Frayn, Michael (Vol. 176)
Michael Frayn 1933-
English playwright, novelist, journalist, philosopher, screenwriter, nonfiction writer, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Frayn's career through 2002. See also Michael Frayn Criticism (Volume 3), and Volumes 7, 31.
Frayn is a noted English social satirist and critically acclaimed newspaper columnist, novelist, and playwright. His prose style, worldview, and central themes have remained relatively consistent, regardless of the medium in which he writes. He is known for his humorous critiques of modern culture, particularly targeting mass media, technology, bureaucracy, the workplace, and professional life. First and foremost a humorist, Frayn has also been applauded for his effective blending of serious and comedic elements in his work. Critics have noted that his personal philosophy is strongly influenced by the ideals of Ludwig Wittgenstein, a twentieth-century British philosopher. Among Frayn's most popular and well received works are the plays Noises Off (1982) and Copenhagen (1998) and the novels A Landing on the Sun (1991), Headlong (1999), and Spies (2001). Frayn's humor columns, originally written for the Manchester Guardian and the London Observer, have also been collected in a number of volumes.
Frayn was born on September 8, 1993, in Mill Hall on the northwestern edge of London, England. His father, Thomas Allen Frayn, was a sales representative for an asbestos company and his mother, Violet, was a shop assistant. Soon after his birth, his parents moved to Ewell on the southern fringe of London. His mother died when Frayn was thirteen, and his father later remarried. He attended Kingston Grammar School, where he developed a knack for satire by imitating his teachers to amuse his fellow students. Upon graduating from high school in 1952, Frayn was drafted into the Royal Army and was required to attend a course in interpreting Russian at Cambridge University. He was eventually commissioned as an officer in the intelligence corps, where he served until he was discharged in 1954. Having completed his military duty, Frayn enrolled in Emmanuel College, Cambridge University, where he studied philosophy and was exposed to the works of Wittgenstein, among others. Frayn graduated from college in 1957 and worked as a reporter and columnist for the Manchester Guardian newspaper, writing a satirical column that gained wide popularity among readers. In 1962 Frayn left the Guardian and began writing humor columns for the London Observer, where he worked until 1968. His first novel, The Tin Men, was published in 1965. In 1970 his first professional stage play, The Two of Us, was produced in the West End Theatre in London. Frayn has since worked professionally as a writer, continuing to write columns, novels, and plays, as well as working as a screenwriter for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Frayn's first marriage, to Gillian Palmer, a psychotherapist with whom he had three children, ended in divorce in 1989. In 1996 he married author Claire Tomalin. Frayn has received numerous awards for his work, including the 1986 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for best new foreign play for Benefactors (1984) and the 2000 Antoinette Perry Award for best play for Copenhagen. In 2003 Frayn was awarded the Whitbread Award for best novel and Great Britain's Commonwealth Writers Prize for the best book from Eurasia for Spies.
Frayn's essays and humor columns for the Guardian and Observer newspapers have won him a large popular following in the United Kingdom and abroad. Many of his early columns are collected in The Day of the Dog (1962), The Book of Fub (1963), and At Bay in Gear Street (1967), while his later essays and sketches have been collected in On the Outskirts (1964), The Original Michael Frayn: Satirical Essays (1983), Speak after the Beep: Studies in the Art of Communicating with Inanimate and Semi-Inanimate Objects (1995), and The Additional Michael Frayn (2000). Similar in tone to his newspaper columns, many of Frayn's novels offer satirical observations regarding the state of the contemporary world. His earliest novels are futuristic and fantastical tales, lampooning the bureaucratic, professional, and technological frailties that characterize modern culture. The Tin Men employs a futuristic setting to portray a society that is almost completely computerized and automated—thus erasing virtually all human traits. A Very Private Life (1968), written in the future tense, ridicules the upper-class British obsession with privacy, and Sweet Dreams (1973) features a London architect who finds himself in heaven, where he discovers that modern business practices and bureaucracy exist even in the afterlife. Frayn's preoccupation with modern bureaucracy can also be seen in The Russian Interpreter (1966), a spy story set in Russia, which is based partly on Frayn's experiences in military intelligence. Towards the End of the Morning (1967), set in the office of a London newspaper, satirizes how reporters struggle to recreate real life experiences through words.
Frayn took a hiatus from publishing novels between 1973 and 1989 to focus on his plays, essays, and screenplays. His novels written after this period, while retaining his characteristic elements of farce and social commentary, embrace the examination of various forms of research and investigation, whether academic, personal, bureaucratic, or clandestine. Many of these works employ fictional letters, transcripts, or historical quotes as narrative devices, addressing issues of secrecy, the quest for truth, and the endless capacity of mankind to misinterpret events in accordance with their own obsessions, fantasies, and neuroses. The Trick of It (1989) is an epistolary novel composed of letters written by a literary academic who marries the novelist on whose work he specializes. In A Landing on the Sun, a civil servant is charged with investigating the death of another worker, Stephen Summerchild, that took place fifteen years earlier. The probe reveals that Summerchild worked in a covert government unit responsible for investigating the “quality of life” and happiness of its citizens. The central characters of Now You Know (1992) belong to an organization called OPEN that works as a watchdog and lobby group, promoting freedom-of-information as well as truth and accuracy in government. Hypocrisy runs rampant in the organization as the head of OPEN engages in secret love affairs with several different women in the group. The events of the plot are narrated alternately from the distinct points of view of the characters. Frayn later adapted Now You Know for the stage in 1995. In Headlong, an academic philosopher conducts research on a painting he has discovered in the home of an unsuspecting provincial squire, hoping that it is an original work of the Flemish painter Pieter Brueghel. Spies revolves around the imaginative life of two young boys during World War II whose make-believe games involve mystery, intrigue, and espionage within their suburban English neighborhood. The two decide that the mother of one of the boys is a German spy and engage in a covert operation, tracking and documenting her suspicious activities.
Frayn's plays, like his novels, are generally characterized by their recurring elements of farce and social satire. Alphabetical Order (1975) is set in the clippings-library of a provincial newspaper where the new librarian turns a chaotic workplace into a meticulously organized system. In the process, she attempts to impose her hyper-organization on the lives of her fellow employees. In Donkeys' Years (1976), a group of men at their twentieth college reunion find themselves regressing to their undergraduate behaviors, which include drunkenness and sexual liaisons with the wife of the headmaster. A pair of writers meet while on assignment in Cuba in Clouds (1976) and one of them, a female reporter and novelist, engages in lascivious behavior with three different men—her fellow journalist, an American professor, and a Cuban government official. Set amidst a sales conference held in a hotel in Germany, Make and Break (1980) concerns a salesman who is consumed by his job and suffers complete alienation from human emotion. One of Frayn's most critically and commercially popular works, Noises Off is a comedy that depends on its parodic borrowings from the worst traditions of the British farce. The play traces the progress of a group of actors from the last-minute technical rehearsal through the subsequent run of an awful piece of repertory theatre called Nothing On, making connections between the chaotic stage business and the actors' complicated, interwoven lives. During the 1980s and 1990s, Frayn's plays began moving away from his traditionally uniform satiric tone. Benefactors, set during the 1960s, concerns a liberal-minded architect as he struggles to live up to his own ideals. The plot follows the architect, his wife, and another married couple, as their personal and public lives become progressively entangled in the fifteen-year narrative span of the play. Copenhagen is based on an actual historical meeting in 1941 between Werner Heisenberg, Nazi Germany's most prominent physicist and a key member of the Manhattan Project, and Niels Bohr, a physicist and Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Denmark. Copenhagen addresses the much-debated question of what actually transpired during this meeting, particularly in regard to the moral dilemmas and scientific research of the two physicists. Heisenberg and Bohr had once been close colleagues, but found themselves working for different sides during World War II. Frayn has also composed translations of a number of plays from the nineteenth-century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, including The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters, The Seagull, and Uncle Vanya, among others. Frayn's play Wild Honey (1984) is based on an unfinished manuscript by Chekhov known as Platonov.
