Michael Frayn Essay - Frayn, Michael (Vol. 7)

Frayn, Michael (Vol. 7)

Frayn, Michael 1933–

Frayn is a British novelist, playwright, and columnist. His works are variously clever, fantastical, witty, and satirical, and all "informed with the most beautiful goodwill," as Margaret Drabble wrote. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)

Against Entropy [is Michael Frayn's] comic view of the mess. His success is sporadic but effective when it works. He can use humor to create situations which are full of a folly still recognizably human, or lapse into automatic jokes which have about them the same sort of lifelessness which, in his better moments, he is able to hold at bay. (p. 91)

It is the mark of most of Mr. Frayn's characters that they are "neither-here-nor-there." He obviously intends it that way. But such faithfulness to the mess mentality makes it difficult to put up with his major characters. They always seem about to melt into blandness or vanish among their own contradictions. His minor and supporting characters are, by contrast, much more substantial…. In his best characterizations and most amusing episodes, Mr. Frayn demonstrates that even in the worst of all possible worlds, there are occasional signs of life. (p. 92)

Robert Kiely (reprinted from Commentary by permission; copyright © 1967 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, August, 1967.

Michael Frayn's Constructions is a sort of Light Blue Book applying Wittgenstein's musing method to the problems of life, the life at least of a decent intellectual with his wits and his wife about him. Celibate seriousness is tempered by those qualities of ruthlessness and whimsy, odd couple indeed, which have made of Mr Frayn's fictions such crystalline mazes….

Constructions contains 309 propositions, if I may call them that without putting too formal a construction on them. They do not, I think, affect to amount to a cumulative argument; they have a purpose, but not a plot. The work is broadly philosophical, but it does not constitute a philosophy. Mr Frayn glosses rather than propounds; his ideas are more literary and even moral than technical or 'linguistic'. He knows a nit when he sees one, but he is not a nit-picker.

The main formal enemy is reductionism…. Reductionism is, of course, a rhetorical device which authorises the confident, the ruthless and the straight-faced to pass themselves off as the portes-parole of science or the dialectic, or whatever….

The weakness of reductionism is that by insisting that all p's and q's are really x's—Trotskyites and social democrats are really fascists, for instance—it eliminates useful, subtle and, I think Mr Frayn would claim, necessary distinctions. In due course, inevitably, some animals become more equal than others….

Mr Frayn has some ritual fun with philosophers who spend all their time claiming to be the guardians of truth but never seem able to produce the sovereign for whom they hold the world, and the word, in trust. In the meanwhile, it is sometimes thought, we blunder on with our inadequate, provisional pluralism, watching the ivory tower for the plume of white smoke which will announce, one of these days, that truth has found its Vicar. Now the most interesting (to me) construction to be put on Constructions is that it is a manifesto for pluralism which does not merely recommend it as faute de mieux, but says that it is mieux, indeed that it is necessary; we could not conceive of the world honestly except in a plural sense….

In the end then we have only ourselves, our imperfections, our delusions, our constructions. Here again the 'philosophy' is consistent…. (p. 620)

It seems to me at times that Mr Frayn stands to Wittgenstein—W2 writing in the mantic style of W1—as Rex Warner, in the days when he wrote The Aerodrome, did to Kafka. A limpid dismay at our frailty and absurdity has taken the place of paranoid obsession. It could be read as a dilution, but it is also a civilising of the seer. Mr Frayn writes unmistakably like a married man; he does not affect the bachelor ruthlessness of those who, when we come to meet them, turn out so often to have offered no fewer hostages to fortune than we but seem a lot less queasy about having them executed. His decency is, I suppose one could be persuaded to say, a little too smooth (Occam's razor night and morning), a shade complacent with the complacency of the scholarship boy who cannot resist bright answers and gleaming instances, who smiles to recruit our intellectual assent and who uses his intelligence to recruit our affection, but then these are Cambridge tricks and we read them in others only perhaps as we recognise them in ourselves.

Constructions remains a good, even remarkable book, loftily modest and wittily earnest. If it is liable to be greeted by philosophers with their favourite disclaimer ('Who of us ever said that?'), Constructions is, like Wittgenstein's philosophy, a sort of ladder to encourage us to keep both feet on the ground. It most decidedly has a use: it makes you think. (p. 621)

Frederic Raphael, "Happier Than We Think," in New Statesman (© 1974 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 1, 1974, pp. 620-21.

