Beginning with its awful cover, dominated by publicity shots of the two authors, and the labored oxymoron of its title, Distant Intimacy is a book that almost seems to court mockery and loathing. Within it one finds gathered the year-long e-mail correspondence of the septuagenarian men of letters Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein, who, though they’ve never met, have long admired each other, and who decided to conduct the exchange as a kind of protracted lark. Smug, petty, backbiting, rife with mutual flattery and showily polyglot prose, the book gives you every reason to declare it insufferable, and in the U.K., where it was published a few months ago, critics have swiftly and gleefully done just that. (See in particular John Crace’s pastiche in The Guardian.) One might also object that there’s something inherently vain and contrived about the whole enterprise. What makes these bitter old coots...


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