Most critics have concurred that Frayn is a skilled practitioner of farce and social satire—recurring elements that figure prominently in almost all his writings. Frayn's humorous newspaper columns have been extremely popular in the United Kingdom and have been frequently lauded for their biting commentary on various aspects of modern culture. Critical response to Frayn's novels has been varied, with some reviewers praising his use of humor and wit, asserting that his novels contain well-developed characterization and clever plot construction. Others have criticized Frayn's fiction, arguing that his novels read shallow and flat, with unconvincing characterization and implausible plotlines. The Trick of It has drawn praise for its examination of the mysterious nature of the creative process and the ways in which a novelist transforms life into fiction. A Landing on the Sun has received mixed reviews, with several commentators faulting the novel's stereotyped characters and poorly structured narrative. Now You Know has been recognized as a witty and inventive novel by a number of reviewers, though some have observed that the underlying ethical message of the novel is questionable due to the fact that the main character participates in the cover-up of a politically motivated murder. Headlong has been commended for its exploration of self-denial and the obstacles that hamper effective communication, but others have complained that the novel's discourse of academic art history is tedious and uninteresting. Spies has similarly been acclaimed as an engaging and powerful narrative, despite some assertions that the plot is contrived and implausible. Frayn's plays have been generally well received as works of dramatic farce, with Noises Off attracting a great deal of critical and popular attention. Critics have consistently applauded Frayn's effective use of the play-within-a-play motif in Noises Off, complimenting the work as a classic comedy of errors. Although Copenhagen has been highly regarded in several critical circles, it has stood as perhaps Frayn's most controversial play. Critics have been sharply divided in their opinions on Copenhagen, largely depending on their particular perspective in regard to the play's ethical message. Several reviewers have offered harsh criticisms of the play's underlying moral center, contending that Frayn's historically inaccurate rendering of the real life events leads the audience to draw faulty conclusions. However, many scholars have argued that the play effectively raises deeply relevant ethical questions, regardless of historical accuracy.
Zounds! [with John Edwards] (play) 1957
The Day of the Dog (essays) 1962
The Book of Fub (essays) 1963; republished as Never Put off to Gomorrah, 1964
On the Outskirts (essays) 1964
The Tin Men (novel) 1965
The Russian Interpreter (novel) 1966
At Bay in Gear Street (essays and journalism) 1967
Towards the End of the Morning (novel) 1967; republished as Against Entropy, 1967
A Very Private Life (novel) 1968
*The Two of Us: Four One-Act Plays for Two Players (plays) 1970
Sweet Dreams (novel) 1973
Constructions (philosophy) 1974
Alphabetical Order (play) 1975
Clouds (play) 1976
Donkeys' Years (play) 1976
Balmoral (play) 1978; revised as Liberty Hall, 1980
Make and Break (play) 1980
Noises Off (play) 1982
The Original Michael Frayn: Satirical Essays (essays and journalism) 1983
Benefactors: A Play in Two Acts (play) 1984
Wild Honey (play) 1984
†Plays: One (plays) 1985
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SOURCE: Worth, Katharine. “Farce and Michael Frayn.” Modern Drama 26, no. 1 (March 1983): 47-53.
[In the following review, Worth asserts that Frayn proves himself a master of the stage farce with Noises Off.]
“Is God?”, asks Professor George Moore in Stoppard's Jumpers. “Is farce?” might be a question for today's theatre and for the same reason that bothers Moore and his wife, Dotty, in their speculation on God. How can farce exist in a society which has lost all its certainties and loosened all the rigid social and moral structures which were the launching pad for the farces of the past? The special pleasure of the form, as Eric Bentley has said, is that “Inhibitions are momentarily lifted, repressed thoughts are admitted into consciousness, and we experience that feeling of power and pleasure, generally called elation” (The Life of the Drama [New York, 1970], p. 230). But how if society is busy encouraging us not to repress but to express and feel free? It may be an illusion, but the assumption that freedom is our ambience does present problems for the farce writer looking for something fixed and solid to support the wild balancing acts which are the special triumph of the form.
These thoughts were prompted by Michael Frayn's Noises Off, now running (August, 1982) at the Savoy Theatre, London. No doubt about it, the audience leaves the theatre,...
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SOURCE: Wall, Stephen. “Going to Bed with an Author on Your Reading List.” London Review of Books 11, no. 16 (28 September 1989): 18.
[In the following review, Wall praises Frayn's engaging, readable narrative voice in The Trick of It, describing the novel as “a fable of literature's ambivalent power.”]
Michael Frayn hasn't published a novel for 16 years, but it's immediately clear from his new one that he hasn't lost the trick of it. After so long a lay-off some self-consciousness might have been expected, but Frayn has turned this potential liability to advantage by making it an essential part of his subject. The Trick of It is, among other things, an essay on itself, but the reflexive element is saved from a merely formal aridity by its comic brio and its uneasy respect for human mysteriousness.
In his early days as humourist—or satirist, as the term then was—Michael Frayn relied heavily on his acuteness of ear and ventriloquial command of voice. The recognisable, betraying tone, the give-away use of current idiom, the patent, clichéd insincerities of the characters in his old Guardian and Observer pieces survive well (as a recent series of broadcasts of them by Martin Jarvis demonstrated) because the words are so alertly voiced; they ask to be spoken. It's not surprising that Frayn has subsequently written so much for the theatre, both as...
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SOURCE: Heller, Zoë. “Art's No Joke.” New Statesman and Society 2, no. 69 (29 September 1989): 37-8.
[In the following review, Heller contends that The Trick of It is thoughtful and funny, observing that the novel explores the difficulties of writing fiction and the mysteries of the creative process.]
It is fitting that [The Trick of It] Michael Frayn's first novel for 16 years should explore the difficulty of writing fiction. Rather daunting for a reviewer, though, that it wittily deflates the business of literary criticism in the process.
When Frayn's hero, a lecturer in English, invites a female author whose book he teaches and reveres to give a talk to his students, he assumes she will be a disappointment in the flesh. But the visit ends up with the writer and the scholar in bed together. This—and the troubled relationship that ensues—is documented in a series of letters written by the lecturer to his friend in Australia.
Critically sophisticated and devilishly clever though he likes to think he is, our academic is confused. At last he is privy to his literary idol's personal life. In fact, he is part of it. Yet, to his dismay, he doesn't understand her books or her talent any better for knowing what colour her knickers are. And he's not sure whether to be crestfallen that she's only human (her knickers and her bra don't match) or...
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SOURCE: Frayn, Michael, and Michele Field. “Michael Frayn.” Publishers Weekly 237, no. 9 (2 March 1990): 65-6.
[In the following interview, Frayn discusses the writing of The Trick of It while reflecting on his literary career and writing process.]
Michael Frayn is renowned for debunking the interview. In the 1960s he had a column in the Manchester Guardian in which he chatted with visiting celebrities. Very gradually Frayn moved the column toward fantasy, “interviewing” characters he created, gulling the public in the process. And in his new novel, The Trick of It, out this month from Viking, one of the themes is the impossibility of knowing a writer from his or her work, the futility of undertaking an analysis to explain how a book emerges from a novelist's life. These precedents rather stymie an interview with Michael Frayn before the first sip of white wine.
Does “the trick of it,” PW wonders, refer to a trick Frayn has learned about how to write fiction—a trick that eludes the novel's narrator, who envies his wife, a famous novelist? Frayn elucidates: “What the novel is about is not just the writing of books, it is about the opacity of other people's mental processes—about how hard it is to see what's going on inside somebody else's head. You would like to know how other people feel, how other people think, so all the time you have to...
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SOURCE: Kamine, Mark. “A Critic to the Core.” New Leader 73, no. 9 (9 July 1990): 18-19.
[In the following review, Kamine praises Frayn's entertaining, witty, and dexterous prose in The Trick of It, stating that the central themes of the novel include the writing process and the ways in which the novelist transforms life into art.]
The “trick” here is how: how a writer writes, and writes well. How life, in other words, becomes art. Thankfully, Michael Frayn is wise enough not to try to tell us, and clever enough to hold our interest anyway.
