Michael Frayn’s family lived in Mill Hill in northwest London but moved to Holloway soon after his birth and then to Ewell, a southwest suburb, where he was reared. His father was an asbestos salesperson who occasionally took Michael and his sister to the nearby Kingston Empire, a music hall, as a special treat. Frayn remembers borrowing music-hall routines for the home entertainments—puppet shows and conjuring acts—that he devised for an audience of three—father, mother, and sister. At Christmastime, the elder Frayn became the star performer in comic sketches that he himself wrote. Michael and his sister were relegated to supporting roles, and Mrs. Frayn formed an audience of one. Michael Frayn’s mother, who had earlier worked as a shop assistant and occasional model in Harrods, London’s grandest department store, died when he was twelve, a disorienting experience for the boy. At that time, his father removed him from private day school, which the boy hated, and enrolled him in the state-run Kingston Grammar School, where he was far more comfortable.
Frayn got along with his chums by playing the fool and cleverly mimicking his teachers while doing a minimum of schoolwork. That changed when an English master, aware of the boy’s incipient talent for writing, challenged him to produce even better work. These were the years in which Frayn discovered poetry, music, religion, and politics. He and his friends declared themselves atheists and formed a model communist cell in the school. Although his interest in communism soon waned, it led him to study the Russian language. He subsequently traveled to the Soviet Union, employing it as the setting of his spy novel The Russian Interpreter (1966). In addition, he has become Great Britain’s foremost translator of Russian drama, specifically the plays of Chekhov, which are peopled with characters as bewildered, troubled, and comic as Frayn’s own.
Frayn perfected his Russian when he was...
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