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, indeed reels into the foyer after each act, in the state of happy elation described by Bentley. The complimentary quotations from the reviews do not exaggerate: “The audience were toppling over with joy” (Standard); “This is a great farce, one of the most ingenious things I have ever seen” (Sunday Times); “An audience that wouldn't be seen dead at a sex farce laughs its head off at this one” (Observer, making a somewhat dubious categorization). Frayn has found his answer to the problem confronting modern farce writers by turning to the theatre, one of the places where the tightest of disciplines must prevail, even though—or especially because—pleasure is the object. However trivial the piece, the players who are performing it must take rehearsals, deadlines, all the business of the stage with the same seriousness as if it were Shakespeare. “The show must go on” is a real categorical imperative. Farce requires the strictest discipline of all, so Frayn is playing a subtle game with form when he makes his farce out of the stage business of making a farce.
We are never to get beyond Act One, so the programme tells us: a rather uneasy discovery if one comes to the theatre knowing nothing about the play (it is not published as I write). The setting is the living-room of the Brents' country home, seen first, the programme tells us (it is an amusing joke in itself), at the Grand Theatre, Weston-super-Mare, then at the Theatre Royal, Goole, last at the Municipal Theatre, Stockton-on-Tees. The names tell their own tale (apologies to Weston-super-Mare!) of the company's expectations. The audience's too may be rather low as the curtain goes up on the standard lounge-hall set and a comic lady cleaner/housekeeper, Mrs. Clackett, played by Dotty Otley (after Stoppard?), comes on to do her comic business with a feather duster, a telephone and a cockney accent. She sketches in the situation (the Brents abroad, the house open to viewing by prospective tenants) and establishes some of the points round which the manic action will develop, including the most absurd of all, the plate of sardines which is always on Mrs. Clackett's mind and soon...
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gets on to everybody else's; it is lost, found, trod on, lost again, and is altogether a splendid red herring. Having waved the comic cleaner cliché at us, Frayn then gives the piece a push in a modern direction that stretches well back into the past too. From Sheridan'sThe Critic to Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, the “rehearsal” joke has been a sure-fire device for drawing the sort of laughter that allows for odd turns of thought about the nature of the theatrical illusion.
The voice from the auditorium that corrects Dotty's muddle and continually interrupts the action from then on brings us just to the fringe of the Pirandellian world. The hapless director, Lloyd Dallas, played with smooth accomplishment by Paul Eddington, is not unaware that he is in something like a Six Characters relationship with his cast, as his sardonic “explanations” of the play occasionally hint. But this is no more than the faintest of suggestions: Frayn's play has other fish to fry and little time left over from the comic business that accumulates at ever-increasing pace in the first act. The director's interruptions have a double function; funny in themselves, they help to fix the details of the business for the audience with a rather unusual exactness. We get to know almost as well as the actors the exact position of everything on the set; the four doors downstairs, four upstairs, and the places where the characters should be at any particular point. We are left free to register all this by the simple situation of Nothing On (the play under rehearsal). Basically, it is a mix-up of two couples, neither of them knowing that the other is in the house. The young man from the estate agents turns up with the dumb blond (obscurely connected with the Inland Revenue) for a swift assignation in the supposedly empty house he is passing off as his own. Hardly have they had time to find the right door and get her dress off, when the older couple, the real owners, arrive: not abroad, after all, but dodging the Inland Revenue. Stimulated by being secret visitors in their own house, they too seek a bedroom. “Off to bed, are you?” says Mrs. Clackett, with remarkable sang-froid, on being confronted with the employers she thought in Majorca (or was it Sardinia?). And from then on it is a game of hide-and-seek and near misses as couples race up and down the staircase, opening and shutting doors, finding objects in the wrong places, and becoming ever more perturbed by the poltergeist atmosphere in which things move apparently by magic, voices of unknown people are heard from behind doors, and the television takes off from its stand (with the aid of a superbly leisurely burglar). Even Dotty loses her aplomb at this—and her grip on the sardines.
But this is only the bare skeleton of a plot which is to be brought wonderfully alive by all the things that go wrong with it. In the rehearsal the troubles are technical: doorhandles stick, props are mislaid, the burglar not only fails to appear on cue but has to be sought throughout the theatre till he turns up, inquiring with bland alcoholic courtesy, “Have I missed the opening night?” This character—known only as Burglar in the Nothing On programme—becomes the best-known name in the company as the cry “Where is Selsdon?” rings round the house. The audience is being trained to recognize the danger spots where some of the funniest trouble is to develop later on—at such crazily high speed that we have to be as quick as the actors in our reactions if we are to follow the action and get the cream of the jokes. There will be no time, for instance, to explain why understudies are so quick to rush into the Burglar's costume, with the result that we become ridiculously over-provided with burglars in the third act. We have to grasp in the rehearsal the catastrophic unreliability which makes those improvised entrances oddly natural, though the result is so ludicrous. No one will be exempt from the chaos that comes dangerously close to triumphing in the following acts. Stage Manager Tim and ASM, Poppy Norton-Taylor, both hauled on to the stage in the rehearsal for the limited job of getting the technicals right, are to be completely swallowed up by the play, as indeed is the director, before the evening ends.
Another layer of comedy is provided by the relationship between the personalities of the actors and their stage roles. They are obviously type-cast. The jeune premier, suitably named Garry Lejeune (Nicky Henson, in fine form for all the acrobatics he is called on to perform), is impassioned and inarticulate in and out of his script: all his sentences seem to work up to climaxes that tail away in a dogged “You know.” The dumb blond concentrates on herself with a consistency which Rowena Roberts (playing Brooke Ashton playing Vicki) makes quite sublime. When she loses her contact lens and the whole company searches for it with exaggerated care (waves of sympathetic laughter for the lifted feet from an audience evidently familiar with the routine in life), she keeps her little-girl cool, only just remembering to tell them when she finds it—in her eye, inevitably. True to type, when pandemonium breaks out later, she simply continues with her routine whenever it proves possible; having mastered her part (no easy task for her, we guess), she goes on with it regardless.
There are intriguing gaps as well as affinities between the actors and the characters they play. The toothily smiling Mr. Brent, bounding on euphorically with Belinda in the much-rehearsed opening scene, turns out, as Freddy the actor, to be earnest and angst-ridden, always wanting rational explanations for the silly things he has to do in the plot. Why, he wants to know, does he have to take his parcels at one point into the study, what is the real reason for it? No good telling him they are needed there for the next scene; the director has to provide him with a Stanislavskyan “through line”; the character's attitude to parcels represents a need for security, the result of unsettling experiences in childhood. “Oh, thank you, Lloyd,” breathes the nervous actor, picking up his parcels with new heart.
It is Belinda who persuades the director to take pity on her stage husband, relating the trouble he is having with his wife in real life. She is the know-all of the company, asking “Didn't you know that?” sweetly as she breaks each new scandal. Jan Waters makes her a rather rounded personality: ironic, cool, urbane, a good contrast with the noisy, humorous, eccentric Dotty (robustly played by Patricia Routledge), who is to be her deadly real-life rival in the final act. By the end of the first act Belinda has let the cast into two secrets which provide impetus for much of what follows: Garry and Dotty are “you know” (a surprise to the audience, this, as well as to the actors, for as one of them says, she is old enough to be his—). And Brooke's stormy scene with the director is, so Belinda reveals, nothing but a rather sweet lovers' quarrel.
When the curtain comes down, the first act of Nothing On has been brought to a ludicrous climax by the appearance of a real prospective tenant, a sheikh in flowing robes who pronounces a benediction on the “House of Heavenly Peace.” This rather crude irony of the inner play is to acquire more interesting resonance from the complex patterns that have been forming during the rehearsal, with the actors' private lives cutting across the problems in the plot they are performing. The second act triumphantly demonstrates this intricate counterpointing. In a brilliant stroke of invention, which takes a tip from Beckett's Play as well as from Pirandello, Frayn gives us the first act of Nothing On all over again—with the crucial difference that it is being done “for real.” Another audience is located somewhere out there at the very back of the stage, beyond the footlights which the audience at the Savoy glimpses from time to time as “our” actors go through the play for the unseen audience.
The emphasis shifts now to the actors' private lives. Panic reigns by the call-board and the stairs leading to the stage house (seen from behind to be nothing but doors and platform). Temperament is raging. Tongue-tied emotional Garry has developed a furious jealousy of Freddy, whom he suspects of intentions on Dotty, who in her turn is enraged and threatening not to go on. Not a serious threat, this, for she has money in the show, as the director (returned incognito for the opening from his other production in London) sardonically points out. By the end of the act we learn that Poppy is pregnant by this Lothario. “I didn't know that,” says Belinda, raising a human laugh after the more manic glee of the farce at its wildest. The amorous tensions and confusions are exacerbated by every trivial event, including the bouquet which gets handed around to the wrong persons, and the general insecurity is heightened in the usual way by the unreliable comings and goings of Selsdon and the whisky bottle for which they can never find a hiding-place that he will not find. Through all this torrid backstage drama, Poppy is cooing at intervals into the public-address system, “Ladies and gentlemen, will you kindly take your seats. The curtain will go up in three minutes,” advice the Stage Manager repeats with different timing, unaware that she has been before him: a very funny sequence, which has the effect, so the director bitterly informs them, of making terrible trouble for the matinée audience of old-age pensioners, unsure whether or not they have time to visit the cloakroom.
The categorical imperative then comes into play. The curtain is really going up and now the sacred discipline of the theatre prevails: nothing must bring the performance to a halt. The actors' private drama continues, but—here Frayn is at the top of his invention—always in total silence. A wonderful mime is performed, synchronized with the action of the inner play with staggering dexterity. The tensions between the actors are acted out as in an early Charlie Chaplin film through expressive looks, gestures, professional bits of miming, bodily attacks narrowly averted, fiendish practical jokes like tying trouser legs together (Garry Lejeune is the victim of this one). Actors dash on to the backstage area, taking their chances to tread on a rival's hand or snatch up a weapon of defence before dashing back on stage in time to pick up their cues. Eccentric props substitute for the real ones. A hatchet appears (from the fire equipment?) to be ritualistically passed around without any seeming connection with anything. A cactus similarly appears, to be plucked ultimately from the director's posterior. The zaniness takes on a near surrealistic quality, not least in the way the routine of the inner play keeps going despite the anarchy the actors face each time they open a door, to find the wrong prop or person there or nothing where there should be something. Somehow they improvise, at a speed with which the audience has to work hard to keep up: slightly reduced levels of laughter in this act were surely due not to less mirth, but to the concentration needed to follow the dazzling, virtuoso mime and the intricate connections and near misses of the double plot.
Nothing On, amazingly, survives. The jeune premier makes his entrance on cue, even if he has to do it flat on his face, because of said practical joke with trousers. Other trousers fall, at an exhilarating rate, but the sky stays in place; the actors get to the curtain-fall. Then the backstage battle-lines are drawn up anew for the love-drama that is obviously going to continue among them between the acts.
How can Frayn follow the virtuosity of the second act, one wonders, returning after the interval to see Act One yet again. He had changes of thought about it himself (picking up suggestions from the audience), a reaction which seems right and proper for a farce which has such inspired improvisation built into it. Impressively, he escapes anticlimax by putting us into yet a new position; we are now the audience for whom the piece is being performed, as for the first time. We return to our seats, like the OAPs at Goole, to Poppy's cooing reminder that the curtain is about to go up. Then we see the so-familiar set, and the familiar actors appear in advanced stages of exhaustion, hysteria, inebriation. Dotty reels on, to collapse on her couch, snatching at the telephone with such abandon that she dislodges it, and the Brents on their first appearance have to make enormous efforts to get it back in place—or at least looking as if the wires might lead somewhere (like the action).
We watch with fascinated horror as the well-known lines and incidents blur and take on the manic quality of the feelings with which the actors are wrestling. The poltergeists are really in command now: Brooke's discarded dress acquires a mobility far beyond what it is supposed to have; the sardines are all over the place; we have not one burglar but three, at one point saying their lines in unison like a music-hall turn about to go into a dance routine. The director is one of them, his Olympian detachment gone, under the same pressure as the rest to improvise. He is their kind social worker, says Belinda, ad libbing brilliantly to account for his presence and remind him that he is “the man who tells us what to do.” It is the actors' revenge on God (hitherto inclined to keep at a safe distance in stalls or dress circle). And it is Poppy's triumph: in the white sheet, as one of the sheikhs (also multiplying like the burglars), she is suitably dressed for the wedding which it seems will be the Lothario's fate. Sweat dripping off them (the unlucky Lejeune has to take a tremendous tumble, much appreciated by the audience), wildly improvising or going through surviving bits of the routine like zombies, the actors maintain the play and end up with justifiable triumph on the right curtain-line, which incorrigibly claims the relevance of the irrelevant sardines.
The performance is an exhilarating test of us as well as the actors in the speed of adjustment it calls for—to pick up clues, spot rocks ahead, anticipate the need for improvisations, recognize the strange new shapes in which the Nothing On material presents itself. It is also humanly amusing, with its glances out to the ordinary little things, like dropped contact lenses, which the farce benevolently turns from a source of irritation to glorious fun.
The closeness of farce to ordinary life is a strong source of its appeal. How close it can be has been demonstrated even as Noises Off is running by the disasters that have struck Alan Ayckbourn's latest piece, Way Upstream, at the National Theatre. “Leaks scupper Ayckbourn launch,” announced the Times (18 August 1982), explaining why the previews and opening night had to be postponed. The “river,” a six-thousand-gallon fibreglass water-tank on which the boat was to float, sprang a leak, and the boat, a twenty-four-foot cabin cruiser, could not be made to move properly in the elaborate set.
“What a farce” seems the natural reaction to this. It would take a Frayn or an Ayckbourn, however, to draw a true farce out of that recalcitrant material of real life. Noises Off satisfies in the way of the best farces by allowing disorder such a seemingly free run while maintaining unshakeable order. Nothing On will always open—more or less on time! Frayn emerges in this latest play as a master of the form and Noises Off as a farce which proves—if we had doubted it—that the tradition remains unshaken.
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.
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 playwright and as translator. From the ingratiating patter of the likes of Rollo Swaveley (the well-known public relations consultant), Christopher Smoothe (Minister of Chance and Speculation), and the Bishop of Twicester, to the more extended self-justifications of social comedy was a natural progression. Nevertheless Frayn was always wedded to print, and to parody. Towards the End of the Morning (1967), the most substantial of his novels, was about a journalist (admittedly one trying to break into television), and many of his most speakable lines have written antecedents of one kind or another.
The Trick of It is an epistolary novel, and the letters which make it up hover—as letters between close friends do—between the written and the spoken. The narrative voice is immediately engaging: colloquially spontaneous, casually witty, effortlessly audible and therefore readable. Since the hero is a university lecturer he knows about writing, but he is not knowing about it in the Bradbury-Lodge manner. The book is relatively free from the arch allusiveness that academic writers find hard to resist—and their academic readers not to enjoy—and its tone isn't exclusive. The term ‘Post-Structuralist’ is reserved to describe the narrator's style of driving. He naturally has some professional habits, such as referring to novel titles in the abbreviated form conventional in footnotes (so that Falling down Duke Street becomes FDDS), and he is predictably paranoid about rival specialists in his field. Since his letters are written to a Germanist chum who has emigrated to Australia to write his great work on Mörike, the Middle Years, a certain amount of academic shop is to be expected, but it isn't paraded.
Richard's field is the novelist he refers to as JL, the author of some bizarrely plotted but fundamentally serious novels whom he has long regarded as a major writer of our time-or majwoot, as he comes to call her. He knows everything about her that can be found in the public domain, but has unconsciously resisted the idea of actually meeting her—and, as events turn out, rightly so. When he does invite her down to talk at his university, she seems so ordinary as to be extraordinary. He is as knocked out by her in the no longer young flesh as he was on the much pondered page. At their first strange and fatal intimacy, however, he discovers that she is wearing a peach bra with white knickers. This strikes him as a serious discrepancy, an early sign of the disconcerting truth as opposed to the imagined ideal. Further shocks follow; the closer he gets to her inner life the more unguessable and unglossable it becomes. He has to negotiate the unsuspected modern taboo—brilliantly discovered by Frayn—against going to bed with an author on your reading list.
At first he hopes that their marriage will foster his role as guardian of her genius, but it only serves to underline the separateness of her writing self. It seems wonderful to have the chance of being inscribed in her oeuvre because of his part in the life which must nourish it, but the prospect becomes less enchanting when it becomes clear that that will only be on her terms, if at all. The sense of privilege brought by their association gives way to the bitterness of exclusion: She has never read a word of what he has written about her, and ignores his advice to offset the imaginative extravagance of her new work by adding a distancing element of ironic self-awareness. He even tries to assuage his jealousy of her creativity by starting to write himself, but it doesn't work. She can and does write anywhere and all the time—London, the provinces, even Abu Dhabi, where they end up. He has, however, to recognise that he hasn't the trick of it. But if he feels that because of her his life has run into the sand, she equally complains that he has led her into a stony and desolate place. Author and exegete have reached an impasse about which it is no longer possible to be amusing.
What JL hoped to get out of the marriage isn't and can't be made clear since she has no independent narrative presence, but it hardly seems to matter what happens to her since she transubstantiates everything through the blue Swan ink in her Waterman pen. She not only appropriates some of Richard's neglected relations, who become unexpectedly interesting under her unblinking gaze, but even begins to write a book on—and therefore to take over—the life of his mother. His hopes that her work will develop and mature under his care are baffled by her creative intransigence. She has no use for his ‘light ludic touch’. Nothing could be less Jamesian than the tone of Frayn's protagonist, but in the end he finds himself ‘sold’ in a thoroughly Jamesian way: his attempt to intrude the critical intelligence into the creative life has become entirely self-defeating.
It's perhaps a matter of more than literary significance. The idea that, given life's recalcitrance, it's not enough to be well-meaning is a recurring one in Michael Frayn's work. However anxious one is to think and do the right thing—the reasonable decent, liberal thing—what one comes up against may simply not be amenable to rational argument and good intentions. Such bafflement has obvious comic potential at a sod's law level, but it can also be a cause for deeper dismay. This underlying apprehension surfaces in a rather melodramatic way in the demonic character in Frayn's play Benefactors. In The Trick of It the narrator's life is virtually deconstructed by his exposure to a force that may be ‘creative’ but which is also obstinate, obscure, and even threatening. The book is more of a fable about literature's ambivalent power than a manifestation of it, and it is too modest to offer itself as a major work of our time, but there is more to it than at first meets the eye and ear.
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
Clockwise: A Screenplay (screenplay) 1986
First and Last (screenplay) 1987
Look, Look (play) 1989
The Trick of It (novel) 1989
Listen to This: 21 Short Plays and Sketches (plays) 1990
Audience: A Play in One Act (play) 1991
A Landing on the Sun (novel) 1991
‡Plays: Two (plays) 1991
Now You Know (novel) 1992
Here (play) 1993
Now You Know: A Play in Two Acts (play) 1995
Speak after the Beep: Studies in the Art of Communicating with Inanimate and Semi-Inanimate Objects (essays) 1995
Alarms and Excursions (play) 1998
Copenhagen (play) 1998
Headlong (novel) 1999
The Additional Michael Frayn (essays and journalism) 2000
Celia's Secret: An Investigation [with David Burke] (nonfiction) 2000; republished as The Copenhagen Papers: An Intrigue, 2001
§Plays: Three (plays) 2000
Spies (novel) 2001
*Includes Black and Silver,The New Don Quixote,Mr. Foot, and Chinamen.
†Includes Alphabetical Order,Donkeys' Years,Clouds,Make and Break, and Noises Off.
‡Includes Benefactors,Balmoral, and Wild Honey.
§Includes Here,Now You Know, and La Belle Vivette.
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 resentful that she and her artistry (the eponymous “trick” of how she writes those damn books) retain such a mystique.
There are other problems: why, he asks, in his jokey, anguished letters, doesn't she write about him? He's hurt that their life together doesn't find its way into a novel—but feels invaded when she starts to write about his mother. “Her Omniscient Majesty doesn't know what went on inside my mother's head.” And why, since he is several times more intelligent than her, can he not write a novel? As he sets out to prove that “any bloody fool can do it”, one is reminded of Johnson's defence of critics: “You may scold a carpenter who has made you a bad table, though you cannot make a table. It is not your trade to make tables.”
This critic tries his hand at a bit of amateur woodwork and finds that his table won't stand up; the project has to be abandoned halfway through. His failed fictional efforts corroborate what seems a rather conservative response on Frayn's part to the question of how Great Art is made. The creative process is, we are encouraged to conclude, essentially mysterious. We may enjoy its results but we can never properly grasp how the rare breed of artist-magicians do it. Such Kenneth Clark-style reverence seems to me a bit dubious. I'm jolly impressed by people who makes tables but I wouldn't say the knack of furniture-making was unfathomable.
Perhaps, however, the final joke of this thoughtful and often very funny book has a demystifying point to make after all. The critic gives up trying to understand or emulate the novelist's je ne sais quoi. He has tried to pin the artist down—and lost. But if he is forever barred from grasping the trick of it, what, we may want to ask, are his scribblings doing, in an elegant book jacket, priced £11.95?
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 make projections, but you can't in fact know.” Those limitations stated, he lets himself be dragged reluctantly into a cross-examination.
In addition to six very amusing novels, Frayn at 57 is a writer of stage farce, the preeminent English translator of Chekhov, and—as one might assume from the above remarks—a philosopher in the mold of Wittgenstein. He was born in the far north London suburb of Mill Hill, over a chain wine store, and when he was 18 months of age the family moved to Newall, Surrey, on the far south side of London. He is reticent about his childhood, partly because his schooldays were emotionally taxing, partly because his mother died when he was 13, and his troubled relationship with his stepmother was such that even now he cannot slough it off with jokes. Although his father was in the business of selling asbestos, they were upper-middle-class—comfortable enough that the exotic allure of Communism was an enticement to the young Frayn.
Though his attraction to that political system eventually paled, it served as the impetus for his study of the Russian language. After a stint in the armed forces, learning more Russian, Frayn entered Cambridge, initially to pursue a combined French and Russian course. He abandoned that for Philosophy, however, when he discovered that he could apply himself to unwieldy philosophical questions but not to the fine points of literary criticism. Ironically, the narrator of The Trick of It is an academic, proficient in the kind of literary criticism Frayn gave up. “It wasn't that I didn't enjoy it: I could do it. I greatly admire people who can do it, but I am as blank as to what's going on in their minds as my narrator is to what is going on in the novelist's mind.”
Frayn lives with Claire Tomalin, one of Britain's sharpest literary critics and the biographer of Katherine Mansfield (she is at present writing the biography of Charles Dickens's mistress). So though The Trick of It might be read as Frayn's case against those who regard books from a critical standpoint, as opposed to those to whom books are their whole lives, it is not an argument that Frayn intended. “They are different standpoints, but they can manage to be reconciled. The world of people who study books and the world of people who write books overlap—but it is not the same world.”
After one unsuccessful comedy, Zounds, which he wrote for the Cambridge Footlights club in his university days, Frayn stopped writing plays. (“People didn't find it as funny as they should. But people rarely do find things as funny as they should.”) Before he truly launched his career as a writer for the stage, in 1970, he spent several years as a journalist, first for the Guardian and then for the Observer, and much of his spare time writing novels. He published five novels between 1965 and 1967; the first, The Tin Man, with Little, Brown in the U.S., and the remainder with Viking. His novels remain in print in Britain though not in America (“In America I don't suppose anyone remembers I've written any novels at all.”)
Then, in 1970, he wrote his first stage comedy, The Two of Us, followed by a string of wild, and wildly successful, farces including Noises Off and The Benefactors.Wild Honey, his adaptation of a little-known Chekhov play, Platonov, was warmly received in London but not on Broadway. The West End is currently embracing Frayn's fine translation of The Cherry Orchard. Frayn's newest farce, and also his first full-length stage play in six years, Look, Look, opened in Italy in January and will arrive at a West End theatre later this year.
But while his career as a dramatist surged ahead, Frayn's fiction writing stalled. For 16 years he did not produce a novel, although he started and discarded a few. “I didn't give up novels, novels gave up me. I think it was a loss of some authorial voice. In a sense I got around the problem in The Trick of It by writing the story through a character.”
The Trick of It is told through the voice of an academic who writes jokey, irreverent letters to a colleague in Australia. “What really attracted me to writing a story in letters is the question of placing the narrative in time. In traditional narrative you tell a story by starting at the beginning and going through to the end, and so, though your standpoint as a narrator is after the story has finished, the artifice, the convention, is not to reveal at the beginning of the story what you already know. The more you think about it, the odder this is. The advantage of doing it in letters is that your standpoint is at the end of each letter, so the narrator, too, can be genuinely surprised by the developments in the story.”
The drawback of many epistolary novels is that the letter-writer's voice can all too quickly become a humdrum one. Frayn's narrator, however, has a Fraynish sense of farce when writing to his friend. “I once had a correspondence not entirely unlike that one—with Alan Bennett [Britain's other celebrated writer of stage comedy] who had been in the National Service Russian course with me,” Frayn says. “Then I went to Cambridge, he went to Oxford, and we started a correspondence which was mutually mocking. It was a performance. His letters were absolutely marvelous, very funny, illustrated, written on long pieces of wallpaper and things like that. Mine were very boring, unillustrated and on ordinary pieces of typing paper.”
Indeed, everyone still remarks on the incongruity of Frayn's over-the-top comedy appearing on ordinary typing paper and from a very disciplined writing routine. Nine years ago, after he and his wife separated, he bought a flat nearby so as to be close to his three daughters—and from 9 to 5 that south London flat became his office. It meant hours of a punishing commute through knots of London traffic from the large house he shares with Tomalin in Camden Town, on the other side of London, but only now, with his daughters grown and living elsewhere—one a BBC-TV director, one a journalist, one studying politics at university—is Frayn getting around to relocating his office closer to home.
He continues to stick to what many writers would think is a long working day. “Peter de Vries said a good thing,” he recalls, “about how he writes only when he is inspired but he just makes sure he is inspired at nine o'clock every morning.” Frayn's own guideline is a French saying—“The appetite comes as you eat”—“and that is very true in writing,” he says.
Frayn writes on several word processors, including one that produces Cyrillic characters. He has branched into scriptwriting—the John Cleese film Clockwise, for example, and more recently an acclaimed TV film called First and Last. He has so many strings to his bow, one urges him to explain how he chooses what to do when. It is, however, a line of inquiry he waves away dismissively: “It looks as though freelance writers are very self-determining, but usually they just do what they can do at the moment.”
Frayn marvels at the presumption of people who imagine they can advise writers on how to monitor their career and about what to write next—suggestions like the narrator in The Trick of It makes to his novelist-wife. “It goes beyond criticism,” he laughs. “The other day I was interviewed on BBC Radio 3 and was extremely surprised when Professor Anthony Bray, who was being very kind about my Russian translations, began to tell me what kind of book I should write next.”
It is not that Frayn is obstreperous: he gives credit where it is due to his editors and his New York agent, Roberta Pryor. It was Pryor's idea to send The Trick of It to Robert Gottlieb at the New Yorker, who published it “whole” in a single issue—minus a third of Frayn's words. Though there were a few comments about the “condensation” evincing New Yorker leanings toward “Reader's-Digestation,” Frayn was pleased. “I thought Gottlieb's editing was extremely cunning. He sent me all his suggestions for cuts, and I occasionally made cuts to his suggestions.” Surprisingly, Frayn had never before published in the New Yorker.
Frayn is a meticulous man, very careful about details, and inclined to qualify an interviewer's generalizations with special cases and slight reservations. Yet he has a relaxed manner, entwines his height stylishly upon and around furniture, and often breaks into a warm smile. His dress tends toward windbreakers and earthy colours of corduroy, his keys hanging from his belt. He has a high bald brow and blue eyes—and has been described as Nordic-looking, Bergmanesque, and as if he should be a prime minister of Sweden.
His new novel's title, The Trick of It, keeps inviting interpretation. The narrator's novelist wife has “the trick of it”: the ability to bring characters to life—to take someone from real life (in this case, the narrator's mother) and make that character “live” in a novel. Frayn stresses he does not write that kind of “realistic” novel and he sides with his narrator, who insists that his wife, the novelist, hasn't got inside the head of his mother. “He insists that his mother was nothing like that, but his wife had produced something completely plausible—and that is what maddens him. It is true, isn't it, as I've said, we can't know anything about the internal processes of another human being. Even writers can't get inside people, but what writers can do is make something which seems as if they have.” Frayn nods in agreement with the nice distinction. “That is a philosophical cheat, and my narrator is right to be deeply offended.”
Frayn's academic/narrator shows his admiration for his wife, and also his umbrage, by abbreviating his course-description of her—“a major writer of our time”—to “MajWOOT.” And “Majwoot” is an acronymic coinage that has gained currency in Britain since the novel was published there last September. In all modesty, Frayn says he does not believe anyone is inclined to regard him “as one of the world's major novelists.” Not a Majwoot. But we'll see.
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 in terms of genre classification and the conventions of dramatic parody.
King, Robert L. “The Play of Uncertain Ideas.” Massachusetts Review 42, no. 1 (spring 2001): 165-75.
King evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Copenhagen.
Pais, Abraham, and Michael Frayn. “What Happened in Copenhagen?: A Physicist's View and the Playwright's Response.” Hudson Review 53, no. 2 (summer 2000): 182-91.
Pais, a physicist, offers his critique of Copenhagen, with Frayn providing a response to Pais's commentary.
Posner, Michael. “The Uncertainty about Heisenberg.” Queen's Quarterly 110, no. 1 (spring 2003): 87-92.
Posner discusses the historical basis of Frayn's Copenhagen, praising the play for remaining “appropriately agnostic.”
Rocamora, Carol. “Scientific Dramaturgy.” Nation 270, no. 22 (5 June 2000): 49-51.
Rocamora praises Copenhagen as a “theatrical tour de force,” applauding Frayn's treatment of “the greatest moral questions of our time.”
Ruddick, Nick. “The Search for Quantum Ethics: Michael Frayn's Copenhagen and Other Recent British Science Plays.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 11, no. 4 (2001): 415-31.
Ruddick examines of the treatment of scientific concepts and ethical questions in several plays, including Copenhagen.
Wolf, Matt. Review of Benefactors, by Michael Frayn. Variety 387, no. 9 (22 July 2002): 32.
Wolf offers a positive assessment of Benefactors, describing it as remarkable and riveting.
Additional coverage of Frayn's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: British Writers Supplement, Vol. 7; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8R; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 30, 69, 114; Contemporary British Dramatists; Contemporary Dramatists, Ed. 5; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 3, 7, 31, 47; Contemporary Novelists, Ed. 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 13, 14, 194, 245; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Novelists; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; St. James Guide to Fantasy Writers; and St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4.
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 (“a night in some bleak guest room in a windswept corner of the campus”).
Dunnett is also worried for his own reasons. JL is his life's work, after all, and he is afraid that seeing her “in all her circumstantiality—I mean in an x-colored coat and y-colored shoes, z inches shorter than me—will destroy the magic. I shake her hand, and feel not the virtue in her flowing into me, but the virtue in me leaking away into her! Flesh! We're not into flesh in our trade. So then how do I teach on, magic-less, to the end of the term—the end of the year—the end of my career?”
As it turns out, Dunnett will do more than shake his heroine's hand. He'll marry her. This is a plot twist that Frayn deploys with consummate comic skill, and one that allows him pokes along the way at overscrupulous biographers, poststructuralists, and others who attach themselves to those who really do know the trick of it.
The most pointed fun, however, is had at the expense of Dunnett himself. His letters are gleefully self-incriminating. After spending the night with JL, he admits that “one's desire contains an element of frankly professional interest.” In the same letter Dunnett recalls thinking, while lying on top of JL, that “this was a revenge for all these long years when she had been up there, oblivious of me, and I had been down here gazing so intently up at her. Because here she was gazing no less intently up at me; and for that short time she knew me. She knew me as I knew her, and we were equal.”
Yet Dunnett feels some ambivalence about what he has done: “It seemed to me, even as I broke it, that I had discovered a new taboo governing mankind, one which must have existed unknown since the dawn of time until I stumbled upon it yesterday evening—a taboo against intercourse with an author on your own reading list.” He tries to imagine the effect that walking into the college's breakfast room with JL the next morning might have on his colleagues: “What would I think if I looked up from my eggs one morning and saw—I don't know, I can't think of any parallels—Gavin Lecky in Animal Husbandry walking in with one of his pigs.”
Frayn the playwright (his Noises Off was a Broadway hit several years ago) often surfaces in the novel, as elements of farce (Dunnett wearing a pink dressing gown in JL's London kitchen when her two sons and an old lover stop by) and quasi-stage directions (“A sudden shift of authorial tone here towards the reverential …”) sneak in. There are also enough lineaments of self-reflexiveness—crossed-out words, footnotes, “interviews” with JL—to give pause to deconstructionists, who might otherwise brush aside a text that asserts in a delightfully backhanded way the primacy of “the noble tradition to which we all once paid homage” and the subservience of criticism.
Although Dunnett seems to side with the traditionalists, his discontent is everywhere apparent. He says, for example, as he looks at his beloved major writer sleeping beside him: “It seemed to me that there was a mocking parallel between our positions on the bed and our positions in life. There she was, comfortably ensconced in the soft center of English letters, not even aware that there were others clinging painfully to their outer edges.”
It soon becomes clear that the cranky academic is obsessed with equality. “I read every word she writes, even though not a single one of them is about me,” he complains. “She reads not a single word I write, even though most of them are about her.” It's not a matter of getting more attention from JL. Dunnett wants what JL has, the trick of her talent, and he stalks her, marries her, takes her away from friends, family and country in his attempt to get it.
He never does, of course—the trick is not something to be acquired, Frayn seems to be saying—but it's great fun watching him try. For all of his ambitiousness (he has always imagined he would end up married not to a major writer, but to “the wife of one of the major writers of our time”), he is a critic to the core: He can't stop looking for significance.
Following their union, Dunnett and JL move to the English countryside where she can have peace and he can ensure it, cooking and cleaning and keeping away distraction. Yet when JL produces a novel full of characteristically violent images and episodes, Dunnett sees it as an attack on him: “What is she trying to tell me about our life behind rhododendrons? What is she trying to tell the world about it?”
He is determined to figure things out for himself, scorning to ask JL questions (“I long to know. I just don't want to be told, somehow”). After repeating a long conversation he supposedly had with JL about her current work, he assures his Melbourne correspondent that in reality the exchange never took place: “The entire dialogue is a kind of metaphor for the rather complex events that actually occurred—the process of guess and counterguess, of glimpses over her shoulder when I took her cups of coffee she hadn't asked for, of silences and frowns, of looks and glances, of an accusatory tilt of the jaw here, a defensive set of the mouth there.”
Dunnett has no more luck reaching through to his wife than he does uncovering the trick of writing. He is as frustrated—and in many ways as insane—as the monomaniacal critic of Nabokov's Pale Fire. (Frayn acknowledges the authorial debt by naming one of Dunnett's rival critics Vlad the Impaler, a man who is “always masterfully sweeping his specimens off on joint family holidays in Tuscany before he puts them into the killing-bottle and pins them into his collection.”)
Near the end of the novel the couple move to Abu Dhabi, where he keeps her more or less locked away in an “air-conditioned, viewless, well-sound-proofed” room. This doesn't help Dunnett either. “You have led me into a desolate and stony place,” JL tells him, “and things are very bad between us. You hedge me about, you cage me and patrol me, and take all the ground and air from around me. But you don't own the words I say or the thoughts I think, and you never will, and you never can.”
That is as direct and substantial a statement as JL makes in the book, though everything Dunnett relates must be taken with a grain of salt. “I'm not absolutely certain she said ‘hedge me about’,” he appends to the speech quoted above. This and other qualifications have the effect of throwing the whole report into doubt.
Dunnett does more than misquote. He lies, admits the lie, and replaces it with a new one. He leaves out crucial details, too. Indeed, Frayn's story seems to take as many steps back as it does forward. But it is nonetheless entertaining, thanks to the pleasures of Frayn's dexterous prose—chatty, full of quirky affectations (as letters from a man like Dunnett would be), often witty, and always rhythmically pleasing and on key.
There is a type of magic trick that has the magician seeming to reveal how it's done, only to come up with an added twist that preserves the mystery. Frayn appears to be attempting a similar feat in this book. That he has pulled it off without our being able to say how is exactly the point.
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 wiped), or whether she wants to PRINT. Since we have the book in front of us and have just finished reading it, it's clear which option has been preferred: she hardly has any choice in the matter. Nevertheless, something more than a merely formal point is being scored. As she says early on, only writers are megalomaniac enough to want to transfer their lives to disk, and this allows them to think that they can avoid the black hole of oblivion which awaits everyone else. But if writing preserves life, the terms on which it does so are likely to be uncertain. Dan Jacobson's story ends—and indeed turns—on an ambiguity of almost Jamesian force. It isn't derivative in any obvious way, but the affinities are more than technical. The book has its international theme (with Jacobson's native South Africa substituted for Henry James's America), and it raises Jamesian uncertainties about who, in the end, is the victim of whom, and about where guilt truly lies.