His novel [The Trick of It] is composed of a series of letters that Richard Dunnett, a critic and professor at a provincial English college, writes to a friend living in Melbourne. Dunnett's specialty is a contemporary English author—a major author, in Dunnett's opinion—and it is one of Frayn's small tricks to have Dunnett use only the initials JL to refer to her, making the “secrets” revealed in the letters all the more enticing.
“She's coming,” the first letter begins. Dunnett is happy, of course—it is a feather in his cap to get the famous JL down from London. But he worries that she will find her visit trying (“a grim little gathering in my rooms”) and dull (“dinner with a handful of academics in unsympathetic disciplines”), and that when the festivities end she will be lonely...
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SOURCE: Wall, Stephen. “Word-Processing.” London Review of Books 13, no. 17 (12 September 1991): 15-16.
[In the following review, Wall comments that A Landing on the Sun treats themes similar to those in The Trick of It, but less successfully, contending that the narrative voice of the former is dull and that the storyline tends to be diffuse.]
There have always been novels with a highly developed sense of their own means of production. When, at the end of Mansfield Park, Jane Austen said she'd let other pens dwell on guilt and misery, she was being literal as well as figurative. A pen was what she wrote with. Dan Jacobson's and Michael Frayn's reliance on, respectively, a word processor and a tape recorder needn't be put down to Post-Modern self-consciousness. Novels naturally like to keep up with the technology on which they rely, but an appeal—however disingenuous—to external machinery and allegedly objective documentation is thoroughly classical. In skilled hands, such honesty about the narrative's status paradoxically enhances rather than undermines its authenticity, although we know, and it knows, that such candour is entirely specious.
At the end of Hidden in the Heart [by Dan Jacobson] the narrator (female, unnamed) is asked by her kindly machine whether she wants to RE-FORMAT DISK (in which case everything already transferred to it will be...
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SOURCE: Mackenzie, Mary Margaret. “A Question of Happiness.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4615 (13 September 1991): 21.
[In the following review, Mackenzie asserts that although many of the characters in A Landing on the Sun are irritating stereotypes, Frayn skillfully blends the genres of philosophy and literature in the novel.]
The first joke is on you. A Landing on the Sun pretends, at the start; to be a political thriller—Summerchild, a civil servant working in a secret Strategy Unit in the new Wilson Government of 1974, falls to his death from a building in Whitehall; his connections with espionage are denied. Then Jessel, another civil servant brought in to investigate the case fifteen years later, finds that the evidence has been hidden or mislaid. What killed Summerchild?
Then you discover that this is one of the new genre of “research” novels—it describes Jessel's reconstruction, from ancient files and secret tapes, of what may or may not have happened. The Strategy Unit was not about bombs or air-raid shelters—it was to investigate “the quality of life”. What is that all about? The quality of life is not, Jessel discovers, to do with washing machines, but with that special stuff, happiness. So the Strategy Unit was (of course) headed by a philosopher, assisted by Summerchild; together they engage on a protracted seminar on enjoyment, fun, the...
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SOURCE: Mitchison, Amanda. “Time Rewound.” New Statesman and Society 120, no. 4050 (13 September 1991): 39.
[In the following review, Mitchison lauds Frayn's accomplishment as a writer, judging A Landing on the Sun to be a skillful depiction of Britain's stodgy upper classes.]
Michael Frayn's latest novel [A Landing on the Sun] begins: “On the desk in front of me lie two human hands.” In the next paragraph, the reader discovers the hands belong to the narrator, and that the narrator wears “crisp white shirtsleeves”. Over the page we find the hands are also connected to a voice: “Because of course I have my voice in here with me, as well as my hands.” The voice, it transpires, belongs to a civil servant called “Jessel”, who is handling a file called “Summerchild”.
Summerchild, an impeccable civil servant, was found dead 15 years ago at the foot of the Admiralty building, presumably having fallen from a great height. A television programme has started enquiring into the affair and the Cabinet Office, fearing a political scandal, has asked Jessel—another civil servant—to investigate. There are suggestions of typical Wilson-era dark dealings, possible Ministry of Defence involvement, a mysterious individual with a Russian name.
Jessel goes back through the files and finds that Summerchild had been involved in setting up a special,...
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SOURCE: King, Francis. “Pretty Bubbles in the Air.” Spectator 267, no. 8514 (14 September 1991): 31-2.
[In the following review, King comments that reading A Landing on the Sun is a pleasurable experience due to Frayn's successful combination of seriousness and humor.]
Since Harold Wilson was as full of gimmicky wheezes as a freshly poured Pepsi of bubbles, it is in no way improbable that, after he had returned to office in 1974 in the aftermath of the miners' strike and the three-day week, he established a Policy Unit (as Michael Frayn imagines in this sparkling novel [A Landing on the Sun]) to ‘look beyond day-to-day considerations at the quality of life we should be working towards for our people’. But when the civil servant, Summerchild, who is secretary to the Unit falls to his death from a window in the Admiralty, rumours inevitably circulate that the declared aim of the unit was only a blind, and that in fact Summerchild was masterminding some secret defence project.
At the time of Summerchild's sudden and mysterious death, the newspapers are prepared to push the government's line: foul play is not suspected; reports that he had connections with espionage are wholly false; a neighbour has categorically stated, ‘He was not the kind of man you associate with James Bond activities’. But 15 years later the situation has changed. A television company,...
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SOURCE: Thomas, Michael M. “The Paper Chase.” Washington Post Book World 22, no. 5 (2 February 1992): 1, 11.
[In the following review, Thomas assesses the strengths of A Landing on the Sun, describing the novel as witty, touching, and intelligent.]
This [A Landing on the Sun] is a marvelous novel, wise and witty, but I despair of its readerly reception in a culture that elevates Scarlett. Its qualities are literary rather than digital. Highly refined but not in the least bit precious, it is a true page-turner, but in a rather different sense from that in which the overused staple of bookchat praise is generally employed: wherein the business of reading is taken to resemble jogging, a slog or dash from preface to envoi, at a pace either dogged or pell-mell according to metabolism, mind deadened by the relentless rhythm of pounding feet, eyes fixed rigidly on the clock and the pulse-rate indicator.
Michael Frayn is an accomplished playwright (his farce Noises Off was a London and Broadway smash) and he knows how to drive his proceedings along as deftly as any writer going. In his seventh novel (others include The Trick of It and Sweet Dreams), he leads us on a brisk stroll through a varied landscape, part city, part country, part physical, part spiritual, with frequent pauses to look around and contemplate the meaning of it all. If you think...
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SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Labour's Loves Lost.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 February 1992): 3, 9.
[In the following review, Eder extols the strengths of A Landing on the Sun, calling the book a satirical examination of bureaucracies, academic institutions, and the differences between men and women.]
Jessel, the archetypal British civil servant, sits in his regulation office in Whitehall: a desk, a hat rack, two chairs, a view across the air shaft, and files in a neat pile. It is his purely abstract kingdom. He is the perfect instrument, a samurai of administrative procedure, existing to be the cog between other cogs. He describes his nirvana, his entire absence from himself:
On the desk in front of me lie two human hands. They are alive but perfectly still. … These hands; and the crisp white shirtsleeves that lead away from them, are the only signs of me in the room. … Sometimes my own phone rings, and the voice that answers it is here inside the room, emerging from somewhere about the point where my two shirtsleeves meet. Because, of course, I have my voice in here with me, as well as my hands. I'd forgotten that.
His office life divides into manageable units, each contained in a file folder. Of course, each evening he must leave the folders and go home to a much less manageable life. His wife is in a madhouse,...
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SOURCE: Banville, John. “Playing House.” New York Review of Books 39, no. 9 (14 May 1992): 41-3.
[In the following review, Banville argues that A Landing on the Sun effectively displays Frayn's talents for comedy, but notes that the plot is overly contrived in some places.]
The novel is as English as roast beef or the monarchy, a national institution which in a declining age must be stoutly defended against skeptics and foreigners. By “novel” here I mean the novel of manners, that essentially middle-class form perfected by the great Victorians. The present British prime minister, John Major, has claimed to have read all of Trollope (a prodigious feat, considering that author's vast output); the claim sounds more like an act of patriotic piety than of literary preference. (One of Mr. Major's more colorful and certainly wittier predecessors, Harold Macmillan, liked to observe that it was always a pleasure to go to bed with a good Trollope.)
