The small club of British classical scholarship has lost one of its finest members. Frederic Raphael is angry about how he was mistreated by his literary "patrons"by Frederic Raphael / February 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
I was on holiday in the Maldives when I heard that Ken McLeish was dead. The only writing I did beside the Indian Ocean was the very last thing I wanted to do: the obituary of a good man younger than myself, a unique spirit wholly exempt from that little list of those who’d none of them be missed. Friends for over 20 years, Ken and I collaborated on many translations, mostly from Greek but also from Latin. He was always the miglior fabbr?, yet he managed to give the impression that I was contributing as much as he.
We not only worked closely together-albeit at a distance (he was in Lincolnshire, I was often in the P?rigord)-but we spoke at great length, regularly, on the telephone. Our recurrent theme outside gossip (academic and showbiz) was Greek tragedy. We shared a conviction of its unacknowledged convergence with comedy.
We planned a critical survey which we wanted to call The Drama of Athens. I was particularly interested in how the notion of the dramatic leaked over from the Theatre of Dionysos into the rhetoric and conduct of Athenian politicians until Athens’s final tragi-comic collapse, when Plato the philosopher coalesced with Plato the comic poet.
Jean-Paul Sartre said that photography ruined his grandfather’s character: suddenly he began to strike noble attitudes. Just as television has infected modern politics, changed its vocabulary and its manners (if any), so did Athenian drama re-fashion the self-image of those who ran for office.
Ken and I were fascinated by how the great dramatists elasticised time. Most tragedies appear to take place within the statutory 24 hours, but those hours are stretched and collapsed, previewed and re-run. An instance is the Aeschylean “slow-motion” when Kassandra foresees what will happen as she goes to be murdered by Klytemnestra.
Ken had an easy mastery of the data: he had translated all of the existing tragic canon, as well as all of Aristophanes. Comedy was his favourite subject; he loved Laurel and Hardy. He once endured a groping overture from Frankie Howard with the tolerance he thought due to a clown of genius. Nihil humanum a me alienum puto was a motto Ken found easy to observe. With whom but classicists can you discuss absolutely everything in the light of those dusty texts, which the profanum vulgus call irrelevant? The club of the classics has no premises; common interests link you with the Happy Fewer and Fewer, whom you never even have to meet in order to feel fraternity or sorority. Pseuds? I wish there were more. Or do I?
As I wrote about Ken’s many qualities, in which malice had no place, I found myself becoming angry. Apart from his loyal wife Valerie, who else knew how ill-used Ken had been, how wounded by the callousness of people who had none of his generosity? I am damned if I won’t indict them (cautiously) here. There was the publisher who consistently underpaid and overworked Ken, who compiled huge volumes, such as his massive Myth, for the kind of money smarter men receive for a trashy newspaper column or two. On the day of his death, one of his publishers asked him to rewrite some pages he had already delivered-but which had been “mislaid” at their offices. Instead of resting, as he badly needed to, he set to and made good their thoughtless incompetence.
A week before he died, the literary agency which had made lousy deals for him dumped him because his revenues did not meet their norms. Perhaps he would have been amused to know that the same agent called his widow and volunteered to handle the estate. Have people always been such shits?
There’s more. A few years ago, he had been asked by the Times Educational Supplement to review a television series about the Greeks. It was fronted by an eminently-chaired professor who enjoys just the kind of career and acclaim Ken might have envied-had envy been his style. Ken accepted, imagining that he would be able to give praise where it was due: he knew the professor from classical conferences (and had once been the recipient of unwanted details of the man’s conjugal problems).
As it happened, the television series was a mess. Ken said so, with unwise honesty. From that moment on, his translations were pitilessly rubbished by the professor, who continually went a long way out of his way to find opportunities to review them. Ken took his undeserved medicine without bitterness. A week before he died, he and the same professor saw each other, but did not speak, at a classical get-together. Ken wrote him a note afterwards, regretting their froideurs and hoping they would have a chance to talk again some time. The professor did not deign to answer, but contrived to tell a mutual friend that McLeish was “stirring things up again.” This time Ken was pained.
Damn that professor to hell, I say. And damn that other one too-the polymath polyglot who so loves culture and civility that he couldn’t find a moment to answer a personal letter of congratulation from a man who had previously gone out of his way, for no vestige of personal advantage, to write encouragingly about a dreary book written by the same professor’s offspring. Ken is dead; they are alive. Case proved: comedy and tragedy converge all right.