Hidden in the Heart isn't a book for those who don't believe in coups de foudre, or who think that once the erotic storm has passed everything will be as right as rain. The effect of Adrian Bested's first meeting—or perhaps we had better say, in view of what happens on her living-room floor, his first encounter—with Diana is lasting, limiting and ultimately lethal. The wife of Rodney Foxborough, a poet he admires and has gone to interview for a student magazine, she is almost twenty years older than he is. (The interview gets recorded later, and is reproduced verbatim.) There's no question of her leaving her husband, a BBC man of some distinction, and the affair continues furtively and intermittently: neither of them able to give the other up, though both try. Adrian even seeks the advice of Dr Fainman, the Hampstead analyst, who diagnoses Oedipal desires and infantile exposure to the Primal Scene, but then he would, wouldn't he? By the time Foxborough reveals that he knows what has been going on, Adrian has become so enslaved that he offers friendship to both of them rather than lose altogether the woman he thinks of as his fate. When Foxborough accepts and says ‘Done,’ the irony isn't wasted on the younger man: he's been ‘done’ in a sense that James would have relished. No longer possessing Diana, he has become tied to her more than ever; in South African terms, he's the houseboy. Bested has been worsted. Diana's subsequent death, for which he holds Foxborough responsible, hardens his devotion into permanence.
Such impotence is the last thing he proposed to himself in his Bloemfontein adolescence, reading Joyce and taking Stephen Daedalus's intention to fly by the nets of nationality, language and religion as a guide. He is too ambitious to be content with becoming a second-rate writer (which is what the poems included tactfully indicate), and settles for a Civil Service career in, of all departments, the Home Office. But Bested is never at home, although while at Cambridge he has secret lessons to straighten out his Afrikaaner diphthongs. Despite his passion for Diana and her submission to him, he can't forgive her for being so uncommunicative about her past. He wants to be something which in the nature of things—and in view of the discrepancy between their ages—he can't be.
This feeling has a larger application. Adrian thinks of his South African upbringing as empty: the place has nothing for him. He refuses to have his role defined by politics and simply wants history to leave him alone. One of his grudges in later years, when he's left the Home Office for a right-wing think tank, is that, because of apartheid, South Africa has denied him the option of being acceptably conservative. As Foxborough overbearingly explains, exploiting a Germanic distinction between ‘historic’ and ‘non-historic’ peoples, the Boers are a ‘small, obdurate, unimportant’ group condemned to live in the interstices between the races that really matter and to endless self-pity as a result. Adrian left his people because he wanted self-determination, only to become trapped by his private obsession. The ideas of displacement and exclusion in both erotic and international relations are thus linked in a way that shows how ready Dan Jacobson's novel is to tackle large themes, despite the relative modesty of its presentation.
Its design is intricately suggestive too. Adrian is not the only one to be tormented by the inaccessible past: the narrator is herself similarly haunted. She takes his memories over, and it's the more natural for her to do so since there's an age gap between her and Adrian—who becomes her friend and lover—similar to that between Adrian and Diana. Allowing someone else's past to usurp the living present is his plight then and is hers now. As she observes, the first triangle (Adrian, Diana, Foxborough) interlocks with a second (Adrian, Diana's memory, the narrator). Her geometry is not as objectionably neat as it might seem. She herself suggests that the ‘sense of displacement and vicariousness’ which she suffers from may be part of a more general condition. It certainly gives her enough motivation to convert her rehearsal of the knowable facts of Adrian's life into an imagined re-experience of them. It gives the novel's climax—the revelation that the guilt for Diana's death may not be Foxborough's alone—a personal urgency.
All the same, the narrator's anonymity is symptomatic of a certain facelessness. Details of her own past are supplied, but she functions more as a means of access to the essential material than as a sufficiently interesting and independent presence in herself. At times she seems to write too well for the person she is: some of the novel's most imaginatively phrased paragraphs (describing, for instance, Adrian's phantasmagoric return to Cambridge after his first strange and fatal interview with Diana, or the sea in the cove where she drowns) feel like the product of an authorial virtuosity momentarily impatient with her limitations. In the end, though, she is so clearly integral to the logic of the novel that we're content to take her on the book's terms, and the more so because she doesn't confuse her recreation of her lover's life with omniscience. She makes no claim to understand the nature of the previous actors in the series of which she is the last member, and the reversals of the last pages are as much of a shock to her as to us. Their source is the previously untranslated entries in Adrian's notebook in which he reverts to Afrikaans. In the shameful language of his abandoned past he can say—whether in fantasy or confession—what he cannot admit to in the language of his adoption. It's an adroitly engineered terminal twist which turns us back to those questions about love, identity and nationality to which this novel is too intelligent and too humane to pretend to have easy answers.
In Hidden in the Heart Foxborough manoeuvres Bested into becoming his biographer, and the novel's narrator wonders if her dead lover has in some parallel way set her up as his ‘dutiful heir’. Michael Frayn's protagonist also develops a strange allegiance to a predecessor, though in his case it's to someone that in life he knew only slightly and whom he comes to understand posthumously. A Landing on the Sun seems to start as a philosophical comedy set in the Civil Service. When the phone rings on our hero's desk in the Cabinet Office, he picks it up and says ‘Jessel,’ just as his opposite numbers answer with their surnames—‘Tite’ or ‘Hurren’ or whoever it may be. The impersonality makes him feel at home. He is further defended by a neatly-cut beard, to be non-committal behind. In contrast, the man he has to investigate—in every sense an ex-colleague—was wildly (and, as we later see, significantly) red-headed in a way not normally found in the Administrative Grade. Summerchild fell from an Admiralty parapet in Spring Gardens, near The Mall, in 1974. There was some fuss at the time over possible security implications, and a television probe is in the making; government feels it had better have the matter checked out.
Jessel starts his enquiries with reluctance, but they take such a surprising turn, and have such disturbing connections with his own past, that he becomes recklessly absorbed in them, and misses his lunch more than once in their pursuit. The suspicion of a defence angle in Summerchild's case is soon dissipated: he was setting up a ‘Strategy Unit’ to consider the quality of life, not instruments of death. Mindful of a vague promise in the election manifesto, Harold Wilson has invited Dr Serafin, a Russian-born Oxford philosopher, to mull over the question and take a long view. Unfortunately, domestic exigencies prevent her from hearing a vital part of the PM's call and, confused about her terms of reference, she begins the Unit's work more or less de novo. This leads the increasingly fascinated Summerchild into deeply unbureaucratic waters. As the transcripts which Jessel discovers in a neglected Whitehall attic reveal, they find themselves bound to face up to the problems surrounding the idea of happiness—an idea which, as Dr Serafin says, ‘is surely the sun at the centre of our conceptual planetary system’. Their ‘insane course of tutorials’ leads them irresistibly to ask themselves ‘what it is to want what we want’. Nothing could be more destructive of Civil Service disciplines than such disorderly notions, and Summerchild's behaviour becomes more and more unprofessional in consequence. His attempt at a preliminary submission leads into unsettling autobiographical scrutiny; this precipitates confessions of conjugal misery from Serafin; they realise that happiness means their being together. They thus provide their own data. They even develop a kind of domesticity in the garret in a mad defiance of departmental propriety. Its tiny window overlooks the garden of Number 10, but it also has a skylight through which they can emerge, into the sun.
The later stages of the affair have to be deduced from the sounds, and silences, on a cache of tapes which Jessel finds in an old biscuit tin. This only intensifies Jessel's compulsive need to reconstruct Summerchild's life and thoughts. The fact that he commutes from Greenwich as Summerchild did, that when young himself he was keen on Summerchild's daughter (also red-haired), that had he married her he would have been spared his own marital sorrows—all this promotes an involuntary solidarity with the dead man. They become constant companions, at times barely separable.
The imagined life behind the text was, in a different way, the starting-point of Frayn's last novel The Trick of It, but here the idea is less crisply and less successfully deployed. It's partly because the narrator himself is too dulled by Whitehall, despite his immersion in his alter ego's enlightenment. It's also because the conduct of the narrative is sometimes diffuse—the way in which, for instance, Serafin beavers socratically away at Summerchild's unexamined assumptions is illustrated too lengthily, at least for those without Frayn's special philosophical interests. No doubt most tutorials, faithfully transcribed, parody themselves, and as we'd expect Frayn's keen ear catches some academic tones amusingly. But the novel also wants to insist that happiness is a serious matter, and this worthy concern tends to clog its forward movement. It's not until the final sequence, when we're on the roof with Summerchild and the various solar motifs fall into place—his name, his and his daughter's copper coiffure, the sun-warmed bricks, the view of the sky—that the story belatedly gathers momentum, and we understand at last why he was up there.
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 good and the word “happy”. But the philosopher, Serafin, is (of course) a woman—and then we have a love story which comes to a sticky end at the back of the Admiralty. Summerchild was killed by philosophy.
Philosophy is the victim as well as the murderer. For the methods of analysis turn out woefully inadequate to explain what happiness is. At one stage, there is an excruciating tutorial (“But what exactly do you mean by ‘enjoyment’?”; “Look at the different ways we use the word ‘happy’”; “I suggest that you read the Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 1971”). Philosophers, Frayn shows, are all talk, or worse still, talk about talk and no action. Philosophers give us generality, when we should grasp the particular experience of happiness now. And that is what Serafin and Summerchild discover—if only for a moment, they land on the sun. But with happiness comes grief, and the absurd (a marvellous moment when the Permanent Secretary interrupts a thoroughly intimate tutorial in the Strategy Unit and Serafin invites him to lunch).
So far so good—A Landing on the Sun is an intelligent book about the follies of the intellect. It is, after all, an old complaint that philosophy does us little good when it comes to action, or that its theory is remote from practice. But matters here are not, I believe, so simple. Think, not about plot, but about characters, about the people in the story.
First of all, we have a swarm of stereotypes. Jessel is the civil servant who sees everything in terms of memoranda and the exquisite composition of a minute, as he escapes from the disorder of his domestic life. Serafin is a caricature of the philosopher—she can think, oblivious to her surroundings, for hours on end (that is why Socrates was late for dinner, and we all know what happened to him)—and the archetype of the mother turned lover (we have seen her before: she is the “major writer of our time” from The Trick of It, the benevolent mother of sons, domestically hopeless, intellectually brilliant, who falls in love and relinquishes her power). So the novel does not escape from generality, after all.
Second, these characters are irritating, just because they are stereotypes. They are familiar and predictable, however enmeshed they are in the particular absurdities of the plot. Now this may be a failing in the novel. Perhaps, however, they are meant to annoy—perhaps we are playing Frayn's own game when we grit our teeth at yet another description of Serafin's guileless smile as she offers a bibliographical detail, or at Jessel's obsessive detachment. Why?
Third, if happiness is to be lived, it must be lived by someone. Over and again, A Landing on the Sun reminds us of the old philosophical chestnuts about personal identity. How do I know that (or does it matter whether) I am now the same “I” that enjoyed celery and honey (Frayn's captivating choice of erotic food) for lunch yesterday? Or what makes the “I” who thinks this thought (about the written word) one with my body (which does the typing)? Literature flourishes here too. Consider the problem of the first-person narrator. When I read David Copperfield, how do I understand his “I”? If he is “I”, who is me, the audience to his ghostly voice? Or when I sympathize with the distress of a character in a play, how far have I suppressed “I”, and become them? We are, I suppose, well accustomed to deal with the vertigo—not to mention the neurosis—that reading may engender in the reader. But Frayn makes things worse.
Jessel opens his narrative with the grotesque “On the desk in front of me lie two human hands.” The hands are his own; and throughout the novel he detaches himself from the parts of his body. His hands can disapprove of something he does, his voice acts autonomously, his beard does him the favour of camouflaging his face from the scrutiny of the external world. Frayn puts vividly before us the problem of the relation between the mind and its bodily parts—and in comparison we may well lament the poverty of modern philosophical formulations of the same problem. But here there is a sort of nihilism (neminism perhaps?): among this collection of bodily bits, Jessel himself is no one at all, until he takes on the personae of Serafin and Summerchild as he uncovers the story. How does the reader cope with that? How can I identify with “no one at all”, or with the characters he usurps?
Our responses to the story of Serafin and Summerchild are dislocated over and over again by Jessel's protean appearances. And this is a challenge, daring us to formulate the sort of questions beloved of the ivory tower (who am I? how do I persist over time?) just when the procedures of the ivory tower are under attack. Frayn offers us a text which is thoroughly philosophical, at the same time as it is persistently literary. Philosophical questions about personal identity are rightly connected by the framework of the story to questions about happiness. Literary questions about the status of the reader and the suspension of disbelief are forced upon us by the paradoxes of the way the story is presented to us (and paradox itself is a philosophical device). Frayn's attack on philosophy may turn out to be philosophy still.
A Landing on the Sun can be funny, and it can be sad—but most of all it is self-consciously clever. Frayn walks the tightrope between philosophy and literature with skill—but at times the skill obscures the sympathy. He may engage the reader's intellect, but he leaves, I think, her disbelief unhung. Philosophy, perhaps, has the last laugh of all.
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, secret unit. In an attic lumber room of the cabinet offices, he gradually finds letters, memorandums, photographs, cooking utensils, the remains of a clothes line and, most importantly, a series of cassette tapes in a biscuit tin. The tapes provide Frayn with the most sophisticated of literary devices: even the blank passages and the fast-forward button are used to good effect.
As the week progresses, Jessel begins to take an unhealthy interest in the Summerchild file. He comes into the office over the weekend and, gripped by a sort of summer madness, starts to relive his colleague's last days. The plot, predictably, confounds the reader's early expectations. Jessel discovers that, instead of being involved in dubious defence plots, or the depositing of nuclear waste, the secret unit's work was more far reaching, more profound, and ultimately, more subversive.
All Jessel's experiences occur within one working week. The first chapter ends: “A small sound is audible in the room. I recognise it as a sigh, but have no recollection of authorising its publication. Monday. Another week, another file.” Similarly, the novel ends: “Monday, yes. Another week, another file.”
At which point the admiring reader finally emits his own unauthorised sigh—unauthorised, because unjustified. This is, after all, another brilliant Frayn exposition of the self-loathing and pinched, restricted lives of Britain's professional classes. And here the clever, inadequate narrator is more sympathetic than the English literature don who writes the letters that make up Frayn's last novel The Trick of It. Nor should anyone forget that Michael Frayn is a deeply accomplished writer: his structure and timing are faultless, his control never wavers. The novel is beautifully written, and in places very moving.
But a reservation remains. One wishes that, just occasionally, Frayn would write something slightly looser, less knowing, less mediated by narrators and cassette recorders and minutes of meetings. It would be refreshing to see him imitate Mr Jessel and, once in a while, let his hair down and look things straight in the eye.
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, prompted by the subsequent deaths of other people connected with secret defence projects, has embarked on a fresh investigation.
Learning of this, the Cabinet Office is alarmed, and decides that, since questions will certainly be asked in Parliament once the television programme has been transmitted, it might be best to prepare itself by mounting an investigation of its own. So it is that Brian Jessel, a young, able and ambitious civil servant, finds himself digging for information in the dusty archives of the Cabinet Office registry.
In fact, Jessel and Summerchild were known to each other. Summerchild's home was in Greenwich, as Jessel's continues to be. Jessel and Summerchild's daughter Millie went to the same school and played together in its orchestra. Jessel even had a crush on Millie, who simultaneously vanished from the orchestra and from his life soon after the mysterious tragedy of her father's death. Jessel becomes increasingly obsessed both with Summerchild and with the head of the Unit, a mysterious Dr Serafin, whom he at first assumes to have been a man. Serafin, it eventually turns out, was a female Oxford philosophy don, married to another Oxford don, more distinguished than herself, by whom she had two sons. She is of Russian origin.
At this point, like a helium-filled balloon released from its moorings (the helium is Michael Frayn's exuberant imagination), the plot slowly floats away from realism into an empyrean of fantasy. At the top and rear of the Cabinet Office Jessel finds, effectively in a garret, the poky store-room which, cleared of its rubbish, became the office of the Unit. Since it contains sink, draining-board and gas-ring, it is easy to imagine a slowly growing domesticity, accompanied by a slowly growing intimacy, between Serafin and Summerchild.
When people hear some shocking or tragic piece of news, they often exclaim: ‘You must be joking!’ Imparting much that is shocking and tragic in the doomed love-affair between Summerchild and Serafin, Frayn never ceases to joke; and it is precisely this combination of seriousness and jokiness which makes this work so pleasurable, even during stretches when the fabric of the narrative wears perilously thin and its tone becomes no less perilously facetious.
On the subject of ‘quality of life’ (or happiness) Serafin conducts what is, in effect, a series of philosophy tutorials with Summerchild—clearly one of those students who stimulate their tutors as much as they are stimulated. Frayn has himself published a volume of philosophy, Constructions. Here, he adroitly parodies the discipline.
How much of what Jessel records of Summerchild's and Serafin's affair is actually derived from tapes and how much either from imagination or from intimations beamed in on him by the dead man's ghost, haunting the claustrophobic eyrie still full of the pathetic relics of his cohabitation with his middle-aged mistress, is never wholly clear; and that it should not be clear is part of the fascination of the story. Jessel's role is, essentially, that of any novelist. What he writes about the tragedy and comedy of human existence is derived in part from the evidence of what he sees, hears and reads but, in even greater part, from what he intuits and imagines. As he is haunted by Summerchild and Serafin, so every novelist is intermittently haunted by his characters. Jessel's increasing self-identification with Summerchild is a paradigm of every novelist's increasing self-identification with his narrator/protagonist. At one point Jessel declares: ‘I'm beginning to get very confused about exactly where my head stops, and the rest of the world starts.’ At some time every novelist has undergone the same sort of confusion.
In his denouement, Frayn plays yet another airy joke on the reader, cheating his expectations. But to reveal how he does it would be as unkind as to reveal who has done it in a mystery novel.
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 the “meaning of it all” is worth contemplating, as I happen to, this is a book for you. It's been a long time since I've read a novel that was as amusing, diverting, touching, and, yes, smart as this one.
In some ways, A Landing on the Sun comes across as a conflation of the hugely literate and to-the-point BBC television series “Yes, [Prime] Minister” and Joseph Heller's criminally underrated Something Happened. Jessel, a fortyish-fiftyish civil servant in a Whitehall ministry, is charged with investigating the death (by apparent suicide), during the sullen Heath-Wilson winter and spring of 1974, of one S. Summerchild, a similarly placed and tasked bureaucrat with whom Jessel had in fact once had glancing contact. He sets out on the inevitable paper chase, which leads to dusty, disordered files and other records long-since abandoned in a tiny, lofty nest of third-class offices in which the turbulent final acts of Summerchild's life were played out. It is a voyage of discovery on many levels. Like Sgt. Joe Friday, Jessel sets out to get the facts, but what he comes to learn, not least about himself, is more complicated and absorbing by light years than we or he would ever expect. Indeed, the more he discovers, the further he plunges into territory reminiscent of that explored by Harold Pinter in “Betrayal,” the more obsessive does the search become. Indeed, it is fair to say that the investigation comes to consume Jessel; through empathy, it possesses him utterly. He is his search; he becomes, it seems, Summerchild.
In Jessel, Michael Frayn has achieved an unconditional triumph in the creation of a distinctive, compelling narrative voice. A bureaucrat to the bone, capable of observing (with a certain irony) that “Life, I have come to see, is nothing more or less than another way of writing file,” his pronounced, evident respect for protocol and procedure is tempered now by objectivity, now by feeling. The reader's early inclination is to take Jessel for granted, as a sort of postindustrial Mr. Pooter if you will, but that would be a mistake. True, one suspects that Jessel, seized by turbulences hormonal and emotional, might produce a memo instead of a sonnet, but there is much more to him than that: There must be, since it is through his grasp of affairs that the story in its wholeness will acquire grip, spirit and “heart.” He is Pooter with a sharp edge and a soft center, brisk and efficient, but battered as well, lumbered with difficulties of a domestic nature that vex and perplex and push his already strained energies beyond endurance.
The writing is simply first-class. No one sends up the chatter of the chattering classes—talk-show pundits, civil service types, academics—better than Frayn, but he does other voices, too. Summerchild's sad tale, as reconstructed by Jessel, begins “in the spring of 1974, [after] a confrontation between Government and unions so destablizing that some people had daily been expecting to see tanks in Whitehall … all this minor misery is occurring in an island set in a leaden sea of even greater misery, in a world which is presumably going to end, sooner rather than later, in some cataclysmic downpour of misery beyond imagination. Upon this charming scene enters a woman whose marriage is about to break up. She sits down in a quiet room, provided at public expense, and begins to lecture a man who is shortly to be found dying by the dustbins. ‘Now,’ she says, ‘let's talk about happiness.’ Underlined.” And so begins a love story which Frayn tells with great economy but with no sacrifice of effect. A love story rather like Possession, but without the pedantic baggage that played so skillfully to the pedantic pretensions of bookchatters on both sides of the Atlantic.
Any worthwhile novel embraces and ranges over more matters than can be enumerated in a review's compass. There is a tendency in this country to dismiss writers like Frayn for merely uttering terribly clever but smallish-scaled truths. Appealing if you like chintz and country houses, but if you want big, deep stuff, well, there's this sensational new writer from Namibia. Take it from me, however, there is in this highly civilized novel's 250 pages more art, and amusement, and richness of insight; more awareness of the arches and sinking spells of the human condition, more purchase on the way the world works, and we within that world, than you are likely to find where conventional critical wisdom points.
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, his unhappy little son is looked after by an indifferent baby-sitter, his house is graceless and cold. Everything there, he reflects as he sits down to cold meat, his son having cried himself to sleep, “was chosen by me, worn by me, cooked by me, repaired by me. This is why I am not at home here.”
We know, right here at the start of Michael Frayn's pointed and desolate comedy [A Landing on the Sun] that Jessel is to be plucked out of his desert domain. The plucking will not be done by a mysterious midnight summons, but by his two objectified hands pulling out a clean file and printing Summerchild on it.
A phone call from his superior has informed him that a television program is interested in the death, 15 years earlier, of a colleague whose body was found in one of the little alleys running through the Whitehall complex. Summerchild seemed to have fallen accidentally, Parliament was told at the time, and certainly it had nothing to do with the dead man's humdrum job in an all-but-functionless bureaucratic appendage entitled the Government Commission. Jessel is instructed to prepare a brief report, in case television continues to pry.
And down the rabbit hole he tumbles. For a bit, Jessel—and we—think we have spotted George Smiley or James Bond disappearing around a bend in the tunnel, hand in hand with the departed Summerchild. Files have vanished; there is a reference to a mysterious Strategy Unit. Jessel, his gray beard neatly trimmed, may be meticulous and poor but he is a Civil Servant unleashed, and unstoppable. He ends up in a disused storeroom in Whitehall's mansard roof.
Its grimy window offers a view of London, of St. James Park, and of a corner of the prime minister's garden. The cereal and Brillo cartons stacked along the wall offer a view of the wild human heart as battlefield between passion and order, life contained and life uncontainable. They offer the romance of Summerchild and Serafin, a blue-eyed, gray-haired Oxford don who is a student of phenomenology, the mother of three children, and a free spirit with a Slavic soul.
A Landing on the Sun tells the wacky and exhilarating story of how Summerchild and Serafin got up into the garret, what they did there and what became of them. On that level, it is loony comedy with a mournful ending. Intermittently, it is a lovely satirical speculation on the ways of bureaucracies and academics, on the uses of order and disorder, and the deepest opposite twists in men and women.
It is 1975. Harold Wilson has won the election, the Labour Party has taken power, and the bureaucrats are nervously watching for threats and opportunities. Summerchild's boss sees an opportunity in a Wilson phrase about a strategy to improve the quality of life. Some Labour intellectual has suggested that Serafin be tapped to think about it. She arrives in London looking for quarters. Summerchild, assigned to be her bureaucratic watchdog, inveigles her up into the Government Commission attic—just like Oxford digs, he notes—where she will do no harm.
But chemistry happens. It is intellectual chemistry, at first. Serafin asks her deputy what he understands by Quality of Life. Washing machines? he suggests. She is smitten; he is the perfect touchstone and ballast for a philosopher's flights. She floats off on speculation, and he, startled, disapproving, and bit by bit delighted, follows. Clearly, what the prime minister needs is a metaphysics of desire.
This is a long way from washing machines, and a marvelously long way from anything the prime minister may or may not have had in mind. But soon, Serafin and Summerchild are exploring the concept of happiness; as a friend is happy, or possibly, a lover, she suggests. For his part, Summerchild draws up a bureaucratic minute examining his own life. He is comfortably married, and he has a good job and a nice family. Is he happy? That is a political question, he concludes; it is up to her to decide.
The transcripts of their discussions end abruptly. Their secretary has quit in shock. From there on, Jessel works with tapes. Talk gives way to sounds: ambiguous ones, as much domestic as connubial, at least at first. “Honey!” Summerchild breathes, but it seems to refer to their teatime. Soon, though, there are the sounds of an inflatable mattress being stuffed through the skylight and onto the roof. The lovers have landed on the sun; the affair is in full swing. Before long, it will end, though not until Summerchild is drawing up plans to smuggle in a refrigerator and build a loft on the roof for visits by Serafin's children. It is moon-madness and soon it is moon-set; absurd, comical and disquieting.
It is something else, as well. Jessel, as he goes through the papers and listens to the tapes, gets caught up in the whirlwind. More and more, he identifies with Summerchild, his prim alter ego who, having heard Pan's pipes, capers Dionysically on the government's rooftop and, eventually, off it. Jessel begins to speak of the lanky, red-haired Summerchild as “I”; at one point, he describes his own gray hair as red. Lava chunks from his besotted investigatory volcano land in his South London life, with disrupting and inconclusive results.
Half-committed, he begins to court Summerchild's daughter whom, coincidentally, he had known at school. We will not know until the end whether the igneous discharges from Whitehall's garret will burn on, or burn out. Frayn's ending is both sober and enlarging. Landing on the Sun is something more than a delight.
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 levitating virgins, followed quickly by the children of the colonies: as Salman Rushdie put it, a case of the Empire striking back.
In the face of all this turmoil and challenge, however, the domestic product has managed to keep its nerve. Alterations have occurred, accommodations have been reached; Julian Barnes has adapted French theory for English tastes, Martin Amis has learned to bellow with the best of the Americans. David Lodge and Malcolm Bradbury have taken the campus novel and turned it into a barometer of social change, even magic realism has been absorbed, especially in the work of women writers such as Jeanette Winterson and the late Angela Carter.
Some, however, have resisted progress (or “progress”) simply by ignoring it. With a few minor adjustments, A Landing on the Sun or Daughters of Albion [by A. N. Wilson] might have been written at any time between the 1890s and now. Frayn and Wilson are the latest in the long and honorable line of English novelists that includes such masters of understatement as Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Powell, Ivy Compton-Burnett, and Henry Green. Their work observes the civilities and indulges in soft laughter; behind the humor and the urbane style, however, lurk pain and the sempiternal sorrows.
Michael Frayn the novelist is something of a late bloomer. He began his writing career as a reporter with the Guardian, that champion of liberal-left causes, and later became an elegant and highly regarded columnist for that paper and then for the Sunday Observer. He has written plays, a book of philosophy, and seven novels, the first of which to receive real critical acclaim was the recent The Trick of It. He is regarded as a comic writer, and while it is certainly true that he can be very funny indeed (Noises Off is a very funny play), his work is as darkly ambiguous as that of Chekhov—whose plays he has translated—and leaves one feeling an equal measure of laughter and sorrow.
A Landing on the Sun has for narrator an almost caricature Englishman. Brian Jessel is a civil servant, a minor functionary in the Cabinet Office, one of those gray man in pinstripes whose hearts seem furled as tightly as their umbrellas.
On the desk in front of me lie two human hands. They are alive, but perfectly still. One of them is sitting, poised like a crab about to scuttle, the fingers steadying a fresh Government-issue folder. The other is holding a grey Government-issue ballpoint above the label on the cover, as motionless as a lizard, waiting to strike down into the space next to the word Subject.
The world for him is impossible, a place of chaos and thrashing pain, made manageable only by the willed imposition of order. Even his word-play seems to deny the possibility of joy: “Life, I have come to see, is nothing more nor less than another way of writing file.”
The Subject to be inserted into that fresh Government-issue folder is one of his predecessors in the Cabinet Office, Stephen Summerchild, who fifteen years before the book opens was found dead in mysterious if not exactly suspicious circumstances in a yard in Whitehall, apparently having jumped, or fallen, from one of the windows in the Admiralty Office, a place where he had no business to be. At the time, the affair was quietly disposed of with a quick inquest and a Whitehall-inspired piece in The Times designed to scotch any rumors of dark doings. Now, however, Summerchild has come back to haunt the Service in the form of a television team following up new claims of a connection between his death and unspecified defense matters. “There's also supposed to be a mysterious disappearing colleague and some kind of Russian connection,” Jessel's boss tells him. Jessel is directed to investigate the matter and report back.
It happens that Jessel had known Summerchild: had, indeed, lived on the same street and been vaguely in love with Summerchild's cello-playing daughter when he was seventeen, in the summer of 1974, the year of Summerchild's death. A bit contrived, this; Frayn is a good literary mechanic, yet here and in other places—especially in the closing chapters—the machinery of the plot does clank somewhat, although the author's gift for narrative elsewhere carries the reader smoothly over most of the bumps.
Jessel dutifully follows the dead man's tracks through the dusty byways of fifteen-year-old files. He discovers that Summerchild had been assigned to work with a Dr. Serafin, an Oxford philosopher, whom the incoming prime minister, Harold Wilson, had invited to set up a special Strategy Unit to investigate “the quality of life” and formulate proposals on how it might be improved for the population as a whole. (This is not so improbable as it sounds; there was a dotty side to Wilson's administrations which now, in the Major interregnum, seems wonderfully endearing.) He also locates the sequestered little room under the eaves of the Cabinet Office building where Summerchild and the doctor conducted their investigations, and settles down, with the spirit of the dead man looking over his shoulder, to read the mildewed records of their conversations stored there. Quickly he comes to realize the oddity of the events that took place that long-ago summer.
There have been hints already of uncivil servantlike matters; a former colleague ventures the information that Summerchild seemingly had been working on a project to do with washing machines. And indeed, the transcript of his and Serafin's first exchanges offers confirmation of a sort:
… To recapitulate: “the quality of life,” as you understand it, is some property which is in one way or another promoted or enhanced by washing-machines. Now, I take “washing-machines” in this context to be a synecdoche (no doubt humorously ventured) for domestic machinery in general.
I imagine it is …
These early conversations produce some wonderful comic writing. Serafin seems the typical career philosopher, thick-skinned, self-absorbed, and faintly mad.
You want what are sometimes called “ordinary people?. …” I don't think that should present any problems. The department has contacts with a number of opinion-sampling and marketing organizations …
Thank you. But I think for our purposes we might define “an ordinary person” as “anyone who is not a professional philosopher.” A Civil Servant, for example, would be a perfectly ordinary person in this context.
Things change rapidly, however. Summerchild, it turns out, is not the dry stick he seemed, but a creature of suppressed passions, an artist manqué (he plays the violin), a man longing for love. Nor is Serafin an old codger with ash on his sleeve: she is a woman, of Russian background, with two teenage sons and a husband who has ceased to love her. The inevitable happens. The transcripts cease (their secretary requests a transfer), and Jessel moves on to the tapes themselves; one of them opens with a shaky violin solo by Summerchild, which is followed by sounds of Serafin weeping. “Another sigh—I think hers. Then her voice, also small and strange, perhaps fearful: ‘What are we going to do?’”
Jessel is outraged. That such a hare-brained investigation should have been commissioned by the government is bad enough, but now the investigators have fallen in love.
I know the kind of people who talk about happiness. They're the ones with strained white smiling faces and desperation in their hearts. They're so happy!—Expect tearful phone calls and suicide attempts. They've found the secret of happiness for all!—Stand by for the labour camps and the mass graves.
Yet happiness does keep breaking in. Urged to submit a personal testament to the investigation, Summerchild recalls a moment of domestic bliss with his wife and daughter.
We ate by the light of three candles and our eyes all shone like children's around the table. Every time one of us leaned forward for the salt the flames wavered and curtsied with ridiculous deference, like three nervous waitresses. And when we laughed at this they started back in absurd confusion. If we'd raised our hand to them, or even spoken sharply, they'd all have had instant heart attacks.
I think this was the day you asked me what the quality of life was. Yes, because suddenly the answer came to me, as I watched the candles. It was lightness. I mean in both senses of the word. It was brightness and it was weightlessness. It shone and danced in the darkness, and without it there would be nothing; but one hand raised against it and it could lightly cease.
And later on in the same submission he describes a moment of Cartesian enlightenment when he is caught in an electricity blackout; he has a vivid sense of his own thereness, yet what comes into his head is not Cogito, ergo sum, but the memory from childhood of a little velvet case in which had lived his mother's pearl necklace before it was broken and the pearls were scattered and lost:
I used to take it out sometimes, undo the little golden clasp, and run my fingers over the softness of the velvet inside. It seemed to me richer and stranger than the pearls themselves had ever been—and richer and stranger still now that they had gone.
There is not much bliss in Brian Jessel's life. He spends much of his nights trying to lull his emotionally disturbed son to sleep, and on Saturdays goes to visit his wife in the mental hospital where she is a permanent patient. Real pain flashes out of these passages. On one of his visits he is absent-mindedly carrying the old biscuit tin in which the Strategy Unit's tapes are stored.
I stand up and say I'll send her mother and Timmy in for a bit. Her eyes follow the tin as it moves tantalizingly away towards the door, with all the sweetness of the world still shut away inside it. “What?” I say, smiling disingenuously, “This? This is just an old tin. Just work.” She turns her face away and looks at the wall. We have achieved some communication after all. I have held the sweetness of the world in front of her, then taken it away again, and she has understood.
Meanwhile, as the tapes attest, the lovers of fifteen years ago, like children playing house, are turning the little room in Whitehall into a home away from home, with pictures on the wall, and geraniums on the windowsill, and even an airbed for them to lie on. It cannot last, of course, and in a heart-breakingly funny scene Summerchild's boss comes to the room to find out what is going on, and discovers Summerchild in the midst of cooking lunch while Serafin sunbathes on the roof. The Unit is wound up, and the lock to the room is changed. Summerchild, who was a climber in his youth, gets in by way of the roof, but cannot find his way down again. The end is inevitable, as it always is. It is left to Jessel to pronounce on the Unit's findings:
What they have shown, if it needed showing, is that happiness is like economics or heat in seawater. You can make the laws of economics work for short periods of time in small models cut off from the rest of the world, just as you can have a hot bath in the sun-warmed pools of seawater left behind on the beach. But as soon as the neat economic model is reconnected with the unstructured chaos of human affairs, as soon as the tide returns, all gratifying predictivity breaks down, the hot bath disappears at once into the huge reserves of cold in the ocean deeps. Micro-happiness, yes; macro-happiness, I think not.
Yet in their moment, however brief, the lovers arrived at a different definition. On one of the tapes Summerchild says:
“I should say that happiness is being where one is and not wanting to be anywhere else.”
“Yes,” says Serafin. “I believe it is. Thank you.”
As this affecting and mournfully funny book ends, Jessel has, tentatively, without great expectation yet not without hope, renewed contact with Summerchild's still unmarried daughter, to make with her, no doubt, his own attempted landing on the sun.
At the age of forty-two, A. N. Wilson has behind him a body of work which most of his contemporaries would not be capable of amassing in two or three lifetimes. He has been a lecturer at Oxford, and from 1976 to 1981 was literary editor of the Spectator magazine. He has written a dozen novels, and biographies of Walter Scott, Milton, Belloc, C. S. Lewis, and Tolstoy, the last a critical triumph. And, as Nabokov's Van Veen would say, much, much more.
Daughters of Albion is the latest installment in the fictional memoirs of Julian Ramsay, of which there have been two previous volumes, Incline Our Hearts and the inelegantly titled A Bottle in the Smoke. This is a “state of England” work, stretching from the Second World War to the present day. (Not the least remarkable thing about the first two books is that they were set, with great confidence and persuasiveness, in periods which Wilson, who was born in 1950, either did not experience, or could not possibly remember.) It is a roman fleuve in the style of Anthony Powell's “Music of Time” sequence, though jollier, I think, than Powell's cool anecdotage, and certainly funnier. Wilson writes in that tone of peculiarly English insouciance—relaxed, slightly cruel, incredulous of the world's folly—which seems a mask for utter despair. Evelyn Waugh was the master of this style, and though Wilson is less cool than Waugh he does not have that writer's profound artistry.
Daughters of Albion opens in the early 1960s in the midst of the Profumo scandal, which “became a signal for a general whoopee which would engulf England for at least a decade” (another similarity between Wilson and Anthony Powell is the awfulness of their prose styles, though this volume is not as slapdash as its predecessors). the narrator, Julian Ramsay, is the orphaned son of middle-class parents and a nephew of Uncle Roy (a splendid comic creation), rector of Timplingham, whose lifelong and unremitting obsession is the Lampitts, a family of slightly dingy minor aristocrats somewhat on the lines of the Mitfords or the Wedgwoods. Julian, radio actor and failed writer, is emotionally adrift (“I felt myself beginning to be doomed to be a spectator rather than a participant in life”) after the failure of his marriage, which was rapidly disintegrating at the end of A Bottle in the Smoke; a Philip Larkinesque melancholy pervades the book (“To be conscious is to be sad, and anything else seems like an illusion”), and although the Swinging Sixties are well under way, Julian detects everywhere the decline of a culture:
Kentish Town deepened into brick-blackened Camden. On my left was the tube station, infested, as always, with human wreckage, blue-nosed contemplatives clutching ragged blankets to their shoulders and wodges of newspaper to their knees; shiny-faced inebriates, eyes swollen and cut, murmuring snatches of old songs; a woman who might once have been a flower-seller, a black straw hat rammed jauntily over scrubs of unwashed hair, sprawled in a pool of unidentifiable liquid, her neck and shoulders pressed against a newspaper-placard reading CLOSING PRICES.