There is also the fear, of course, that the high ground of fiction has been seized by England's transatlantic cousins. While minor postwar English novelists were fiddling with domestic turmoil in Hampstead or the polite savageries of academe, the Americans were writing of blood and fire and flags, carrying on the moral battle for the conscience of the nation. Then came the Latin Americans, with their birds of paradise and their...
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SOURCE: Reading, Peter. “Open to Question.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4665 (28 August 1992): 17.
[In the following review, Reading offers a positive assessment of Now You Know, calling the novel witty and entertaining.]
It will surprise no one to learn that Michael Frayn's new novel, Now You Know, is workmanlike, entertaining, perspicacious, funny and gently satirical. It is the uncomplicated (even lightweight) story of a few weeks in the life of OPEN, a freedom-of-information lobby, and the ironic gulf between this organization's aims (exposing governmental evasiveness in public issues) and the clandestine machinations of the individuals who make up its workforce.
OPEN's office is on the third floor of a scruffy building situated between the Strand and the Thames, “behind the wine warehouse, past all the black garbage bags”. The front doorstep is occupied each night by two female dossers in a cardboard box. The hero of the novel and the man around whom the pressure group revolves is Terry Little, a likeable Cockney wide boy in his sixties, whose dubious career includes a spell as a Thames lighterman, a term in chokey and a long estrangement from a wife who has been relegated to a shabby housing estate. His team consists of a well-to-do but gormless divorcee (now Terry's weekend lover) called Jacqui, an obliging but inadequate switchboard-operator called...
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SOURCE: King, Francis. “Uneasy Lies the Head of OPEN.” Spectator 269, no. 8564 (29 August 1992): 28-9.
[In the following review, King contends that Frayn makes convincing use of different narrative voices in Now You Know.]
In recent years there have been an increasing number of cases of civil servants breaching the Official Secrets Act by leaking confidential documents to the press or the opposition. Sometimes the culprits have been eventually identified and punished, sometimes not. If one were oneself a civil servant, party to something morally repugnant, would one be justified in committing the same sort of disloyalty? Or should one first resign from one's job? This is the problem at the heart of Michael Frayn's new novel [Now You Know].
Also at its heart is 61 year-old Terry, ‘a combination of self-righteousness, charming rascality and self-satisfied humour’. Having worked as a Thames lighterman, actor, D.J., journalist and school-teacher and having also served a prison sentence, Terry now heads an organisation Open, dedicated to the cause of open government. He is persistent and adroit in ferreting out secrets, mounting demonstrations, recruiting supporters, grabbing headlines, arousing indignation.
One of the workers in Terry's little pressure group is a barrister called Roy; and Roy has a girl-friend, Hilary, who is a seemingly dedicated Civil...
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SOURCE: Raymond, Brian. “Leave It Out.” New Statesman and Society 5, no. 219 (11 September 1992): 39.
[In the following review, Raymond observes that Frayn is a clever and adroit writer but argues that Now You Know falls short in its construction, plot, and ethical values.]
In the effective modern state, secrecy is the last thing the sensible government wants to conceal. The message is broadcast hourly by the granite ministry walls, regulation bombproof curtains and official limousines: don't bother to ask for true information as a press release in the mouth can easily offend. Terry Little, a kind of Arthur Daley figure who runs a freedom of information pressure group as though it were a mini-cab firm, knows this: “Or look at that bugger, then. Sitting there with his great flat face, two hundred yards from ear to ear … The Department of Trade and Industry, that's its name. No, but just look at that great smug face! You don't know what I'm thinking—it's written all over it.”
And Terry himself is written all over this novel [Now You Know], a six-foot-two national icon of iconoclasm sporting a beetroot face and a mop of grey curls. He flyposts his not-'arf interior monologue over large tracts of text, shamelessly obliterating the first-person voices of the other characters. But in true Arthur D tradition, the goods have fallen off the back of the...
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SOURCE: Parrinder, Patrick. “Whitehall Farces.” London Review of Books 14, no. 19 (8 October 1992): 13.
[In the following review, Parrinder compares the central motifs in Now You Know to similar themes in Frayn's earlier novels and plays, praising Frayn as an inventive and innovative comic writer.]
‘In its attitude towards Dickens,’ George Orwell wrote, ‘the English public has always been a little like the elephant which feels a blow with a walking-stick as a delightful tickling … One knows without needing to be told that lawyers delight in Sergeant Buzfuz and that Little Dorrit is a favourite in the Home Office.’ Lawyers these days doubtless read John Mortimer, and dons read the new university wits like David Lodge and Tom Sharpe. But in any wider competition for the post of English humorist-in-residence, Michael Frayn would surely be a prime contender. Now verging on sixty, his collected plays and translations fill three thick volumes, his early newspaper columns for the Guardian and the Observer have been reprinted, and he is well launched into the second phase of his career as a novelist. Frayn's is a consistently inventive and innovative comic talent, and though he is no Dickens he brings something more than a feather-duster to bear on the British public's hide.
Above all, Frayn observes the dynamics of institutions, which he sees not as...
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SOURCE: Duguid, Lindsay. “Swells of Sadness.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4715 (13 August 1993): 17.
[In the following review, Duguid asserts that the strength of Here lies in the play's sense of dramatic immediacy.]
Many of the jokes in Michael Frayn's new play [Here] come from familiarly funny situations: a young couple in their new home argue about where to put the bed; they go from insults to hugs and back in a matter of seconds; their landlady always knocks on the door just as they are about to make love. Ashley Martin-Davis's simple set—a one-room flat with traces of cornice, a glimpse of green bathroom, mattress and duvet on the floor—emphasizes that the pair are almost archetypes of ordinariness. Cath (Teresa Banham) is an emotional, affectionate girl, who doesn't mind half-open doors but needs to be reassured about love. Phil (Iain Glen) is a mixture of child and philosopher, fond of characterizing Cath's actions as “inauthentic”, always keen to pursue an argument to its logical conclusion. She says “I love you”, he replies, “I know.” Other exchanges include: “Why are you behaving like this?”; “I'm not behaving like anything.”
While the landlady's interruptive monologues are elaborate, meandering sagas, bringing in dead husbands, dispersed children and door handles, the dialogues between Cath and Phil are carefully free of context,...
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SOURCE: Filbin, Thomas. “Eurofiction, Interest Rates, and the Balance of Trade Problem.” Hudson Review 46, no. 3 (autumn 1993): 587-92.
[In the following essay, Filbin discusses several recent novels—among them Now You Know—which he argues hold greater value and significance than other works of contemporary fiction.]
American fiction these days seems generally to have recovered from its bout with minimalism. Scorched earth prose which prefers epiphanies and resonances to themes and character exposition has largely run its course. Readers could only be expected to tolerate for so long antiheroes who dream of things that never were and ask, “Why bother?”, or who dream of nothing and say, “Turn the TV up, Rayette, Wheel of Fortune's on.”
Novels being written by Americans now have advanced to somewhat higher ground. They often deal with family trouble, moving on or stepping back, and the burdens of one's history on the ability to live in the present. The book jackets attest to the fact that the authors studied or teach in university writing programs, have won awards and fellowships, and come with the highest recommendations of other members of the guild. This would imply they are not without gifts and the skills of the craft, but they are making what to me is a dubious strategy choice, namely of limiting themselves to observing quotidian reality without...
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SOURCE: Lezard, Nicholas. “Getting Stuck in an Open Door.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4819 (11 August 1995): 18.
[In the following review, Lezard judges the stage version of Now You Know as a successful adaptation of the novel, commenting that the play “both raises and dodges issues of openness and secrecy in both private and public life.”]
Now You Know, the play, is sleek and deceptive, like the cliché; the knowledge passed on when you wrap facts up by saying “now you know” is often either inferred or unwelcome, and carries with it the suggestion that whatever it is should probably have been hidden in the first place. It is the perfect title for the play, and it was the perfect title for Frayn's novel of the same name, which appeared nearly three years ago but which this play, apparently, antedates.
