Study Guide

A Landing on the Sun

by Michael Frayn

A Landing on the Sun Analysis

A Landing on the Sun (Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Brian Jessel, a loyal civil servant, is content with his monotonous job, which shelters him from much that is going on around him. In his job, he deals with such unexciting subjects as the Annual Assessment of Departmental Efficiency and the Treasury Overview Meeting. This routine is disturbed when Jessel is assigned to investigate the mysterious death-by-falling of another civil servant, Stephen Summerchild, fifteen years earlier. A television news station has reopened the investigation of the death, and the government fears a political scandal. There are rumors of Russian espionage and traded state secrets.

As Jessel investigates further, he discovers the involvement of Dr. Elizabeth Serafin, an Oxford philosophy professor originally from Russia, who was to serve with Summerchild on a Strategy Unit to study “the quality of life.” Summerchild and Serafin, both unhappily married and lonely, fell in love. Their meeting place was a garret in a downtown London British Ministry building. Jessel, investigating the circumstances of Summerchild’s death, discovers tape recordings, memos, and transcripts of their taped discussions. Proper civil servant that he is, Jessel is shocked at first when he discovers the passionate relationship between the two, but then he begins to envy them for the love they shared and to regret his own solitary existence. He does not reveal to anyone the nature of the relationship between Summerchild and Serafin and recommends that the files on the case be destroyed.

This is a tender civil service comedy with touches of absurd humor; by the time the point of absurdity has been reached, the reader is so caught up with sympathy for the characters that the unbelievability of the events is disregarded. Frayn pokes gentle fun at the type of totally dedicated, obsessive civil servant who is so concerned with following rules that all pleasure and emotion is absent from his life.

Sources for Further Study

Chicago Tribune. February 2, 1992, XIV, p. 6.

London Review of Books. XIII, September 12, 1991, p. 15.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 16, 1992, p. 3.

New Statesman and Society. IV, September 13, 1991, p. 39.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIX, May 14, 1992, p. 41.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, February 16, 1992, p. 10.

The Times Literary Supplement. September 13, 1991, p. 21.

The Wall Street Journal. January 20, 1992, p. A12.

The Washington Post Book World. XXII, February 2, 1992, p. 1.

A Landing on the Sun (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Michael Frayn was born on September 8, 1933, in London, England. He attended Kingston Grammar School until 1952. In 1952, he was conscripted into the Royal Army and sent to a Russian interpretership course at the University of Cambridge. He also studied in Moscow for several weeks. He was subsequently commissioned as an officer in the Intelligence Corps. His second novel, The Russian Interpreter (1966), was influenced by his experiences during this time. The familiarity of Frayn with Russia and the Russian language and people might have been a factor in his having Elizabeth Serafin, the heroine of A Landing on the Sun, come from Russia.

Discharged from the army in 1954, Frayn returned to Cambridge to study philosophy at Emmanuel College. The philosopher who dominated the way philosophy was taught at Cambridge was Ludwig Wittgenstein, a person having the greatest influence on Frayn and everything Frayn wrote. The work of this philosopher dealt with the nature and limits of language as a means of interpersonal communication and as a means of representing reality. The subject of the Frayn’s writing is often the way people impose their own ideas on the world around them. His characters generally see what they want to see or imagine they see rather than what actually exists.

While at Cambridge, Frayn wrote humorous articles for the school newspaper. After graduation from Cambridge in 1957, Frayn worked for The Manchester Guardian, as a reporter from 1957 to 1959 and as a columnist from 1959 to 1962. His columns of social satire became very popular. He was a columnist for The Observer from 1962 to 1968. The articles written for these newspapers are collected in his books The Day of the Dog (1962), The Book of Fub (1963), On the Outskirts (1964), and At Bay in Gear Street (1967). In his newspaper columns, Frayn poked fun at human foibles, middle-class conventions, liberal-minded hypocrisy, class snobbery, and the distortion of reality through advertising, public relations, the press, and television. The dislike Frayn has for public relations and advertising is evident in the way he makes subtle fun of well-known brand names in A Landing on the Sun, when Jessel discovers that some missing records had been stored in as unlikely a place as an empty Quaker Oats container. Frayn refers also to Heinz tomato ketchup and other popular products.

Frayn has published six novels as well as a number of translations, a volume of philosophy, and nine plays. In the 1960’s, Frayn began to write novels showing the same concerns as his newspapers editorials. Frayn’s characters are obsessed by order and control and are disturbed by confusion and change. They are embarrassed by any show of emotion. In the 1970’s, Frayn began to write plays that also commented on social and political issues of the times. One of his funniest plays was the hit drama Noises Off (1982). Noises Off centers on a production by an inept theater company and shows Frayn’s concern with illusion and reality, and with the relationship between language, reality, and personal perception. The antics of the company contribute to the overall pandemonium and chaotic humor of the play. Frayn’s dramas are usually fast-paced and full of satire and outrageous situations.

Frayn turned his hand to novels because he wanted to enter more fully and sympathetically into characters. A Landing on the Sun was published in England in 1991 and in the United States in 1992. The main character of the novel is a British civil servant named Brian Jessel who was called upon by his superiors to investigate the death fifteen years earlier of another civil servant, Stephen Summerchild. Summerchild had fallen to his death from a British government building. His death is somewhat mysterious, since it is unclear whether Summerchild committed suicide by jumping or had been pushed from the building. The mystery is further complicated by rumors of espionage and traded state secrets. A television news crew had become once again interested in the mystery, and it was feared that some secrets would be uncovered that would prove embarrassing to officials of the British government.

Frayn’s satiric attitude toward the British civil service is evident in his portrayal of Brian Jessel. Young Jessel was content with his boring civil service job because it gave him an escape from the problems of the real world. Although he refused to admit it, his life was empty and his job was as meaningless and depressing as the job of Bartleby the Scrivener, in the Herman Melville short story. Jessel liked the office in which he...

(The entire section is 1915 words.)