Enter Rice Robey, a civil servant of a very different order from Michael Frayn's desperate gray men: Robey, autodidact and visionary, is a kind of English guru, a druidic figure at once impressive and ridiculous, who in his younger days produced a series of fantastical novels under the suggestive pen name “Albion Pugh.” Early on, one of Julian's friends sounds a significant note:
“Very much like Blake, Pugh,” said Darnley. “Same weird thing of having a vision of England. Similar, too, in the way the sublime stuff goes hand in hand with absolute balls.”
Wilson uses Pugh/Robey as an example of a certain vision of Englishness, at once mundane and transcendent, against which to measure the decline which was setting in even as the country rejected Macmillan's discredited conservatism and brought in Harold Wilson's Labour government with its talk of the “white heat” of change and recovery. Blake's “Jerusalem,” that quintessentially English anthem, echoes throughout the book, and is sung in the closing pages as the bulldozers move in to flatten a Stone Age site which Rice Robey has tried in vain to preserve. An unfinished sentence (“it is a pity to see …”) spoken by his cousin Felicity leads Julian into one of his sad musings:
Pity to see that people age, but they do not grow up? Or that England ages, and is being, has been, destroyed? Pity to see the world, turning on its sad old axis, learning no lessons, solving no problems, and increasing, with each of its revolutions, the sum of human misery?
I should not give the impression that Daughters of Albion is all melancholy and fond regrets; the elegiac tone is lightened everywhere by the rich and subtle comedy of Wilson's characterization. Readers of the earlier volumes will be happy to meet again such favorites as Uncle Roy (a bore to rival Joseph Finsbury in Stevenson's The Wrong Box), the cockneyfied Lord Vernon (“Ernie”) Lampitt and his cynical and hypochondriacal brother Sargent, and the caddish literary man-about-town (and, as this volume suggests, possible murderer) Raphael Hunter. Rice Robey is a splendid addition to this gallery of grotesques, with his shiny suit and lank hair and hypnotically flat voice; the “Daughters of Albion” of the title are the many women who fall for his—to Julian very dubious—charm:
One of Rice Robey's emotional talents was in the ability to make his devotees compete with one another. They all wanted to show that they knew him better than the others—hence, presumably, their willingness to believe the worst about the Great Attachment, the woman with whom he shared his domestic life and who, presumably, in fact knew him best.
Though the portrait of Robey is a caricature, it is a subtle one, and allows A. N. Wilson to explore more deeply than in previous volumes of the series the themes of time and loss and national decay. He quotes from one of Albion Pugh's novels one of the central assertions of his own book: “Each of us comes to fullness of life only when we have learnt how to mythologise it” and goes on:
Then I read in a book that “religion is what we do with our madness,” and I began to understand. The activities of the uncontrolled and unexplored self create religious belief, and it is in this unexplored area that we are most vulnerable. We protect the cloud-capp'd towers and gorgeous palaces of that insubstantial pageant more fervently than we would protect the quantum theory or Newton's Law of Thermodynamics because that is where we have learnt to come to terms with life's pain and muddle, if we have come to terms, which perhaps we never shall and perhaps we should not hope to do.
It is this Blakean concern with risky and, among fiction writers, unfashionable matters, such as religion, that gives depth to this splendidly entertaining and peculiarly moving comedy.
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 Shireen, a flighty efficient librarian, Liz, and a couple of incompetents called Kent and Kevin in the copy-room. This group of agitators has already “done” the Ministry of Defence, the Treasury and the Department of the Environment; it is now Terry's ambition to have a go at the Home Office over the case of an Asian named Hassan, who has been found dead in a police cell.
An opportunity to discredit this hated target soon presents itself when Terry encounters Roy, his solicitor, indiscreetly dining in a restaurant with Hilary, a pretty young civil servant. Hilary is attracted to Terry, who, at sixty-one, remains personable and is sufficiently athletic to put up a creditable performance with the girl a few nights later across Jacqui's desk in the office. The pair are destined to make love again, this time in the open air, after they've been chased by the police from a demonstration outside the Permanent Under-Secretary's country home. It is not long before a couple of mysterious manila envelopes arrive at the OPEN premises. They are found to contain “leaked” material from the Home Office concerning the Hassan case, as well as photocopies of archive information about the trouble-making activities of the group. Terry realizes that this is a gift from his new mistress, and, much though he would like to use the classified material against the authorities, he refuses (to his credit) to jeopardize the girl. Conflicting allegiances and the fear of detection cause her to hand in her notice, but she is soon re-hired by Jacqui (who is unaware of any amatory rivalry) to work for “the Cause”. A week of harmonious relations in the office is followed by a gloriously acrimonious débâcle, in which Hilary and Liz uncover Jacqui's dodgy book-keeping, the doorstep dossers play havoc with the plumbing, the repressed Kevin is forced to reveal the pornography he keeps in his grubby haversack, Terry blows his top, Jacqui storms out in a jealous huff, Shireen resigns, and Kent and Roy follow suit.
The narrative is skillfully pieced together in sections of interior monologue voiced by each of the characters in turn—a technique which highlights the paradox, implicit throughout the book, of OPEN secrecy: “Here we are fighting against secret judgements and secret decisions—and all the time we're making secret judgements and decisions ourselves.” Now You Know has a cast of diverse and diverting humanity, and Frayn manages very convincingly to enter into the psyches of his characters: the vacuous tittle-tattle of the former deb, Jacqui, as she trills on about her daughter Poops, her pony Pippy, her cat Moo and her dogs Bicky and Scrumps; Hilary's confused thoughts as she falls in love, betrays the trust of the Civil Service, and aimlessly roams the Northern Line between Charing Cross and Kentish Town; the disturbed mess inside Kevin's head as he struggles to articulate his agonized emotions. Mostly, though, it's Terry's homespun analyses of himself and his world on which the reader is privileged to eavesdrop:
Try everything, that's me. Try it—then try something else. I was a Trot once. Of course I was, you tell me. One look at me and you know I been a Trot. Tell us something we don't know. All right, my friend, I will: I also been a fully paid-up member of the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party? you cry, turning pale. I must be joking! I'm not, my old son, I'm not. They was—I wasn't.
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 Servant at the Home Office. Open has been investigating a case involving the Home Office: a black man, Hassam, has been found dead, apparently as the result of police brutality, in the cell in which he was being held. ‘Have we got the situation contained?’ Hilary's worried colleagues ask each other. What they do not realise is that Hilary, partly disgusted with the cover-up and partly infatuated with Terry, is about to pass on to Open all the top-secret information at her disposal.
Frayn tells his story, in the present tense, through now one and now another of the actors in his drama. Since he is a skilled dramatist, each of these monologues is totally convincing. Most often it is Terry who is speaking, in an idiom, full of double negatives, dones for dids, and donts for doesn'ts, which suggests prolonged and careful listening to Derek Jameson on the wireless. Terry's long-time partner Jacqui, a divorced woman who lives in Sunningdale, who paints her eyelids blue, who has a daughter called Poops, a cat called Moo and dogs called Bicky and Scrumps, and who uses her own money to subsidise Open, possesses her own equally distinctive idiom; and so does each of the other members of the cast—Hilary, who eventually resigns from the Home Office in order to work for Terry, constantly smiling Shireen on the switchboard, lesbian Liz in the library, and tongue-tied Kevin and moronic Kent in the copying and despatch room.
Frayn neatly contrasts Terry's demands for open government with the secrecy with which he is careful to shroud his own emotional life. This engaging wide boy is indignant because the Home Office refuses to tell the truth about Hassam's death; but he himself tells—and lives—a sequence of lies in his relationships with Jacqui and Hilary, each woman imagining that she is exclusively his lover. With the rest of his staff he is equally dishonest. In turn, all these people are to some extent dishonest with him and with each other. As Hilary puts it:
Here we are fighting against secret judgements and secret decisions and all the time we are making secret judgements and decisions ourselves. We've got all kinds of secret understandings no one ever mentions.
When, in the final pages of the novel, first the truth and then truthfulness are forced on him, Terry learns the lesson which Ibsen so often preached in his plays, above all in The Wild Duck: without the solace of lies, life can be insupportable.
Frayn is a constantly witty writer. He is also one who can be trusted to come up with a number of felicitiously unexpected observations. My favourite of these is Terry's comment that ‘there's nothing about smiles in the Bible’. Terry goes on to reflect ‘What—they didn't smile in them days? Or did they, but it got lost in their beards and no one noticed?’
Beneath its sunny surface, this is an often troubled—and therefore troubling—novel. Most of us want openness not merely in government but in our own lives; but are we prepared to pay the price of that openness? When Terry is forced by the consequences of his own duplicity into opting for openness, he is cruelly diminished by the subsequent revelations, and his influence as a gadfly of the establishment is in effect destroyed.
Frayn's book can best be compared to a pin: it is small, shiny, sharp. Its impact will, one hopes, prick people into examining or reexamining one of the most teasing moral problems of our times.
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 cliché lorry, and Terry has all the genuine resonance of a nine-bob note.
Even if we generously ignore the insipid quality of this gorblimey prose compared with the sublime yobisme of Martin Amis, Terry fails to work as a literary construct because all that do-me-a-favour market-trader patois sits uncomfortably upon a character who is made to display the kind of selfless altruism that Mother Teresa might find naive and unrealistic.
The key moment of street incredulity is when prissy young Home Office apparatchik Hilary Wood follows up a desk-top shag with Terry (my competition entry for the most uncomfortable literary sex) by handing over a devastating leak about a police brutality scandal. The apostle of openness then nobly declines to use the material because he fears she will go to jail.
This decision, portrayed uncritically, is not only ludicrous but downright immoral by any of the standards that I bet the author thinks he shares with his readers. By taking Hilary's dynamite envelopes and hiding them in his ex-wife's flat instead of giving them to Newsnight, old Terry not only fails to uncover what we are asked to accept is a major public scandal, but actually perpetuates its cover-up.
At this point, the novel finds itself staring at something uncomfortably like a real ethico-political issue, but pretends not to notice, and hastily crosses the road by descending into an office-relations soap so tedious that, in real life, it wouldn't distract you from making a chain of paperclips. The police brutality issue is forgotten in the wake of a demonstration so absurd it would not get past the projects committee of Junior Green-peace, while Hilary, natch, joins Terry's group and takes it over.
If this is the best that one of our cleverest and most adroit writers can produce at a time when political and moral certainties have become a quicksand of change, then there is something seriously wrong with our culture. It's not the wasted trees I mind (although perhaps I should), but the sheer squandering of publishing space and authorial talent just to put a well-known name on a list and a handy advance in the bank.
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 mythical monsters like Chancery and the Circumlocution Office, but as more or less random collections of people at work. Making fun of work and its effects, he has set his novels and plays in theatres, libraries, newspaper offices, and even at a German trade exhibition; and in two out of the three novels he has published since his return to fiction in 1989 he has come to rest, no doubt temporarily, in the neighbourhood of Whitehall. Like most of its predecessors, his new book [Now You Know] has a strong element of bedroom farce, and Frayn displays ever greater ingenuity in moving, so to speak, the bedroom furniture into the office.
This is not entirely (though it is mostly) a matter of sex, since Frayn also wants to stress the regressive and infantile side of our working lives. In Towards the End of the Morning, an early novel with a Fleet Street setting, he made much of the sense of impending ‘darkness at noon’ experienced by his protagonist as he approached his 30th birthday. More recently, however, his institutional novels and plays have portrayed our rulers, and their associates in the chattering classes, as people who never grew up. Most of them are mentally and emotionally stuck in their undergraduate days, with a tendency to revert to early adolescence, and even infancy.
To start with a very obvious obsession, Frayn has got more mileage out of the ‘old college’ joke than almost any of his contemporaries; and now that most British writers are no longer Oxbridge graduates this can make him seem rather dated. His play Donkeys' Years is set in ‘one of the smaller courts, in one of the lesser colleges, at one of the older universities’. A surgeon, a junior minister of education and a top civil servant are among the guests at one of the curious reunions such colleges hold in late September. What ensues is not only a drunken farce but an orgy of wanton destruction, with the politician as ringleader: ‘That was the original Jacobean banister,’ protests a scandalised left-wing don. In The Russian Interpreter, which is set in Moscow, the ineffable Proctor-Gould attaches himself to Manning on the basis of their brief acquaintanceship ‘at John's’. The Englishman abroad cannot resist such claims. ‘We come from similar backgrounds,’ Manning explains to one of his Russian contacts. ‘We were at the same university.’ Soon he is carted off to the Lubyanka, a victim of Proctor-Gould's machinations as well as of his own gullibility. But Manning's period behind bars is curiously reassuring. The sympathetic night warder, who lets him out of his cell every evening and watches with parental concern as he empties his bowels, is like some surrogate college servant.
It is not just Frayn's Lubyanka which resembles St John's. In Benefactors David, the reluctant apostle of high-rise architecture, dreams of a housing development with ‘all the flats facing inwards’ onto the life of the community, just like his old college. Frayn's 1991 novel A Landing on the Sun shows Summerchild, the besotted civil servant, turning a disused Whitehall garret into a home for the ad hoc ‘Strategy Unit’ consisting of himself and a female Oxford philosophy don. Her earnest tutorials on the nature of happiness turn into practical experiments as Summerchild stealthily furnishes the garret as a lovenest. Whether or not such a hideaway with its kitchen facilities and trap-door onto the roof is plausible in the ‘great white hall of bumbledom’, it could certainly be found at the top of many an Oxbridge staircase. Finally, when their idyll is rumbled by his superior, Summerchild embarks on a suicidal midnight odyssey across the roofs of the neighbouring ministries, in conscious imitation of the night-climbers of Cambridge.
Brian Jessel, the narrator of A Landing on the Sun, is a younger civil servant who many years later has to investigate Summerchild's death in order to find out, and hush up, whatever scandal was involved. As he breaks into the locked garret and pores over the Strategy Unit's abandoned files and tapes, Jessel realises that Summerchild and his mistress had created a ‘complete civilisation’ in there; they were even growing tomato plants on the roof. This ‘landing on the sun’ is the novel's figure for happiness, or rather for ‘micro-happiness’, which, Jessel believes, is the only sort possible. The re-created college room and the middle-aged adolescent's fantasy of a love-affair with teacher are, however briefly, a setting for Utopia.
Elsewhere Michael Frayn's comedy has more usually taken an anti-utopian turn. He has written one explicitly dystopian novel, A Very Private Life, and has portrayed pseudo-utopian communist societies on at least three occasions: the Soviet Union in The Russian Interpreter, Castro's Cuba in the play Clouds, and an alternative post-1917 revolutionary England in another play, Balmoral. Here the royal castle has been transmuted into a spartan state-run writers' retreat housing Warwick Deeping, Hugh Walpole, Godfrey Winn and an obscure erotic poetess called Enid Blyton. Balmoral, which flopped on the stage, is a sort of extended boarding-school ragging. We expect official ideologies to be subverted, and semblances of order to turn into mayhem, in these works, but what is more interesting is Frayn's sense of the reversibility of our ordinary distinctions between capitalism and socialism, England and Russia, and between hotel or college room, boarding-school and prison.
His new novel takes us through a different set of reversals. At its centre is the disastrous meeting of Terry, a Cockney rogue who leads a high-profile militant campaign for open government, and Hilary who is meant to strike us initially as a prim and dedicated civil servant. Terry is out to get at the facts of the Hassam case—a particularly nasty instance of death while in police custody—and Hilary is one of the Home Office team charged with seeing that the facts in the case are properly ‘contained’. She herself seems to be thoroughly contained by her role (as does Terry by his), and she reflects that the Civil Service is fast taking over her whole life (‘I can see why it's called the Home Office’). But Hilary comes from a broken home, and soon she will break out of this one. Such impulses are no surprise to Terry, an ex-convict—he was done for theft, false pretences and ‘actual bodily harm’—who knows that within the corridors of power there is ‘always someone bursting to tell. It's the pressure. Like the garden hose.’ His campaign, which is called OPEN, thrives on people like Hilary who bring to it the secrets of the confessional.
Officially, Terry's campaigning appeal is based on an apocalyptic vision of Whitehall being transformed into a city of glass: he and his followers will sound the trumpet, and the walls of secrecy will come tumbling down. But Terry himself has a secret or two, since he is also a philanderer with a strong interest in not being caught out wearing glass trousers. As for Hilary's story, it curiously recalls the life of Uncumber, the heroine of Frayn's enchanting Science Fiction fairy-tale from the late Sixties, A Very Private Life. Uncumber is a rebellious daughter of the ruling classes (the ‘Deciders’), who spend their lives in hermetically-sealed houses relating to one another solely through the medium of the holovision chamber. (Frayn appears here as a prophet both of the spread of the home computer and of Virtual Reality.) The Deciders' houses are connected to the outside world by means of electric cables, food taps, and a delivery tube through which even babies arrive. When something goes wrong, the repairmen, members of the subhuman ‘outside classes’, are called in; and the ‘Kind People’ are there to enforce the law and prevent any trouble. This society is, deliberately, the complete opposite of a city of glass. The Deciders enjoy total privacy—which is perfect freedom, they think—so long as they obey the rules. But Uncumber won't obey them.
She is, first of all, seduced by the image of an older man, Noli, whose face comes up on the holovision screen one day when she dials a wrong number. She leaves home through the airlock and sets out across the world towards the remote area code where, she believes, Noli is to be found. She does find him, and though his language is incomprehensible to her she forces her way into his household. To her Alice-in-Wonderland eyes it appears as a ruined palace, inhabited by a small harem of three queens, the ‘cook-queen’, the ‘thin queen’ and the ‘surprised queen’. Finally, realising that Noli is ‘a charlatan and a lay-about and a womaniser and really just a little boy at heart’, she leaves, and eventually is allowed to rejoin the Deciders.
When in Now You Know Hilary burns her boats at the Home Office, she does so partly because she is sickened by the death of Mr Hassam, but much more because she is mesmerised by Terry. To her, like Noli to Uncumber, he ‘really is a king’—at first, anyhow. And like Uncumber, Hilary is in one respect a nasty little troublemaker, though, given her successes at Oxford and in the administrative fast stream, this has been pretty well disguised. She is bad news to the Home Office, and equally bad news to her little adoptive family in the offices of OPEN, where she soon talks her way into a job.
At the moment of walking out of the Home Office, Hilary has an intoxicating and terrifying moment of freedom; but she is already in thrall to Terry, whom she loves and hates and to whom she has entrusted stolen documents which could easily have her sent to prison. Terry is a professional enfant terrible; in one of his headline-grabbing ideas, a crowd of demonstrators in cat-masks gathers outside the house of a Permanent Under-Secretary (‘A cat may look at a king …’). In Hilary he has met his match, and, after making love to her over one of the office desks, he begins experiencing fatherly feelings. He is, anyway, old enough to be her father, whom she has never known. Soon Hilary is being mothered by Jacqui, Terry's office manager and long-time girl-friend, who overlooks the tell-tale signs in both capacities. This fragile family romance can last only as long as Jacqui and Hilary remain ignorant of one another's sex lives, which in the nature of farce is not very long. As for Terry, he is so much a little boy at heart that he feels himself shrinking from his normal six foot two to nearer four foot six the moment he approaches the abode of his legal wife, who is stuck away on a Woolwich housing estate. Not for nothing is his full name Terry Little.
In A Very Private Life we were told that Uncumber had escaped from the privacy of the inside world only to find an even greater privacy outside. In her case, this was exaggerated by the linguistic incomprehensions which are quite a common feature of Frayn's writings. Himself a noted translator of Chekhov, he has boldly incorporated dialogues in two or more languages in a number of his novels and plays. In Now You Know a not dissimilar effect is obtained through differences of idiolect, since the narrative is made up of a series of monologues recounting the events as experienced by Terry, Hilary, Jacqui and some of the other members of OPEN. The privacies thus opened up for inspection show very clearly that everyone has something, usually something infantile, to hide. But Hilary's disastrous arrival in the offices of OPEN is like the coming of a Freedom of Information Act and the sounding of the trumpet. Too much of OPEN's philosophy is, apparently, more than humankind can bear.
With this in mind, it would obviously be impertinent to ask what a passion for farcical plots which bring out the adolescent and infantile sides of his characters reveals about the writer himself. Frayn is clearly not the sort of intellectual humorist who is too fastidious to make jokes about smutty magazines and lavatories blocked up with sanitary towels. (Indeed, there is probably a Ph.D. to be written on towel-fetishism in his writings.) His school-boyish and—as I suppose—inoffensive male chauvinism has only superficially been moderated since the Sixties and Seventies, when characters with names like Samantha Light-body and Lady Driver frequented his work. But George Orwell for one would not have held this against him, and the truth is that Frayn is among the funniest novelists alive today. ‘Life, I have come to see, is nothing more nor less than another way of writing file,’ notes Jessel, the civil servant who is the narrator of A Landing on the Sun. Clearly Michael Frayn ought to be a favourite in the home office, with or without the capital letters.
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, almost abstract. The opening exchanges, as they view the flat, consist entirely of “No”s—interrogative, indecisive, placatory but ultimately affirmative. Their undefined work (which, from the props, definitely involves books, pen and paper) is, like much else that is important in the play, referred to as “your thing”, “the thing”. We easily recognize that their discussions about arranging the furniture are not so much about aesthetics as about power; that the child's toy Phil keeps putting away (another “thing”) stands for their future children; that “there's soup on the thing” (stove) means “I'm too busy to pay you any attention.”
In this portrait of a relationship, Frayn also successfully dramatizes a number of ontological problems; what happens when we make a decision (Cath and Phil inside one sweater try to coordinate their movements while looking in the mirror); in what does personal identity lie (they try opening their eyes suddenly to catch each other fixed at one moment); where does the past go (they watch time pass, counting along with the second hand of an alarm clock). There is even a Paul Daniels-like demonstration of Berkeley's conundrum about whether someone unobserved is really there when Phil disappears behind a curtain.
Michael Blakemore makes the most of these surprises and there are some high-risk bits of staging: an extended, full-frontal bout of nose-picking, some disturbing play with a mask and well-timed grapplings and rollings. As in Frayn's previous plays (especially Noises Off and Look, Look), these moments derive a good deal of their impact from their immediacy—which is what makes Here a proper piece of theatre rather than just an exceptionally well-written sitcom. That and the recurring swells of sadness which the play orchestrates over the passing of our lives.
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 transcending it, staking everything on one good rendering of the moment. My problem with books of this sort is that there isn't sufficient “what” to get involved with, despite the fact that the “how” has a certain polish. Most people will read something that engrosses them rather than what doesn't, and if a book isn't able to sustain your interest, exhortations and flogging by critics aren't going to make you guilt ridden enough to pick it back up again.
Current European novels, on the other hand, seem to be far more content heavy, more universal, and are as a result more engaging. If walking around bookstores on both sides of the Atlantic is any proof, there is a clear trade imbalance occurring. Very little contemporary American fiction is visible in the shops of the Left Bank or Charing Cross Road, while the shelves here are overflowing with work by satiric Britons, post-communist Russians, and East Europeans of every emerging nationality. Their writers have tapped rich veins of subject matter that are attracting American readers because of a higher “interest rate,” if you will. We are doing no better at exporting fiction than computers or large sedans.
Some might claim unfair competition, that those regions of the world are inherently more interesting because of their past and present upheavals, but if our writers demand protectionist measures, we must refuse and keep the borders open. The new Europe might be sending us goods we need if our literary vision is ever to expand again to the subject of what our lives intend beyond their particulars. The books reviewed here pulled me in, stood and delivered, and found their center in the big stuff of meaning, identity, desire, and the struggle with the tyrannies of the state and our own human inadequacies.
Jaan Kross is an Estonian who spent nine years in Soviet labor camps and internal exile, and his 1978 novel,1 translated into English for the first time by Anselm Hollo, was awarded the Literature Prize of Amnesty International's French affiliate in 1990. The enormous panorama of the post-Napoleonic Russian empire is the stage for the drama of Timotheus von Bock, a Baltic nobleman who scandalizes his class by marrying a peasant girl. Timo also has the misfortune to take at face value a vow he made to the czar always to tell him the truth. When he writes the sovereign to enumerate the injustices which exist, the “unalloyed” truth about the depravity of the nobility, the corruption of the state, and the oppression of the serfs, the answer is predictably nine years of confinement. He is only released when the government determines that the baron is insane, and whether that is the case or not becomes an underlying question of the book. Is it madness to assert one's conscience in a sea of despotism when the result will mean loss of individual liberty but have no impact on the regime? If one accepts the necessity of futile actions, Timo has taken up the mantle of tragedy and worn it heroically, but for the moral pragmatist he has merely evolved into a higher order of madman.
Kross is an exceptional storyteller, and he practices one of the most fundamental rules of realist fiction: write scenes, not narrative. The lives of men and women, the challenges to integrity and survival, the interchange of social relations and judgments is just as fecund a field as ever for a skilled hand. The Czar's Madman is tinged with dampness when it rains, and the silences of awkward moments weighed on me as if I were in the very rooms that held them. The author who came immediately to mind as possessing similar stylistic directness was Turgenev, while Timo bore a strong resemblance to the impulsive romantic Lermontov.
Ewa Kuryluk, although for the last decade a resident of the United States, is a Polish writer, artist, and art historian. The sensibility and subject of her first novel2 is no less than the whole cultural, artistic, and literary legacy of European modernism. She makes ideas, persons, and events collapse in on themselves, so that in one moment we are with the Roman poet Propertius in Egypt, and are then transported to be in Manhattan with Anna Karenina, a foreign correspondent for American journals who encounters Italo Svevo.
“I am driven by an ontological thirst …,” Anna tells us. The restless querying of post-ideological life is assimilated and recapitulated, and references and their referents make one's head spin sometimes in the rapidity of their enumeration. Goethe is reincarnated as president of a literary institute, Joseph Conrad meets Malcolm Lowry, and Moses Maimonides is in love with Djuna Barnes, who is dying of AIDS. This personalized encounter with the literary history of introspection betrays an underlying sorrow of the soul, a weariness of the traveler that touches us.
There is no lack of wit in Kuryluk's writing. She observes “The sacred cows sipping seltzer at Castelli's,” and at a black-tie dinner party, “Mustard with your Virginia ham? No? Do I remember what? The parable of the mustard seed? The Bible? You wrote the Bible? You're writing it now? How fascinating! I can't wait to read it. Who's your publisher?”
In less skillful hands, this book could have become merely another absurdist rant by an overacculturated academic, but Kuryluk has managed to stand serenely amidst the post-Freudian ruins and give us a window onto her ideal modern psyche, one too liberated to believe in dogmas, but too spiritual to throw over metaphysics.
The English writer Adam Thorpe has been delivered of an ambitious book3 (I say delivered because it has the immensity of a pregnancy and birth) which takes an invented village, Ulverton in Wessex, and plays back three hundred years of British history. Its short sections titled 1650, 1689, 1712, 1743, 1775, 1803, 1830, 1859, 1887, 1914, 1953, and 1988, extend from the Civil War to the predations of land developers in the eighties. The narrative voices from different points on this time line produce a cunning social archaeology of England.
Thorpe's artifacts of revelation are letters, sermons, drunken conversation, a photographer's caption notes, and even depositions from the legal proceedings against rural insurrectionist Luddites. Aristocrats from the manor, clergy, gentry, farmers, tradesmen, laborers, and paupers appear. Their interpretations of events vary with the age. Religion is a theme that underwrites every assumption in the seventeenth century, while divine providence is used to explain nothing by the twentieth.
Thorpe's encyclopedic knowledge of the ways and habits of ordinary life in an agrarian community creates a closed universe for the reader; he vividly and believably transports us into times when matters of food, shelter, and the vagaries of the weather were the main preoccupations. Mankind is the sum of its disasters and desires for Thorpe, and he has successfully created a sensate novel in which the smell of manure in the fields, the bite of the winter cold, and the noises of householding impress themselves upon us.
Some parts are crowded thickets of vegetation, wondrous but a challenge to wade through, such as the rambling slang of a Victorian era illiterate. Thorpe's method is to hang up a textual cork board for all sorts of thoughts to be pinned to, sometimes in slapdash exuberance, but this doesn't impede liking the book as a totality. Ulverton is canny, bold, and original.
Amidst all this European seriousness, it would logically fall to a witty London playwright to do something in a lighter vein which takes a humorous but accurate look at the inconsistencies in the lives of the altruistic. Michael Frayn has written a clever amusement4 [Now You Know] which deals with the question of what secrets should be kept secret, even by those who maintain there should be no secrets.
Terry Little is the founder of OPEN, a makeshift public interest organization quartered in a shabby little London building complete with its own doorway derelicts, whose purpose it is to expose the government's most wretched moments. With so much official mischief about, OPEN is a busy operation where the noise of the copier and the telephones form a backdrop for the neurotic quirks of Terry's company of reformers. The book starts in the middle of his latest quest, the attempt to unmask the true circumstances of the death of a Mr. Hassam while in police custody. In short succession Terry meets and has sex with a young civil servant from the Home Office, Hilary Wood, who is working on the Hassam coverup while wrestling with her conscience.
In his own home office, however, Terry behaves like any bureaucrat. He has been having a long-standing but unmentioned affair with one of his associates, but when Hilary quits her job to join OPEN, Terry and the others take to secrecy as naturally as spies to conceal the now complex sleeping arrangements.
This book walks a fine line between a comedic entertainment and farce, but always pulls in before it smacks of buffoonery. The characters are drawn craftily enough to be flesh and bones imperfect, not cartoons. Events make a mockery of their plans, signals get crossed, tempers flare, and Frayn seems to hold that our connections to one another are more throwbacks to the territorial impulses of early primates than poetic interchanges. “She smiles. Only it's not all warm and cheerful, her smile, like a nice shaded lamp being switched on over a corner table …, the way you hope it's going to be when a woman smiles. It's more like security lighting coming on. A bit white and meaningful. Carrying a definite suggestion to come no closer.”
Frayn reminds us that even the most deadly earnest careerists and crusaders pay the price for their foibles, whether they realize it or not.
A writer's second novel is the crucible of many hopes. Was he lucky or good in a debut, and if so is there anything else he can say that is not a paraphrase of whatever wisdoms prompted the first book? The South, Colm Tóibín's 1991 novel, dealt with a woman's self-imposed exile, fleeing a bad marriage and the social prison of traditional Irish life. His achievement there was not only the creation of the right words but the right moods which suffuse the book with an overwhelming sense of loss or regret, or the inability to feel loss or regret, whichever is called for by the scene. He has managed to trump even his own ace with The Heather Blazing,5 which is luminous and arresting, a story which takes us directly to the core of a man whose strength is more tragic than any weakness.
Eamon Redmond, a senior Irish jurist, contemplates retirement but is faced with summing up a lifetime of resolute self-reliance which has propelled him beyond his and anyone else's humanity. The death of his mother, a father's stroke, a solitary existence with his books and thoughts have made him averse to confiding or revealing. He has built a comfortable and accomplished life of rational deliberation, and manifests all the methodical habits of a judge. To anyone who postulates that people become what their profession dictates, Tóibín offers a more plausible psychology: we gravitate towards occupations which allow us to be what we are, for better or worse. In his marriage, relationships with his children and relatives, the absence of friends, his summer vacations in a house by the seacoast, he has realized the isolation he has always sought.
If all this suggests cold writing, that is not the case. Tóibín pursues the identity of a man of austere temperament, but not one blind to beauty in the world, only indisposed to using it as a vehicle to close the gap between himself and others. Some travellers need companions to talk with about the sights, others journey alone and internalize the experience.
This book has so much good writing that it sometimes causes you to stop in your tracks and breathe in what has just been said about the sea, a road, the sky. Tóibín invests places and landscapes not only with a sense of topography, but with meaning as they form the background for the most intense moments.
Eamon Redmond is both a stoic who repels us by taking refuge in the unfeeling world of rules, and at the same time a man suffering and behaving nobly. His decision on the petition of an unwed teenage mother to be allowed to return to her convent school after giving birth is totally detached from any principle of compassion, but in nursing his partially incapacitated wife he is manifestly selfless. If his love is more an act of duty than emotion, we can admire it even while pitying him. There are times when deliberate virtue costs more than mere spontaneity.
One of the drawbacks of being schooled in the classics is that it takes a while as a reader or a critic to accept certain books as great and even wondrous despite knowing they will never stand the test of time and be enshrined in the pantheon. But having accepted that, as all moderns should, it becomes all the more exciting to find a novel like The Heather Blazing which could quite believably to me be read in fifty or a hundred years and lose nothing of its impact.
Alan Lightman, who teaches physics and writing at MIT, is an American, but I include his novel Einstein's Dreams6 in the import category for several reasons. His book is a meditation on the nature of time in the form of an imagined chronicle of Einstein's final months of formulating his theory of relativity. Set in Bern, Switzerland, the theme, events, and frame of reference are European. Perhaps this work is like the foreign cars “made” in America: the assembly takes place here, but the parts, design, and name are from another shore.
Einstein the patent clerk is dreaming of many different versions of time as it might otherwise have been. His imaginings are both waking and sleeping, and indeed he cannot now tell one state from the other, but it no longer matters. Time is not an absolute, but a connecting series of relations between objects, spaces, desires, and the mind.
What if, he realizes, this forward notion of time is neither necessary nor contingent, but even arbitrary? Effects might precede causes, time could stand still, speed ahead, or be merely circular. A lifetime could even be a single day where, “A person born in December … never sees the hyacinth, the lily, the aster …,” while, “When sunset comes, those born at sunrise wail at the disappearance of birds in the sky, the layered shades of blue in the sea, the hypnotic movement of clouds … A life is one snowfall … A life is the delicate, rapid edge of a closing door's shadow.”
Einstein's Dreams is a religious event of secular physics which couples mystical vision with the scientific fervor to explain, and in turn it produces for the reader an emotional context to capture a great idea. This brief but relentlessly beautiful book expands our ability to imagine ordinary events in a way larger than the cursory notice we pay to them, something we should feel gratitude for as this is literature of realization and transcendence.
The Czar's Madman, by Jaan Kross. Trans. by Anselm Hollo. Pantheon Books.
Century 21, by Ewa Kuryluk. Dalkey Archive.
Ulverton, by Adam Thorpe. Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Now You Know, by Michael Frayn. Viking.
The Heather Blazing, by Colm Tóibín. Viking.
Einstein's Dreams, by Alan Lightman. Pantheon Books.
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 Ford), who reacts to everything with a nervous giggle and a dash into the filing cupboard; and screened off in the mail room, the schoolboyish Kent (Dave Fishley) and Kevin (Simon Startin): Kent a black Just William, answering every question with an aggressively defensive “dunno”, Kevin a stuttering, limping inadequate with a vocabulary too complex for his mouth.
Open is trying to get at the facts behind the cover-up of the death of an Asian man, Hassan, in police custody. It is getting nowhere, until its tame legal contact, Roy (Paul Gregory), introduces his would-be girlfriend, Hilary (Louise Lombard), to the gang. Hilary, sexily straitlaced and, like Terry, the product of a broken home, although young enough to be his daughter, has access to the Home Office file on Hassan's death. In that way that seems so inevitable in plays or novels written by men in late middle age, she is more or less instantly seduced by Terry's charms and, after a quickie on Jacqui's desk when everyone else has gone home, comes back the next morning with the full incriminating Home Office file and the announcement that she has resigned. Although Terry wanted this file badly, he doesn't want it under these circumstances, and sits on it, but Hilary joins the team anyway.
The point Frayn seems to be making is that even a high-minded outfit like Open, whose operations we feel automatically obliged to cheer, can contain uncomfortable secrets. Terry more or less seduces Hilary with a speech reminding her that Heaven, according to the Bible, is made of gold “as unto glass”; that an ideal world is one where everything is above board. But the next morning, when Jacqui discovers her slimming biscuits crushed and her folders rumpled from Hilary and Terry's passion, everything becomes charged with awkwardness and guilt—particularly as Terry and Jacqui have been maintaining a clandestine relationship (sexual or not? “Mind your own business”, Terry soliloquizes to us) for some years.
This worked well in the novel, but it works even better on stage; when this play becomes a GCSE set text, a generation of bright students will be able to scribble “dramatic irony” in most of its margins. The friction between what we know and what the different dramatis personae do or do not sets off a trail of sparks, helped further along by the uniformly excellent acting, and the staging, which looks like a manic parody of classic farce, with Liz rushing off to the filing cupboard every five seconds, Kent and Kevin mucking about, seen but not heard, behind the glass, and Shireen performing a hear-no-evil routine as secretary. Kevin, too, has his secrets, neurotically (and, as it turns out, justifiably) keeping the contents of his bag to himself. Towards the end of the play, everything blows up in everyone's faces, as everyone learns about everyone else, and we realize that the kingdom of Heaven will not come to pass on this earth.
Not that we should feel entirely comfortable about this. It is not a staggering conclusion, after all, and for all that the play runs as efficiently and satisfyingly as a clock, you might wonder whether the comparisons are, if not facile, forced. So Open has its secrets. Well? Are we meant, then, to look on government cover-ups a little more kindly, or to look on, say, Charter 88's activities with a little more suspicion? That organization has a full-page statement from its chair, Helena Kennedy, in the programme, but so oddly phrased that we do not know whether it is there as a sop, a free advertisement, or an ironically placed quote: “There is a real difference between information that belongs to all of us which should be in the public domain”, runs one complete sentence.
Perhaps it's unfair to quote tangential material like this, especially when it hasn't been thought out properly, but another revealing quote from the same page runs: “Even those involved in heroic gestures such as whistleblowing … are propelled by a mix of personal as well as political motives. It is not possible to legislate for emotional honesty but we must ensure that the principle of openness permeates public life.”