Banal though it may seem, a newspaper library makes an apt modern setting for that most venerable of dramatic themes, the conflict of order and disorder. There, after all, is the flux and chaos of our civilisation, packaged in little files called 'Vietnam, War in' or 'Water, Fluoridation of'; and there, as I know from experience, journalists with dirty nails and loutish habits wage daily battle with the cold-eyed custodians of these time-capsules. Of course, Michael Frayn being the author, Alphabetical Order isn't exactly an updated Bacchae, with heads on copy-spikes and Dionysus roaring in from the newsdesk. But it is a splendidly witty and amusing play, with a melancholy, wistful and at times almost childlike undertow. Wouldn't it be nice if we could spend our adult lives lolling on cabinets, imitating dogs and frogs, meaninglessly flirting with the girls, throwing magazines onto the floor and showers of paper into the air? Isn't it a pity that Mummy, or someone like her, always seems to stop us?

All these mild manifestations of anarchy occur, only to be checked by the most parental figure on hand, a young assistant librarian called Leslie….

Mr Frayn is occasionally overamused by verbal mannerism—and an encounter in which every other word is 'sorry' has been borrowed from his TV play, Jamie on a Flying Visit. More seriously, the pleasure he takes in eccentricity and messiness sometimes ventures towards the sentimental. But, glad to say, it never reaches that destination, because he is always an objective observer as well as a whimsical sympathiser. He's detached enough to know that frivolity, games-playing, 'disorder', call it what you will, may be a defence or escape, a way of muddling through middle age and a mediocre job. He is also sufficiently mature and open-minded to give 'order' its due. At the end, the newspaper collapses, and the staff run amok in the library, an event to appal its architect. In fact, she's too busy organising a work-in to bother. The truth is, and Mr Frayn knows it, that the country needs its Leslies if it's not to sink giggling into the abyss. (p. 348)

Benedict Nightingale, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), March 14, 1975.

Until half-way through the second of two acts, Frayn's play [Alphabetical Order] follows a conventional but workable pattern: a conflict of values, with cold order on one side and happy muddle on the other. But, then, he does not seem to know how to end his play, and he resorts to some abrupt plotting….

It would probably have been better if Alphabetical Order had been written in three acts, rather than two, simply to give Frayn time to work out what happens when order is suddenly imposed upon chaos….

Three-act plays are somewhat out of fashion and their absence is of more than technical significance. Traditionally, the last act was like the final stage in a syllogism. The major premise (in this case, happy disorder) was the subject of the first act, the minor of the second, while the last act provided a conclusion and reconciliation. By cutting out an act, Frayn has lost the sense of logic to the play's form—while habitually cutting out the third act in what are other-wise well-made plays suggests an impatience with the possibility of happy solutions. Are our writers losing the knack of looking constructive compromises square in the face? (p. 391)

John Elsom, in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1975; reprinted by permission of John Elsom), March 20, 1975.

Grubby self-interest was not the only driving force behind [Alphabetical Order's] characters, nor self-contempt and self-pity the only brakes. Kindness was recognised as a possibility, unselfishness was accepted as a fact of life, even in the midst of a mocking portrait of life on a provincial newspaper as seen through the traffic in its cuttings-library ('That's what's wrong with this paper, it's produced by the sort of people who read it'). In charge, a busy lady who is always thinking of something quite different from what she is actually doing; the result, coupled with the slap-dash habits of the journalists who use the place, a fearful muddle. Enter a new girl assistant, who soon turns out to be of very different metal. By act two she has taken over, and in place of the old companionable confusion we are confronted with a clinically spick-and-span establishment. And then? Well all Mr. Frayn could think of was that the paper should go out of business (though not because it now had an efficient library) and its inmates bring down the curtain by throwing around all the cuttings in a snowstorm of information now even more useless than it was before (and a stage manager's nightmare). Never mind, that would have done as a framework if Mr. Frayn had been able to breathe life into his characters. Unfortunately they remained walking Jonsonian humours, parrotting their own labels over and over again. (pp. 40-1)

J. W. Lambert, in Drama, Summer, 1975.