Michelin with him. And I was sort of introduced to the Guide Michelin by him and later on I bought the Guide. And one of the things which sticks in my mind – the Green Michelin which is the one which is the sort of tourist guidebook of the Prado and it has a note on Goya. And Goya lived, I think... 80 years anyway, I think. Whether it was... I hope it's more. Anyway. The first line of the French description of Goya was, 'Goya n'était pas précoce' – Goya was not precocious. And when I think back of my... on my juvenilia, which weren't unnecessarily much more juvenile, although they were fairly juvenile – I sort of think: thank goodness you don't have to be precocious to be – God save us – a genius.

Goya's early paintings – his early court paintings – were actually pretty, what my Italian film producer Joe Janni would call, nyah, nyah – people on swings and all the usual kind of Boucher stuff. And then the invasion of Spain by the French and the war that then took place – the repression of... by the French of the Spanish guerrillas, sponsored, of course, by the naughty British, provoked this kind of intense sense of tragedy. So, indeed, did the Royal... the Spanish Royal family provoke his sense of the absurd because they were a pretty odd looking lot and he depicted them, with incredible agility, as being... looking pretty crazed, actually. But they seemed not to notice that. That's quite a skill. The great thing about Goya was that he saw the horror and found a way of translating it into art. And when we went to live in Spain, which was not that long afterwards, in the... in the late 1950s, friends of ours from Andalucía went up to Madrid and they came back and Harry said, 'We're buying one of the last prints... set of prints of Goya's Caprichos, in his case, because they're not going to make any more. The plates are now getting so used that they're not going to print any more. But they have done one last printing and there are two or three sets of The Disasters of War which are left. And I thought you ought to know and perhaps you'd like to buy one'. Well, we were very poor when we lived in Spain. And I said, well, how much are they? And he said, Well, they're... they are actually, what, the equivalent of £110. In 1959, when you're broke, £110 is quite a lot. I dare say it's quite a lot now if you're broke, let's not joke about that. But nevertheless,  I said, well, how many are there of the... of The Disasters? He said, well, there are 84 prints, £110. So I had a kind of... I thought, we... I'll... we'll do it. I mean, Beetle and I thought, we'll do it. So we bought The Disasters of War for £110. And we still have them. I will not say where. And I looked at them a lot. I framed quite a few of them but they were so disturbing that it's very hard to live in the room with The Disasters of War. Like, a man, you know, with a prong through him, on a sharpened tree, and various other nice things. And, as Goya said with the incredible economy, Eso no es lo peor – this is not the worst.

Goya eventually wound up living in Bordeaux which is not far from where we live in the south west of France. I don't know whether he was a nice man or a nasty man. I don't care really. The work is fantastic. And he did prove that, actually, I mean, you can go on producing important work... important, I mean, excellent work until a very old age. And that begins to be a comfort as well as an inspiration. There was also a, sort of, very great irony in him. Great irony. And also a kind of indifference to whether people liked him, which grew with age. It's much easier with age to not worry about whether people like you. Because, quite candidly, you know, nobody can do much to me anymore. I mean, they can hurt my feelings, they can abuse my work, they can be unpleasant, do all sorts. Basically, what are you going to do? And that's what you feel about Goya as he goes through his life. He gets bolder and bolder. So did Philip Roth up until a certain point, and then some limitation kicked in, in my opinion, which made him sour rather than rare. The... a lot of the later books I liked a lot but I didn't like all of them. There's something crude there which... I don't like crude. I like... I like... I suppose – it's the Sephardic in me – I like to slide the sword in so cleanly that the beast doesn't even notice until he drops. That's what I like to do. It's not very nice. But it's elegant.

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: The Disasters of War, Goya, Philip Roth

Duration: 4 minutes, 53 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2014

Date story went live: 10 September 2014