How true, how even-handedly true. But, like the play, this both raises and dodges issues at the same time. Secrecy, claims Charter 88, is the British disease, and if this is true, then we've all got it, even Frayn. There is another British disease, that of not wanting to appear too clever or intense, and Frayn seems stuck between wanting to be Bertolt Brecht and Brian Rix. Jacqui, hearing of Terry's affair, runs up and down the stairs, hands clapped to her ears, saying “I don't want to know. I don't want to know”, which is both dramatically and emotionally perfect. But does Frayn want to know either? Do we?
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 has long been a trademark of Frayn's writing. The Sandboy, his first full-length play, concerns a prosperous city planner who is having a documentary made about him, with the audience in the peculiar role of the imaginary film crew. Alphabetical Order unfolds in the cutting room of a provincial newspaper library, while Clouds, also newspaper-related, depicts three writers on an information-gathering tour of post-revolutionary Cuba. In the darker, more sophisticated Make and Break, set at a European trade fair in Frankfurt, salesmen play out their commercial roles, particularly the obsessive John Garrard, who can never shed his professional identity. Frayn's novels, too, often deal with people on the job: The Tin Men (1965) concerns employees at an Institute for Automation Research; The Russian Interpreter (1966) is a spy novel whose hero is engaged in a mission to Moscow, and the stylish and witty Sweet Dreams (1976) depicts an average London businessman in a heaven that replicates the bustling industrial world of earth. Frayn's three most recent novels all feature first-person narrators speaking from the perspective of their jobs: an English professor (The Trick of It, 1989), a government bureaucrat (A Landing on the Sun, 1991), and a group of employees for a citizens' watchdog group (Now You Know, 1992). Even Frayn's early journalistic parodies in The Guardian and The Observer include office and work scenarios, and his screenplay for Clockwise (1987, directed by Christopher Morahan, released in U.S. by EMI) uses the misfortunes of an obsessively punctual headmaster (played by John Cleese) as a framework for the comic action.
The work that occupies Frayn's characters is neither upper echelon nor lower class. His characters are not statesmen, corporate magnates, celebrities, or other notable personages, but neither are they kitchen workers, tent-builders, or grave-diggers. Mostly they are average individuals engaged in such respectable professions as journalism, government, sales, and architecture, achieving varying degrees of success and satisfaction. For these characters, even though they have to work for a living, the job is not simply a financial necessity; it is a way of life, fulfilling psychological and emotional as well as pragmatic needs. Work gives shape and purpose to their lives, and even when the routine seems meaningless and dull, they keep on with it because they would be lost otherwise. In Frayn's world, work fends off chaos and provides an ordering principle, without which one is open to attack from outside forces and fears. As the salesman Olley says in Make and Break, the trouble with stopping work is that “You start worrying” (14).
Frayn's characters are able to make choices in their lives; they are not constrained by class deprivation or poverty, and while they may aspire to greater heights—financial success, social prominence, or more satisfying occupations—they are not struggling to overcome hardships or handicaps that prohibit such upward movement. As Richard Parry points out, they don't have the aspirations of Ayckbourn's characters, or Mike Leigh's, who comically attempt to “negotiate” slippery class boundaries. Rather, Frayn's characters are “middle-class, middle-ranking professionals [who] lead lives of almost oppressive decency and stability” and who are generally preoccupied with and defined by the work they have chosen.
This concept of work is evident in Frayn's two most well-known plays, Benefactors and Noises Off, both of which were successful on Broadway as well as in the West End. Benefactors (1984) concerns a prominent architect who is designing a redevelopment project for a South London slum and who, with his anthropologist wife, becomes entangled in the stagnant lives of a neighboring couple. The farcical Noises Off (1982), Frayn's greatest critical and commercial success, delves into the world of actors and theater personnel both on stage and behind the scenes, showing the demands and refinements of this profession, the precision and timing required in farce, and the comic embroilment of the characters' private lives with their fictional public ones.
With its allusions to British architects of the sixties and public housing projects, Benefactors is more overtly topical than most of Frayn's other plays. It is subtle, sophisticated, and masterful in the affinity it weaves between work and life and in its use of architecture as a structural and thematic device. Unlike plays such as Alphabetical Order and Make and Break, both set in workplace environments, Benefactors takes place in the suburban home of David and Jane Kitzinger, its central characters. The abstract setting, featuring only “a large wooden kitchen table and half-a-dozen chairs, with other comfortably worn kitchen furnishings” and “a single bleak upright chair” (7), emphasizes the concern with character; in fact, Frayn says he “always thought it would be quite possible to do the play with no set or props at all.”1Benefactors features characters whose occupations define and shape their attitude and behavior, with little or no demarcation between “professional” and “private” selves. Like Leslie in Alphabetical Order, who can never stop organizing, or Garrard in Make and Break, who can never stop selling or analyzing, David is always building or envisioning a new world, while Jane is constantly scrutinizing people with an anthropologist's eye.
David Kitzinger is a successful architect who dreams of eradicating the low-income housing in the South London slum of Basuto Road and replacing it with high-rise apartments. In his own way, he is trying to reshape the world, and, as Susan Rusinko notes, his “highly structured thinking” reflects this occupational outlook (183). When he first receives the assignment for redesigning Basuto Road, David mulls it over methodically and pragmatically:
It's probably an impossible site. It's jammed between a railway line and a main road. … It's zoned at 150 to the acre. I bet it's more like 200. … But that would mean housing for 3,000 people. It's probably not possible. … If it's possible the council wouldn't be asking me—they'd be doing it themselves. It would be a huge job—I'd have to double the size of the office. But that's where the work is, Jane, in local authority housing. That's where the real architecture's being done. … I'll go and have a quick look at the site.
David's redevelopment vision acts as a divisive element, pitting the characters against one another. Jane seems to both support and oppose it, though she is more reactive than judgmental. “I expect I was against it,” she recalls. “I expect I raised all kinds of sensible objections. That was the way we operated then. David was for things; I was against them. Government and Opposition.” She goes on to say that voting against something really meant voting for it. “Anything David was for I was for,” she says. “Colin was against it, so I had to be for it. It was like the start of a game” (9). Colin opposes the project mainly out of jealousy towards his successful friend, though he postures a social consciousness and manipulates popular opinion against David, eventually camping out on the site and organizing protests.
Like David, Jane views the world through the lens of work. She is an anthropologist, a sharp, intelligent woman who exhibits the scientist's perspective—detached, efficient, practical, and always analytical. She examines people as specimens rather than as fellow human beings. “I don't want to help anyone,” she says. “I hate helping people. I want to study them. I'm an anthropologist, not a social worker” (31). When she conducts housing surveys for her husband, she works with a businesslike proficiency. “I'm not trying to help anyone down at Basuto Road,” she tells Sheila. “I'm just trying to count them. I keep my eyes shut as much as I can” (22). Though she claims to not “like people very much,” she nevertheless helps them, even if inadvertently and from pragmatic motives. When, for example, Sheila comments on how Jane helped “that little boy down at Basuto Road … who'd been locked out by his mother,” Jane dismisses her praise with the comment, “Well, I couldn't just leave him standing there in the rain” (22). And when Sheila dumps her worries on Jane, as she constantly does, Jane is quick to come to the rescue, whether it's driving Sheila to the doctor, inviting her and Colin for dinner, or making some other gesture of assistance. Jane is good at assessing what people need and providing it. She insists that Sheila work for David, a job that gives Sheila a sense of purpose and of self, and Jane later helps Colin when he becomes a squatter in Basuto Road, taking him his mail and some clothing. It is this sort of behavior that prompts Colin to say, “We all depended on Jane” (80). In the end, though, Jane reveals her own need. She says she has learned “one thing from working with people, anyway: they want to be told what to do. … That's what I long for. I know that. Just to be told what to do” (81).
Sheila is certainly the kind of person who likes to be told what to do and even who to be. She is the one character in Benefactors who is not defined by a profession, because she really doesn't have one, though at one time she had been a nurse; she says she finds fulfillment through helping others and tells Jane she “always wanted to be someone who helped other people” (22). Curiously, though, she says this just after praising Jane for that very quality, adding, “I wish I was like you, Jane.” Sheila has a predatory quality about her: she wants to be whatever (or whoever) someone else is, and in fact she admits to Jane, “I think I am other people” (22). Parasite-like, she sucks her identity from others—in this case David and Jane, though as Colin explains, it had been a “couple of music teachers” last time:
This is when we were living in that flat, before you kindly found us the house. She started with Mrs. [sic] Got Mrs driving her everywhere, giving her meals, looking after the baby. Then she announced that she wanted to take up singing. Mrs taught singing. Give her an interest, take her out of herself. … Then she said she wanted to learn the oboe. Mr taught the oboe … She's tone-deaf.
Now, as a neighbor to David and Jane, Sheila worms her way into their lives, a passive-aggressive woman who gets her way through a helpless, demurring attitude, even to the point of acting as surrogate mother to Jane's children and appropriating her rituals.
While Sheila lacks a clear profession, Colin continually rebels against his. He seems to have no passion or commitment for anything, except perhaps divisiveness. Once “a promising academic turned embittered journalist”2 who had been “Senior Classical Whatsit” at university, he is now working for a women's magazine and editing an encyclopedia on the side (12). Reducing and quantifying, philosophical offshoots of both academia and journalism, are Colin's modus operandi, whether with human relationships or with abstract ideologies. His sarcasm and cynicism reflect this confined vision, as when he responds to David's assertion that demolition of the slum area is necessary:
Oh, it's got to be done. Otherwise the areas where architects and demolition contractors live will start to look a little grey and exhausted again.
I don't know why I put up with you, Colin. Everybody else takes me seriously.
I take you seriously, David. You're building the new world we're all going to be living in.
Colin's sense of alienation increasingly isolates him through the play, to the point where he says he'd like to live in a tower, surrounded by silence and empty sky, never meeting his neighbors or seeing people; that, he claims, would be “paradise” (14). Jane sees Colin as manipulative, maneuvering for a position that benefits him:
David says he doesn't know how you became a journalist. I know. Because that's your trade. You look as if you don't care what anyone thinks, but you do, you care a lot, you want us all to be surprised and shocked, you want to get a reaction. … And you want everyone to hate you. Or perhaps you don't. Perhaps you want to test them. You want them to love you in spite of being hateful.
Colin eventually resigns his magazine job as well, so he has rejected two careers. When he runs for Parliament, the news reports about his candidacy describe him as “a former classical scholar who gave up a successful career in journalism” (70). The first career involves a kind of intellectual isolation, studying ancient civilizations, while the second entails a kind of moral isolation, observing without feeling. Both jobs lead Colin to a physical isolation in which he masquerades as a political activist. But in all his fields of work as well as his public activities, he seems to be striving solely for effect:
Only one thing I learnt at school turned out to be much use in life, and that was writing Greek hexameters. If you can get some aspect of human destiny into five dactyls and a spondee then you can get the headline on a magazine article into thirty points across two. You can also get a programme of political action on to a piece of cardboard small enough to be held up and waved about in the air. I took real pleasure in the work. ‘Don't scrape the skies—just sweep the streets.’ A whole philosophy of government in eight syllables!
Like Sheila, Colin lacks the center that work provides in life, and like Sheila, he compensates for this absence by depending on others. While Sheila feeds on the work of others to attain identity for herself, Colin resents that work and attempts to destroy it. David and Jane, by contrast, are centered by their work. Their need to help—even though it springs more from professional interest than from real concern—makes them easy prey for their parasitical neighbors. But this emotional dependency is symbiotic, and the complex interaction of the four characters is like a building's integral structure, with one part supporting the other. In Paul Goldberger's view, Frayn gracefully “uses architecture as a metaphor for the gradual deterioration of a complex set of relationships between two couples” (“Architechtural themes”).
This architectural motif is also conveyed through the structure of Benefactors, which rests on a kind of verbal framework: the opening and closing segments parallel each other like building girders; the dialogue is often antiphonal, and the characters' stage movements maintain a certain symmetry. The interplay of these elements, the prevalence of Basuto Road as a metaphor for David's dream as well as for the “progressive collapse” that comes about, and the use of “rehabilitation” as an existential as well as occupational concept all reinforce this architectural theme.
Basuto Road is the central symbol of Benefactors, with the words themselves becoming a kind of chant or anthem right at the outset:
Basuto Road. I love the name!
Basuto Road. How I hate those sour grey words!
Basuto Road, SE fifteen. And you can practically see it. Victorian South London. …
You look back in life and there's a great chain of cloud-shadows moving over the earth behind you. All the sharp bright landscape you've just travelled through has gone grey and graceless.
Basuto Road. But when you think how fresh and hopeful that must have sounded once, back in 1890! … There's the whole history of ideas in that one name.
Basuto Road. There it is, on the box-files all along the shelf. Grey-faced reproachful words, shuffling towards you out of the shadows. … Then ten years, fifteen years away behind you the land's out in sunlight again. You can see everything small and shining in the distance—so clear you feel you could reach out and touch it. … Basuto Road. It started in the sunlight. He was happy then. Yes! He was! He was happy!
The balance and symmetry of this opening segment are echoed in the closing lines of the play, in both form and style:
I drove down Basuto Road the other day. The sun was shining, and some woman was standing in a doorway with her children and laughing, and it all looked quite bright and cheerful.
Basuto Road? It's strange; the cloud moves on, and there's the landscape out in sunshine again.
Basuto Road. There's the whole history of human ideas in that one name.
And yes! I was! I was happy!
Laughing and laughing, this woman was. But what she was laughing about I never discovered.
These opening and closing segments are like David's planned twin towers, which he envisions as “something fixed,” a way of defining space. As long as they stand, he says, “they'll stand in the same place, they'll stand in the same relationship to each other” (68). This balance is reflected in the play's movement in time as well. Framed as a flashback of 15 years, the play moves in and out of the present through antiphonal dialogue, with one character in the present and others in the past, or all of them in the past and one in the present commenting on the past. At the start of Act I, it is the ever-practical Jane who remains in the present, while David slips into the past:
It's probably an impossible site. It's jammed between a railway line and a main road. What do you think?
He couldn't sit still. He couldn't stop talking about it.
It's zoned at a hundred and fifty to the acre. I bet it's more like two hundred. I'll need you to check that for me.
We were both still children. Middle-aged children.
But at the start of Act 2, their positions are reversed: David is narrating from the present, while Jane converses with Sheila in the past:
After all, the Basuto Road scheme included our very successful redevelopment of Colin and Sheila. We should have had awards for our work of them, [sic] we should have had bronze plaques to put up.
‘Welcome to the battlefront’? What battlefront?
He's going to stop the scheme.
I mean that. Jane used to say that when she opened the front door in Frances Road she didn't recognise him for a moment. He seemed taller. His eyes were fully open. He was alive …
And he's living there? He's got himself a flat on David's site?
It's a squat. …
And I wouldn't have recognised Sheila when she heard the news. All of a sudden she was—well, yes, she was alive.
This careful control and balance shapes most of the play, so that it becomes a piece of architecture itself, a structure that reflects its own theme. As Frank Rich observes, the writing “is most notable for the classical elegance of its own architecture” (“Theater”). Like Ibsen in The Master Builder, Frayn in Benefactors develops a clear relationship, “a symbolic affinity between architecture and life” (Barker 24). David wants to build the ideal world everyone will be living in; Jane wants to help restructure the lives of their neighbors, Colin and Sheila; Colin wants to tear down just about anything anyone builds or dreams, and Sheila wants to build her life on top of someone else's—it hardly matters whose. The two couples are strangely dependent on each other, so that the removal of one threatens the collapse of the other. And in the end, everything that is so neatly built and structured and ordered—families, neighborhood, lives, principles, relationships—comes crashing down like David's doomed renewal project. Colin and Sheila's marriage “finally is leveled, with husband and wife ‘relocated’” (Weiss). “That's what wrecks all our plans—people,” says David (79).
Benefactors has as many levels as David's projected housing towers. It's a play about architects and public opinion, about personal relationships, about the conflict between public and private, and above all, about change. It incorporates issues about urban planning as well as domestic tensions and sexual jealousies, and in a broader sense, it
circumscribes the disillusionment of an era, no less American than English, in which grandiose dreams of a universally benevolent democracy died. … Basuto Road—which dates back to the 19th century, when England still had its African empire—eventually stands as a comic graveyard not merely for the vanished imperial West but also for the dashed hopes of the enlightened welfare state that replaced it.
(Rich, “Dreams Die Hard”)
The language of Benefactors retains the focus on architecture. The play “is coloured throughout by the imagery of planning, destruction, rehabilitation and twilight zones as applied to areas of Victorian suburbia and the human refuse of liberal revolution alike” (Ratcliffe). The motifs of landscape, zoning, rehabilitation, and “progressive collapse” are the most prominent, illustrating how architecture is integrated with daily life and personal feelings. David's ambitions are part of his work and his life, and when Jane tells her husband that things have to change, she adds, “That's your profession, isn't it, changing things?” (32). Even when the whole “rotten scheme” seems flawed and hopeless and promises to be unpopular, David persists with it. “I don't have any choice,” he says. “I can't just give it up. That's my livelihood. That's my life” (67-68). David's life and work are inseparable, as are Jane's. But is David really trying to build a better world in Basuto Road, or, as Colin charges, is he merely erecting “a monument to himself” (66)? David's accomplishments, in Colin's view, are “symbols of male potency; towers, high-rise, getting the thing up” (25), and even David admits that “‘new and amazing’ architecture leaves a site looking ‘the same as before’” (Rich, “Dreams Die Hard”).
In the end, David's urban ideal fails. As Colin says, David “was using up his life designing a scheme that was never going to be built. That everyone but him knew was never going to be built. That he knew was never going to be built” (63). It was partially finished, though, as Sheila notes: “He got one tower built eventually. It took him seven years. It's only half the height he wanted, and it's not local authority housing, it's private offices. But it's a beautiful building—it won a prize. That didn't help him, though, because it was the recession by then, and there was no work to be had” (80).
As Frank Rich notes in a review, it's hard to fathom that Benefactors and Noises Off were written by the same man (“Theater”). One is provocative and painful, a solemn chamber piece, while the other is exuberantly comic and delightfully chaotic. Both plays are carefully structured, though; both revolve around the interactions of a group of people, and both incorporate public professions—architecture and theatre.
Noises Off, as its title implies and as Frayn has noted, is very much about people at work (Frayn, interview). It involves actors putting on a play, a director directing it, and stagehands performing the various tasks that help the show go on. In fact, the seed for the play was Frayn's own embarrassing experience onstage and his realization that the frantic action backstage “was easily as funny as what was actually happening on stage” (O'Brien). In the play, characters speak in stage jargon—“dress rehearsals,” “technicals,” “curtain,” and so forth—and banter about such theatrical matters as what directors they've worked with, their need for character motivation, and nuances of lines and plot. The play's three acts show the cast at work, both in rehearsal and in actual performance, during which the audience sees the pitfalls and refinements of this demanding profession, as well as the precision and timing required in farce. In a sense, the audience is also seeing the playwright at work, since the play emphasizes the technicalities and practical aspects of writing and producing a farce, which by Frayn's account is the most difficult type of play to write. Noises Off weaves together illusion and reality to create a new kind of theatrical illusion, one that is based on both.
In Noises Off, we see both the real world of actors—their personalities, private relationships, rehearsal problems—and the imaginative world they create onstage. Watching these juxtaposed, seeing everything that goes wrong and the work involved in putting on a production, provides a more complete and realistic view of the performance than an audience usually experiences. In attending this series of “productions,” we are watching people at work on multiple levels, as real life becomes a farce more comical than the scripted one—though of course, their “real” life is our theatre. Because Frayn is presenting a farce-within-a-farce, a clever turn on the play-within-a-play tradition, we see the actors at work in Noises Off as well as the actors they play at work in Nothing On.
The difficulties and problems that beset the acting profession provide the central humor in Noises Off. The theatre, as Katherine Worth notes, is a place where tight discipline must prevail, and the disruption of order within this framework is disastrous (“Farce” 47). In Noises Off, human incompetence and individual distractions combine to sabotage that essential quality, and Frayn demonstrates “how the clockwork machinery of farce falls crazily apart when careless actors lose their props, drink too much and tumble down stairs” (Rich, “Dreams Die Hard”). The process of staging and performing the ludicrous Nothing On provides the substance of Noises Off. The bumbling of inept actors, combined with the interference of personal problems in the business of work, generates the comedy. Director Michael Blakemore's suggestion that all the props be presented at the outset has much to do with the success of these mechanics.3 As the audience watching actors struggle in their job, we must “study every ridiculous line and awful performance in Nothing On to appreciate the varied replays yet to come” (Rich, “Noises Off”).
This integration of public and private, a familiar pattern in Frayn's plays, is particularly imaginative and humorous in Noises Off. In the context of work, everyone “puts on a face” to some degree, but in the acting profession that pose is intrinsic. Public appearance must differ from private, and any slip-up can prove disastrous. Theatre, in a sense, formalizes the sort of pretense that goes on every day in offices everywhere—indeed, in all kinds of public arenas—and in Noises Off, the contrast between public and private is wonderfully exposed as “frontstage and backstage problems alternate, with the former gradually giving way to the latter,” generating farce through “the frantic maneuvering between the two scenes” (Rusinko 181-82). The shift between private and public is instantaneous, as it must be, intensifying the humor until the hilarious final act, when the two identities become hopelessly entangled.
Throughout Noises Off, the sense of seeing people familiar with their profession is always apparent, especially in Act I, where the rehearsal dominates. There is the continual refinement of the performance, for example, complicated by imbecile actors and an exasperated director, as evident in this typical exchange:
Yes, and go out again with the newspaper.
The newspaper? Oh, the newspaper.
You put the receiver back, you leave the sardines, and you go out with the newspaper.
Here you are, love.
(embraces her) Don't worry, love. It's only the technical.
It's the dress, Garry, honey. It's the dress rehearsal.
So when was the technical?
So when's the dress? We open tomorrow!
Then there's the anxiety about upcoming road shows, which are the bread and butter of repertory life, as the illiterate Garry tries to express:
No, but here we are, we're all thinking, my God, we open tomorrow, we've only had a fortnight to rehearse, we don't know where we are, but my God, here we are! … I mean, we've got to play Western-super-Mare all the rest of this week, then Yeovil, then God knows where, then God knows where else, and so on for God knows how long, and we're all of us feeling pretty much, you know …
There are also the silly demands of insipid actors, like the frail Frederick, who pleads with the director to clarify the motivation of his character. “I've never understood why he carries an overnight bag and a box of groceries into the study to look at his mail,” Frederick complains, and he is relieved when Lloyd, furiously improvising, replies, “I think the point is that you've had a great fright when she mentions income tax, and you feel very insecure and exposed, and you want something familiar to hold on to” (387). And of course there's the dissolution of illusion when the actors' art is reduced to a mechanical kind of affair, which is really the core of farce and which is certainly the best Lloyd can hope for from this dismal bunch:
OK, it took two days to get the set up, so we shan't have time for a dress rehearsal. Don't worry. Think of the first night as a dress rehearsal. If we can just get through the play once tonight for doors and sardines. That's what it's all about. Doors and sardines. Getting on—getting off. Getting the sardines on—getting the sardines off. That's farce. That's the theatre. That's life. … So just keep going. Bang, bang, bang. Bang, you're on. Bang, you've said it. Bang, you're off.
By Act II, which takes place a month later, with the show on the road, the personal affairs of the cast and crew that cropped up in Act I are seriously impinging upon their work. The structure of this second act, an actual performance seen from behind, integrates backstage behavior and miming with the performance going on out front, reflecting the confusion between real and stage life.4 Lloyd, who is really the central character of the play, is beginning to fall apart under this pressure. Early in the act, before the “show” begins, he sounds like a typical harried boss who is losing employees and who must contend with keeping his business intact:
[L]et me tell you something about my life. I have the Duke of Buckingham on the phone to me for an hour after rehearsal every evening complaining that the Duke of Gloucester is sucking boiled sweets through his speeches. Catesby is off every afternoon doing a telly, and the Duke of Clarence is off for the entire week doing a commercial for Madeira. Richard himself … has now gone down with a back problem. Then last night Brooke rings me to say she's very unhappy here, and she's got herself a doctor's certificate for nervous exhaustion. I have no time to find or rehearse another Vicki. I have just one afternoon, while Richard is fitted for a surgical corset and Lady Anne starts divorce proceedings, to cure Brooke of nervous exhaustion, with no medical aids except a little whisky … a few flowers … and a certain fading bedside manner. So I haven't come to the theatre to hear about other people's problems.
By Act III, a full frontal performance, the private and professional lives of the characters have become inextricably intertwined. Only because we have have seen the rehearsal can we discern which is which and how terribly wrong the performance is going.
As the increasing chaos indicates, the actors cannot control the offstage world. But onstage, they can make time start and stop at will, they can question motives and actions, they can make adjustments, and if they do something wrong, they can do it over again. In this way, the work of theatre provides a way of ordering and managing the world, as work so often does in Frayn's plays. As Frayn says, the actors in Noises Off
have fixed the world by learning roles and rehearsing their responses. The fear that haunts them is that the unlearned and unrehearsed—the great dark chaos behind the set, inside the heart and brain—will seep back on to the stage. The prepared words will vanish. The planned responses will be inappropriate. Their performance will break down, and they will be left in front of us naked and ashamed.
This sense of shame and embarrassment, he adds, is “a very deep emotion”; the play “is about actors trying to fend off their appalling embarrassment at being unable to go on, of being unable to continue, and that is a problem in life for all human beings, of struggling on and trying to keep their act together. Many people have a great fear of not being able to go on with their lives” (DiGaetani 77-78). This metaphysical sense of struggling to “go on” finds an apt if familiar metaphor in theatre, whose credo, “The show must go on,” crystallizes the actor's dilemma. Creating illusion is the actor's job, and as Robert Brustein observes, Noises Off illustrates “the fact that actors, no matter how awful they feel or how badly they behave, somehow still manage to perform.” And as Frayn affirms, the play “is about the necessity for keeping a performance going—which is what we all do, though not many people have recognized the play as having a general application” (qtd. in Cushman 1).
Obviously, Noises Off is not solely about work as such; it is also about the institution of theatre, about the familiar Frayn theme of revolution and anarchy, and about the social interaction of a group of people in a given situation. But these broader issues are conveyed through the presentation of people at work, and viewing Noises Off from this perspective provides yet another level of comedy in a play that seems to have endless sources of humor. To paraphrase John Lahr's assessment of Arnold Wesker's play The Kitchen, “In the mayhem of this closed and captivating world,” life is ruled by the demands of the stage, which are constantly battling with individual quirks of behavior. The actions and lines of the play-within-a-play gradually come to reflect those of “real life”—that is, the lives of the actors in Noises Off—and as the two realities become harder to distinguish, the comedy intensifies. As Wesker does in The Kitchen, Frayn re-creates the chaos and comedy of the theatre's “mounting frenzy,” and he lets his characters shape the structure of the play, as well as “the final vision of disintegration,” illustrating just how integral and important the coherence of work can be (Lahr 87). Finding the right ending for Noises Off was a notorious problem for Frayn, who rewrote the conclusion dozens of times. Cushman attributes this difficulty go the play's work theme. “Since ‘Noises Off’ is a play about people at work rather than the neat artificial mechanism that usually constitutes farce, there has always been a problem about winding it up,” he says.
Reviewing a 1994 revival of Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen, John Lahr notes, “The welfare state, which transformed the landscape of English life after the war, also transformed its theatre. The world of work and of working-class culture became the focus of much contemporary drama” (86). He notes that The Kitchen, first staged in 1959, “is the first modern English play to make a spectacle of people at work” (87).
Discussing the development of realism in postwar theatre, Katherine Worth cites “a marked shortage of ‘work’ plays, the kind that explore the interests and problems people encounter simply by having a certain kind of job” (Revolutions 1). She suggests that people like to see “their own lives and situations depicted on the stage” (Revolutions 16) and notes that work “has become the great stamping-ground of present-day realists. All kinds of working routines have been explored for dramatic interest—the day-to-day tasks in a hotel kitchen, an architect's office, a factory lavatory, or a building site” (Revolutions 19).5
Frayn's plays move work to the realm of the middle class, depicting it as a crucial and integral part of life, a primary reality that defines and shapes existence. As Frayn notes, “That's not the only thing people do, but most people do spend quite a lot of their whole lives working. And it's important to them; work is something through which they express themselves.”6 In focusing on work as a subject for the stage, Frayn keeps company with other contemporary writers who have turned occupation into the stuff of drama, among them David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross), Caryl Churchill (Top Girls), Simon Gray (Butley), and of course Storey (The Contractor,The Changing Room), as well as earlier playwrights like Ben Hecht (The Front Page), Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman), and even Chekhov, of whom Frayn is a preeminent translator. Like these other writers, Frayn sees work as a central, though not overriding, issue. Benefactors is a play “about people changing, and the world around them changing” (Frayn qtd. in O'Brien 8), while Noises Off is a farce about the institution of theatre. The perspective of work provides a deeper insight into these radically different plays, illuminating the characters' attitudes and actions and providing a framework for the action. Frayn's fascination with work is not political or social but rather a perception of its crucial role in middle class life. By using work as a central structural and developmental concept, Frayn is able to explore broader issues, both personal and public, and to illustrate the struggle between order and chaos that characterizes so much of his drama.
From inside front cover of Benefactors (New York: Samuel French, 1984). In a letter to the author, Frayn commented that a simple setting “is all you need to tell the story. Indeed, you might be able to tell it with less” (Michael Frayn, letter to author, 17 Aug. 1993).
This quote comes from the back cover of the Methuen edition of Benefactors (London, 1984).
In an interview, Frayn commented on Blakemore's “terrific sense of comedy.” Blakemore made “a great many suggestions” for Noises Off, Frayn said, “and some of those were about the mechanics of making the thing work.” Michael Frayn, personal interview, London, 27 June 1992.
Many critics consider Act II to be the high point of Noises Off. Michael Coveney (Financial Times 11 Feb. 1982) said it was “pure magic”; Jack Kroll (“A Comedy of Utter Chaos,” Newsweek 26 Dec. 1983: 68) called it “masterly madness,” and Denise Worrell (“Viewing a Farce from Behind,” Time 30 Jan. 1984: 79) cited it as “Frayn's most novel stroke.” Act II was the prototype for Noises Off, the one-act play Exits, performed in 1977.
Echoing this view, playwright David Edgar commented in a radio interview that theatre works best when an audience can “‘find something to recognize’ in what happens on stage.” (John Russell Brown, Short Guide to Modern British Drama, London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1982: 8.)
Michael Frayn, personal interview, 27 June 1992.
Barker, Felix. “Benefactors.” Plays and Players June 1984: 24-25.
Brustein, Robert. “Hard and Soft Machines.” The New Republic 9 July 1984: 26-27.
Cushman, Robert. “Frayn and Farce Go Hand in Hand.” New York Times 11 December 1983: sec. II: 1, 4.
DiGaetani, John L. A Search for a Postmodern Theater: Interviews with Contemporary Playwrights. NY: Greenwood Press, 1991.
Frayn, Michael. “Introduction.” Plays: One. London & New York, 1985: vii-xvi.
———. Benefactors. New York: Samuel French, Inc., 1984.
———. Personal Interview. 27 June 1992.
———. Make and Break. In Plays: One. London & New York, 1985: 255-358.
———. Noises Off. In Plays: One. London & New York, 1985: 359-494.
Goldberger, Paul. “Architectural Themes in Film and Broadway Play.” New York Times 13 March 1986: C22.
Lahr, John. “Hand to Mouth.” The New Yorker 14 March 1994: 86-88.
O'Brien, Martin. “England's Reluctant Playwright.” Women's Wear Daily 18 June 1984: 8.
Parry, Richard Lloyd. “The Poet of Embarrassment.” The Daily Telegraph. (n.d.)
Ratcliffe, Michael. “Glenda's Marathon.” The Observer 8 April 1984: 19.
Rich, Frank. “Dreams Die Hard.” New York Times 23 December 1985: C11.
———. “Noises Off, A British Farce by Frayn.” New York Times 12 December 1983: C12.
———. “Theater: Benefactors, A New Work by Frayn.” New York Times 23 July 1984: C12.
Rusinko, Susan. British Drama 1950 to the Present: A Critical History. Boston: Twayne, 1989.
Weiss, Hedy. “Benefactors Towers on Northlight Stage.” Chicago Sun-Times 20 February 1987: 47.
Worth, Katharine. “Farce and Michael Frayn.” Modern Drama 26 (March 1983): 47-53.
———. Revolutions in Modern English Drama. London: G. Bell & Sons, 1972.
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 hallway staircase. A Rolls-Royce draws up outside the house. A few minutes later the doorbell rings. Eventually, Mark answers it. “Remember me?” says the wealthy-looking middle-aged caller, Jamie (Robert Lindsay), to Mark's mum, who has just appeared over Mark's shoulder.
So begins a reunion of two old college friends and almost-sweethearts. Initially their lives appear to have taken very different courses: Jamie, a carefree successful businessman, with a pretty, plummy girlfriend in tow; Lorna's family, by contrast, just about keeping afloat. Soon, however, roles are reversed: Jamie, it gradually transpires, is on the run from dodgy business deals with East European Mafia types and the net is closing rapidly. The semi in West Byfleet looks as if it might provide the setting for his last stand.
Despite the predictability of many of the comic gambits, some work well, largely because of the quality of a few of the performances. For example, the girlfriend Georgina (Natalie Walker, adrift and increasingly upset in an unfamiliar world) keeps trying to use the bathroom as everyone uneasily beds down for the night after the Rolls has disappeared and Jamie has pleaded for sanctuary. The trouble is—surprise, surprise—there is no lock on the bathroom door. Various comic encounters ensue, as the bathroom door is opened and the room found to be occupied; eventually Ian (Mayall, brilliantly bitter and emasculated by the presence of Jamie) is discovered by his wife apparently in flagrante with Georgina on the bathroom floor.
There is lots more of this sort of business, some of it amusing. The closing scenes, however, become lacklustre. An early indication of this comes when Jamie tries to make a getaway in the family's battered and uninsured car, and there is that old difficulty of distinguishing between first gear and reverse: lamp-post and garage are demolished. An army of bit players enters shortly afterwards, including a sadly underemployed Brenda Blethyn who seems to have been told to reprise her character in Mike Leigh's Secrets and Lies, but without anything to do or say. Few of the loose ends are tied up, there is little satisfaction to be had from the resolution. Typical is the treatment of daughter Jessica's boyfriend, Chas (Razaaq Adoti). Jessica not only invites him to dinner but sneaks him in to stay the night. He is black, with a very muscular body, and for most of the film unaccountably wanders round in just a pair of tight-fitting underpants. But nothing interesting is made of this: he simply gets the odd, curious glance, and the parents' initial anger at their daughter's partner coming to dinner, let alone the possibility of his staying the night, seems to be simply forgotten about. A major problem with the ending is its creaky improbability. Contrast this with an earlier British film farce, Clockwise, for which Frayn also wrote the screenplay, and which succeeded because it stayed, for all its farcical heightening, inside the bounds of a recognizable reality.
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, with good reason: a great deal of money is at stake here. More crucially at stake are desire, reputation, and other imponderables, together with the obsessiveness of the hunter-gatherer scholar, not a scholar with the godlike calm of Friedländer, Grossmann, Glück, Tolnay, Stechow, and many others cited, but the excitability of a madman with an idée fixe.
This particular madman has seen the five Bruegels in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. He has seen the one in Prague and the one in New York. These represent the Seasons, or the Months, or perhaps illustrate proverbs. By his initial count there were 12, in which case five are missing. But if each panel represents two months there were only six originals and only one is missing, and that missing original is blocking Tony Churt's fireplace in his miserable breakfast room. Clearly there is a need to follow up that original leap of faith, or of recognition, before the missing Bruegel is restored to the canon.
Stealthily Martin spends days in the London Library, the National Art Library, the Witt Library. The picture is already identified in his mind as one of the months of the year, April/May if there were only six to begin with, April or May if there were indeed 12. (Calculation of the year was then made from equinox to equinox.) He has just time to ruminate on the difference between the castles, crags and winding roads of the vertiginous Bruegel topography and the uneventful fields through which he trudges on his second elaborately casual visit to the Churt domain for a second glimpse of his picture (for by now it has become his).
So much for the identification, which is rather brilliantly handled. By contrast, the actual details of the acquisition are of lesser interest, though this is the point of the novel. The tone becomes facetious (though facetiousness has been one of the difficulties encountered earlier on). Yet it remains eminently absorbing, if occasionally ludic. Even this is a clue. Martin, in the toils of his researches, uncovers one hypothesis after another, all of them plausible interpretations of Bruegel's motives and beliefs, masked, as they had to be, in what was virtually a police state. The motives and beliefs of the picture's owner are equally obscure, unlike his blunt personality and his susceptible wife. Bruegel himself was a sort of allegory, which various scholars have interpreted in various ways. Again the scholarship is dreamy, persuasive, exalted, the present-day ruminations jaunty, defensive and equally misleading. Indeed the entire novel is an intricate brainwashing puzzle, alternating abstruse objectivity with feverish intentions.
Michael Frayn is a serious farçeur, and the details of doors opening and closing and four-wheel drives uncertainly launched onto the motorway take one rather far from the reality principle, except that there is no reality principle, only an immense and cunning web of false clues. Proper research has been done here, and Frayn is so clearly in love with the beauty of his sources, ranging from Ortelius the map-maker to Motley and his Rise of the Dutch Republic, that all are acknowledged and sometimes quoted at considerable length. That this should be incorporated into a contemporary novel is at the same time disconcerting and beguiling. The tunnel vision of the scholar, totally unaware that others may be engaged on the same track, is well described, as is the perfect diplomacy of the expert at Christie's. Were the temptation to tie up the different layers of this material into a single comprehensive scam not quite so overwhelming, this would still be a substantial undertaking. As it stands it is a strong contender for this year's Booker Prize.