It is set in the offices of Open, a pressure group dedicated to open government, and the uncovering of official shenanigans wherever possible. It is run by a maverick, charismatic working-class autodidact called Terry (Adam Faith), late middle-aged, about Frayn's age, infectiously visionary, who runs a team of eccentrics familiar to anyone who has worked in an office: Jacqui (Rosalind Ayres), the kind-at-heart termagant, Terry's age; Shireen (Luna Rahman), the airhead receptionist, reading Hello! or Super Confidence in her glass box; Liz (Julia...
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SOURCE: Blansfield, Karen C. “Michael Frayn and the World of Work.” South Atlantic Review 60, no. 4 (November 1995): 111-28.
[In the following essay, Blansfield discusses the themes of work and professional life in Frayn's plays, concluding that Frayn's interest in these themes is based on “a perception of its crucial role in middle class life.”]
Michael Frayn once commented that seeing the plays of David Storey demonstrated to him “for the first time that the great world of work in which we all live could be represented on the stage” (Plays: One x-xi). That observation must have taken root, for many of Frayn's own plays concern people at work—including architects, journalists, actors, salesmen, librarians, and bureaucrats—and reveal how professions influence the characters' lives, both in and out of the office. Unlike Storey's characters, or those of other post-1956 playwrights, like Arnold Wesker, Frayn's characters aren't involved in physical labor; rather, they are educated, ambitious, middle-class individuals for whom work is intellectual and is intrinsically connected with one's life. To restyle the old phrase “You are what you eat,” in Frayn's world it might be, “You are what you do,” or “you are your job,” for work dominates these characters' lives and shapes the action of the plays as well.
A preoccupation with work...
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SOURCE: Dyson, Jonathan. “Remember Me?: Various Cinemas.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4922 (1 August 1997): 18.
[In the following review, Dyson observes that many of the comic moments in Remember Me? are predictable but effective, further commenting that the film's resolution is unsatisfying and improbable.]
Remember Me? is a traditional British farce. The screenplay is by Michael Frayn, the author of Noises Off, the hugely successful play about a farce. Indeed, the film looks as if it has been adapted from a stage play, without much opening-out: almost all the action takes place in a run-down suburban semi in West Byfleet over the period of an hour or so (in the evening and the next morning), and the stage farce staples of bed-hopping and door-slamming are very much in evidence.
In the dining-room, Lorna (Imelda Staunton) is distractedly doing piece-work (filling out insurance-claim details) on a geriatric computer. An anxious husband, Ian (Rik Mayall), pesters her for use of the computer because he has to do some job applications, while their daughter Jessica (Emily Bruni), taking her “year off”, interrupts both, wanting to know why her boyfriend can't come to dinner. Their son Mark (Tim Matthews), meanwhile, provides bathetic musical punctuation and further aggravation to the domestic squabbling by practising his French horn while sitting on the...
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SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “Artfully, Seriously Ludic.” Spectator 283, no. 8922 (7 August 1999): 34-5.
[In the following review, Brookner evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Headlong.]
The journey [in Headlong] begins with a literal journey: a couple travelling north with their young baby. They are going to their cottage in the country, which is furnished with all the comforts of a typical low-grade English rural property: mice, damp, a defaulting septic tank. They are met, unexpectedly, by a man who introduces himself as a neighbour, Tony Churt, equally bedraggled, and receive an even more unexpected invitation to dinner. Churt's purpose becomes clear: he has heard that the wife, Kate, is an art historian, and he would like her opinion as to the saleability of a large picture by Luca Giordano hanging in the breakfast room.
The visit is predictably uncomfortable. Both husband and wife are noncommittal about the Giordano, which is extremely large and clearly a routine exercise. Turning to leave, the husband, Martin, notices a small panel in the fireplace, blocking the fall of soot from the chimney. Immediately, instinctively, triumphantly, he recognises it as a Bruegel, that is to say a picture by Bruegel the Elder, devoid of the additional consonant adopted by his descendants. Politely the guests take their leave. No further mention is made of the panel in the fireplace,...
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SOURCE: Jensen, Hal. “Reading the Pictures.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5029 (20 August 1999): 19.
[In the following review, Jensen asserts that Frayn's treatment of the protagonist's relationship with his wife in Headlong is the book's main asset, but faults the novel for lacking substantial characters, memorable description, and for a disappointing and contrived plot.]
Headlong into what? Reproduced on the jacket of Michael Frayn's new novel [Headlong] is Bruegel's painting “The Fall of Icarus”, and certainly this work deals with the adverse consequences of rash ambition; but the picture is reproduced in a strange perspective, which is meant to alert us, I think, to the actual canvas of “The Fall”, for this is also a story about the history, value and identification of art—Bruegel's in particular. These themes are brought together by Frayn through an account of the perils associated with academic research: the life-excluding obsession with what can be found in books, the headlong rush after supposition and hypothesis, the hubristic desire to discover the fact that redefines all known facts; in this case, one man's determination to identify and reveal to the world a new, unheard-of, masterpiece by the sixteenth-century Netherlander. Icarus, yes, but if Bruegel had given us a “Faustus Goes to Hell”, that would be even more fitting. The subdued catastrophe of Bruegel's...
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SOURCE: Dunford, Judith. “Magical Mystery Tour.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (5 September 1999): 11.
[In the following review, Dunford contends that Headlong demonstrates Frayn's abilities as an intelligent, funny, and clever writer.]
What would we readers do without the infernally brilliant writers of Britain, of which there fortunately seems to be a limitless supply? Certainly one of the very cleverest is Michael Frayn. Thirteen plays, including the fondly remembered Noises Off. Journalism. Novels that have made critics thumb through their thesauri to find new synonyms for “smart” and “funny.”
Headlong, his ninth novel, will not give their Roget'ses any time back on the bookshelf. It purports to be the recollections of Martin Clay, an academic philosopher careening a little recklessly into art history, of an extraordinary episode in his life. The curtain rises as Clay, his wife, Kate, who is a genuine art historian, and their small baby arrive at their musty country cottage. Their domestic tasks—getting the place aired out and ready—are immediately interrupted by a visit from the bumptious local squire. He seizes on them as neighbors and invites them to his big house for dinner. Clay is annoyed but slightly flattered, a whole literature's worth of English country squires with grand houses dancing in his brains.
When they arrive,...
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SOURCE: Natale, Terri. “Countryside Capers.” New Statesman 12, no. 572 (13 September 1999): 55.
[In the following review, Natale describes Headlong as a successful novel that effectively blends farce and social comedy.]
Can a master playwright and skilled columnist also produce a successful novel? Can the writer of the award-winning theatrical hits Noises Off and Copenhagen transfer his peculiar talents to another genre? Michael Frayn's first novel in seven years emphatically proves that he can.
Headlong is an intoxicating blend of farce and social comedy—a sustained history lesson on the Spanish conquest of the Netherlands and the 16th-century Dutch landscape painter Pieter Bruegel, and a study of the frailties of the human heart. The plot centres around Martin Clay, our confessional narrator and a philosophy lecturer with an interest in art history, his art historian wife and their baby daughter, Tilda. Clay is struggling to complete a book. To limit distractions, the family decamp to their country cottage, where they are unexpectedly invited to dinner by a local landowner, Tony Churt, and his much younger second wife—an ideal platform for Frayn to satirise the different but related pretensions of urban intellectuals and rural gentry.
After dinner the reason for the invitation becomes clear: Churt, down on his luck, is searching...
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SOURCE: Wood, Michael. “Four Thousand, Tops.” London Review of Books 21, no. 20 (14 October 1999): 22-3.
[In the following review, Wood discusses the theme of self-delusion in Headlong, commenting that the book has a fine beginning but loses its momentum when bogged down by the plodding details of the protagonist's research findings.]
