Sunday, March 17, 2019

the last book I read

The Glittering Prizes by Frederic Raphael.

University, eh? Well, we've all been there. Well, not literally all of us, though numbers are going up steadily.

Cambridge in the early 1950s was still a pretty exclusive place, though, so the people we meet there at the start of The Glittering Prizes have already lucked out in life's lottery to some extent, and have every expectation that their time at Cambridge will give them an additional leg-up into their chosen careers. But first there is much of the obligatory studenting to be done, with the swilling of ale and the shagging and the general being witty and brittle and ironic and fabulous.

Friendships are made, hearts are broken, people move on and we follow a small group of ex-students through into their subsequent lives. Principally this means following Adam Morris (that's him up there on the front cover, as portrayed by Tom Conti in the TV version - more on that later) into a career as Oscar-winning screenwriter and novelist, but also his friends like theatre and film director Mike Clode, TV chat-show and current affairs host (and fairly obvious satiric version of David Frost) Alan Parks and other more minor characters.

Various questions are explored: to what degree is it acceptable to compromise your artistic vision or your personal morality in pursuit of fame and/or fortune? How much should you trust your friends? How much do a serious of fabulous triumphs in the arena of a Cambridge college debating society prepare you for the complexity and unpredictability of dealings with actual people in the real world?

The Glittering Prizes is best-known as a 6-part television series first broadcast in 1976; if I've understood the chronology correctly this book is a novelisation of the original TV series (rather than, say, the TV series being adapted from an original novel as is slightly more usual). It's obviously partly autobiographical - Raphael is as famous for film work as for novels, being responsible for screenplays for films such as Darling and Far From The Madding Crowd in the 1960s, and more recently Stanley Kubrick's last film Eyes Wide Shut in 1999.

To be honest, while I've never seen the TV series, the novel is curiously unengaging, despite the fabulous wittiness of the badinage between the principal characters. Partly this is down to the number of characters we're expected to engage with in a novel of barely 300 pages - take Bill Bourne for instance, who we barely meet at all before he has his brief moment of being centre-stage in part five. In many ways Bill and his black American wife Joann are the most intriguing characters in the book, but we barely get a chance to get to know them before they're shuffled off stage. And despite Adam Morris being the central character it's hard to know what we're meant to make of him beyond his evident talent as a writer (he is the obvious authorial alter ego here), since despite being apparently touchingly devoted to his wife Barbara he's generally a fairly irritating character. There are a couple of jarring moments that root the book firmly in its era (it was published in 1976), not least the use by one of the characters of a bit of corrective intra-marital rape as a means of concluding a disagreement.

I don't want that to sound as if reading the book was an unenjoyable experience, because it wasn't - the sparkling dialogue zips by entertainingly enough (and it is pretty dialogue-heavy, as befits something that's essentially an adapted screenplay). I just struggled to see what it was for. To quote myself from an earlier book post: I don't want to get all "what was the author trying to say here", but, at the same time, what was the author trying to say here?

That was a fairly short book review by recent standards, so let me entertain you with a showbiz anecdote: a vague acquaintance with Tom Conti (via some family connections) was a key boast of my old school friend Mungo in the early 1980s. I forget the details of the claim, but the connection did inspire me to Google the name (Mungo's, not Tom Conti's) and I find that he is a senior economist at Oxford University, an outcome broadly in line with my expectations for his future life while we were at school together.

1 comment:

colormax said...