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 paintings also has its resonances, in Frayn's acknowledgement of the difficulty of perceiving foreground from background when one is, as it were, in Icarus' position, and the danger of reading too much into what is before one's eyes, while missing the obvious.
Headlong is constructed like a thriller, and we follow Martin Clay from the initial excitement of his discovery, through his trail of research (with details of findings and ever-changing conclusions), and his slide into unscrupulousness, to the ultimate panic and chaos arising from the unstoppable chain of events which he sets in motion. It is related in the first person and the present tense, a method that allows Frayn to record, as they happen, the vast and instantaneous transpositions from certainty to despair, so typical of the lonely scholar:
I put the phone down. Oh well. My suspicions about this particular picture were obviously misplaced. I push it aside, and now my mood begins to change. I am probably wrong about all of them, I realize. I am, I know I am.
and two pages later: “My reading of the pictures was right all the time: my confidence has returned.” The relationship between Martin and his wife, Kate, brings out Frayn's best qualities. He captures the rhythms, tones and even silences, of those who are well known to each other, the little gestures that betray so much: “‘I'll think about it,’ I say. I smile. She smiles. I'm not sure I didn't prefer open warfare.” Subliminal meanings, the separation of surface gesture from real intent, seem to give Frayn pleasure (“‘What a treat. So sweet of you to come.’ She makes her point; she's not at all pleased to see us.”) and suggest another reason for the apposite choice of Bruegel, who, we are reminded, was said to have painted that which cannot be painted. However, the price of such self-conscious clarity, as with many first-person narratives, is an apparent lack of depth in the other characters; they are convincingly portrayed, but they do not come alive in the mind. Also, although they are amusing, we become irritated with the narrator's endless vacillations, inane questions and daft presumptions.
There are problems, too, with the attempt to incorporate some of the substance of Martin's researches in the novel. It is a good idea to give an impression of the exciting yet wayward pursuit of ideas, but not when it results in this:
Tolnay makes his six pairs [of pictures] possible by beginning the year with December/January. But Demus, Klauner and Schütz, in the catalogue, point out that the traditional beginning of the year was in March. Glück agrees that the Netherlandish year began at Easter, but this leads him now to identify The Gloomy Day as March/April, and Haymaking as May/June—so in his view there's no gap in April and May, and he expects the missing picture to show November/December. Buchannan, however …
and so on, for another twelve lines). This might be a light-hearted comment on the multitude of authorities in academic fields, and the ridiculous way in which one can become immersed in detail, but it feels no less cumbersome and unnecessary in its context as part of the story than it does as excerpted above. Frayn offers many such chunks of information, concerning Bruegel's political, historical and artistic fortunes, with neither the skilful sifting of the knowledgeable historian, nor the freewheeling treatment of the bold novelist. What we end up with is a pantomime of scholarly activity, a breathless relaying of sources and dates, with little sense of the real material pleasures of research, the delight in objects in themselves as well as for their meaning.
This lack of engagement is the root of Frayn's style. There are flashes of thought, but no broad reflections; perfect mimicry, but no substantial characters; verbal and structural tricks, but little memorable description. His writing has only speed, not colour or texture. Despite the novel's fascinating raw materials, we are stuck in a landscape made up not of real things and people, but tone of voice and turn of event. As a thriller Headlong is an undoubted success (the tension of the denouement is brilliantly handled), but it is disappointing that what might have been an extremely interesting novel of ideas amounts to little more than a well-contrived page-turner.
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, though, they find a place about to collapse, overgrown with tangles and overcome with neglect. The squire's wife openly hates him and (as angry wives are known to do) flutters her eyelashes at Clay. Meanwhile, it becomes clear why the squire has invited them. Like people exploiting their doctor friends over dinner, the squire means to wheedle some free art consulting. It seems he owns various paintings, now mostly used as screens to keep out the wind blowing down the chimney, that he suspects may be worth something. He hopes to turn them into ready cash and asks Clay to take a look to see what they might be worth. Clay is dubious, modest about his own eye. But the look changes his life. One of the paintings, he is convinced, is a Bruegel (as he spells it), a lost unit of a series depicting the seasons by the celebrated 16th century Dutch painter. Clay immediately sinks into lying and dodging, hoping to keep this news to himself so he can make off with the painting, convinced he would be a better caretaker of a masterpiece than its loutish owner or any potential fat-cat buyer.
The subsequent wheelings and dealings—surprise entrances (nearly, but not quite, “stage left”), slammed doors, inopportune arrivals, farcical misunderstandings, wild departures, “in” remarks to which the reader is made privy—owe everything to Frayn the master comic playwright. Kate's lady-like jealousy over what she takes, mostly mistakenly, as an affair between her husband and the desperate wife of the squire would do nicely on the stage. Frayn is terrific at moving his characters around, at giving them sharp or funny or dramatic things to say or not say. He also knows his genre novels. The country setting, the tumbledown cottage smelling of disuse, the manor smelling of the end of an era, the noisily self-assertive landowner, the aggressively available wife; all are spoofs several times removed, British jokes about jokes about “types.”
But it's the large central section of this novel into which Frayn seems to have poured his heart, and here the humor is much less antic. You can't help feeling as you read this part of Headlong that he may have conceived the book backward, with the plot patched on as justification and frame for Frayn's serious thinking about the malleability of meaning in the arts.
Clay is obsessed with his mystery painting, so much so that he is willing to trample his marriage and his child to get to it. To him it is not merely paint on a canvas—arrangements of color, form, pigment thickness, lightness and darkness, circles and lines—but code. He sifts through the scholarship, trying on one theory after another, struggling to make the painting fit the theory and the theory fit the painting. If they match, then he has a Bruegel. If they don't—well, then he has a problem.
Depending on what he reads, the painting is clearly an allegory of Bruegel's political radicalism. Or, no, it's a cautious Flemish attack on the barbarities of occupying Spain. Or, yet again, it's painted religious heresy. Or a message shown by a figure in the foreground that may or may not be there. As he wavers, Clay seems to be painting the canvas himself with layers of significance peeled from conflicting scholarly opinion. Under its influence he sees in it what he wishes to see, at least until each new bubble bursts.
Picking through all this can require Clay's patience and single-mindedness. Though not exactly rollicking, Frayn isn't stingy, even here, with the laughs, gleefully pricking holes in the overconfidence of academic art criticism. But just below the sugar powder you bite into his tough-minded essay on how history and individual human folly combine and conspire to manufacture art's “message.”
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 for advice on how to sell some old family paintings. Clay decides to bluff his way through, until his attention is caught by a 16th-century Dutch landscape being used as a fire screen. Most of us have little difficulty making fools of ourselves, given the right carrot, and Clay is no exception; he believes it to be a long-lost Bruegel. His discovery leads him and the reader on a fascinating journey through art galleries and libraries as he attempts to authenticate the painting—and steal it from his host. What follows is a series of farcical episodes in which Frayn shows his virtuoso handling of character and a keen grasp of comic timing as Clay—whose actions are jolted forward more by the interaction of his imaginary musings with external events than by his own volition—becomes embroiled with Churt's wife in his attempts to steal the painting. The action culminates in a frantic, high-speed night-time chase through dark country roads. Clay's five days that shook the world become, in the hands of Frayn, a small jewel of comic shine.
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 this kind of premise, a dizzying vision or speculation which takes over the whole modest world of the central character. He is Martin Clay, a philosophy lecturer on sabbatical, diligently avoiding work on the book he is supposed to be writing on nominalism, and he is convinced that his disorderly neighbour in the country has, but doesn't know he has, a lost Bruegel among the mountains of family junk in his rotting ancestral pile. The trick is to remove the painting from its owner without letting him know what he's got, and this is how Martin thinks he will do it. It's a piece of accelerated delusion. Groucho would have been proud of him. Martin will tell his neighbour (whose name is Tony Churt) he's found a buyer for the painting, and
hang it on my own wall to enjoy it myself for a few days in transit; find myself falling in love with it; humbly raise several thousand pounds I can't afford to buy my purchaser out and keep it for myself; become curious enough about it to take it to be examined by experts; am stunned to find that I've made one of the most important artistic discoveries of the century; behave with characteristic modesty as I receive public and professional recognition in equal measure; look with innocent amazement and heroic magnanimity at the huge sums of money dangled in front of me; regretfully decide that I must let the picture go out of my possession to some institution where it can be properly looked after and seen by a wider public; nobly insist that it must remain in the country; even though this means accepting a considerable financial sacrifice; contribute a remarkably generous proportion of the proceeds to help good causes in the arts; perhaps even make a small but entirely uncalled-for donation to Tony Churt himself.
At the moment of this fantasy, Martin doesn't even know whether the painting is a Bruegel or not, hasn't shared his guess with Kate, his recently married but long-suffering wife, and is discussing with Tony Churt only the possibility of helping with the sale of another painting, a vast Rape of Helen by Giordano. As with the blurb-dreaming novelist, the game here—Martin thinks of himself as painting a fictional landscape in time, ‘blue after blue’, into the ‘distant sea’ of the happy future—has several overlapping elements. First, the person's belief that there is nothing unreasonable in his scheme, that he is entirely in control of a well-laid plan; second, the horrible conventionality of the script, the way it stumbles from one cliché to another (‘stunned to find’, ‘heroic magnanimity’, ‘nobly insist’, and so on), as if even dreams could only be plucked from a glossy magazine; third, the lip-smacking vanity which colours the whole project, with the accompanying sense of a man anxious to prove he's not just a wet and penurious intellectual; and fourth, the well-groomed appetite for money, the implication that any ‘financial sacrifice’ to be made will still leave him rolling in it.
Of course, none of this happens, but the fantasy itself dominates the whole novel. What does happen is so intricate and farcical that it would be a pity to reveal it in advance. We know Martin has to get some kind of comeuppance, but guessing (wrongly) at its precise shape is part of the pleasure of reading the book.
It matters that the neighbour with the paintings should live in the country, and not down the road in Highgate or Hampstead. In fact, he couldn't live down the road in London, and he wouldn't be called Tony Churt if he did. Headlong is a novel which, like recent books by Julian Barnes (England, England) and Alan Hollinghurst (The Spell), treats rural England as if it was a domestic Transylvania, a place where normality can't survive one uneasy night or apparently innocuous dinner party. Some of Frayn's funniest writing here concerns not the country but what Martin calls the country, his idea of the real run-down thing, Cold Comfort Farm in receivership:
There's a half-mile squish of mud and shit under the tyres where a herd of live cows goes regularly back and forth between meadow and milking shed. Beyond the undergrowth on the left at one point is a scattering of bricks and broken tiles, growing a mixed crop of nettles and ancient leaky enamelware. Rusty corrugated iron flaps loose on ramshackle empty structures abandoned in the corners of tussocky fields. Lichen-covered five bar gates lean at drunken angles on broken hinges, secured with rusty barbed wire. We begin to relax our guard; this is the real stuff all right. This is what we pay a second lot of bills for.
Live cows. Just think. Tussocks. Lichen. It's a mythical kingdom, however derelict it looks—because it looks derelict, perhaps. And all Martin's errors are grounded in his belief that Tony Churt, when he appears to invite Martin and Kate to dinner, is the sheer incarnation of this kingdom, the human realisation of Martin's idea of the rural.
He has the grip of a man who's used to wringing the necks of wounded game birds. He's taller than me, and as I raise my eyes to meet his I have plenty of time to take in mud-splashed boots, then mud-coloured corduroy trousers, and a mud-coloured check jacket. There are holes in his mud-coloured jersey, and any hint of garishness suggested by the triangle of muddy green flannel shirt above it is counteracted by his muddy brown tie. He even has a gun, properly broken, in the crook of his arm.
Tony's invitation is not just friendliness, of course, a bit of that country hospitality which makes people rush round to greet you after you've been there a few years. He has a few paintings he'd like an opinion on, and he's heard from the neighbours that Kate's an art historian. Apart from the Giordano, which he wants to sell, it turns out, without paying tax or auctioneer's commissions, he has three Dutch landscapes; skaters on a pond, a group of cavalrymen and … the dark and dusty river and village and castle scene which Martin is instantly convinced is a Bruegel. Kate doesn't see this painting until later in the novel, and at this point she offers no comment on the others. Martin, although not an art historian, does all the talking, as he earlier promised to. (‘“I'll do all the talking,’ I assure her. Silence. She means I always do.”) He thinks the Giordano is ridiculous, but is polite about it; guesses it might be worth about £4000 tops, but doesn't give an estimate; identifies one of the Dutch paintings (correctly, as it happens) as a Philips Wouwerman, but doesn't say so in case he's wrong. There's a nice little flicker of multiple error here, a bit of art historical pingpong. Tony turns the painting over, and shows a label saying ‘Wouwerman’. Martin is undeterred and pedantic. The label may simply mean School of, Circle of, Follower of, Style of—‘or nothing much at all’. ‘Too much to hope that “Wouwerman” might mean Wouwerman?’ Tony asks. Martin has no doubts at all about this. ‘That's the one thing it doesn't mean.’
And so Martin lays his plans. Help Tony sell the Giordano, offer to take the other paintings off his hands, and relax into fame and riches. But what if he's wrong about the Bruegel? This is the obvious question, and the plot of the novel won't work without it. But something goes slightly wrong with the novel itself at this point. The narrative of Martin's altered life, his frequent trips from the country back to London to check things out in the V&A or the London Library, his need of Kate's support and confirmation of his hunch combined with a need to keep her scepticism at bay—she is the art historian after all—and his growing neglect of their small child and indeed of their marriage as anything other than a research base, along with his increased entanglement with Tony's wife Laura, who mistakes Martin's deviously expressed interest in their paintings for a romantic interest in her … all of this is interspersed with Martin's accounts of his progress towards identifying his briefly glimpsed painting as a Bruegel. He lectures us on Bruegel (‘There are some paintings in the history of art that break free, just as some human beings do, from the confines of the particular little world into which they were born’), first in order to show us (and himself) that the painting could belong to a series Bruegel painted in 1565, all representing the seasons of the year, and then with escalating partiality, to prove to himself (and to us) that the painting contains some incontrovertible mark of the identity of its author. Martin thinks Bruegel may have belonged to a secret Protestant sect, and gives us the theology to surround the speculation. Abandoning this hypothesis, he thinks that, although he worked for a cardinal—an important agent of Spanish repression in the Netherlands—Bruegel was a sympathiser with the Dutch resistance, smuggling little signs of dissent into the unnaturally calm world of these paintings, and he can only tell us this with the aid of a large history lesson. Martin is ingenious and lucid, but handicapped by a resolutely 20th-century sense of politics and meaning. The Emperor Charles V is ‘like a provincial English scholarship boy who's absorbed into the London establishment’, and ‘the history of the Netherlands in the 16th century has a remarkably familiar ring to anyone reading about it today … However much allowance you make for the unbridgeable dissimilarities between one age and another, it reads like a first draft for the history of Occupied Europe under the Nazis, or Eastern Europe under the Soviets.’
These are historically parochial analogies, and Martin is making no allowance at all for unbridgeable dissimilarities, only gesturing towards the idea. The writing is perfectly in character, and there is no psychological reason why Martin should understand history any better than he does. But this is a plodding Martin, someone whom Frayn takes too seriously and gives too much space to. Martin the scholarly detective is supposed to be obsessed but merely seems solemn, loaded with inert information, just passing on to us the fruits of his reading. His reading is considerable, as Frayn's note of acknowledgment makes clear, and I, for one, was glad to have much of the information, however inert. But the novel is not going anywhere at these moments, and I found myself missing the fellow who was so funny about the country and Tony Churt.
Frayn himself seems a little uneasy on this score, since he has Martin apologise at the outset for the levity of his tone. ‘My tone's going to sound inappropriately light-minded at times. But that's the way it was. The tone of most things we do in life is probably going to turn out to have been painfully unsuitable in the light of what happens later.’ This is a nice straightfaced apology which isn't an apology at all, only a signal of the comic novel as a genre, and the suggestion that we get the tone of most things wrong feels like a modest universal truth, but the sentence makes us think about Martin's tone in particular, and apart from the fine beginning and the hectic end, he spends too much time going stylistically straight. He's not inappropriately light-minded enough for much of the novel, so that when he suddenly falls back into perfect, polished Frayn-speak, you wonder where he's been. ‘The gallery inside is panelled, with period furnishings and a woman sitting at the scrolled table in the corner who appears to be carved out of various highly burnished hardwoods herself, hair included. A concealed mechanism snaps her lips into a brief smile as I approach.’ Is this the same Martin as the one who not only does his art history neat, but feels, as he has one of his few intermittent moments of worry about his marriage, that ‘something infinitely precious and good has slipped away from us for ever,’ who mutters sententiously about ‘judgment’ at the very end of the book?
Martin is an expert reader of silences, and some of the best comedy at the beginning of the book arises from his skill. It's not that he gets things wrong, it's that he gets so much out of so little: ‘Kate says nothing, which is a sign of disagreement.’ ‘More silence. I know what she's thinking.’ ‘It's a little unkind of her to bring the subject up now, however wordlessly.’ ‘Kate says nothing. But says it much more companionably now.’ Later Martin hears Kate's silence as accusing him of failing to be absorbed enough in their child; thinks her silence is what has saved them from the rows they might have had; takes her silence on the subject of Bruegel as a clear indication that her assessment is different from his; reads a complicated irony into another silence on the same subject; and treats Kate's smile as an eloquent form of radical scepticism. What happens here is that the hectic fantasy mode I have associated with Sterne and Groucho Marx turns subtly into something else: a curious version of the solipsism in which other people exist but don't have to do anything, because the thinking subject has taken over all their roles and written all their dialogue. It's a delicate and funny and rather desperate picture; the snag with Martin's earnest Bruegel researches is that he forgets he's a solipsist, and so disappears from view as the character who alarmed and amused us. Or if you prefer, he becomes an ordinary solipsist, the one who can't see people or the country or a painting because his dreams are too thick.
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 theory.1 Indeed, chaos theory—and quantum mechanics, to which it was in some regards the successor—have both been found to have particularly wide-ranging applications in relation to textual and performance analysis.2 As notions of how reality might be conceptualized change and develop, so drama's relationship to that reality is reworked and reconsidered.
There is of course potential for combining these approaches: this is what Peggy Phelan does in her essay ‘Theatre and its Mother: Tom Stoppard's Hapgood’. Although it draws on the plot structure of the espionage thriller, Hapgood, thus contains a character who, as a scientist, explains quantum theory within the action, whilst the action itself—dealing as it does with twins, uncertainty of identification, and the difficulty (in the theatre as elsewhere) of believing what you see—seems to display quantum uncertainty in action. As Phelan suggests:
For Stoppard, the allegory of particle and wave is fundamentally theatrical. Physicists, like theatrical spectators, see what they believe to be false, and in attempting to account for that falsity, they see the truth of disguise and discover the need to augment the theory of the real itself.3
Thus theatre has its own special kind of truth, ‘the truth of disguise’, just as science has. In both cases, new instances force a reappraisal of existing paradigms. Interestingly, as David E. R. George has noted, descriptions of quantum mechanics often appeal to theatrical metaphors: one relevant example in the present context comes from one of Werner Heisenberg's more accessible accounts of his own discoveries, Physics and Philosophy:
We have to remember that what we observe is not nature itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning. … In the drama of life we are ourselves both players and spectators.4
George would see this as following in a tradition which uses the metaphor of theatre to ‘devalue [theatre] by implication as a very model of the insincerity, deception, and illusion it locates in everyday life’.5 This notion of metaphorical interchange between theatre and science will be pursued further; but it is worth nothing initially that Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, like Stoppard's Hapgood, attempts to introduce scientific principles into both content and form.
The major difference between the two plays lies in the fact that Frayn chooses as his protagonists not fictional representatives of the scientific community but Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, the architects of the uncertainty principle and complementarity.6 Frayn's protagonists explain and also enact their ‘own’ theories; a thoroughgoing connection between content and form is thus attempted. In what follows, through an analysis of the play's action, I intend to illustrate how this contributes to the dialogue between science and theatre.
SCIENCE AND METAPHOR
Although notions of the uncertain relations between observer and observed would seem eminently suitably for use in the interrogation of theatre, Damien Broderick warns against the misunderstandings which can arise when specific scientific terminology is used in a non-scientific context. Although scientific writing uses metaphor and metonymy drawn from everyday language (and, as I have pointed out, from theatre) there is a danger in confusing the specific scientific use of a term such as ‘chaos’ and its everyday use. If literature attempts to expose the allusive nature of figures of speech, scientific discourse, on the contrary, attempts to hold meaning stable, and such a ‘fixing’ is dependent on context.
Broderick quotes Gillian Beer with regard to this: ‘Not what is said, but the agreement as to constraints on its reception will stabilize scientific discourse. … Works of art press on the uncontrolled implications of science.’7Copenhagen is structured around the interchange between metaphor used to explain science and science itself used as a metaphor to explain action.
The event from which the play takes its title, Heisenberg's visit to Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941, is itself both an attested occurrence and a suggestive image: through the action of the play Frayn tries out several alternative answers to the question ‘Why did [Heisenberg] come to Copenhagen?’8 But the method by which his answers are attempted becomes as compelling as the suggestions themselves. Frayn's use of Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty ultimately reveals that this plurality of possibilities has to replace any search for a definitive answer.
A moral issue is at stake here also: Heisenberg remained in Germany during the war, and consistently attempted to distinguish his loyalty to his country from any allegiance to the Nazi regime. His visit to his mentor Bohr in Copenhagen, where he had worked some years previously, took place only shortly before Bohr and his wife Margrethe (who is the third character in Copenhagen) were forced to flee Denmark in order to escape the Nazi round-up of Danish Jews.
Bohr went to work at Los Alamos; and one key issue at stake in the play is whether Heisenberg went to ask Bohr's advice on the development of atomic weapons—whether he was in fact attempting to develop a nuclear bomb to be used by the Nazis. The possibilities which the play presents with regard to these issues will be explored presently: for the moment it should be noted that Frayn is not simply addressing the problem of compiling an accurate historical record, but also posing questions about moral choice and responsibility.
In Broderick's analysis, Frayn could be accused of misunderstanding the precepts of Heisenberg's theory, which only applies at the level of microscopic observations:
Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle … is often treated as if it were a synonym or warrant for textual ambiguity rather than a precise statement of the limitations of accuracy in specifying physical states, and valid only under strictly circumscribed conditions.9
Thus Heisenberg himself pointed out that uncertainty applied only to the experimental situation and not to the ‘outside world’.10 However, there are several methods through which Frayn here resists an easy slippage between specialist and commonplace uses of terminology and concepts.
SCIENTIFIC AND THEATRICAL CONTINGENCY
To begin with, the action of the play takes place in an unspecified location, in which the characters are able to move freely back and forward in time, commenting retrospectively on past actions, and also ‘acting them out’ in the present tense. So, for example, as the different explanations for his visit are explored, Heisenberg repeats his arrival at the Bohrs' house: ‘I crunch over the familiar gravel to the Bohrs' front door. … I crunch over the familiar gravel and tug at the familiar bell-pull. … And once again I crunch over the familiar gravel.’11 In this way, the action comes to represent a thought-experiment, one of the imaginary examples used by scientists to try and work through the validity of theories (such as Schrödinger's cat, or Einstein's trains passing at the speed of light).
Because the action is defamiliarized in this way, it is difficult to identify where the chain of metaphor begins: within the play, the characters use metaphors from everyday life to explain their theories, with Margrethe Bohr becoming proxy for the audience: ‘We're going to make the whole thing clear to Margrethe’, Bohr decides.12 So, for example, at one point Heisenberg sets Bohr off walking and asks Margrethe to imagine that he, Heisenberg, is ‘A photon. A quantum of light. I'm dispatched into the darkness to find Bohr.’13 (It is worth noting that Margrethe is by no means a neutral observer of the men's exchanges and voices her own, often unsympathetic opinion of Heisenberg on a number of occasions.) In terms of responding to Broderick's concerns, it becomes difficult to say whether this is primarily an artist (Frayn) using a scientific metaphor, or a scientist (Heisenberg) attempting to use an everyday image to explain a scientific principle. Perhaps for the audience it manages to be both simultaneously.
What I am suggesting is that Frayn is drawing an analogy between scientific discovery and theatre, but that he is not necessarily attempting to prioritize one over the other or somehow to degrade scientific language. Frayn reveals that at the most general level there is a parallel between the uncertainty of the scientist, unable to predict the outcome of an experiment because of the interference of contingent factors, and the situation of an audience member in the theatre: what you understand to have taken place there is similarly dependent on a mass of contingencies. No two accounts or ‘readings’ of a particular performance will ever be the same; and performances themselves are not repeated, but iterated.
It will be worth examining in more detail the ways in which specific interpretative choices are offered (and indeed limited) in the course of the action of Copenhagen. As I have mentioned, Frayn stresses what is also highlighted in David Cassidy's biography of Heisenberg—that the scientist stayed in Germany during the Nazi regime because he felt that this was the only way to preserve some kind of future for German physicists. Cassidy quotes Samuel Goudsmitt's view of this policy: ‘He saved physics: he did not save physicists’14—the implication being that Heisenberg should have used his position to assist a greater number of his colleagues.
Frayn offers various pieces of information for the audience to consider with regard to this question of Heisenberg's moral standing, and by indicating that Heisenberg was mistaken in believing that science could somehow seal itself away from politics, he provides further justification for his own artistic commentary on these events. This is not just the business of physicists.
WHAT HAPPENED DURING THE WALK?
During Heisenberg's visit to Bohr, the pair took a walk together in order to have a conversation away from Bohr's house, which was under surveillance. On their return, Bohr was hostile towards Heisenberg. Frayn presents a number of alternative exchanges, each of which sheds a different light on both Heisenberg's dilemma, and Bohr's coldness towards him.
Initially, then, we are presented with the absence which is contained in the historical record with respect to the mysterious conversation. We hear Margrethe's reflections: ‘A lot of this century's physics they did in the open air. … After dinner they'd walk round Faelled Park. … But this time, in 1941, their walk takes a different course.’15 Bohr returns and reveals to Margrethe that the conversation has concerned atomic fission, but does not elaborate. ‘What did Heisenberg tell Niels—what did Niels reply? The person who wanted to know most of all was Heisenberg himself.’16
Indeed, throughout the action Heisenberg has difficulty in remembering precisely where he and Bohr walked that evening:
You couldn't even agree where you walked that night. …
Faelled Park of course. …
But Faelled Park is behind the Institute, four kilometres away from where we live!(17)
It is not simply that discrete accounts need corroborating, but that individual memory plays tricks and cannot be relied upon.
Heisenberg does make his own suggestion as to what was said, claiming that Bohr misunderstood its implications: ‘I simply asked you if as a physicist one had the moral right to work on the practical exploitation of atomic energy. … And you jumped to the conclusion that I was trying to provide Hitler with nuclear weapons.’18 Heisenberg asserts that he was, rather, attempting to exploit the possibilities of nuclear power and that Bohr over-interpreted a purely hypothetical comment about the viability of a nuclear weapon:
You grasped at least four different central points, all of them wrong. You told Rozental that I'd tried to pick your brains about fission. You told Weisskopf that I'd asked what you knew about the Allied nuclear programme. Chadwick thought I was hoping to persuade you that there was no German programme. But then you seem to have told some people that I'd tried to recruit you to work on it!19
Relayed on to others, whatever Heisenberg did say becomes fragmented, contradictory. A chain of Chinese whispers comes into play, and there are also perhaps metatheatrical implications. Both writer and performer have similarly to send their words out, little knowing how they will be interpreted.
This speech also illustrates how certain exchanges within Copenhagen which appear to be historically located and fixed have a tendency to spill out beyond the enacted present and into issues from earlier or later periods. In this case, significantly, Bohr's own involvement in the Los Alamos project is brought to the fore.
Heisenberg suggests that the reason for his visit was that he wished to consult Bohr concerning an impending moral dilemma: ‘If I manage and remain in control of our [nuclear research] programme, the German government is going to come to me! They will ask me whether to continue or not!’20 Heisenberg's response to such a question cannot be governed by an abstract principle of the rights and wrongs of nuclear warfare. A key issue for him is whether the Allies are themselves heading in this direction: ‘If the Allies are building a bomb, what am I choosing for my country?’21
It is at this point that Frayn stresses again the difficulty of Heisenberg's situation during the war. Even if he is not a supporter of the Nazis, he could never consider sacrificing his country to the Allied cause. Frayn does steer away from the issue of how much Heisenberg or any other German citizen might have known about Nazi policies—towards the Jews, for example—but elects instead to emphasize a less frequently considered, albeit perhaps more abstract approach to Heisenberg's situation.
MORAL AND SCIENTIFIC UNCERTAINTY
Heisenberg has a number of speeches during the play in which he reminisces, almost in Boys' Own fashion, about incidents which have occurred to him during both world wars, and which underline the plight of the individual during wartime. So, for example, he asks whether his own children will, as he did during the First World War, have to go ‘out into the country under cover of darkness in the snow to find food’.22 Such incidents depict Heisenberg as a sympathetic figure, and tend to leave an audience predisposed to him.
Similarly, when Bohr defends his involvement in the Los Alamos project by commenting, ‘We weren't supplying the bomb to Hitler!’, Heisenberg retorts, ‘You weren't dropping it on Hitler either. You were dropping it on anyone who was in reach … and if you'd produced it in time they would have been my fellow-countrymen. My wife. My children.’23 Heisenberg is here allowed to ease his way onto the moral high ground, using his recollections of war-torn Germany, and claiming that none of the Los Alamos scientists had any conception of the effects of even conventional bombing.
Such a reference to Hiroshima tends to even out the balance of moral responsibility, in dramatic terms. Stressing the personal motives for the choices made by the two men—Bohr being forced to flee, Heisenberg's attachment to his country—puts their respective plights into a humanistic light. And Heisenberg's reflective monologues, in particular, point to a much more conventional view of character than the rest of the play would allow. There may be uncertainty as to what actually happened, but there is no doubt about the authenticity of feeling:
How difficult it is to see even what's in front of one's eyes. All we possess is the present, and the present endlessly dissolves into the past. Bohr has gone even as I turn to see Margrethe. … Margrethe slips into history even as I turn to Bohr.24
Despite such comments on the unreliability of memory, Heisenberg relates his encounter with an SS man at the end of the war as a moral fable. Perhaps in this respect his personal survival rather than the detail of the exchanges is the significant factor. Accused of deserting when he is encountered cycling back to see his family before his inevitable arrest by the Allies, Heisenberg fears that he will be summarily shot:
And suddenly I'm thinking very quickly and clearly—it's like skiing, or that night in Heligoland, or the one in Faelled Park. What comes into my mind this time is the pack of American cigarettes I've got in my back pocket. And already it's in my hand. … Lucky Strike. … For twenty cigarettes he let me live.25
What is pointed up in this vignette is not merely the cheapness of life in time of war, but the notion that the presence of mind activated in such an incident is comparable to that in which Heisenberg achieved scientific breakthroughs—it was on Heligoland, that he made the leap to the Uncertainty Principle. Similarly the parallel with skiing recurs throughout the play, the point being a necessary coincidence between decision and actions: ‘Decisions make themselves when you're going downhill at seventy kilometres an hour. … Swerve left? Swerve right? Or think about it and die?’26
In having his scientist characters make these connections, Frayn humanizes them, whilst emphasizing that their genius, and indeed their difference from the everyday, reside in their ability to interpret the everyday in a radically different manner, to see it anew. In one sense Heisenberg's gifts really come into their own when they can get him out of a life-threatening situation.
COPENHAGEN AND HAPGOOD
I would compare the conclusion of Frayn's play to the ending of Hapgood: we are not definitively told whether Kerner will stay with Hapgood, but even the ambiguity of the final scene echoes a conventionalized romance. If nothing else, we are given the opportunity to believe that things have ended ‘happily’. Ambiguity itself presents only limited alternatives (the playtext could itself be one guarantee of this limitation) and it also allows us to remain suspended, absolved of the need to decide what ‘actually’ was the case.
Damien Broderick suggests that the key difference between literary and scientific writing is that literary writing aims to create ambiguity, scientific writing to disambiguate. In this analysis, the use of metaphors in scientific writing has a crucially different function from their use in literary writing. To take Heisenberg's parallel between the world and theatre: Broderick would seem to suggest that we have to understand a ‘normative’ notion of theatre and not probe the elements of the metaphor any more deeply. For the figure to function, there must be at least the illusion of fixity.
Yet this is precisely what Broderick has criticized literary writers for doing: taking specific terminology and confusing it with its everyday meaning. David E. R. George, having identified numerous occurrences of theatrical metaphor in writings on quantum theory, suggests that this metaphor is ‘systematic and not merely figurative’,27 pointing to a deep-seated connection between these two reality-representing practices. I would suggest that Frayn is not simply attempting to signify the Uncertainty Principle by rendering it theatrically, but, in identifying its theatrical potential, in fact he complicates and questions in particular the role of the spectator within a specific theatrical framework.
In this analysis, picking up Broderick's characterizations of scientific and literary writing, Frayn is attempting simultaneously to clarify physics whilst ‘ambiguating’ the characters represented—and the two processes are necessarily connected, because of the way in which the physics involved requires us to consider reality—and indeed theatricality—itself.
If Hapgood lays bare its own theatricality by using twins and doubling both within the plot and as a means of disorientating and posing question for the audience,28 Frayn in Copenhagen fixes rather on the impossibility of repetition, which is both demonstrated within the play—no two memories of Heisenberg's visit are the same—and also spills out to comment on performance more generally. The particular circumstances in which a performance is conducted can never be exactly replicated, even in the bizarre hypothetical situation of the exact same audience taking the same seats for a second night running: even then, the audience and performers will all be a day older. There is still an uncertainty of outcome, the possibility of a different understanding of what is presented.
In this sense Copenhagen, although not a realistic play, does present a particular conception of theatrical ‘reality’, Phelan's ‘truth of disguise’. This is necessarily inflected by the ideas presented through the action, but rather than somehow exploiting or simply decontextualizing scientific terminology and concepts, Frayn creates a dialogue between two fields of discourse—science and theatre—which reveals that both necessarily deal in ambiguity and uncertainty of outcome.
This article appeared in New Theatre Quarterly, X (1994), p. 242-54.
N. Katherine Hayles describes the difference between quantum mechanics and chaos theory as being at least in part one of scale: thus, the most familiar conceptualization of chaos theory is that of the butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the world and causing a tidal wave in another. The relationship between cause and effect is here disturbed. On the other hand, ‘since quantum fluctuations are extremely small and tend to cancel each other out, they are often considered not to affect macroscale events to any appreciable extent’. Hayles, ed., Chaos and Order: Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), p. 11.
Peggy Phelan, ‘The Theatre and its Mother: Tom Stoppard's Hapgood’, in Unmarked: the Politics of Performance (London: Routledge, 1993), p. 112-29.
Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), p. 46.
David E. R. George, ‘Quantum Theatre, Potential Theatre: a New Paradigm?’, New Theatre Quarterly, V (1989), p. 171-79.
The Uncertainty Principle established that the act of observation introduces uncertainty in the outcome of an experiment. Complementarity, developed by Bohr in response to the notion that light could appear to behave as either particle or wave, suggested that once the decision had been made as to which it was in the particular instance, then some predictions of its behaviour could be made.
Damien Broderick, The Architecture of Babel: Discourses of Literature and Science (Melbourne University Press, 1994,) p. 102.
Michael Frayn, Copenhagen (London: Methuen, 1998). p. 3.
Broderick, op. cit., p. 105-6.
See, for example, Heisenberg, op. cit., in which he explains many of his ideas in a relatively accessible fashion.
Frayn, op. cit., p. 12, 54, 88.
Ibid., p. 38.
Ibid., p. 71.
David C. Cassidy, Uncertainty: The Life and Science of Werner Heisenberg (New York: Freeman, 1991), p. 438.
Frayn, op. cit., p. 31.
Ibid., p. 35.
Ibid., p. 36.
Ibid., p. 38.
Ibid., p. 41.
Ibid., p. 42.
Ibid., p. 43.
Ibid., p. 88.
Ibid., p. 95.
Ibid., p. 25, 27. George, op. cit., p. 173.
Toby Silverman has explored both the use of twins in the play and some of its other theatrical allusions in ‘Blizintsy/Dvojniki, Twins/Doubles, Hapgood/Hapgood’, Modern Drama, XXXV (1991), p. 312-21. This notion of a dynamic between diegetic and extra-diegetic effects of twins bears comparison with Shakespearean cross-gender doubling, especially as Hapgood plays her own twin.
Frayn's interest in such issues is evidenced not only in his best-known play, Noises Off (1982), but also in the more recent and conceptually more complex Look, Look (1990).
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 mark of a surprising greatness.
From the beginning of his splendid career, Frayn has been unusually taken by the implications of abstract ideas. Indeed, he wrote, in the 1970s, a philosophical work, Constructions. I've never seen a copy of it, but judging by the brilliant series of comic pieces he wrote for the Guardian and the Observer throughout the 1960s, it might be somewhat Wittgensteinian in tone. The best of the pieces are to do with the limits of communication. That sounds somewhat po-faced, but the failure to understand what someone else is saying, or the attempt to state what cannot really be stated, is the source of some deathless low comedy. One of the funniest, from On the Outskirts, is about mishearing someone's name at a drinks party; it is, naturally, called ‘I Said My Name Is Ozzy Manders, Dean of Kings’. Endless ingenious variations are wrought on the same theme; meeting foreigners on holiday (‘Oh, Un Peu, Vous Savez, Un Peu’), the inability of libel lawyers to see the point (‘The link with Mr Bunnykin must be weakened by changing the sentence to “Later, a rabbit went to Farmer Barleycorn's lettuce patch, etc.”’), or the bizarre and meaningless formulations of the television interview (‘I Think I'm Right In Saying’).