In Michael Frayn's first novel, The Tin Men, there is a character who is supposed to be writing a novel, but mainly concentrates on devising the blurbs and reviews for the as yet unstarted book, as if the work itself was merely the plodding cause of a glittering celebrity effect, and ideally could be dispensed with altogether. Frayn specialises in this kind of comedy, the mind racing ahead of its occasions and then coming a cropper as the occasions catch up. I'm not sure who else works in this mode at the moment, but the fiction of Laurence Sterne is full of it, and its most notorious modern instance occurs in Duck Soup, where Groucho Marx, invited to hold out the hand of friendship to an enemy, imagines himself doing it, imagines the enemy's response, imagines himself responding to the response, imagines a response to that, and by the time the enemy materialises has talked himself into such a state of indignation that he slaps the fellow's face. The enemy himself has played no part in this little drama.
Headlong is built on...
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SOURCE: Stewart, Victoria. “A Theatre of Uncertainties: Science and History in Michael Frayn's Copenhagen.” New Theatre Quarterly 15, no. 60 (November 1999): 301-07.
[In the following essay, Stewart argues that Copenhagen creates a dialogue between the discourses of science and theater which reveals that both are concerned with questions of ambiguity and uncertainty.]
Recent critical writing has addressed the relationship between literature and science in a variety of ways, reflecting both an ever-increasing interdisciplinarity in academia and the increasing availability and popularity of accessible accounts of scientific discoveries and concepts, such as James Gleik's Chaos (1987) and Simon Singh's Fermat's Last Theorem (1996). Specifically in relation to drama, Roslynn D. Haynes, in From Faust to Strangelove, has shown how cultural attitudes towards scientists and scientific discoveries can be traced through their representations on the stage; but another strand can also be identified—that which draws comparisons between drama and science as reality-representing practices.
In his article ‘Re-inspecting the Crack in the Chimney: Chaos Theory from Ibsen to Stoppard’, for example, William Demastes suggests that particular structural dynamics identified in Ibsen's The Master Builder can be seen as replicating those described by chaos...
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SOURCE: Hensher, Philip. “Triumphant Comedies of Failure.” Spectator 283, no. 8941 (18 December 1999): 55, 57.
[In the following review, Hensher provides an overview of Frayn's novels and plays, focusing on the theme of failure in interpersonal communication, with specific emphasis on the novel Headlong.]
Michael Frayn's Headlong didn't win the Booker prize this year, and no one can have been surprised, only rueful. The odds are heavily against any remotely comic novel, and it long ago turned into a prize for good behaviour by unexciting novelists. Anything further from a piece of good behaviour by an unexciting novelist than Headlong can hardly be imagined; it is a reckless, vulgar, ceaselessly entertaining romp. The ferocious comedy that results when avarice collides with the high-minded purity of the art world is sustained by a fierce intelligence, a mind which is at least as fascinated by abstract thought as by the motives of human beings. To be honest, I can't remember now what won the Booker this year, though I know I must have read it, whatever it was. What no one, surely, can have any doubt about is that the lightness, swiftness and strength of Headlong, and of all Frayn's work will guarantee its permanent survival. It explores complex ideas of language and meaning through the unexpected means of the comic novel, and does so with a graceful confidence, the unmistakable...
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SOURCE: Bien, Peter. Review of Headlong, by Michael Frayn. World Literature Today 74, no. 2 (spring 2000): 364.
[In the following review, Bien describes Headlong as “urbane and funny,” but comments that some readers may find the academic and research portions of the book to be tedious and uninteresting.]
Some readers crave an edition of Moby Dick with the descriptions of whaling deleted. Likewise, some readers may crave an edition of Headlong with the art-history passages deleted. The novel's protagonist, Martin Clay, thinks he has discovered a long lost Bruegel covered with soot. So he spends hours in the London Library researching the subject in books such as Réau's Iconographie de l'art chrétien and Motley's Rise of the Dutch Republic. His scheme is to pay the owner the modest sum of about £100,000 (the painting's alleged importance kept secret, of course) and then to sell the work for a million or more. Unfortunately, he does not have the £100,000; thus he needs to borrow and beg. In the end, owing to a farcical imbroglio, the prized painting is destroyed by fire, and several other canvases in the same collection, works that Clay had deemed worthless, are sold for huge sums—by someone else!
Perhaps the art-history passages are necessary nevertheless, since they force the reader to undergo Martin Clay's own tedious process of...
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SOURCE: Steyn, Mark. “Period Decadence, Emotional Truths.” New Criterion 18, no. 9 (May 2000): 45-9.
[In the following excerpt, Steyn comments that Copenhagen effectively makes use of scientific principals to illuminate emotional truths.]
Life upon the wicked stage, wrote Oscar Hammerstein, ain't nothin' like a girl supposes. I'll say. Seventy years on, as if to underline the futility of theatrical aspirations, there now seems to be a distinct actuarial disadvantage. A couple of years back, it was Jonathan Larson dying on the eve of his triumph with Rent. Last month, the author of James Baldwin: A Soul on Fire could have woken up and read a rave review in the Times of his first major New York production. Unfortunately, he didn't wake up at all: he had fallen into a coma and died later that day. Howard Simon was thirty-seven, more or less the same age as Larson.
When the fates play a trick most contemporary dramatists would recoil from using, it's tempting to ponder what they mean by it. In 1980, when Gower Champion, with the impeccable timing that characterized his best work, expired a few hours before the curtain rose on the premiere of 42nd Street, it was an apt if freakish finale to a splendid career. In the New York theater these days, the final curtain is as likely to fall during previews—as if to say abandon hope all ye who enter here. In...
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SOURCE: Rose, Paul Lawrence. “Frayn's Copenhagen Plays Well, at History's Expense.” Chronicle of Higher Education 46, no. 35 (5 May 2000): B4-B6.
[In the following review, Rose offers a negative assessment of Copenhagen, arguing that the play distorts historic and scientific truth for the sake of drama and theatricality, thereby undermining the moral significance of the real life events on which the work is based.]
Scholars are never satisfied when they see their specialized subjects turn fodder for stage, screen, or novels. The adaptor, like the translator, is by definition something of a traitor to his topic. There are so many pitfalls awaiting the artistic magus. He can get an essential personality wrong, as Peter Shaffer may have done with his hyperactive Mozart in Amadeus, or worse, with his Salieri, whom the playwright slanders as a murderer. Or he may get the facts of a historical situation wrong, as Rolf Hochhuth allegedly did in recounting Pius XII's nonreaction to the Holocaust in the 1963 play The Representative.
In such cases, specialists inevitably carp, and at conferences and in faculty-club chatter, they attempt to recapture the dignity of precision by the renewed staking out of violated scholarly turf. But can that sacred turf ever be fully reclaimed once its invasion has been so publicly observed and, worst of all, when the disreputable...
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SOURCE: Fearn, Nicholas. “Perpetuating Impractical Jokes.” Spectator 284, no. 8963 (20 May 2000): 51.
[In the following review, Fearn praises Frayn's sense of humor in Celia's Secret, calling the work an “entertaining record of folly.”]
People who claim to have seen God whilst on hallucinogenic drugs sometimes tell of a common reaction to the circumstances. Our first impulse on the Day of Judgement, they relate, is neither to apologise profusely nor put up a spirited defence of our behaviour. Rather, it is to try to delay the Almighty, to keep Him talking or distract Him somehow by changing the subject. More sober citizens experience similar thoughts as they flounder in disbelief on discovering they have been taken in by a trickster. The predicament is well documented in this collaboration between the actor David Burke and a sporting dupe Michael Frayn.
Burke played the physicist Niels Bohr in the first cast of Frayn's play Copenhagen, which concerns the visit Werner Heisenberg paid to Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941. At the end of the second world war, Heisenberg, along with the other German scientists who had been involved in atomic research, was secretly interned for six months in Farm Hall, a country house on the outskirts of Godmanchester, in Huntingdonshire. There they ate first-class dinners and entertained each other with piano recitals while the British...
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SOURCE: Powers, Thomas. “The Unanswered Question.” New York Review of Books 47, no. 9 (25 May 2000): 4, 6-7.
[In the following review, Powers describes Copenhagen as “wonderful theater,” noting that Frayn addresses moral issues of depth and complexity.]