The acute awareness of meaningful and meaningless utterance produces a naturally gifted parodist. Where it comes from is hinted at in the most brilliant of the columns, a parody of the later Wittgenstein, ‘Fog-Like Sensations’. In it, Wittgenstein takes on the curious fact that the highway authorities find it necessary to erect signs saying ‘Fog’ to warn motorists that they are driving through fog. The parody is absolutely immaculate, and deeply loving of its victim.
Imagine that the motorist said: The trouble is, I can't see the fog for the fog. We might understand this as a request for practical information, and try to answer it by showing him the definition of fog in the dictionary. To this he might reply: I can't see ‘fog’ for the fog. We respond by putting the dictionary an inch in front of his eyes. Now he says: I can't see the fog for ‘fog’.
It is the continuing vivacity of the ideas which has preserved Frayn's comic pieces of 30 years ago. He began, like his beloved Chekhov, as a writer of comic sketches, and only slowly moved into longer fiction and drama; when he did so, it was clear that his one big idea, of the limits of language, had ‘legs’, as they say. More than that, it had backbone.
Frayn's first novels are incomparably brilliant variations on the single theme of mutual incomprehensibility, and the limits of language to say what we know we feel. That, in a sense, is where the novelist parts company with the philosopher. The philosopher knows that ‘woruber man nicht sprechen kann, daruber muss man schweigen.’ The novelist, with his relaxed human sympathy, knows very well that even if we know that we don't know what we are trying to say; even if we know that we are not going to be understood by our interlocutor, we still go on trying, with ruefully comic results.
Indeed, those who follow Wittgenstein's imprecation, and remain silent about what they cannot explain, come off no better. Chiddingfold, the director of the Computer Institute in The Tin Men, only speaks once in the course of the novel, and is a richly absurd figure. If a character does say what he means, he is not likely to be understood, as Sulpice in A Very Private Life, tragically fails to understand.
What I'm working on at the moment is hyperequality. Not the same as superidentity, of course! In fact one might say the two terms are starkly infraparallel!
But for the most part the comedy derives from people leaping to the wrong conclusion. The hero of Sweet Dreams failing to understand when he is talking to God is not unusual; in the Fraynian pantheon of misunderstanders, he is not even the most extreme. Nunn, the paranoid security man in The Tin Men, who begins by misunderstanding every action of his colleagues, proceeding spectacularly to misread his own notes, is even more bizarre. There are occasional suggestions that we need this failure to communicate. Paul, in The Russian Interpreter, finds his world falling apart when he mistakenly starts speaking in English instead of Russian, and his employer gets a glimpse of his highly approximate standards of translation.
‘He's very pleased to be here,’ he said uncertainly. At an occasion of this nature he recalls that he has many friends in learned institutions engaged on similar work in Britain.
We are protected, in a sense, because people do not understand exactly what we mean; Uncumber in A Very Private Life, who travels halfway across the world to meet a man with whom she shares no word of a language, would not be better off if she understood what he was telling her.
They are, essentially, that very English thing, comedies of failure. Towards the End of the Morning, which remains his funniest book, is the rueful accumulation of one sort of disaster after another. One character only is permitted to succeed, in stratospheric fashion, as one of those 1960s television gurus, and he is by far the least likeable. For the rest of it, there is nothing but dim failure lying in wait for everyone. It is an unbelievably funny book, as the characters fail in the simplest tasks; they cannot take a flight, they cannot understand letters from each other, they cannot even manage to speak to their own daughters on the telephone. In one virtuoso strand, the editor of the newspaper where the novel is set tries to sack the worst of his reporters, who simply refuses to believe that it can be anything but a wind-up:
‘This crap's from you, is it?’ said a cross voice. ‘What?’ ‘Don't give me that crap. This load of crap's your idea of a joke, I take it?’ ‘Is that Reg Mounce?’ ‘Don't give me that crap.’ ‘Reg, what are you talking about?’ ‘Bob, don't give me that crap.’ ‘I don't know what you're talking about, Reg.’ Mounce hesitated. ‘It was you who sent me this crap, wasn't it, Bob?’ ‘What crap, Reg?’ ‘You know what crap, Bob.’ ‘Reg, I honestly don't know what on earth you're talking about.’
If you can't even succeed in being sacked, you might really come to believe that there is no hope for you.
Why a book so relentlessly about failure, like his much later screenplay Clockwise, should be so funny is an interesting point. What sustains the early books is what was to turn him into the best playwright of his generation, an ability to inhabit, sometimes rather uncharitably, other people's voices. He was always a startlingly good parodist. Kingsley Amis and John Fowles get a really good duffing up in The Tin Men. The clichés of popular journalism have never been more ruthlessly filleted than in Towards the End of the Morning. ‘Little did we realise when we blithely set sail from Petsamo in Lady Jane, our trusted converted Carmarthen mussel boat …’ The analyses of computer-generated news stories in The Tin Men are still very much to the point, alas:
A rail crash was always entertaining, with or without children's toys still lying pathetically among the wreckage. Even a rail crash on the Continent made the grade provided there were at least five dead. If it was in the United States, the minimum number of dead rose to 20: in South America 100; in Africa 200; in China 500.
When Frayn returned to the novel after some years as a playwright, the comedy was slightly subdued, the element of parody less marked (although the titles of the imaginary novels in The Trick of It, his brilliant fable of creation and criticism, still retain the old sharpness). The melancholia which had always been implicit seemed, somehow, to be less easily contained; Headlong, like Towards the End of the Morning, is about failure, in relationships and in professional life, and also about a pathetically excessive ambition. But, though it is full of a beautifully judged sense of comedy, no one, I think, will set it down with the memory of hilarity. It is more like a memento mori, and it ends, appropriately, with its protagonist awaiting a judgment the nature of which he cannot quite be sure about.
But what has been sustained with an incomparable, lightly worn intelligence is the life of ideas. In Frayn's earlier work, the hilarity is so overwhelming that one could be forgiven for not noticing how thoroughly the jokes are being orchestrated by a willing, sceptical disciple of Wittgenstein. In the later work, the jokes are more delicate, the life of thought nearer the surface. But in Frayn's prose work, there has been a continuous thread, a consistent and consistently rewarding vision. On the surface, his work is, like Chekhov's, dazzlingly varied, matchlessly resourceful. What the reader will quickly come to discover is how rewardingly unified it all really is, how strongly it reflects the preoccupations of a remarkable, sympathetic mind.
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 encountering complexity, mystery, and half-information before finally enjoying an epiphany of meaning that, however, leads to nothing. The novel is really about incompetence: how an amateur scholar overcome by curiosity (and greed) descends “headlong” into a situation that, quite aside from embarrassing him financially, threatens his marriage and exposes him to the sexual overtures of the owner's bored, alienated wife. Better said, the novel is about the perils of unprofessional intellectualism.
Headlong is urbane and funny. Michael Frayn had already distinguished himself with the comic play Noises Off and the intellectual play Copenhagen, which won the Drama Critics Circle Award and was named Play of the Year in London in 1999. He has eight previous novels to his credit, plus a translation of Chekhov's plays and a volume of collected journalism. The attraction to Chekhov is no accident, for he treats miscalculation via understatement, irony, and pathetic humor in a quintessentially Chekhovian manner. As an example, let the following extract suffice:
So what am I saying now—that Bruegel was simply a hired hack of the Counter-Reformation?. … He was merely serving up the same old reassuring myth … of a happy bucolic world sustained from generation to generation, … untouched by the conflicts and savageries of real life, one more episode in the long-running story of Arcadian shepherds and Bourbon milkmaids, of Soviet tractor drivers and Merrie England.
I offer this interpretation with judicious scholarly detachment. But I don't feel detached about it all. I don't believe it. Not for a moment. I refuse to believe it. If Bruegel is all things to all men, then he certainly isn't that to me.
Without the long art-history passages, Frayn's novel is a romp: an incisive examination of how not to lead one's life. With them, it is a scholar's weighty tome, interesting no doubt to those who dabble in Bruegel, the Counter-Reformation, Spain's domination of the Low Countries, and the sale prices of old masters. But those who want the romp can easily skim the scholarship.
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 the case of Larson, we were supposed to have been robbed—of another dozen great shows that this promising young man would have written. I didn't think so: Rent was like Meredith Willson's Music Man—one of those shows that feels like the only show the guy has in him and that he, in turn, has poured everything into. He may go on, as Willson did, to write other works on other subjects, but never with the same commitment and identification.
Simon, though, is a different case. On the evidence of his play (produced by the New Federal Theater at Abrons Art Center), he would have enjoyed a dogged career of respectable productions that never quite ignite into hits. James Baldwin: A Soul on Fire pushes all the right buttons, sometimes crassly so. The play is set in 1963, as Baldwin and his fellow activists Lena Horne, Lorraine Hansberry, and Harry Belafonte are preparing to meet with Robert F. Kennedy. Baldwin is all of a tizzy, for RFK is, as he says, “so manly.” But matters are complicated by an ill-advised bit of rough trade from the night before who's kidnapped the author's latest manuscript and is demanding a big payoff. This is a typical Equity-scale production in our turn-of-the-century theater: two actors, one of whom plays Baldwin while the other mops up everyone else—from Lena Horne to Huey Newton, not to mention a one-man chorus cum deus ex machina called Ethereal. I suppose Simon, like all other budding playwrights, knew enough not to write a play requiring six actors, but, as so often nowadays, the character of Ethereal and the requirement of Forrest McClendon to play Everyone But Baldwin seem like devices—they don't arise organically from the material.
Simon has the benefit of a winsome central performance by the Baldwin-like Charles Reese, which helps mitigate the often suffocating, manipulative tone of Chuck Patterson's production. This Baldwin sings and coerces the audience into clapping along until we are one united, life-affirming congregation. To be honest, I was probably the only one who needed to be coerced. But then I resent clapping along at Riverdance. It seems even more inappropriate at a play—unless it has a very specific function, as in Peter Pan, where our applause is needed—“Do you believe in fairies, boys and girls?”—in order to restore Tinkerbell to life. I think it safe to say that, if you don't believe in fairies, you're unlikely to be at a play about James Baldwin. But, even so, in most dramas the happy-clappy routine has a faintly fascistic whiff about it—you have to be very strong-willed indeed to sit on your hands—and it's used as an unearned shortcut—a way of announcing the character's virtue rather than persuading you of it. In a similar vein, a film image of the real Baldwin is projected on to the stage. And even the title, James Baldwin: A Soul on Fire, sounds more like a book than an evening of drama.
These are not the faults of the late Mr. Simon so much as the theatrical culture in which he hoped to make his name. Indeed, the New York theater would not see any of the above as faults at all. It may well be the case, as we're often told, that systemic racism and homophobia are so deeply ingrained in America that we need to have plays on the same handful of subjects for the next millennium or three. But if I were to offer any advice to the students at NYU's graduate writing program, where Mr. Simon learned his craft from the likes of Tony Kushner, it would be this: write what you don't know. This is, apart from anything else, a commercial judgment—the black and gay markets are pretty crowded these days—but it offers artistic benefits, too. One reason for the death of the American straight play must surely be because so many are as parochial and self-absorbed as the conversation at the adjoining table in a downtown restaurant.
Consider, by way of contrast, Michael Frayn's Copenhagen (at the Royale). Like Simon and that 1963 meeting with Robert Kennedy, Frayn has been struck by a small historical incident: in 1941, when most of Europe was under German rule, Werner Heisenberg, the head of the Reich's nuclear program, paid a short visit to occupied Copenhagen to look up his old mentor, Niels Bohr. That one verifiable fact is really all Frayn has to go on. No one knows what transpired during that trip, but, for a good playwright, that's all the more fun. Frayn likes to make connections: in this instance, Heisenberg was already at work on a German atomic bomb; Bohr would soon be whisked out of the Reich and on to the U.S., where he worked on the Manhattan Project. So the question is: what would two Nobel-winning scientists with a shared interest in nuclear fission find to talk about in 1941? Heisenberg could have obtained some essential information from Bohr. Did he ask? Did Bohr, a Danish Jew (half-Jew, actually, though the Reich did not disdain fractions), find a way to avoid telling him? Or was Heisenberg only willing to go so far to help Hitler to victory? Did he go out of his way not to ask what he needed to know? Did he perhaps urge Bohr to warn the Allies that the Germans were also on the case? Was he seeking his teacher's blessing for the apocalyptic work on which he was engaged? Or was he only there, as Bohr's wife Margrethe sneers, to show off?
What we have here then is a work of speculation, in which the goodguy/badguy roles don't come preassigned and on which the end of the war may hang, and thereby the postwar world in which we live. As Frayn acknowledges, he's not the first to seek parallels between Heisenberg's work and his life. David Cassidy did so in his biography Uncertainty. (I assume this is not the same David Cassidy who was once a teen heartthrob with the Partridge Family, and whose solo hit “How Can I Be Sure?,” seems with hindsight to be in a Heisenbergian vein.) It's an interesting idea for a play … On second thought, scrub that last sentence: Among his other achievements here, Frayn, a playful linguist, demonstrates how worthless the word “interesting” is as an adjective. So let's look at it this way: when critics bemoan the decaying of Broadway into Disneyfied mega-spectacles, they usually miss the point. At the heart of most satisfying theater is something big. That doesn't mean you need Miss Saigon's helicopter to express it. But even a small three-handed bare-set play ought to have something big at its core.
Here, Frayn, hitherto a funnyman best known for the farce Noises Off, is venturing into Tom Stoppard territory—exploring little corners of history's vast sweeping canvas. Like Stoppard with Arcadia and Hapgood, he's been accused with this play of being too cool and cerebral, but, if the alternative is feeling good about clapping along with James Baldwin, Fraynian cool offers a greater likelihood that there might be an outbreak of … drama. And so it proves. Copenhagen is on Broadway, but his set is as sparse as Howard Simon's—just three chairs in a kind of lecture-hall limbo, round which the protagonists prowl as they explore Frayn's various versions of historical truth. His conclusion is an extrapolation of Heisenberg's famous Uncertainty Principle about the movement of electrons into a general theory on the “uncertainty at the heart of things.” The straightforward geographic title of Copenhagen gives us a clue to what drew Frayn to the story: the scientific world's Uncertainty Principle man comes to Denmark, home of the man who symbolizes drama's Uncertainty Principle: Hamlet. Frayn has combined these twin strands into a great rumination on the certainties of science, and the uncertainties of the human motivations that drive it.
I first saw Copenhagen in London on the National Theatre's smallest stage—the Cottesloe, where Michael Blakemore's production pulled off a wonderful dual effect, conveying both a very immediate intimacy and the sense of huge forces pressing in from the world outside. You expect some of that to be lost in Blakemore's restaging for a Broadway house, but what's more surprising is how much is retained. Much of that is due to three terrific performances—Michael Cumpsty as the torn Heisenberg, Philip Bosco and Blair Brown as the affable Mr. and Mrs. Bohr. They manage to convey both the immense ordinariness of lowly figures caught up in a great war and the extraordinary genius on which the outcome of that war may depend. As in Stoppard's Arcadia, Frayn's Copenhagen uses scientific principles to illuminate emotional truths—and, aside from physics, history, and philosophy, the play is suffused in primal human feelings: Bohr has lost two children and hopes in Heisenberg for a surrogate son. There is, in theory, no reason why an Englishman of Frayn's background should be any more interested in a Dane and a German getting together in 1941 than a New York playwright would be. Are the defining events of the modern world of no interest to American dramatists?
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 artistic distortion of fact has been rapturously received by the laity as an improvement on the arid original? Scholarly exactitude may command its tens of admirers, but poetic license hath its tens of thousands.
These gloomy thoughts of a pedantic specialist on Werner Heisenberg are prompted by the arrival on Broadway of what is being hailed as the play of the year, Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, which opened in April at the Royale Theater. The drama revolves around the notorious encounter, in September 1941 in Copenhagen, between Heisenberg, Nazi Germany's brightest star in physics, and his old mentor and friend, Niels Bohr, then a partly Jewish citizen of Nazi-occupied Denmark, and later, at Los Alamos. N.M., a key mind behind the creation of a nuclear-fission bomb. The play is an intermittently fascinating jeu d'esprit that flutters around the uncertain nature of knowledge—both personal and scientific. With just three characters—Heisenberg, Bohr, and Bohr's wife, Margrethe—Frayn develops through his often electric dialogue a synergy on stage that has made the play a success at London's Royal National Theatre and ensured its production not only in New York, but in France, Germany, and Denmark, as well as prompting conferences in London, in New York, in Amiens, at Dartmouth College, and in Copenhagen itself.
What explains all this commotion? Of course, physicists are so pleased to see any reasonably interesting picture on stage of their often hermetic lives that they have flocked to the play, but then physicists are hardly a large enough contingent to regularly fill a theater. The trendy issue of the “two cultures,” however, ensures that any serious attempt at bridging the gap between scientists and nonscientists will appeal to our academic consciences; this year, the University of Pennsylvania had the bright idea of making Copenhagen required reading for all freshmen.
The play cleverly exploits parallels between the questioning by humanistic postmodernists of historical facts and the questioning by constructivists of scientific facts. To oversimplify considerably, constructivists might consider particle physics to be a fanciful belief system molded by social and cultural factors, with no more underlying truth than alchemy. That's a notion that may hold some appeal for select scholars of the history of science.
Would it be cynical to suggest, however, that it has equal charm for the lion's share of viewers, who might find it reassuring to learn that the science they know so little about might just be pie in the sky anyway? If all is unknowable, then does it matter that I got a D on all those problem sets in organic chemistry and became an investment banker?
Nor should one omit the work's sheer theatricality, talky as it may be. As it flits dizzyingly from philosophy to physics to politics to personality to history, there's no time for the audience to get a real grip on any of the crucial points at issue. At intermission, viewers happily recall how they didn't quite understand this or that bit, but how brilliant it all seems.
What's wrong with that? The intellectual vertigo induced by Frayn's quicksilver writing may be intended to capture some of the intellectual excitement inherent in the discoveries of science, and of life. But the price we pay for the dramatic thrill Frayn has concocted—the sacrifice of historical and scientific truth—is simply too great. The Copenhagen experience carries the audience along headily on a scientific roller coaster. Forget about understanding—just look at the views!
Copenhagen is a kind of Rashomon-like treatment of a central historical episode, but one refracted through a postmodernist lens and complicated by philosophical ideas derived (a little too glibly) from the quantum mechanics pioneered by Heisenberg and Bohr—such oft-misunderstood, if oft-cited, concepts as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle and Bohr's complementarity principle. The limits of knowledge, of knowledge of others, of oneself, of the external world of politics and morality; the plasticity of memory; the impossibility of arriving at definitive moral judgments—this is the heady stuff of Copenhagen. The 20th century has seen at least two remarkable plays that drew their inspiration from the world of science—Bertolt Brecht's Life of Galileo and Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Physicists—but none has achieved the brilliance of Copenhagen in rendering the technical discussion of scientific ideas dramatically convincing and, at the same time, accessible to scientists and nonscientists alike.
But even the play's admires may have felt a certain unease. Was Heisenberg really the character depicted so sympathetically on stage? Was his attitude toward Nazism really so ambivalent, or so justifiable, as Frayn variously suggests? Did the meeting really take the form—or rather forms—that Frayn depicts? On a more general level, must our historical knowledge of people and events inevitably be as foggy as Frayn paints it?
If we can come nearer the historical truth of the meeting than Frayn's uncertainty principle allows, then the glittering décor of Copenhagen may turn out, indeed, to be constructed on false historical foundations that undermine its whole intellectual edifice. And here pipes up the aggrieved author, who has devoted two chapters of his recent book to analyzing the Copenhagen visit from both its scientific and moral standpoints. For the central facts of the visit are really not in doubt, even if some people like Frayn refuse to face them.
Frayn, of course, might object that facts, here, are irrelevant. After all, he affects to be an entertainer rather than a historian (although in his printed postscript, he likes to play the historian). The play is certainly full of entertaining anecdotes and mannerisms. It's a pity, though, that Frayn's eye for the picturesque didn't select such gems as Heisenberg's barging in on a dismayed Einstein after the war, or Heisenberg's sickening postwar meeting with the physicist Max Born that degenerated into an anti-Semitic tirade and ended with Heisenberg's spitting at his former teacher. Or, while at Copenhagen, his enthusing to colleagues there about the current Nazi conquest of Europe.
Moreover, historians have been able to discover a few things about Heisenberg's visit that undermine Frayn's claims of unknowability. We know, for a start, that Heisenberg went there on an intelligence mission triggered by a Swedish press report that the Allies were working on a bomb. Heisenberg's intimate friend was the physicist Carl-Friedrich von Weizsäcker (who in recent years has finally conceded that in 1939 and 1940 he was willingly working to produce a bomb for Hitler). Alarmed by the Swedish report. Weizsäcker discussed the bomb race with his father. Ernst, a senior official in the German Foreign Office later convicted at Nuremberg of war crimes. Soon after the father-son discussion, a mission to Copenhagen by Heisenberg and Carl-Friedrich was swiftly approved at the highest levels of the Nazi government. The general purpose was to discover if Heisenberg had missed some broad principle necessary to a nuclear-weapons program and to discern if Bohr knew anything about the Allied bomb effort.
At one point during his visit with Bohr, Heisenberg made a crude drawing of a gigantic reactor-bomb, a drawing that reflected an erroneous line of research that his assistants had been pursuing and that was also discussed in an official German report a few months later. Both men would have concluded that such a weapon was a far-fetched idea. Without doubt, Heisenberg also wished to have Bohr confirm that the critical mass of uranium 235 required for a true atomic bomb would be on the order of tons, thus ruling out any possibility of its being built. There was no difficulty in Bohr's agreeing with that since, until 1943, when he was informed of the Allied work, Bohr genuinely believed, like Heisenberg, that a bomb was impossible because of that presumed critical mass. That was why Bohr remained reasonably unalarmed on a scientific level by Heisenberg's conversation. It was the moral situation—Heisenberg's working on a bomb for Hitler and pumping Bohr for information—that revulsed him.
Frayn perverts the moral significance of the meeting as well as distorting and suppressing its scientific and political agenda. Frayn instead sees it as emblematic of what is for him the central moral paradox of modernity: Was the saintly Bohr, who helped develop the Allies nuclear weapons, actually morally inferior to Heisenberg, the acolyte of Nazism, who failed for whatever reason to make a bomb? Put this way. Heisenberg would undoubtedly have been delighted with Frayn's presentation of a case he himself implied but was afraid to make publicly. The bogus moralizing that Heisenberg did dare to utter openly is alluded to in the play: “Does one as a physicist have the moral right to work on the practical exploitation of atomic energy?” Or, as he put it after the war: “[Do] physicists have the moral right to work on atomic problems during wartime?”
Those generalized, vague questions were typical Heisenberg evasions. The real moral issue that Heisenberg should have faced was the very specific one of whether German physicists should have worked—as they did—on a bomb for Hitler. For Bohr—who was openly worried about the race toward nuclear fission and, even in late 1943, urged transnational consideration of such a bomb's consequences—the question that confronted him after his arrival in the West was a different one. Was the Nazi evil so great as to justify working on a bomb that would defeat Hitler? The larger issue that confronted Bohr—whether anyone should work on a bomb for any government—was an ethical quandary that the Allies didn't have the luxury of pondering during the emergency of the war, but that became pressing in 1945 and after. It was that more-general question that Heisenberg craftily made the central issue of his wartime work, but that was only after the war, when the moral battlefield had changed.
What influences have led Frayn to shun the fairly straightforward historical and moral facts of the Heisenberg story, in favor of his own peculiar interpretation? Curiously, despite his essential premise of historical uncertainty, Frayn does indeed purport to give an accurate impression of the history of Heisenberg and his involvement in the German atomic project, particularly of his visit to Copenhagen. But as Frayn admits in a lengthy postscript to the printed text, that impression is based largely on Heisenberg's War, a popular 1993 book by the journalist Thomas Powers, whose ignorance of German and physics enabled him to happily fantasize about Heisenberg as a secret resister who knew exactly how to make a bomb, but effectively sabotaged the project by delay or intentional mistakes. Heisenberg, in Powers's view, also became associated with the rescue of the Danish Jews and the July Plot against Hitler. In real life, Heisenberg, like his friend Weizsäcker and Weizsäcker père, disapproved of the plot as an act of treason and never justified it even after the war. Frayn, however, advances a notion that was suggested by Ernst von Weizsäcker and Heisenberg, and bought by Powers—that the Weizsäcker circle clandestinely resisted Hitler and was connected to a German official who tipped off the Danes to the impending deportation of Danish Jews. Ernst von Weizsäcker's judges at Nuremberg didn't buy that argument, and nothing found in the historical record since has lent the scenario any more credibility. Power's quaintly romantic view, as he has conceded, has not found any takers among serious historians. Indeed, there really is no longer any doubt about either Heisenberg's loyalty to the Third Reich or his scientific misunderstanding of an atomic bomb.
Recent research has established the facts of Heisenberg's allegiance to the Reich. Consider his negotiations with Heinrich Himmler to obtain a chair at the University of Munich and Heisenberg's insistence that he be allowed to publish an article in the SS's scientific journal to vindicate, he said, his “honor.” Note his visits to occupied Krakow, Holland, and Copenhagen, and his crass comments to his former friends in those places about how marvelous the Nazi conquest of Europe was. Mark his wistful remarks in Switzerland in 1944 about how the war was lost, but “how beautiful it would have been if only we had won,” and his truly amazing assertion to Jewish acquaintances in England and America after the war that, if only the Nazis had been given 50 years, everything would have settled down nicely.
The evidence is consistent in showing Heisenberg to have been a brilliant but weak man, whose shallow moral character allowed him to be easily corrupted by his nationalist German sympathies into colluding with Nazism. His ability to rationalize instantly, whatever the circumstances, any path of conduct stood him in good stead after the war, when he concocted his various “versions” of what had happened at Copenhagen and, indeed, of his entire career as scientific chief of the Nazi atomic-bomb project.
As to the scientific aspect, Heisenberg's misconceptions about the nature of an atomic bomb have in the last few years been exposed once and for all by the release and publication of the Farm Hall transcripts—taped conversations of German scientists interned at Farm Hall, England, at the time of Hiroshima—as well as by the availability of the nearly 400 secret wartime reports of the German project of which Heisenberg was the scientific chief. Those sources unequivocally reveal just how crude and wrong-headed Heisenberg's approach was to the theory of the bomb. Although he understood that the bomb would have to use a fast-neutron reaction in nearly pure uranium 235, he misconceived the formula and equation that would have yielded the correct critical mass of uranium on the order of tens of kilograms. Instead, he concluded through false reasoning in 1940 that tons would be required. That scientific error blinded him for the remainder of the war. (He also erred in conceiving of an alternative kind of messy, small-scale bomb that essentially would have been an exploding reactor—the idea that he discussed with Bohr in 1941.)
It was only after the news of Hiroshima that Heisenberg finally went back to the drawing board and, within a week, concluded that, after all, only kilograms of uranium were needed. Had he realized that in 1940, the German project would certainly have gone into high gear, and perhaps even succeeded.
Frayn refuses to comprehend, or perhaps acknowledge. Heisenberg's scientific misunderstandings. The play does portray Heisenberg as squirming a bit when conceding that on the evening of Hiroshima, he had told Otto Hahn and others that a ton of uranium would be needed for a bomb. But then Frayn allows Heisenberg to explain this away in a manner clearly believable to the author and endorsed in the play's postscript, where Frayn decides, after all, that he will play the role of historian.
Confusingly, Frayn allows Heisenberg to argue that: (a) he had never calculated the critical mass, but was going on a generally accepted intuitive view of a large bomb mass, and (b) he did the detailed calculation using diffusion theory only for a seminar given at Farm Hall on August 14, 1945. Frayn doesn't appear to notice (though some in his audiences have) that even if one were to believe that version of events, it undermines the play's notion of Heisenberg as a saboteur of Hitler's bomb-making effort.
At any rate, Frayn's version is blatantly wrong in one crucial respect. Heisenberg had indeed made an earlier, erroneous calculation, in 1940, yielding a mass of tons, and it is that calculation (based on a random-walk analysis) that Heisenberg explained repeatedly, and in detail, at Farm Hall on August 6, 7, and 9. However, the analysis of the critical mass in the August 14 seminar is quite differently, and correctly, conceived. In the days between August 9 and 14. Heisenberg had desperately gone back to first principles and rethought the whole critical-mass problem.
Frayn trickily alludes in a very vague way to the 1939-40 calculation of tons of uranium in Act I, perhaps expecting his audience to forget that, when the critical mass of tons is raised dramatically at the climax of Act II, it has been arrived at by calculation, not conjured out of thin air. Frayn's sleight of hand camouflages the fact that, at Farm Hall in the first days after Hiroshima, Heisenberg still fervently believed in the technical correctness of his early calculation.
The bottom line is that Heisenberg, like Weizsäcker, had been working hard in 1939-40 to make a bomb for Hitler, but—scientifically speaking—was barking up the wrong tree.
Frayn has evidently fallen for some of the more absurd moral justifications by the Axis scientists for their serving the Nazi regime. Those excuses included Heisenberg's sanctimonious comment in 1948 that “I have learned something that my Western friends do not yet completely wish to admit—that in such times almost no one can avoid committing crimes or supporting them through inaction, be he on the German, Russian or Anglo-Saxon side.” That self-serving statement allowed Heisenberg to pose at least as Bohr's moral equal, perhaps even his superior, and it is a notion that drifts noxiously in and out of Copenhagen.
It is simply monstrous to draw or imply a moral symmetry between Bohr and his disciple. Niels Bohr was a man of the most intense moral awareness, whose integrity has been universally recognized. If he became involved in the Los Alamos bomb project after his harrowing escape from Denmark, in 1943, it was only after his serious ethical misgivings about such a weapon had been overcome by consideration of the immediate evil presented by Nazism. To put a character of Bohr's moral stature on anywhere near the same plane as a superficial, rationalizing sophist like Heisenberg suggests an incomplete knowledge not only of the historical facts, but of human character. Heisenberg never accepted moral responsibility for his role either in the Nazi state or in the Nazi atomic-bomb project.
It was that evasion that drove Heisenberg to invent the Copenhagen version that Frayn obviously prefers. Yet this version was—in the words of Heisenberg's sympathetic British minder, Ronald Fraser, during a second visit to Copenhagen after the war—“a typical Heisenberg fabrication. … He rationalizes that quickly that the stories become for him the truth. … Pitiful, in a man of his mental stature.”
“Now no one can be hurt, and no one betrayed,” purrs Heisenberg in the play. But the memory of Bohr has been hurt, and Heisenberg's true history betrayed. And Heisenberg is left approvingly with the last treacherous—and banal—words in the play about “some event that will never quite be located or defined … that final core of uncertainty at the heart of things.”
The elegiac and exhausted ending of the play is where the accumulation of distortions and mistakes finally turns into something altogether more distasteful. It has the appearances of a Lear-like transcendence of the destructive futility of human striving. We are with three characters, all passion spent, but with Heisenberg having the unanswered final say. He is granted a wrenching speech lamenting the death of his poor “dishonored Germany,” which audiences receive as a moving testimony.
It is a spurious absolution, for Heisenberg himself was one of those who made that dishonoring possible through his selfish compromises with the Nazi regime—an irony to which Frayn seems oblivious. Frayn's irony, instead, is applied to a vicious denigration of Bohr, “the good man,” who emerges by the end as a self-absorbed prig, indifferent to the births and welfare of his own children, who contributed to the deaths of tens of thousands through his work on the Allied bomb.
Bohr is not the only one who turns out to be an unintentional villain. The Allies are in general, and the Jews, too: after all, as Frayn's play points out—in a moment that stuns a New York audience—the true inventors of the bomb, Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, were Jews. Everyone, then, is seen to be guilty, and so everyone is blameless. There is no difference between the Gestapo and British intelligence. The British bombing of Dresden and Berlin is as bad as Hitler's Blitz on British and Polish civilians. Churchill and Roosevelt are amoral power-wielders, just like Hitler (another Heisenberg glibness), and so on.
It all makes one wonder what the Second World War was fought for. Was it just another dreadful mistake like its precursor? Was appeasement, after all, the right policy, as a few radical British historians have argued?
When I first read Copenhagen, I found its élan disarming. But the generally uncritical reception in the last two years and the prospect of more of the same in New York have aroused, no doubt unworthily, a more puritanical feeling. Thanks to the play's chic postmodernism as well as the complexity of its ideas, the subtle revisionism of Copenhagen has been received with a respect denied to such cruder revisionism as that of David Irving's Holocaust denial. Revisionism it is, nonetheless, and Copenhagen is more destructive than Irving's self-evidently ridiculous assertions—more destructive of the integrity of art, of science, and of history.
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 authorities tried to determine how close they had come to building an atomic bomb. One day during the play's run, Frayn received a letter from Celia Rhys-Evans—a woman purporting to be the subsequent owner of Farm Hall—bringing to his attention a batch of notes and diaries she had discovered beneath the floorboards. Written in German, the scraps seemed to describe events the previous occupants had managed to hide from the guards and their listening devices. Frayn set about the task of translation with a contribution to history in mind, but this entertaining record of folly [Celia's Secret] is the result.
The ingenuity of the trickster is matched only by the ingenuity Frayn shows in suspending his disbelief. He and Burke tell the story of the investigation in alternate chapters, with Burke stealing much of the show. Where Frayn is concerned with damage limitation, his collaborator has clearly thoroughly enjoyed his contribution. Several months into the adventure, a friend puts Frayn out of his misery. The writer then proceeds to display the three faces of the duped. First, there is denial: it seems more likely that his friend is mistaken than that he could have been so gullible. Some weeks later, there is an attempt to share the guilt: he argues, truthfully—but somewhat unconvincingly in this case—that it could have happened to anyone. Finally, he puts on a brave face: ‘I had enjoyed believing; I didn't enjoy not believing.’ A great deal of time elapses in between as Frayn vainly plots revenge in kind.
Unable to turn the tables on his tormentor, Frayn has opted instead for the faithful escape route of the writer who faces ridicule—he turns it into material. As he tacitly acknowledges, however, such medicine is effective only for a single use. Adapted for the stage, the book would make an excellent two-hander, but Frayn wisely rules himself out from playing his own part.
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 many years, until Heisenberg came again to Denmark in 1947. There, in Tisvilde, where Bohr had a house in the country, they tried to sort out the earlier conversation but could agree on little—not even where it took place: on an evening walk, as Heisenberg remembered, or in Bohr's study in his home? “After a while,” Heisenberg wrote in a memoir, “we both came to feel that it would be better to stop disturbing the spirits of the past.”
There is no evidence that the two men ever broached the subject again during the remaining fifteen years of Bohr's life, but plenty of other people did, then and later. The 1941 meeting was minutely analyzed by American and British intelligence authorities after Bohr's escape to Sweden in 1943, one jump ahead of the Germans. Rumor of Heisenberg's visit spread through the scientific grapevine even before the war was over, and its meaning was hotly debated afterward. Why had Heisenberg come to Copenhagen? What made Bohr so angry?
The interest in these questions wasn't idle. The German military had placed Heisenberg in charge of theoretical work on the feasibility of atomic bombs during the first weeks of the war and he remained a principal director of uranium research until the last shots were fired. When the war ended he was in southern Germany working on a small experimental nuclear reactor which never achieved a self-sustaining chain reaction. It was a tiny program without scientific or military significance. Bohr, meanwhile, had gone on from Sweden to Britain and the secret American laboratory at Los Alamos in the high desert of New Mexico. There he had alarmed officials with reports of Heisenberg's progress toward a bomb, had established an intimate friendship and excellent working relationship with J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the American laboratory, and had even made a small theoretical contribution to the design of the triggering device for the plutonium bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.
That's roughly it. Heisenberg came, they talked, it went badly. Frayn has solid reasons for his version [in Copenhagen] of how the conversation might have gone, but the fact of it is the only point universally accepted. On almost every detail there is more than one opinion; long books have been written trying to sort it all out. Frayn is not trying to establish what really happened; it is what might, could, or should have happened that interests him and gives the play its power as a work of ideas. When Heisenberg in the first year or two after the war tried to explain how he and his closest colleagues approached the bomb-making project he was angrily slapped down by scientists involved with the American effort. Critics said Heisenberg had bungled the physics and then tried to disguise his failure with a fable about moral reservations. But interest in the visit never quite died. After all, Heisenberg came to see Bohr in 1941 in German-occupied Denmark; he risked prison or worse by telling his old friend that Germany had a bomb program. Why did he come? What made Bohr so angry? In the absence of accepted answers to these questions the British playwright Michael Frayn has in effect invited three figures of history—Heisenberg, Bohr, and Bohr's wife, Margrethe—to do now in his play Copenhagen what they never managed to do in life: to question each other about the famous visit, to answer forthrightly, and to listen.
Frayn has been a hard-working author and playwright for decades, but his previous eight novels and fifteen plays offer nothing quite like the intellectual dazzle and moral seriousness of Copenhagen. Despite the successful eighteen-month run of the play in Britain, first at the Royal National Theatre and later in the West End, American producers were long skittish about bringing the play to Broadway. Copenhagen is not only short on laugh lines (there are a few, all rueful) but it focuses on two subjects which are difficult under any circumstances—knowing who we are and what we mean, and knowing when we have reached the frontier separating right from wrong. No play has considered moral issues of such depth and complexity since Rolf Hochhuth's 1963 play The Deputy, but where Hochhuth launched an accusation against Pope Pius XII for his silence during the Holocaust, Frayn simply asks a question—indeed he asks it twice, as we shall see. I expect no rush from historians and the community of scientists to answer it.