Something happened—some terrible offense was given which could never be recalled—during the wartime visit of the German physicist Werner Heisenberg to the man who probably meant most to him in the world, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. It would be forgotten now, certainly Michael Frayn never would have written a play about it, if the offense had not somehow involved Heisenberg's role as a leader of the German effort to invent atomic bombs. But the bomb was part of it and scientists and historians have been arguing about what happened ever since.
Here is what is known: in September 1941 Heisenberg traveled to Copenhagen, where he told Bohr that in Germany a research effort was underway to develop bombs using the principle of atomic fission. Some kind of misunderstanding ensued. In despair Heisenberg told his wife and close friends that the conversation had gone astray, Bohr became too angry to continue, the meeting ended abruptly. Bohr's wife and friends later confirmed that indeed he was angry, so angry that the old friendship and intimate working relationship could never be restored. They did not see each other for...
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SOURCE: Wren, Celia. “The Idea's the Thing.” Commonweal 127, no. 12 (16 June 2000): 17-18.
[In the following review, Wren asserts that the storyline in Copenhagen is obscured by the complexity of the abstract ideas being discussed.]
Science has escaped from its ghetto, at least here in Manhattan, where laboratory-minted ideas and images are gaining ever wider currency. The theater scene, in particular, has been awash in theorems. Off Broadway, no fewer than three new dramas about mathematics opened in April and May, while the ambitious Ensemble Studio Theater was wheeling through its second season devoted to drama about science. On Broadway, audiences were flocking to Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, about the German physicist Werner Heisenberg and his “uncertainty principle.”
Heisenberg (1901-76) is not exactly a newcomer to the footlights, or to culture in general. Modern writers have been fascinated with the uncertainty principle, which states, roughly, that at quantum level (that is, where things get really, really small), you can know either the position or the velocity of a particle, but not both. Heisenberg's principle and related quantum truths also imply that by observing a particle, you interfere with it. “The act of observing determines the reality,” as Tom Stoppard explained in Hapgood, his 1988 spoof about spies and quantum mechanics....
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SOURCE: Filbin, Thomas. “Visas Not Required.” Hudson Review 53, no. 2 (summer 2000): 329-35.
[In the following review, Filbin describes Headlong as witty, sardonic, engaging, and droll.]
On a perfectly indolent June evening last year, my wife and I sat in a restaurant in Edinburgh enjoying the endless summer twilight in northern latitudes. The restaurant was Italian, our waiter was Bosnian, and with friends from Cheshire who had recently been to Crete and Botswana, we began musing about the new global economy. Our shoes were from Hungary or China, our clothes from Central America, and so on as we made an inventory. We flew back to Boston with tourists and businesspeople from everywhere, and as we arrived heard a song on the in-flight radio channel by a Glaswegian rock group named, appropriately enough at this point, “Texas.” If the world the free trade economists long for is nearly here, it makes me wonder how far behind is the complete internationalization of literature. It should not come as a shock that the German company Bertelsmann, after buying Random House, besides being the largest book publisher in the world, also became the largest in the English language.
More fiction by writers not born in the United States seems available these days, and although much is through university and small presses, given the realities of any publishing venture, one can't imagine...
(The entire section is 3400 words.)
SOURCE: Harper, Paula. “Uncertainty Principle.” Art in America 88, no. 7 (July 2000): 35.
[In the following review, Harper asserts that the strength of Headlong lies in its effective mixture of philosophy and farce.]
Michael Frayn's current Broadway play, Copenhagen, dramatizes a heady, imagined conversation between two atomic physicists. Now in his recent comical mystery novel, Headlong, Frayn romps across the fields of philosophy and art history. The whole reckless rush of the story is seen from the viewpoint of Martin Clay, a professor of philosophy who is prone to jumping to conclusions, impulsively acting on them, and then reversing himself in a panic when he realizes he's misinterpreted the world outside his own thought processes.
Reading Frayn's novel is something like spending a few hours inside the head of an academic Basil Fawlty. Martin has the same gift for misunderstanding everyone and sowing chaos and confusion. But instead of running an inn like Fawlty Towers, he and his wife, Kate, and infant daughter, Tilda, have come down from London to their country cottage so that Martin can finish his book on nominalism and its influence on Netherlandish painting. The down-to-earth Kate is an art historian by profession, working on a dictionary of comparative Christian iconography. Martin prefers to muse on the larger issues of iconology and on the big...
(The entire section is 989 words.)
SOURCE: Winder, Robert. “Hall of Mirrors.” New Statesman 129, no. 4496 (24 July 2000): 54-5.
[In the following review, Winder offers a positive assessment of Celia's Secret, praising the book as “clever.”]
There are, as any writer will be quick to tell you, not very many rules of etiquette governing book reviewing. Indeed, reviews often include a level of rudeness that would be considered actionable in, say, a business report. But at least one rough-and-ready principle still holds: reviewers are not supposed to give away the ending, to spoil the twists and surprises on which a plot turns. It would be bad form to identify the killer in a murder story, the outcome of a love affair or the deception on which a fraud depends—as dull as explaining a magic trick. At times like this, reviewers usually oblige the author by battening down the hatches and settling for a few vague hints about the way the story whirls to its “inevitable conclusion”.
I apologise, therefore, for what follows, because it isn't really possible to say much about Michael Frayn's and David Burke's clever new book [Celia's Secret] without giving the game away. An obliging review would have to be brief. Like this. One day, the author and playwright Michael Frayn receives a letter from a woman who has been to see his play Copenhagen. The play concerns a mysterious encounter between two...
(The entire section is 1140 words.)
SOURCE: Logan, Jonothan. “‘A Strange New Quantum Ethics.’” American Scientist 88, no. 4 (July-August 2000): 356-59.
[In the following review, Logan faults Copenhagen for altering historical facts and misconstruing the moral issues raised by the real life events on which it is based.]
“Copenhagen Tames Complexity of Science” was the title of a recent review of Michael Frayn's latest play—meant, no doubt, as a compliment. Audiences in New York, where the play opened in April after a long run in London, do seem dazzled by the heady counterpoint of history, quantum mechanics and postmodern epistemology electrifying the air between the play's characters—Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr and Bohr's wife Margrethe. The play is quick, clever and artfully plotted. What's disturbing is that Copenhagen “tames” history, too, altering the facts and rearranging the moral landscape the real Bohr and Heisenberg inhabited.
The subject of the play is Heisenberg's famous September 1941 visit to Bohr in Nazi-occupied Denmark, an encounter the two men described very differently after the war. Bohr, according to family members, perceived Heisenberg's visit as decidedly hostile, perhaps an attempt to pick his brain on the subject of fission or a probe for information on Allied research. Heisenberg maintained (to the Swiss-German journalist Robert Jungk) that he came simply to ask...
(The entire section is 2103 words.)
SOURCE: Gee, Maggie. “A Joker's Guide to Table Tennis.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5083 (1 September 2000): 34.
[In the following review, Gee asserts that Celia's Secret is a factual account of a hoax carried out between two friends.]
This curious little book is a coda to Michael Frayn's successful play Copenhagen, in which his current co-author David Burke played the Danish atomic physicist Niels Bohr. The play explored the mystery of the German physicist Werner Heisenberg's visit to Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941, at a time when the two men's countries were at war. We know the visit marked the end of the friendship between Bohr and Heisenberg, but we do not know why, though Heisenberg's role in the Nazi attempt to make an atom bomb was a crucial factor. Copenhagen shows both the difficulties in filling lacunae in history, and the force of our compulsion to do so.
Celia's Secret reads like a fictional jeu d'esprit on similar themes—except that its authors tell us it is a true story which happened during the first West End run of the play. Celia Rhys-Evans, a woman who had just seen it, sent Frayn some scraps of dingy yellow paper which had once been hidden under the floorboards of Home Farm, the British farm where a group of physicists, including Heisenberg, was interned and monitored by British intelligence after the war. Though Frayn's...
(The entire section is 679 words.)
SOURCE: Moseley, Merritt. “The Booker Prize for 1999.” Sewanee Review 108, no. 4 (fall 2000): 648-55.
[In the following essay, Moseley notes that Headlong, which was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize, was his personal choice to win the award, asserting that Headlong is “a novel of lasting significance.”]
The Booker Prize for fiction was awarded on October 25, 1999, to the South African novelist J. M. Coetzee for Disgrace. Coetzee thus became the first author in the thirty-year history of the prize to win it a second time (his The Life and Times of Michael K won in 1983). Disgrace was chosen from a short list of titles, announced a month earlier, that also included Anita Desai's Fasting, Feasting; Ahdaf Soueif's The Map of Love; Andrew O'Hagan's Our Fathers; Michael Frayn's Headlong; and Colm Tóibín's The Blackwater Lightship. Including an Irish author, a Scot, an Indian, an Egyptian, a South African, and a solitary Englishman, the list reinforced some observers' belief in (1) the cosmopolitan richness of the literary novel in English; or (2) the decline in importance of the English novelist; or (3) the trendiness and political correctness of Booker judges. It was a better list than in recent years but lacked any great works. Coetzee's novel, though not in my judgment the best novel in the group, was a deserving...
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SOURCE: Gardam, Jane. “No Careless Talk in the Close.” Spectator 288, no. 9051 (26 January 2002): 53.
[In the following review, Gardam praises Spies, contending the book is detailed, sensuous, and an effective evocation of boyhood memories.]
Michael Frayn's new novel [Spies] comes disguised as a memory of boyhood experience during the last war, the friendship between a bewildered, inarticulate state-school boy and a boy from further down the street whose frightening father imposes an officer-class discipline on his apparently perfectly balanced household. The unravelling by the boys of a wartime mystery among the other residents of The Close (aptly named) at first seems to be the spark of the book; a tragic episode inside the greater conflict, quickly put aside, if never resolved. ‘Not everything then was reported or spoken about.’
But there is very much more. This is such a sensuous book that at times, while never trying to be poetic or melodic, it comes near to painting or music. The first chapter reads like a lament, a cry to find again a certain smell—not scent—left behind somewhere in childhood 50 years before: a rank, sexy, urgent smell. The boy, now an old man, can't place it. His family in Germany where he now lives tells him that it is the smell of a plant and gives its German name, but it still eludes him. He returns to his childhood home and...
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SOURCE: Keates, Jonathan. “A Well-Tended Eden.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5157 (1 February 2002): 22.
[In the following review, Keates discusses the significance of setting Spies in an English suburb, the book's subtle references to other works of fiction, and its treatment of the themes of “morality and the nature and impact of truth.”]
Suburbia, more especially the grid-plan sprawls making up Greater London on its western and southern sides, is one of the twentieth-century's greatest gifts to fiction. Its stifling limitations, real or fancied, force desire and imagination to burgeon like the rhubarb grown by gardeners under upturned dustbins. A prevailing atmosphere of civic order and tranquillity among the villas and bungalows has, by its very nature, to be deceptive. Since everything about these dwellings is false, from their architectural mimicry—a Spanish hacienda, a William Morris “House Beautiful”, or a timber-framed manor—to the horticultural omnium-gatherum which crams tennis court, swimming-pool, orchard and parterre into a scant half-acre, we can happily infer that the life behind their ramparts of privet and leylandii must be equally rich in pretence, chicanery and thickly shadowed suppressions.
This is certainly how it appears to Michael Frayn in his latest novel, Spies. The location is casually specified at one point as Wimbledon, but we...
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SOURCE: Barnacle, Hugo. “Novel of the Week.” New Statesman 15, no. 692 (4 February 2002): 57.
[In the following review, Barnacle describes Spies as fascinating, pleasurable, and powerful, despite its implausibility and recycling of familiar themes.]
Books read in adulthood almost never seize and enwrap your imagination like the books you read as a child, but here is one that might do the trick. [Spies] is about children and the intense, “half-understood” world that they inhabit, and it has the brevity and compactness of books written for the young, yet neither of these factors can quite explain its remarkable grip. It recycles some familiar themes and suffers from a major drawback in the area of plausibility; all the same, it works like a charm.
Stephen, an old man living somewhere abroad, is assailed one summer by the overpowering reek of a privet hedge, which brings on a Proustian recollection of his wartime childhood in an outer-London suburb. Back in 1943 or thereabouts, his best friend is Keith, who lives in the same cul-de-sac. Keith, a bossy only child, is slightly but significantly posher than Stephen, and sets the tone for their fantasies. The as-yet-unbuilt cableway for sending messages between their houses: Keith's idea. The string of undetected murders committed by Mr Gort down the road: Keith's idea. The secret society operating from “Trewinnick, the...
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SOURCE: Watman, Max. “Guileless Games.” New Criterion 20, no. 9 (May 2002): 66-71.
[In the following review, Watman contends that the overall quality of Spies is compromised by its contrived, ineffective narrative devices.]
If there is anything the reading public knows, it is that underneath the calm gentility of suburban life boils a hellish soup of misdeeds and perversions. The rolling hills of Winesburg, Ohio and its cast of fresh-faced ne'er-do-wells are always within view. Michael Frayn, in Spies, has turned this tradition a bit on its head, for in this book, the transgressions are mostly imagined by a young boy named Stephen.1 That is, until the truth is revealed, and we see the real and grown-up banalities of adultery, ill-chosen love, and cowardice.
The book is set amidst the blackout curtains of World-War-II England. Stephen has a friend named Keith, who is a class above him, goes to a better school, and therefore operates as the leader in their gang of two for most of the book. Keith voices the game that will initiate the story. Frayn's crescendo approach to this utterance is so melodramatic that upon its arrival it can only disappoint. Throughout this book, in fact, Frayn writes as if he must close each act with a zinger to keep you in your seat while the curtain is down. We get a lot of “Everything has changed once again, and changed...
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SOURCE: Hensher, Philip. “The Ruthless Grip of Language.” Spectator 288, no. 9068 (25 May 2002): 39-40.
[In the following essay, Hensher discusses what he perceives as the central theme throughout Frayn's columns, novels, and plays—a concern with the problematic relationships between people and language.]
Michael Frayn has been awarded this year's Heywood Hill Prize, and nobody is going to argue with that. The prize is not for an individual work, but in recognition of a complete and distinguished literary career. Frayn's career has been a remarkable one; cogent and unified, pursuing single ideas with seemingly infinite resourcefulness and variation, raising grave and profound questions with an unfailing surface of grace and elegance. His audience, from the start, has been treated with great respect; readers of his early columns for the Observer, or his comic novels of the 1960s, or the audiences at his romping theatrical entertainments, have always been presented with something which will while away a train journey or send you off to supper on a cloud of merriment. Frayn is so remarkable because, underneath the supremely accomplished, almost boulevard technique and inventiveness, he always gently and respectfully invites his audience to contemplate some extremely knotty concept. He knows, in short, what he is doing; and he trusts you to listen.
It might be said that bad...
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Blansfield, Karen C. “Michael Frayn.” In British Playwrights, 1956-1995: A Research and Production Sourcebook, edited by William W. Demastes, pp. 143-57. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1996.
Blansfield presents an overview of Frayn's dramatic works, including reference sources, through 1995.
Coates, Joseph. “Getting What You Want.” Chicago Tribune (22 February 1993): 5.
Coates applauds the character development in Now You Know, describing the novel as “half farce, half tragedy, and all comedy.”
Frayn, Michael, and John L. DiGaetani. “Michael Frayn.” In A Search for a Postmodern Theater: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights, pp. 73-81. New York: Greenwood Press, 1991.
Frayn discusses playwriting, trends in modern theatre, and his body of work.
Gottlieb, Vera. “Why This Farce?” New Theatre Quarterly 7, no. 27 (August 1991): 217-28.
Gottlieb compares Frayn's works with the plays of nineteenth-century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov.
Harrell, Wade. “When the Parody Parodies Itself: The Problem with Michael Frayn's Noises Off.” In From the Bard to Broadway, pp. 87-93. Landham, Md.: University Presses of America, 1987.
Harrell discusses Noises Off...
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