But Frayn begins with characters, not ideas. Perhaps no collaboration in the history of science was closer than Heisenberg's with Bohr and certainly none was more fruitful. For three years in the 1920s, while Heisenberg was an assistant in Bohr's institute, they more or less invented modern quantum physics. But to call what they did “working together” is a bit of a stretch. They tackled problems very differently. Bohr was slow, careful, even ponderous as he took physical ideas and reduced them to plain language anyone could understand—even his nonmathematical wife, Margrethe, a practical, skeptical woman who did not grant her trust to all of the brilliant students who passed through Bohr's world. For Heisenberg in particular she seemed to feel some reservation; why, exactly, she never said. Perhaps it was nothing more complicated than a feeling of being excluded from the extraordinary intimacy that Bohr and Heisenberg established on their long walks together. For a time it must have seemed that no one could drive a wedge between those two.
Margrethe wasn't the only one to find something a little chilly and dismissive about Heisenberg's genius. He raced ahead intellectually in the same way he plunged downhill skiing. He did not like to wait, even for Bohr, and the idea for which Heisenberg is best remembered—the uncertainty principle, which Frayn exploits with great imagination and subtlety—was conceived and defended almost in the teeth of Bohr. The arguments were so fierce that the two men sometimes burst asunder, disappearing for days or weeks to think and work alone. “You're a lot better off apart, you two,” says Frayn's fictional Margrethe. The real Margrethe probably thought much the same. In the end Heisenberg and Bohr agreed to look at physical phenomena in two ways simultaneously, as both wave and particle, an insight (both men insisted it was not a compromise) thereafter called “the Copenhagen interpretation.”
The play opens at an unspecified time. The characters have all died but are restless and questing in afterlife. The conversation takes place in the Bohrs' house in Carlsberg—the “House of Honor” given to Bohr as Denmark's greatest scientist—but the stage is almost bare. Three chairs are the only furnishings. One has arms and it is Bohr who mostly sits there. A hallway leads away to a door at the left rear. Through that door Heisenberg will arrive for his visit—not just once, but three times, as they parse and reparse all the possible ways of answering Margrethe's opening question: “But why? … Why did he come to Copenhagen?”
There is no action to speak of, just Heisenberg's repeated arrival and departure, Bohr and Heisenberg setting off on their walks—the long walk after they first met (when Bohr's newest son, as Margrethe reminds him, was one week old), the too-short walk that ended so badly the night Heisenberg tried to talk about bombs. The triangle created by the three characters is repeatedly broken and redrawn. Sometimes the governing alliance is Bohr and his wife, sometimes Bohr and Heisenberg, then back again. As played by Philip Bosco at New York City's Royale Theater, Bohr is a little uncertain with age but very much the man of science, dropping everything for the pursuit of an idea, quite unaware that his pride is sometimes involved, and his pride can be like iron. Mercifully Bosco makes no attempt to reproduce the speech of the Bohr of history, who famously mumbled and garbled his words in a volume ever dwindling till his listeners were crowded around in a breathless knot, straining to hear. Blair Brown is Margrethe: sensible shoes, a plain suit, hair gray at the temples, nothing that could possibly be mistaken for a genuine smile crossing her face. She didn't like Heisenberg's sudden intrusion at the time and she doesn't like it now, that is clear.
But Heisenberg is the great question in this play, as he was in life. He is played by Michael Cumpsty as a figure of astonishing power, confidence, clarity of desire, self-knowledge—until it all slips suddenly away and he becomes as baffled by the difficulty of understanding what he was up to as the bewildered Bohr. The Heisenberg who opened in London in May 1998 was crisper in speech, cooler, subtler, sometimes hurt by what was said to him, but the play's British director, Michael Blakemore, has evidently encouraged, certainly allowed, Cumpsty to play a stronger, more positive, altogether more passionate figure in the American production—not at all the Heisenberg of history any more than Bosco plays the real Bohr. This Heisenberg, apart from initial moments of diffidence, is a man with ready access to a fund of strong emotion. He laughs, he grows excited, he becomes angry and expresses his anger. He even shouts and what's more, he shouts at Bohr. He all but roars.
Frayn never strays far from the known; the histories of these people have been minutely recorded on just about every subject imaginable except, of course, the blank pages of Heisenberg's visit. Frayn draws on the rest of their lives to coax out a portrait of their relations that might explain what went wrong. They have plenty to talk about—their initial walks together through the Danish countryside, the intellectual struggle that culminated in the Copenhagen interpretation, Heisenberg's difficulties with the Gestapo after Hitler's rise to power, the terrible day when the Bohrs' oldest son, Christian, was swept overboard in a heavy sea and drowned. There are three sound effects in this play: the ring of the bell pull when Heisenberg arrives (the Bohrs turn expectantly, almost fearfully—they are not at all eager, in this play, to find out at last why Heisenberg came); the sound of sea gulls as they remember once again the awful moment when Bohr, standing in the doorway, turns his head away and cannot say what Margrethe understands immediately; and one other sound, shocking and unexpected, to which I will return.
Copenhagen is an imaginative reworking of the true and the known, but the character of the characters, the kind of people they are, has been changed—in the case of Heisenberg, changed a lot. They are now people who might actually thrash out a complex personal misunderstanding—not the tongue-tied, easily hurt, too considerate, and sometimes guilt-bedeviled figures of history who decided to quit talking about the biggest thing ever to come between them.
The history of this event can be stunningly complex but Frayn manages to sketch in the basics. You don't have to do any homework to understand what they are arguing about and why it matters. Bohr wonders if Heisenberg has come to borrow the Danish cyclotron. (Germany has none.) Has he lost his chair at Leipzig? (His reward, Margrethe points out, for the uncertainty paper.) Is it conceivable (now Bosco's Bohr expresses rising anger of Old Testament intensity) that Heisenberg has come thinking that Bohr—who is half-Jewish—would accept sanctuary in the German embassy when the inevitable happens and the Jews are deported?
But none of those is the answer. Nor are the guesses Bohr made after the war. “You told Rozental that I'd tried to pick your brains about fission,” says Frayn's frustrated Heisenberg.
You told Weisskopf that I'd asked you what you knew about the Allied nuclear program. Chadwick thought I was hoping to persuade you that there was no German program. But then you seem to have told some people that I'd tried to recruit you to work on it.
In Copenhagen Heisenberg does want to know if there's an Allied bomb program (“my dear Heisenberg … I've no idea …”) but it's not the reason he's come. What he intends is immeasurably bolder—to tell Bohr that now, in the very early stages of fission research, scientists can still tell officials that bombs are too difficult and expensive, and he wants Bohr to press this point upon the Americans—“to tell them we can stop it together.” The plan is of course preposterous and seems to collapse as soon as it's put into words.
But crazy as it is, Frayn suggests, this really was the reason Heisenberg came to Copenhagen. The response is predictable. Bohr is angry, Margrethe, says,
because he is beginning to understand! The Germans drive out most of their best physicists because they're Jews. America and Britain give them sanctuary. Now it turns out that this might offer the Allies a hope of salvation. And at once you come howling to Niels begging him to persuade them to give it up … The gall of it! The sheer, breathtaking gall of it!
All this is argued with great spirit and feeling, but after Heisenberg's scheme collapses, as it was bound to do in wartime, the play turns inward and backward, ranging through the lives of these three for the seeds of their angry encounter—Margrethe's resentment of Heisenberg as an unwanted son, Bohr's conviction that in science as in life Heisenberg always needed slowing down, the death of Christian too painful to discuss, the awful complicity in crime which attached like a port wine stain to every German who remained in Germany during the war. “Everyone understands uncertainty. Or thinks he does,” says Frayn's Heisenberg—the principle that in the subatomic world you can never know both the position and the velocity of a particle. One or the other, not both. As this notion is explored Frayn deepens human mysteries as well—why people do what they do (“Because I never thought of it,” says Heisenberg of his failure to perform an important calculation; “Because it didn't occur to me!”), the tricks played by memory, the difficulty of seeing into other minds. We know other people as we know particles passing through a cloud chamber, not of themselves, but by the droplets of water vapor left by their passage. With people it is the same: we catch glimpses, as of walkers at night, passing from time to time beneath the light of a street lamp. If Bohr is right, and the Copenhagen interpretation restores humankind to the center of the universe, then the observer determines what can be observed; and, Margrethe continues, “If it's Heisenberg at the center of the universe, then the one bit of the universe that he can't see is Heisenberg.”
So it's no good asking him why he came to Copenhagen in 1941. He doesn't know!
This back and forth plays well and reads well, but it's not what gives the play its genuine tension, and it's not why scientists and historians have been arguing for sixty years about why Heisenberg came, and what his visit had to do, if anything, with the Allied discovery at war's end of the startling and, at first, inexplicable absence of a big German effort to build atomic bombs. Things need not and might not have turned out that way. “Let's suppose for a moment,” says Bohr, “that … I stop, and control my anger, and turn to him, and ask him why. … Why are you so confident that it's going to be reassuringly difficult to build a bomb with 235? Is it because you've done the calculation? … No. It's because you haven't calculated it. …”
And of course now I have realised. In fact it wouldn't be all that difficult. Let's see …
He begins to talk numbers.
It's not in the script but it's very much in the theater—the evening's third sound effect, a roar and rumbling that shakes the gut of every playgoer with stunning intensity and lasts long enough for the thought to sink in: if Bohr had responded purely as a scientist, nosing out the absent calculation, pushing the problem forward, helping Heisenberg to see he couldn't slip out the back door after all … Tons of uranium 235 were not required for a bomb, only kilograms. Germany could have done it.
Almost certainly not.
Just possibly, though.
It's wonderful theater, and it tells us what a vast chasm separates Hitler with no bomb from Hitler with a bomb in time to use it. But in fact the passage amounts to a remark by the playwright: damn good thing Bohr was thinking like an aggrieved Dane, Frayn says in effect, and treated Heisenberg like a man with a hidden agenda … But this is not where the play has been leading.
Whatever it was that Heisenberg said or did in Copenhagen in 1941, Margrethe never forgave him for it. At a service for Bohr in 1963, standing with the physicist Sam Goudsmit, who was scientific director of a wartime inquiry into German atomic research, she pointed to Heisenberg nearby and said, “Goudsmit, that wartime visit … was a hostile visit, no matter what people say or write about it.” In Copenhagen Frayn gives her anger free rein.
You've come to show us how well you've done in life … He's burning to let us know that he's in charge of some vital piece of secret research. And that even so he's preserved a lofty moral independence … Preserved it so successfully that he's now also got a wonderfully important moral dilemma to face …
All the same, I don't tell Speer that the reactor …
… will produce plutonium, no, because you're afraid of what will happen if … you fail … Please don't tell us you're a hero of the resistance.
I've never claimed to be a hero.
Bohr takes it all in good stride, but death has done nothing to soothe Margrethe's fury. It seems odd at first. What has Heisenberg done really? His visit to Copenhagen in 1941, the play Frayn has written about it, and Margrethe's anger at its core, all make sense only after we know how the story turned out. Heisenberg returned to Berlin where German officials were persuaded early in 1942 by Heisenberg and others that building a bomb was too expensive and uncertain for Germany in wartime. In June the German czar in charge of economic mobilization for the war, Albert Speer, met with Heisenberg and other leading scientists to argue one final time the wisdom of an all-out bomb program. German generals had pressed Speer to take the possibility seriously but Heisenberg stressed the difficulties and unknowns, requested only modest sums of money for reactor research, and convinced Speer that the bomb project offered no hope of success before the end of the war. The record of the German effort reveals nothing we might describe as a counter-history—no glimpses in documents or memoirs, or even anecdotes of Heisenberg beneath a succession of street lamps, caught urging a bomb program on officials. Indeed, the few glimpses we do get are of just the opposite—the meeting with Speer and the visit to Bohr are only two examples.
What is startling and even subversive about Frayn's play is the question that slips in through the door with Heisenberg's arrival, a question that eventually stirs Margrethe to lash out in protective fury. But at first you hardly notice. How did the famous conversation begin? “I simply asked you,” says Heisenberg, “if as a physicist one had the moral right to work on the practical exploitation of atomic energy. Yes?”
Bohr does not recall, the discussion veers elsewhere, the question goes unanswered. Frayn did not invent this question; it is a close paraphrase of what Heisenberg in a memoir says he asked, and Heisenberg used roughly similar words on half a dozen other occasions. Whether Bohr would have remembered it that way, I don't know; he never described the evening in print, or in detail to anyone who has left a clear record of what he said. But in the play Margrethe understands all too well where this question will lead. In point of fact Heisenberg did not build a bomb, whereas Bohr, in some small but not quite inconsequential way, helped to do so. “You're not suggesting that Niels did anything wrong in working at Los Alamos?” demands Margrethe.
Of course not. Bohr has never done anything wrong …
You're not implying that there's anything that Niels needs to explain or defend?
No one has ever expected him to explain or defend anything. He's a profoundly good man.
A branding iron could not make the point more painfully. But Frayn is not venting some crazy animus against Bohr; Copenhagen isn't an attempt to turn the tables, invite Heisenberg back into the family of science, and drive Bohr out. Frayn is restoring to the scientists of all sides something denied to them by the historians: moral autonomy—the capacity to question what they have been asked to do. Heisenberg is not a hero of the resistance, but something more disturbing—a scientist asked to build a bomb who raised the question whether it was right. Margrethe recognizes the challenge in this fact. If Heisenberg didn't come to borrow the cyclotron, show himself off, announce some personal setback like the loss of his professorial chair, spy on the Allies, probe Bohr for thoughts on how to make a bomb, or invite him to throw in his lot with the Germans, then possibly—just possibly—his goal was “very simple, when you come right down to it,” as Bohr tells his wife in the opening scene: “He wanted to have a talk.” And possibly—just possibly—what he wanted to talk about was the one question posed twice, at the beginning and the end of Frayn's remarkable play: “Does one as a physicist have the moral right to work on the practical exploitation of atomic energy?”
For the scientists who succeeded where Heisenberg failed, and for the historians who have recounted their efforts, answering Heisenberg's question is no simple matter. But once the question is posed there are only two possible responses—to ignore the question and to dismiss his visit to Copenhagen as somehow safe and self-serving, or to grant him the courtesy of an attempt to reply.
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.
Stoppard and other authors, including Thomas Pynchon, have minded quantum physics for metaphorical resonance, sometimes just in passing. Chicago-based playwright Penny Penniston recently produced now then again, a play touching on some of the same issues as Copenhagen. The British journal New Theatre Quarterly has even run a series of articles discussing the theatricality of the uncertainty principle and corollary axioms.
To the thoughtful person, after all, quantum mechanics seems to provide a welcome alternative to more deterministic science. In the clockwork universe outlined by Newton and his followers, one can (theoretically) calculate, and hence predict, everything. Much modern biology seems to rule out free will, while some biomedical research demonstrates (it may appear) that our ideas and feelings are chemically preprogrammed. The work of Heisenberg and colleagues like Niels Bohr, by contrast, seems to argue for choice—for the mystery of things. Moreover, by attributing an uncanny meaning to human perception, quantum physics reassures us of our own importance. “We put man back at the center of the universe,” Heisenberg boasts in Copenhagen.
In Frayn's no-nonsense drama of ideas, such lines volley back and forth with all the subtlety of an artillery barrage—though, to be fair, the narrative premise hardly invites casual chat. Heisenberg (the ever-imposing Michael Cumpsty), Bohr (Philip Bosco), and Bohr's wife Margrethe (Blair Brown) are supposedly meeting after death to hash out the secrets of the past—in particular, to pin down exactly what happened in 1941 when Heisenberg, then a prominent scientist in Nazi Germany, visited Bohr in occupied Denmark. Controversy has swirled around this historical episode ever since. Was Heisenberg, as he later claimed, trying to rally Bohr and other physicists to boycott A-bomb development on moral grounds? Bohr, who fled Denmark in 1943 and eventually worked at Los Alamos, asserted, on the contrary, that his former protégé had been fishing for information to aid the German cause. Subsequent research into the Nazi bomb-building project, vastly inferior to its Allied counterpart, has generated still more questions. Did Heisenberg make a series of scientific blunders? Or did he deliberately steer research in the wrong direction?
Copenhagen wrests these possibilities, and their philosophical implications, into a maze of metaphysics. Over the course of two hours, Frayn's characters re-enact variations on the 1941 episode, while the script draws innumerable parallels to the uncertainty principle. Hard facts vanish into the haze of memory—Bohr's and Heisenberg's recollections do not agree—so there's no certitude there. Moral choices seem ambiguous—Heisenberg is torn between patriotism and broader compassion for the human race. And the human character proves as elusive as any quantum particle: the reserved Margrethe, who observes the two men with near-scientific attentiveness, cannot tell whether the German scientist is a friend or a traitor. And he may not know himself—no human being, Copenhagen suggests, can be sure of his or her own motives.
Michael Blakemore's production offers few distractions to this intellectual tug-of-war. The three actors turn in faultless performances, managing to suggest, through voice and sheer presence, both intellectual rigor and determination to battle existential terror. But they spend most of the play standing ramrod straight, gazing at each other across a wooden arena whose simplicity suggests a laboratory's sterility. Startlingly, around a dozen audience members are actually seated at the rear of the stage, looking down on the action from a ledge in the wooden backdrop; the arrangement might allude—yet again—to quantum physics, emphasizing the eerie significance of observing.
Observing Copenhagen itself may thrill well-rested viewers with academic hankerings and excellent powers of concentration, but the play's relentless cerebral forays can also be frustrating. Frayn treats his play like a kind of theatrical subcompact, getting maximum mileage from the uncertainty principle while the story dwindles in the rear-view mirror. The imbalance becomes all the more obvious if one compares Frayn's work with another idea-heavy drama playing a few blocks away: Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing, last seen on Broadway in 1984.
In Stoppard's captivating study of love, thought melds seamlessly with narrative and character development. When the successful playwright Henry (Stephen Dillane) rants about writing (“Words … [are] innocent, neutral, precise … but when they get their corners knocked off, they're no good any more”), for example, his ideas flesh out his personality, and, by explaining the alienation of his dimwitted actress wife, Annie (Jennifer Ehle), pave the way for future plot twists. The Real Thing is Stoppard at his best, and this marvelous revival, which features splendid performances by Nigel Lindsay and Sarah Woodward, as well as Ehle and the brilliant Dillane, pays the script full tribute. Directed by David Leveaux, the production reminds you just how scintillating a drama of ideas can be.
Stoppard's scripts sparkle because he sports with ideas. Even when the thought is dizzyingly complex (Hapgood) or existentially terrifying (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead), the scenes that contain it have a disarming game-like spirit. In comparison, a work like Copenhagen, firing off its scientific references so intently, seems formidable and strained.
Plays-of-ideas that, like Stoppard's creations, really play, operate under a sort of aesthetic uncertainty principle—a willingness to entertain a large number of diverse, and sometimes contradictory concepts, without clinging to any one too long. Such an open-minded approach recalls Keats's 1817 theory of negative capability—“when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Quantum physics, on the other hand, allows modern writers to flirt with this attractive state of being, without actually committing themselves to it. With Heisenberg around, you can champion uncertainty and mystery, then blame it all on science.
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 they would do it without some measurable audience for the offerings. The passage of literature and writers themselves across borders is exhilarating. Narrow propagandists for American writing often sound jingoistic to my ears, and I would propose putting them out to early retirement like little customs and revenue inspectors in green hats whose work is now obsolete. Tariff proponents are always well intentioned in the beginning, wanting to stimulate and protect native industry, but when our own product can hold its own in the world, delaying others at the gate is only xenophobic.
1968 Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata's First Snow on Fuji1 was published in Japan in 1958, but it appears now for the first time in English. Kawabata committed suicide in 1972 (this rather trivializes your plan of killing yourself over not winning the Nobel) leaving no note or explanation, but translator Michael Emmerich's fine introduction suggests that with his masterwork already completed, there was nothing left but to drift into silence despite increasing fame. This collection of short fiction has a mood of noble resignation that one feels was pervasive in postwar Japan. “This Country, That Country,” set in the 1950s, is the story of an unfaithful wife, Takako, who both regrets her act and finds it inevitable as well. She muses about the relationship between Princess Margaret and Captain Townsend which was then the subject of the gossip columns, and speculates about marriages that are happy or not. She feels she has become two women, one for each of her men, and “… found herself unable to believe that the two women were the same. She was astonished to discover … their reality must mean she had become immoral, or that she had passed beyond morality.” “Her Husband Didn't” chronicles the actions of a married woman who has an entanglement with a younger man she meets in an art class. He obsesses about her ears, which become some totem of her larger self, but she is less intense. The centerpiece and title story is the heartbreaking tale of a young couple who once were lovers and find themselves together again after the woman's divorce from her husband. Remorse fills their words to one another, but not recrimination. When Utako became pregnant by Jiro, it broke them apart. The baby later died, something her father was almost happy for, writing to Jiro, “The ties that bound you have been cut.” Utako has grown thinner and sadder, but no less beloved. A wistful elegance attaches itself to Kawabata's writing, and even though the dramatic questions the stories pose do not have readymade answers, one feels they are answered nonetheless in what the characters choose to do: accept their circumstances or wait for them to change. This may be unsatisfying to a Western sensibility which looks for resolution, but endurance rather than action is called for when the individual will outlive the problem.
English novelist and playwright Michael Frayn2 couldn't be tedious if he tried; his stories of manners and modern life are timely and fast paced. As a dramatist his dialogue skills are flawless, revealing not only what must be told, but inferring with a word or pause what no one will utter but everyone is thinking. In Headlong, philosopher Martin Clay and his art historian wife Kate leave London for a sabbatical at their country cottage in order for Martin to finish some academic tome he has drifted in and out of love with while himself becoming a self-schooled art connoisseur. They meet their neighbor, a lumbering, well lubricated member of the gentry who invites them to dinner in his drafty, decaying manor house, replete with musty furnishings and undisciplined dogs running amok. Tony Churt and his younger wife Laura seem bluff aristocrats who love to drink and ride, but lack any polish or introspection. In touring their house Martin finds several semi-valuable Dutch paintings they seem little to regard, and what to his amazement looks like a lost Bruegel being used to block up a drafty fireplace opening. The cold, moist gloom of the British air is nearly palpable as we follow Martin through the house, while his mind races overtime thinking of the dull-witted Churts sitting on a gold mine and not knowing it.
When Churt admits he invited them because of Kate's reputation in the art world, he proposes a plan for Martin to help him dispose of the paintings in private transactions to avoid commissions, taxes, and dealers' wiles. Martin intimates he knows someone who might be interested, and later on he reveals to Kate his plan to keep the Bruegel for himself, pay Churt a few thousand pounds as if it were a work by some capable journeyman of the time, and make a subsequent killing. Kate is appalled at Martin's proposal, but the philosopher, now in love with the sound of his own cunning, explains that Churt's soldier father likely took the painting as war booty in 1945 or picked it up at a rigged auction in Germany in 1937 after it had been coerced from its Jewish owners for a pittance in exchange for an emigration permit. Since they stole it, his liberating it is justifiable in order to have it exhibited once again. Money is really on his mind, however, and he goes in debt to the eyeballs to pull off the deal. Martin will fall into a deeper plot than he imagines, and Frayn's witty, sardonic view of human behavior makes it engaging and droll all the way through, as well as being an instructive glimpse into the business of authenticating and selling fine art.
Gay Walley was born in London, raised in Canada, and now lives in New York. Her first novel3 is about the rootless childhood of a girl whose drinking father meanders through bar culture convinced to his dying day it offers a more interesting and valid take on life than sobriety and conformity. Charlee sips cola while her father waxes philosophical with his cronies, and drifts to whatever town his restlessness takes him. Gerald is a bright but dissolute Englishman who raises Charlee in the social skills of thrust and parry, drawing ever so close to humanity while at the same time fending it off. Charlee absorbs and later rejects this wisdom, but never turns against her father. She later falls in love with another starry-eyed, dreaming drinker, Peter, who lives in a New England fishing village and tries to entice her to assume a settled life there with him. The matter for Charlee is not the choosing between the two men, but seeing that she has gone from one master to another before realizing what she really wants is her freedom.
Strings Attached doesn't spare Charlee to make a point of male shortcomings. Her contradictions and sharp edges are left visible, which makes the narrative about Gerald and Peter more credible. A corporate media conglomerate would have paid good money for the film rights to the fraudulent version of this story; Charlee would marry Peter, have his baby, and live in Fishtown as she calls it, but the truth isn't a moving picture. She must push forward on her own, using others neither as crutches nor props. Strings Attached is not a tale of recovery, but discovery. Charlee's world is stark and yet emotionally engaging; and as I read the story my mind somehow reflected upon the painter de Chirico, whose urban landscapes possess metaphysical loneliness but not emptiness. Charlee and Peter, I thought, are Nostalgia of the Infinite. Gerald, I began to fancy was The Elephant Celebes, looming over the landscape, but I remembered the latter was by Max Ernst. In researching why I misattributed this, Robert Hughes's The Shock of the New illuminated me. Comparing and contrasting the two painters, he says that Ernst's images “… issue from a … place of lucid dread, as if the dream world of de Chirico had lost all its yearning, melancholy, narcissism, and historical nostalgia …” They are two sides of the same coin, as are Charlee and Gerald.
Algerian novelist and filmmaker Assia Djebar's latest work4 is nothing less than a history of her North African country from the time of Carthage, through colonialism, to the modern conflict between traditional Islam and a Western-educated sensibility longing for meaning outside of the usual social constraints. The novel begins with a married woman who is in love with a colleague, but the relationship is unconsummated. They talk daily and drive around in emotional circles, each with a need too great to be satisfied. Once when the word love almost comes up, she stifles herself as “The French word for love would have seemed obscene to me.” They are the educated Francophone elite, speaking a language that ignores their Berber and Arabic roots. After breaking with the man, whom she refers to only as the Beloved, she attempts to return to her role as a wife. Her husband has suspected the worst and beats her. The middle of the book is an extended, vivid reflection on the history of Algeria, from its wars with the Romans to its subjugation by the French in the nineteenth century. The last part resumes the narrator's personal journey as a filmmaker, attempting to patch together coherence out of social fabric which is antithetical to her persona. This book is nothing if not ambitious, and Djebar writes with conviction and urgency, leaving us with a memorable life that will not be submerged under the weight of cultural tyranny.
Patrick Chamoiseau is from Martinique and has written a wonderful fictional portrait5 of twentieth-century Creole culture there during and after French colonization. His Fort-de-France is a colorful town of peasants, mangoes, yams, donkeys, dirt-floored cottages, the market place, and beyond to the backwoods and plantations where rural cousins dwell. Men make their living on day wages, and “djobber” is an honorable trade. This is a man with a wheelbarrow who hires himself out for whatever needs to be hauled or done. Felix Soleil, a djobber and father to endless daughters in a quest for a son, is the beginning of the story which carries on with his descendants down to present days. His life, although strained by poverty, is not a hopeless misery. “Lugging the vendors' baskets of wares spread out on madras cloths, fetching the women small change, doing them little favors for a few sous—that was the cream of the djob, our livelihood. But we were so footloose that our presence there was almost imperial among those who, tied to their stalls, had to pluck so many of poverty's feathers to take a bite out of life. Days spent among these baskets of vegetables were less than glorious, and no eye twinkled with exultation, but here, after time, dire want confronted its finest adversaries.”
As we witness the daily lives of people in the endless cycles of birth, work, death, and birth again, there is nonetheless the feeling that poverty cannot rob the island of its vitality. Do we in developed nations extend too much pity and not enough relief? If the poverty were removed, Chamoiseau makes a strong case that it is only material deprivation his characters suffer, not a cultural one. There is a joke wherein an investment banker vacations on a Caribbean island and meets a fisherman who seems to work only a few hours each day. When the banker asks the man why he labors so little, he says, “I can live on what I catch. The rest of the time I sleep, play with my children, have dinner with my wife, and in the evenings drink rum and talk with my friends.” The banker explains that if he worked the full day he could catch enough to buy another boat, and in turn a fleet, then his own fish processing plant, and after twenty years of hard work an investment banker such as himself could take the company public and the fisherman would be a wealthy man. “What would I do then?” the fisherman asks. “Why retire,” the banker says, “and live on an island, fish a few hours a day, play with your children, have dinner with your wife, and in the evenings drink rum and talk with your friends.” Pity our condition, the Martiniquers might say, not our lives.
J. M. Coetzee, the South African many think should be the next Nobel winner, has written a disturbing novel6 which is both the tale of David Lurie and a metaphor for the new South Africa which must reinvent its racial, economic, and emotional premises to suit modern times. Lurie at the outset gets the sack at his college for having an affair with a student. Although it seems consensual, the girl is confused, manipulated by a jealous boyfriend, and finally pushed by her parents to start proceedings. At a hearing on his conduct, David is given the chance to plea bargain. Admissions of guilt, counseling, and community service are hinted at if he shows the right attitude, but he rejects the chance. It is a show trial in his view where the sentence will be reeducation, a Maoist cleansing of reactionary attitudes. An unreconstructed dinosaur, he knows what he has done is not right, but he refuses to abase himself before the altar of political correctness. Even his daughter with whom he has had many differences sees it his way:
“For having an affair with a student?” she asks. “It certainly went on when I was a student. If they prosecuted every case, the profession would be decimated.”
David shrugs in agreement. “These are puritanical times. They wanted a spectacle, breast beating, remorse, and tears if possible.” He thinks to himself, “The truth is, they wanted me castrated.”
The rest of the story takes place far from the city and these concerns. Now unemployed, David goes to live with his daughter in the country where she has a small land holding. The post-apartheid era is not all bliss: white farmers are armed and keep dogs. Lucy is ambivalent about this, feeling guilt about being a member of the oppressor race, but cognizant of the dangers. After robbers come and ransack the place, beating David and raping Lucy, she is strangely passive. She discovers later she is pregnant and decides to bear the child, staying on even if it means living as a virtual tenant of her tenant, a black man who is powerful enough to be her protector. David is mystified, but seeks to expiate his disgrace working at an animal clinic and helping Lucy with her flowers and vegetables. Both would like to leave, but can't. The white South African has a country but no home. The writing is brilliant, painful, aware. This is a distressing and depressing book, but a duty to read. Its metaphorical assessment of a South Africa in transition is that things may get worse before they get better, but this is the price for debts incurred yesterday which are now due and payable.
Belfast-born Carol Azadeh has produced a moving collection of stories7 set in Northern Ireland, Spain, North Africa, Paris, and the South of France which examines not only the words but the silences of personal relations. “The Country Road” depicts the fearful poverty of a family in Northern Ireland living in a small cottage beyond town. When the father dies, a great plan to move to America dies with him, and the children are left with bad dreams, a mother's frequent crying, and the stubborn anger of an older brother trying to replace his father. “A Banal Stain” is a window on the world of an aristocratic Parisian family, the Darlands of the rue du Parc. The 1950s through the 1970s are a period of heady intellectualism and culture in France, and their fine house is a salon for professors, scientists, physicians, and visitors from former colonies. The narrator, a young woman graduate student who lived there for a time to assist the grande madame, reflects on the changes that inevitably come after the patriarch dies, the children marry, and the celebrities stop coming. “A Recitation of Nomads” finds a pair of young lovers, modern rootless explorers, considering the deeper possibilities or difficulties that lie ahead if they stay together. In Morocco the young man gets sick and his girlfriend contemplates sending him back to Paris while she treks on to Tunisia and possibly Senegal. He wants to leave, saying, “Hell, we're not characters in a Paul Bowles story …,” but of course they are.
In “The Marriage at Antibes,” a solitary refugee from Iran, Khosro, cannot go home because of his dissident activities. Educated in Europe, he does scientific research in the South of France, a place which by climate is not unlike Iran, but which is all the world away. A bride from back home is betrothed to him—they knew each other slightly as teenagers—and she arrives and marries him with great anticipation. They conceive a child Taghi, a delightful boy, but as time goes on the acute perception of being eternally foreign overwhelms Nasima. Khosro is given to sleeping curled in a corner and giving long discourses about all that he knows. He does not mention Iran or their families, and Nasima has come to accept that by staying with him she will become as exiled as he is. If you read or review books, Carol Azadeh is a huge nugget of gold suddenly lying in your miner's pan; one sifts and washes, sometimes finding bits, and then one day you hold shining evidence that you must be standing near the mother lode. An intellectually challenging fiction that grounds itself in light, color, place, and emotions is an exciting discovery.
There is no single theme nor technical achievement these books have in common. The voices of their authors range from serious to teasingly comic, their demeanor from formal to intimate. They succeed by engaging the reader on the plane intended. As Wordsworth once wrote to someone, “Never forget what I believe was observed to you by Coleridge, that every great and original writer, in proportion as he is great and original, must himself create the taste by which he is to be relished.”
I don't recommend these books to jab at contemporary American fiction, although I have long since wearied of the creative writing tyros whose fertile fields are the drug rehab experience, dysfunctional families, and how the protagonist's life is like Hamlet's, but at the shopping mall. These seven world-view writers are an affirmation to anyone who thinks the literary tapestry depicting pain, elation, conflict, and ultimate transcendence hasn't yet faded or unraveled.
First Snow on Fuji by Yasunari Kawabata. Trans. by Michael Emmerich. Counterpoint.
Headlong, by Michael Frayn. Metropolitan Holt.
Strings Attached, by Gay Walley Press of Mississippi.
So Vast the Prison by Assia Djebar. Trans. by Betsy Wing. Seven Stories Press.
Chronicle of the Seven Sorrows by Patrick Chamoiseau. Trans. by Linda Coverdale. Nebraska Press.
Disgrace, by J. M. Coetzee. Viking.
The Marriage at Antibes, by Carol Azadeh Carroll & Graf Publishers, Inc.
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 philosophical questions about the sources and reliability of our knowledge—such as whether experience is “real” or we're living a dream in an update of Plato's cave.
Yet when they are invited to dinner by Tony Churt, the local lord of a decaying manor, and his willful wife, Laura, Martin can wittily exploit the methods of the art historian in musing about the iconography of sports jackets: “Why does Tony Churt's brown checked sports jacket make it clear that he's a country landowner, while my gray pepper-and-salt sports jacket announces me as an urban intellectual? Why does the seediness of my jacket suggest high-mindedness and poverty, while the seediness of his indicates wealth and limited intelligence?” Martin goes on to analyze the iconography of Tony's entire estate, “The battered Land Rover, the broken gates—they're all expressions of a certain style of ironic understatement. They all shout money.” He sums it up in a line that would be well delivered from center stage: “The Churts's tasteful avoidance of ostentation verges on the garish.”
Tony Churt is bluff, boorish and cheap. He invited Martin and Kate for dinner to get some advice on several inherited paintings he's trying to sell on the sly to avoid taxes. Martin's brief glimpse of one soot-covered panel unleashes in him a surge of recognition and desire. He is thrillingly certain it's a lost work by the 16th-century Netherlandish painter Pieter Bruegel. Since Tony doesn't seem to know what he has, Martin feels entitled to get the painting away from him at a low price, then sell it for millions. In other dreams of glory, he will donate it to the National Gallery and bask in fame, adulation and gratitude. Over the following few days, Kate, noncommittal, tends to work and the baby while Martin invents harebrained schemes. In his guilty schoolboy mode, Martin imagines that Kate resents him for edging into her field and fears that he's “jumped off philosophy and fallen short of art history.” Kate keeps her own counsel and favors concise, factual statements like “I took Tildy to see the cows. The sun came out right after lunch.” Her careful silences offer Martin the opportunity to read her thoughts, which he does quite confidently and to suit himself. The reader soon begins to realize that he doesn't have a clue what Kate's really thinking, any more than Professor Higgins could know what was on Eliza Doolittle's mind. Part of the fun of the book is watching Martin make a fool of himself when we the readers can see what's perfectly obvious and he can't.
Martin's conviction about the Bruegel characteristically wavers, and he is thwarted in his attempts to confirm his opinion when Laura Churt misconstrues his furtive visits as amorous in intent. Instead of showing him the painting, she plaintively shows him her breast, bruised by a topple against the refrigerator door handle. In a swirl of stammerings, misperceptions and embarrassments, Martin retreats to a world he's more in control of—the library. He plunges into serious study of Bruegel.
As an art historian who has worked on Bruegel, I recognize Frayn's account of our methods and process as absolutely accurate. First, there is the exhilarating hunch, the certainty of truth. Then, with each canonical work of scholarship consulted (those by Van Mander, Friedlander, Tolnay, Steckel, Grossman, etc.), the truth dissolves and reconfigures itself, simplicity giving way to complexity. Martin finds that experts disagree, opinions conflict, bias colors conclusions. Not only do interpretations differ but even hard facts—names, dates, places—can shape-shift. He works his way through successive puzzles: Was Bruegel the same person as Brueghel? Do certain dates that seem to connect a historical event with the iconography of a painting really jibe? Were different calendars used at different times? How does translation into English affect the meaning of documents originally in Flemish or Dutch or German or Latin? Can the transfers of the painting from owner to owner be plausibly traced through the centuries from Bruegel's studio in Brussels to a destination in Tony Churt's house? Martin rides a roller coaster from the heights of certainty to the depths of doubt. He crashes forward haplessly, alternating between floating weightless in the thin air of transcendental truth and thudding down into the mundane mud of particulars.
The final chapter accelerates to a lunatic pitch of fear and greed, flight and pursuit. In the end, certainty remains just slightly, excruciatingly beyond reach. Headlong is very English literature, part P. G. Wodehouse and part Possession (A. S. Byatt's novel of research). What's special about Frayn's story is its tonic mix of philosophy and farce.
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 wartime nuclear physicists, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, and the woman encloses pages torn from a journal she has found in the house where the German scientists were interrogated after the war. Could these papers shed light on a top-secret episode of wartime history? Perhaps so. Frayn sets about translating them, and finds familiar names, tantalising references to uranium-235 and other chemical terms, and a lot of strange stuff about ping-pong. Intrigued, he writes back to see whether there is any more where this came from. In so doing, he takes a fateful plunge into a hall of mirrors where nothing is quite what it seems. As the game of bluff and double bluff advances, he begins to lose his footing … And so the story whirls towards its inevitable conclusion.
That's it. That's about all I can reasonably say. If you read on now, the book will be a good deal less fun. Because, quite early in the piece, Frayn's co-author David Burke, the actor playing Niels Bohr in Copenhagen, pops up and has a chuckle about this terrific practical joke he's been playing. He knocked off those pages in cod German, basing them mainly on some instructions for a table-tennis table he found in a kitchen drawer. And then he realised that Frayn had fallen for it “hook, line and sinker” and was “begging for more”. It would have been churlish to deny him.
The book thus becomes the story of a hoax and, as such, enters a distinguished pantheon of literary japes that share a characteristic to which Frayn is admirably alert: the extent to which the joke depends on the victim's own determination to believe in it. In 1930, a German called Jack Baruch made a fortune by writing Carrying a Gun for Al Capone, a gritty account of gangster life, under the nom de plume Jack Bilbo. The book continued to sell even after he was unmasked. The Peruvian writer Carlos Castaneda went further, becoming a celebrity by publishing a doctoral thesis and several books about his hallucinogenic adventures with the Yaqui Indians, including an entirely spurious figure called Don Juan, a Yaqui sorcerer. Castaneda always insisted that nothing he wrote could be trusted, but the world wanted to believe him, and bought four million copies of his books.
There are other famous cases. Konrad Kujau tapped into our duplicitous appetite for Nazi memorabilia with his fake Hitler diaries. Linda Davison teased our crocodile love of the American Indian by pretending to be a Kickapoor squaw called Crying Wind. And the publisher George Putnam satirised our endless taste for exotica in 1921 by producing The Cruise of the Kawa, a fictitious journey by boat through the South Seas to the Filbert Isles, where the natives could stay underwater for hours. The intrepid travellers came upon some ludicrous wildlife: the coconut-milk-drinking ooza snake, giant crabs that could pull boats, pearls the size of apples and birds that laid cube-shaped eggs. Readers were delighted. The author was invited to lecture by the National Geographic.
Frayn tells his own side of the story judiciously, with plenty of sheepish wit. As it happens, he is at the time writing a novel about a forger, and he feels the same “hot burn of shame” as his leading man. He is also alive to the parallels with his play, which turns on a passion for secrets. He has the advantage over his co-author in having been the victim, the sympathetic figure in this little farce. Pranksters are bullies, and the only revenge Frayn can extract is a mild-mannered determination to deny his tormentor the last laugh. He is also able to stretch the story into a winsome analysis of what we believe and why. But Burke, not to be outshone, reveals interesting motives of his own: one of the spikes of his prank, he confesses, was the rebellious urge an actor feels towards the writer of his lines, as a kick against the tyranny and monotony of mouthing someone else's words night after night.
The whole idea, indeed, came to him during a performance. He was listening to a speech by Heisenberg (Matthew Marsh) about the house in question. “For some reason, I found myself thinking not about the scientists interned there, but about the house itself, and the folk who might have lived in it postwar. I envisioned an ordinary family living there in the Sixties without any suspicion of its previous cloak-and-dagger function. Suddenly, without any bidding from me, a couple of plumbers had entered. Before I knew what was happening, they were praising up the floorboards and discovering an old tin box …”
This is the way the whole brief book proceeds: it's a series of trapdoors and false bottoms. Not the least beguiling of its many glittering aspects is that, after a while, we can hardly avoid the suspicion that none of this is true, that Frayn never even wrote a play called Copenhagen, that every word in this parable of deceit is contrived. Frayn has some fun with this idea. “Be honest,” he writes. “You did actually believe it, didn't you, when I told you that I'd believed all that nonsense about table-tennis tables.”
It is a superior achievement to take a jape such as this and turn it into a fable about how close we always are to very thin ice, and how much we rely on bravado to get us through. Me? Ha! I wasn't fooled for a moment.
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 whether “as a physicist one had the moral right to work on the practical exploitation of atomic energy” and to offer reassurance that Germany was not building an atomic bomb. But Bohr, he said, misunderstood his good intentions and became alarmed. The two conflicting versions of the meeting encapsulate the 50-year-old controversy over Heisenberg's wartime work for Germany.
Jungk expanded Heisenberg's version into a full-blown legend of heroic resistance, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns (1958), which celebrated the supposed fact that “German nuclear physicists, living under a saber-rattling dictatorship, obeyed the voice of conscience and attempted to prevent the construction of atom bombs.” Jungk himself later disavowed this thesis when new information came to light (and Bohr, as Harvard historian Gerald Holton has discovered, composed—but never mailed—a letter to Heisenberg objecting in strong terms to the version of their visit Heisenberg had related to Jungk). But a new version of the resistance myth emerged in 1993 in Thomas Powers's “shadow history” of the German atomic bomb project, Heisenberg's War.
The revised edition of the text of Copenhagen that was published recently to coincide with the American production of the play includes an expanded postscript, from which we learn that Powers's book was the inspiration for Frayn's play and was effectively its sole source (Frayn's broad bibliography notwithstanding). The Powers book won little respect from historians, as Frayn acknowledges, but it is not hard to see why a playwright's professional radar would have responded to the book's fiction-enhanced intrigue.
In Copenhagen, Heisenberg and Bohr are conceived as returning from beyond death to reenact their tense wartime meeting in a series of encounters, each a different imagining, or “draft,” of Heisenberg's purpose. Now Heisenberg can try to convince Bohr of his good intentions, and Bohr can question and respond, all in a style that recalls their brilliant collaboration at Bohr's institute in the 1920s, when together they explored the startling implications of the new quantum laws. Margrethe, throughout, serves as a one-woman chorus, skeptical of each of Heisenberg's drafts, distrusting his relentless need to impress and to win, trying to puncture the moral pretensions she detects. We see the virtuous version Heisenberg gave to Jungk, and the Powers variation—that Heisenberg had possessed but with-held key knowledge of bomb physics: “I understood very clearly. I simply didn't tell the others.” Margrethe suggests that his real object had been to obtain information about the Allies' fission work and to persuade Bohr to discourage them.
The final and longest draft, Frayn's favored invention, is staged to be the most compelling. More complexly heroic than in the Powers design, this Heisenberg has succeeded in forestalling a Nazi atomic bomb, both by withholding information about plutonium from arms minister Albert Speer and by refusing to interest himself in the most basic physics of atomic explosives—specifically, by not calculating the critical mass for a bomb. Had he but allowed himself to pause and do so, the final scene would have us believe (a nuclear explosion thunders offstage to dramatize the point), he would quickly have seen that a bomb could be built. This pseudoscientific fantasy is the play's central pivot.
The celebration of uncertainty is a continuous theme in the play. Human life, like atomic physics, follows this quantum law described by Bohr: “that there is no precisely determinable objective universe. That the universe exists only as a series of approximations.” Thus, the play implies, no judgment of Heisenberg is possible, for all we can ever discover are the elusive, multiple refractions of his image in fallible memory. And this might be true in the ambiguous world Frayn has constructed, in which Bohr is unreliable and every disquieting revelation about Heisenberg is canceled by a nimble riposte. But quantum mechanics predicts that objects on a human scale obey classical laws of causality. The real Heisenberg lived in a world of cause and effect and uneasy moral compromise, and—the imperfect observability of the quantum universe notwithstanding—he left a trail of discoverable facts, facts that upend the interpretation Frayn favors and discredit his portrait of Heisenberg.
Although Frayn's play insists otherwise, we know that Heisenberg did calculate the critical mass for a bomb; in a 1939 secret report for the German Army Weapons Department, he first derived a formula that yields a mass in the hundreds of tons for the amount of “nearly pure” uranium 235 required for an exploding reactor (Heisenberg's model for a bomb at that point). In 1940 Karl Wirtz heard him explain a further calculation; the details are known because Heisenberg explained them again on August 6, 7 and 9, 1945, while he was detained in England at Farm Hall, where hidden microphones captured his words. His simplified calculation used the random walk model Einstein had employed to derive mean diffusion distances in Brownian motion. Mistaken but plausible, it yielded a critical mass of tons, an amount still vastly beyond what Germany could hope to produce. That Heisenberg had not formulated the full three-dimensional fission-diffusion equations is hardly the lapse Frayn's Bohr finds so inexplicable. The real Heisenberg did what working scientists do every day: He made a preliminary calculation, and when it yielded a mass so impracticably large, he saw no reason to spend weeks refining the estimate. That his calculation had hugely over-estimated the critical mass he obviously didn't realize, or he would not have displayed the result to his colleagues and continued trusting it until news of the Hiroshima bomb forced him to rethink. The order of magnitude agreed with published work, and with prevailing assumptions when the war began, so why would Heisenberg have doubted it? But to acknowledge this is to recognize that there is neither mystery nor virtue in his miscalculation, merely embarrassment—for Heisenberg, and for the play.
We also know something about Heisenberg's handling of the plutonium “secret.” As proof that he had no wish to build weapons, Frayn's Heisenberg cites his withholding from Speer in June 1942 the possibility that reactor-generated plutonium (element 94) might be used to make bombs. “A striking omission,” Frayn's Bohr admits. But Heisenberg had made no secret of plutonium in February of that year, when he addressed the Nazi elite at a Berlin conference that Speer, Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler had been expected to attend: In the lecture he emphasized that a reactor could be used to generate “a new substance (element 94) … which in all probability is an explosive with the same unimaginable effectiveness as pure uranium 235.”
Also misleading is the play's representation that as late as June 1942, German scientists were still “slightly ahead of Fermi in Chicago.” In fact, by the time of Heisenberg's 1941 encounter with Bohr, Allied scientists were much closer to a bomb than were the Germans. At the time Heisenberg set out for Copenhagen in September 1941, the scientist in charge of Germany's most promising uranium isotope separation project had just declared it a failure. Heisenberg's reactor experiments had yet to demonstrate any neutron multiplication. Not even microscopic quantities of 235U or plutonium had been isolated, so no experiments to determine the fission properties relevant to a bomb had been done. Within a few months the head of research at the German Army Weapons Department would be contemplating cancellation of the German fission project.
Allied scientists at this time, by contrast, had already measured the fission properties of 235U and plutonium. Van-nevar Bush was about to inform President Roosevelt that an atomic bomb could probably be built, with an estimated critical mass of 25 pounds. And Columbia physicists were two months away from demonstrating isotope separation by gaseous diffusion. By distorting the true relative standing of the two countries in this regard, the play suggests that if Heisenberg had succeeded in convincing Bohr that the Allies could safely abandon the pursuit of atomic weapons, all the world would have gained. But based on the facts as Heisenberg knew them, the beneficiary would have been a triumphant Germany, whose tanks, bombers and well-trained soldiers in September 1941 seemed poised to complete the conquest of Europe.
From the opening of the play Heisenberg presents himself as an embattled figure: “I wonder if they suspect for one moment how painful it was to get permission for the trip. The humiliating appeals to the Party, the demeaning efforts to have strings pulled.” Bohr tells how Heisenberg was subjected to “the most terrible attacks” as a “White Jew” for teaching Einstein's theories, “how the SS brought him in for interrogation,” and how he remains under deep suspicion. “He knows he's being watched, of course. He has to be careful about what he says.”
In order to keep alive the image of a Heisenberg at odds with the immorality around him, Frayn conceals the true contours of Heisenberg's accommodation to the Nazi state. The audience is not told how, more than three years before the Copenhagen visit, Heisenberg had resolved his political problems by requesting and receiving an official letter placing him under the personal protection of Himmler, who was a family acquaintance. The fantastic suggestion that Heisenberg, a committed patriot, was involved in anti-Nazi activities squares with nothing in a lifetime of political conformity, including the statement of his wife that he “politely declined” when approached to join an anti-Hitler conspiracy. As for his visit to Copenhagen, the German Office of Cultural Propaganda had requested such a visit by Heisenberg and his colleague Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker. This trip did require official clearance by the Nazi Party, as the play indicates, but this was easily arranged by Weizsäcker, whose father was State Secretary for Foreign Affairs. The propaganda office was sufficiently pleased with Heisenberg's performance as an ambassador of Nazi culture to sponsor him on at least 10 such propaganda trips in the course of the war: to Nazi-occupied Budapest that same year, to Holland in 1943 just after its Jewish population had been dispatched to Auschwitz, and to Nazi-occupied Poland (as a guest of his friend the Governor General) not long after the Germans, by murder and siege and starvation, had annihilated the Warsaw Ghetto.
Copenhagen, with its simultaneous, often incompatible readings of Heisenberg's mind, is designed to confront the audience with the impossibility of true knowledge, of others or of oneself. Yet it deploys every resource of stagecraft to elevate one view as truer than the rest. By the play's elegiac conclusion, the audience has been led, through artful omission and misrepresentation of the historical record, to accept a thoroughly manipulated version of Heisenberg. This Heisenberg had discouraged pursuit of a bomb, had joined in anti-Nazi resistance that latter rescued the Danish Jews, had nobly saved the life of a condemned man, had narrowly escaped death at the hands of the SS on his perilous journey home through Germany's ruins at war's end, and had “never managed to contribute to the death of one single solitary person.” Bohr, by contrast, is charged with complicity in the human disaster of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“If people are to be measured strictly in terms of observable quantities …,” Bohr begins, only to be interrupted by Heisenberg: “Then we should need a strange new quantum ethics. There'd be a place in heaven for me. And another one for the SS man I met on my way home.” So fast and so far does Frayn take us, this somehow is not meant to shock. Losing sight of the moral horizon can make you feel giddy—or sick.
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 patient efforts only seem to reveal fractured instructions in German for making a table-tennis table, he is instantly hooked on the possible light to be thrown on his play's protagonists, and begins a regular correspondence with Celia, who feeds him, a page or two at a time, more of the “German bumf” she claims her children found when the family lived at Home Farm. The more implausible the scraps seem, the more ingenious become the interpretations Frayn excitedly foists on anyone who will listen, particularly the cast of Copenhagen.
Eventually, Matthew Marsh, the actor who plays Heisenberg opposite David Burke's Niels Bohr, pitying Frayn's credulity, blows the gaff—“Celia Rhys-Evans” is in fact being impersonated by David Burke. Frayn feels “the hot burn of shame”.
The rest of the book is taken up by a return match, as Frayn, unable to confront Burke directly without implicating Marsh, tries to flush him out with various forgeries of his own, such as a frightening and very funny letter from the Ministry of Defence ordering Celia Rhys-Evans to surrender the “unauthorized” documents forthwith under threat of “a maximum of two years' imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine”. A “jokaholic”'s stalemate is reached, and Frayn nearly despairs: “Perhaps the rest of our lives was going to be spent like this.” At last, Burke throws in the towel.
What is really going on here? Frayn raises the possibility with the reader that the whole narrative is a spoof—“The joke was on you all the time”—only to dismiss it. “It's all fact! Honestly! Believe me!” I believe him. If the story is true, Celia's Secret is a better book, telling us chastening truths about the gullibility of clever men and demonstrating the extraordinary lengths to which practical jokers will go in what is at bottom an act of aggression—making a fool of someone else. (One can just about understand why an actor, forced to dance to the writer's tune every night for an arduous West End run, might want to take this kind of protracted revenge; Frayn airbrushes out any element of natural annoyance or tit-for-tat in his own response. Unlike Heisenberg and Bohr, the two men ended up still friends.)
Reviewers have speculated that the whole story is invented. Granted, the short sentences and flexible speech-rhythms of the two alternating narrators are worryingly similar; has Burke unconsciously assimilated the fluid intimacy of Frayn's style? As Heisenberg says in Copenhagen, “our minds shift endlessly back and forth between the two approaches”.
However, Michael Frayn was fastidious in his approach to historical truth in Copenhagen, and would surely not now waste what he has called “this most precious meanwhile” on hoaxing the public.
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 recipient.
In some ways giving a Booker Prize follows a ritual as formal as that for choosing a pope. Aside from the announcement of a short list (usually six books) some four to six weeks before the final ceremony—which provides plenty of time for wagering and predicting and accusations of skullduggery—there is now the expected leaking of the long list, from which the short list will be selected; and, before that, the mentioning phase. This year most of the mentioning focused on two novelists destined to be disappointed. In February a columnist in the Independent on Sunday had flatly announced: “Salman Rushdie and Vikram Seth are to be pitched against each other in the contest for this year's Booker Prize, in a continuation of the literary world's passionate affair with the Anglo-Indian novel.”
In addition to the formal steps in the Booker Prize dance there are three less formal but no less essential ones. One is the discussion of the prize itself, its value, whether it is overpublicized, and what it reveals about the state of literary fiction. Martyn Goff, the long-time “administrator,” announced early on that the amount of the prize should be reduced to £5 (from the current £21,000). This would put it in line with France's Prix Goncourt, worth five francs; but Goff also claimed that whoever wins will become a millionaire. The question of the Booker's effect on sales is always hotly debated, with evidence on both sides; while Ian McEwan's Amsterdam, last year's winner, and Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (1993) sold well and brought their authors big royalties, James Kelman's How Late It Was, How Late (1994) and Keri Hulme's The Bone People (1985) are famous for sluggish sales. Hulme's book is rebarbative, Kelman's execrable, so at least some books may be impervious to the power of the Booker name to merchandise them.
One of the judges for 1999, John Sutherland, surveyed the situation facing the Booker books: “This year's Booker has been overcast by a number of clouds. Booker PLC [the food company that sponsors the competition] has not had the best of years. Rumour is that Martyn Goff, the long serving administrator, was hard pressed to save his beloved prize from the chop. The main book distributor in Britain, Waterstone's, is going through a hard patch. Book-ordering (especially of expensive hardbacks) has not been adventurous. In the week after the shortlist was announced, three of the titles were virtually unavailable in London bookshops. There has not been the usual excitement, the usual hype.”
The winner, Coetzee, though he did not attend the ceremony, called the Booker “the ultimate prize to win in the English-speaking world.” Unlike some previous winners he has never denounced the prize. Maybe that is one reason why he has won it twice.
A second unavoidable part of the process is the discussion of (that is, usually sniping at) the short list and the judges who determined it. Much commentary focused on the omission of Rushdie and Seth. Unnamed judges let it be known that Seth's An Equal Music, a melodramatic love story set among classical musicians, was too inaccessible because readers were expected to know too much about music. As for Rushdie, whose The Ground beneath Her Feet is placed in the world of rock music, it had “too many ‘tedious passages,’” and “too many ghastly puns.” For the record neither novel seems to have been unjustly omitted. Seth's is the better work. Other highly touted books that didn't make it were Roddy Doyle's A Star Called Henry (a wretched novel about the Irish rebellion) and three fine novels—Barry Unsworth's Losing Nelson, Howard Jacobson's The Mighty Walzer, and Rose Tremain's Music and Silence. Perhaps it was typical that Rushdie was reported to be “fuming” about his exclusion from the select group to which he may now feel entitled to be named.
Paul Levy, who regularly covers the Booker for the Wall Street Journal, called it a “foolish” short list; Nigel Reynolds, in the Daily Telegraph, said it was “one of the best for years, containing readable novels, all of which have been highly praised by book critics, with appeal well beyond small literary circles.” One agent called the finalists mediocre books and blamed the judges for “a shortage of imagination.” Another conceded that it was “decentish.” Robert McCrum, literary editor of the Guardian, issued a mixed verdict: “Genre aside, this year's line-up is not a particularly dazzling one (it simply reflects the lacklustre creative climate to which I've referred), but it deserves praise for turning a blind eye to the hysterical semaphore of some sections of the literary press. It also offers the public a decent and carefully thought out menu of new fiction by some very talented writers whose work, collectively, illustrates the extraordinary range of English-language literature to be found across the Commonwealth.” Andrew Marr, writing for the Guardian, had some strong insights into the meaning of the list, mentioning the themes evident in the novels: one, the marginalization of contemporary English experience; two, “a feeling of curdling self-contempt in contemporary liberalism”; and three, “the crisis of maleness.”
The short list, like the final winner, is determined by five members of the judging panel, who were Gerald Kauffman, a Labour politician; Shena Mackay, a novelist; John Sutherland, a professor of modern English literature; and two literary journalists, Boyd Tonkin and Natasha Walker. Paul Levy referred to them as members of the “London metropolitan literary mob” and suggested a less foolish list would result from a wider selection of judges. It is routine for the panel to groan about their workload—they read between 100 and 150 novels, some more than once—and their poor compensation, £3000.
One way they increase their remuneration—and this is the third essential part of the process—is by writing and publishing journalism about the inner workings of the Booker. Tonkin and Sutherland published “what it feels like to be a judge” pieces ahead of time. Sutherland heroically finished a column in time to publish it in the Guardian the morning after the late-night ceremony, maintaining, for instance, that the two women had vetoed Michael Frayn (the betting favorite); that Soueif was too anti-Zionist to win; that the chairman, Kauffman, had manhandled the committee; and that the winner was a compromise that nobody had strongly favored, chosen only to break a stalemate. Other judges weighed in, Shena Mackay for instance hotly denying any feminist maneuvering against anybody, and Boyd Tonkin declared that, in Disgrace, the judges had chosen “the best book to win the award in a decade.”
That is an overstatement, but the novel is worthy. Coetzee's book is at the same time an academic fiction, a story of midlife male crisis, and a condition-of-South-Africa book. It tells the story of a fiftyish divorced professor, David Lurie, who begins an affair with an immature student after his favorite call girl becomes unavailable. The affair quickly becomes known and Lurie is brought up on charges; he readily admits the affair but refuses to testify that he now knows how wrong he was, or even apologize, sometimes even justifying the relationship by calling himself a “servant of Eros.” Having committed academic suicide, he leaves the university and goes to live with his daughter in the back country. There he works on a libretto about Byron in Italy and observes, with disquiet, the life his daughter lives. Having settled on a small farm, surrounded by black Africans, she has reached accommodations that Lurie detests. For instance, when her farm is invaded by African youths who beat Lurie and rape Lucy, she refuses to testify against them and even reacts with equanimity when one of the young men turns up living with her neighbor. The neighbor, Petrus, is supposedly her assistant, but by the end of the novel he seems set to take over Lucy's property and even become a sort of tribal elder if not husband to her.
Disgrace is a moving inquiry into the way relations between the races are going in South Africa. It is also interesting on relations between the sexes, between the generations (David Lurie loves his daughter but is baffled by her, including her lesbianism; he clearly misunderstands his student “girl friend,” Melanie). Various kinds of misunderstanding, as well as various kinds of disgrace, move this provocative novel.
There were several important novels about generational conflict among last year's Booker finalists. Fasting, Feasting, by the Indian novelist Anita Desai, added cultural contrasts to the theme. This two-part book focuses on a brother and sister, Uma and Arun. Uma is a homely and unappealing woman who has failed, fairly spectacularly, to find a husband, even though she has been married once (he turned out to be married already and wanted her as a servant for his parents) and her parents have paid out dowry money to no avail. She now suffers the stifling of every impulse in the small house, small town, and small world of MamaPapa. Her glamorous younger sister, married to a rich man and living in Bombay, condescends to her; and her brother is a student in America. Part two of the novel shows what life is like for Arun in Massachusetts. He is living for the summer with a well-meaning American family whose (fairly broadly caricatured) beliefs and practices are as suffocating in their own way as the parents' are to Uma. They barbecue meat every evening, indifferent to Arun's vegetarianism; shop pointlessly but luxuriously; and in general live empty lives. The daughter is bulimic so, amid the plenty of their lives, is also fasting. Desai's title suggests a possibly facile contrast between the old world and the new; it is a subtle one, written in an understated beautiful prose.
Andrew O'Hagan's Our Fathers is about three generations of Scottish men. The grandfather is Hugh Bawn, a socialist hero of the nineteen-thirties whose faith in city planning, particularly high-rise blocks of flats, has stubbornly continued even as almost everybody else has turned against the soulless blocks and begun to tear them down. What is most piquant is that his grandson Jamie, who is also a city planner, often finds himself arguing for the removal of one of his grandfather's monuments. Jamie has come to stay with his grandparents (still defiantly living on an upper floor of a decayed building with an unreliable elevator and dangerous neighbors) when it becomes clear that the old man is dying. Jamie's distaste for the projects to which his grandfather dedicated his life, and his unease with the news, now trickling out, of the corruption and corner-cutting that accompanied his great projects, complicate his continued admiration for the man. The middle generation, Jamie's father and Hugh's son, is a drunkard and wastrel, a bad father, always disappointed by Jamie's inability to kick a football and completely without any interest in his abilities. This is a complex novel. The idea of heroic socialism and making lives better for the working classes is, it shows, both bigger than anything that has replaced it and yet fundamentally flawed in its execution. There is an uneasy suggestion that the new worship of market forces is not likely to create a better world.
In Colm Tóibín's The Blackwater Lightship there are again three generations, though here the important relationships are among the women. The novel begins with Helen and Hugh O'Doherty, a present-day Irish couple living in Dublin with their sons. Helen learns that her brother Declan is in the hospital, and shortly afterwards that he is dying of AIDS. Her husband having taken the boys for a visit to his family, she must make a trip to her own to tell her mother and grandmother about Declan. Like Jamie Bawn she is closer to her grandmother than to her mother, whom she resents for what she remembers as coldness and indifference when her father was dying. She stays with the grandmother (on the seaside, near the lightship of the title), then drives down to Wexford town to tell her mother, Lily, the news. Lily is a self-contained progressive woman running a computer business. The three women find themselves back at the grandmother's house, where they are joined by the dying Declan and two of his homosexual friends in an awkward household. Lessons are learned, wounds at least partly healed; but Tóibín's skill keeps the sentimentality that could so easily have accompanied this theme at bay. Lily tells her daughter, “It's a vale of tears, and there's nothing we can do.”
Ahdaf Soueif's The Map of Love is the longest novel on the Booker list, the most exotic, and the only one that is a historical novel. It alternates two stories, both set in Egypt and involving relations between westerners (a nineteenth-century aristocratic Englishwoman, a twentieth-century American woman) and forceful, powerful Egyptian men. There is a bit of a mystery launched when a middle-aged educated Egyptian woman of the upper classes, Amal al-Ghamari, begins working her way through a trunkful of documents from a hundred years earlier. Amal has received them from Isabel Parkman, a New Yorker who has met Amal's brother, an expatriate who is a celebrated conductor in New York, and fallen in love with him. This modern east/west love affair parallels the one revealed by the contents of the trunk, between Lady Anna Winterbourne, a progressive English widow, and Sharif Pasha al-Barudi. Their love had much greater obstacles to overcome, including difficulties of access as well as Lady Anna's ostracism by the English colonial party in Cairo. As it turns out both Isabel Parkman and the al-Ghamaris are descended from their marriage.
The contrast between the two stories makes some important points. In the nineteenth century a marriage between an Egyptian man and an English woman required courage and resolution on both parts, so this story is both melodramatic and, in its way, heroic. The twentieth century having removed many of the obstacles faced by earlier generations, Isabel and Omar seem entirely more mundane. Both stories play out against a carefully etched historical narrative about Egypt, Egyptian nationhood, and revolutionary agitation. In the nineteenth-century story the good characters are either involved in or, in the case of the more liberal English, at least sympathetic to the aspiration of Egyptian nationalism. In the twentieth century Islamic fundamentalism threatens violence. Souief is good at interweaving the personal and the political. The reader sometimes must consult the glossary of Egyptian terms.
My own choice for the Booker prize would have been Michael Frayn's Headlong. Frayn is a canny veteran, best known as a playwright, but he also has written a good many novels as well as much wise and amusing journalism. Headlong tells the story of Martin Clay, a philosopher who has moved to the country to spend his sabbatical working on the impact of nominalism on Nederlandish art of the fifteenth century. His wife is an art historian. When they pay a visit to their country neighbor Tony Churt and his wife, Martin believes he has spotted a lost Bruegel painting being used to block off an unused fireplace. The remainder of the novel involves his plotting to obtain the painting. This process includes a number of fascinating plot developments. One of these, traced out cleverly by Frayn, entails the moral quibbling and evasiveness Clay, basically an ethical man, undertakes to justify deceiving Churt and soon his own wife, who doesn't think he is right about the Bruegel, wouldn't approve the money he is spending on the chase or his entanglement, mostly unwilling, with Mrs. Churt. His explanations to himself that he will restore a lost masterpiece to mankind accompany his desire to get very rich doing so. The steps by which he persuades himself of the painting's authenticity are both scholarly and self-deluding. (Some reviewers complained about the amount of Bruegel scholarship in this novel, though it all justifies itself, and the reader is provided with all the information necessary to understand the action.) There is a great deal about the history of the Low Countries in the sixteenth century, fraught with violence, turbulence, betrayal, and religious disorder. Clay's awareness that he is operating outside his own area of expertise provides another unsettling factor in the chase and the novel. Headlong is the most intelligent book on the Booker list and the funniest, and it probably should have won the prize.
Headlong was also nominated for the Whitbread Prize, Britain's second most prestigious literary award, but it didn't win that prize either. The Whitbread has several categories, including poetry, biography, children's book, and book of the year (Seamus Heaney's translation of Beowulf) as well as two fiction awards—best novel and best first novel. The best first novel (for which O'Hagan's Our Fathers was also nominated) was Tim Lott's White City Blue. Lott has the odd distinction of being a first novelist, and a young one, whose memoirs were published in 1996. He is a wonderful writer. White City Blue is about some thirtyish Londoners in the White City area of west London; the narrator is Frankie Blue, or, as he is called because of his liberties with the truth, Frankie the Fib. He has three good friends—Colin, Tony, and Nodge. They are together almost always, follow Queen's Park Rangers football obsessively, and generally provide a case study in what the English call laddism. The change in this foursome arises from Frankie's real-estate work; while selling a flat to a young woman, buttressed with his usual genial lies, he is attracted to her and warns her against buying the flat. They begin going out. This, predictably, produces strains on his relations with his mates; one of them is a bully, one a cringer, one a sardonic observer, one (Frankie) a liar. Their balance is disrupted.
The woman, Veronica, tells Frankie that, far from being his friends, his friends do not even like him. In the end he learns the truth about his relations with these three men, every one of which is constructed on some falseness or inequality. If an account of love making a man see his situation more clearly and grow up sounds hackneyed, this one is not, but an original, vivid, and funny novel.
The Whitbread Best Novel award went to Rose Tremain's Music and Silence, an ambitious historical novel set in the seventeenth century. Its action unfolds mainly in Denmark. Tremain wrote seven novels before this one, and one of them, Restoration, was also about the seventeenth century. In Music and Silence she introduces as her main character an English lutenist named Peter Claire who has been hired as a member of the royal orchestra in Copenhagen. Here he joins a multinational group of performers who serve King Christian. An inventor and projector, Christian has devised a system permitting the orchestra to play in an unheated cellar so that the music will rise invisibly through hidden passageways to the royal chambers. There is something quixotic about the fascinating Danish king, who is a military hero and seems genuinely determined to improve the lot of his people, though his plans fail and he becomes dependent on the English king for a financial bailout. Peter Claire falls in love with a young lady who waits on the king's consort, and they are separated when that consort is banished. For she is in love with a German count and shames the king by her infidelity, known to everyone but Christian. Even he finally realizes the truth. There is another plot strand involving Peter Claire's sister, back home in East Anglia, and her own engagement to a landowner. Moreover the novel teems with details about Scandinavian politics, religious warfare, Tycho Brahe, geography, and even mining. Rose Tremain has produced something profound and shapely out of all this material.
The relationship between the two big prizes is complicated. Whitbread, as number two, has to try harder. Sometimes its judges' decisions clearly rectify errors made by the Booker judges. Tim Lott deserved to win a prize. So, even more, did Rose Tremain; and, having been overlooked by the Booker panel, she was handsomely compensated by receiving the Whitbread award.
We must grant commentators some leeway. If Boyd Tonkin is over the mark when he declares the Booker Prize-winning Disgrace, selected by him among others, to be “the best book to win the award in a decade,” then others seem to me ungenerous. For example it is hard to understand how Robert McCrum, who blamed a “lacklustre creative climate” for a mediocre list of Booker nominees, could reach that judgment in a year when novels as good as White City Blue and Music and Silence and Disgrace were published and awarded prizes—and when Headlong, only a finalist, is a novel of lasting greatness.
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 wandering in The Close again realises that it must have been the privet that had once hidden him as a boy playing in the ruined garden of the old lady who had been killed when her house had been struck by a random German bomb. In this scruffy hide the two boys vanished to invent or intuit, which Frayn says is often the same thing, the horrors beneath their lives on the edge of the war. They examine and make havoc of the attempts by their twice war-damaged parents to reclaim a golden world.
Frayn must have willed himself into what seems to be total recall of every sensual stimulus of boyhood; not only its powerful smells but its textures, visions, tastes and sounds within a few suburban streets, a railway line, a mile or so of waste ground, a tribal war-zone of ‘the poor’ and the dark, brick-lined tunnel that joined the two worlds together. Their made-up stories about what the landscape hides feed their suspected knowledge of the real. The boys know, and yet do not know, that the middle-class boy's father who is famous in The Close for having bayoneted five Germans in the earlier war is fighting insanity and lusting after more violence in his own home. He works hour after hour in his spotless garage with chisels and sharp tools—and the bayonet—whistling ‘an endless cadenza’. Inside his house the plushy silence is broken only by the quarterly chimes of the grandmother clock. The other boy's father is as mysterious. Rumpled and loving and thoughtful, he too is living in some distant place. When his son tells him that new people who have come to live in The Close are called ‘The Juice’, his father looks at him for a long time.
The distinction of this novel is in evocation of lost landscape. Like a contemporary painting, a Ravilious or a Nash, it has no fixed edges. It is on the move. It is quite unlike the rooted, bosky English suburbs painted so heartbreakingly before 1914 by visiting French impressionists, and far from the raw streets of today. At the end of the book the narrator, returning, finds The Close just the same; then sees that all is subtly, eerily changed. The romance is gone. No house is called Lamorna. There is a conformity of gig-lamps and hard-standing for cars. The threatened wartime landscape had been seen through frightened eyes. Light was danger. All could become ruins and weeds in a moment. There is an image of the Jewish boy waking in the night to find terrible moonlight outlining this blacked-out window-blind. Light inescapable.
And the society. The women in the book make one look again at Mrs Miniver and Brief Encounter. The middle-class woman in The Close appears to have no opinions, to pass long, smiling, empty days with her library book, nothing in her diary except dental appointments and an embarrassed little x every 28 days which prying boys think must refer to assignations with a German spy. But what was really going on? I was several times reminded of Alberto Manguel's novel about torture, News from a Foreign Country Came. As in that book, the doomed idleness has a certain beauty, like the idleness in The Romaunt of the Rose. As always, Frayn has made a usual subject entirely his own.
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 might easily match the setting with anywhere between Pinner and Carshalton. There is the characteristic scatter of house names implying a wish to be somewhere else, Chollerton, Trewinnick, Wentworth, a typically competitive dedication to gardening (Mr McAfee thinks his neighbors' “Ena Harkness” a credit to the Close), and a generally authenticating air of community ostentatiously preoccupied with minding its own business. With the Second World War providing noises off, such a preoccupation becomes more palpable, especially to Stephen Wheatley and Keith Hayward, the two boys playing amid the ruins of Braemar, recently gutted by an incendiary bomb. Keith, having taken note of his mother's frequent disappearances on the pretext of visiting her sister, Dee, down the road, has decided that she is a German spy.
Thenceforward, even the most banal details of her daily life, as logged by the children in their secret notebook, fall gratifyingly into place, the ingratiating manner she adopts towards the charwoman, Mrs Elmsley, the telephoned order to Mr Hucknall the butcher for two mutton chops, or the mysterious “x” occurring every four weeks or so among the entries in her diary.
Not only is Mrs Hayward fingered by the pair as a spy, but she has an accomplice in Auntie Dee, whose husband Peter is away flying bombers for the RAF. There is further evidence of skulduggery in the presence of a man lurking in a disused tunnel under the railway embankment. His possible identities shift as the story progresses, from a notional child molester spotted during the blackout or the boyfriend with whom Auntie Dee consoles herself in Uncle Peter's absence, to Mrs Hayward's German controller whose plane has crash-landed close by. The whole issue of the self as something muffled or misplaced is central to the novel. There is no melodramatic unmasking, only the gradual peeling away of those layers of reticence, understatement and desperately tactful distortion which provide suburbia with its face-saving rhetoric. The ultimate confrontation forced on the susceptible Stephen, himself more uncertain within his social identity than he believes, is not with an easily negotiable world of wartime espionage but with a less glamorously appointed landscape of intense private emotion involving Mrs Hayward, Auntie Dee and the man in the tunnel.
Spies draws much of its force from the narrative's subtly inverted echoes of other novels. Stephen's smuggling of a basket of precious family rations to feed the stowaway re-enacts Pip's charity to Magwitch in Great Expectations, and the boys' cynical exploitation of the adults' unconscious ability to furnish them with a life of adventure recalls the Outlaws in Richmal Crompton's William books. The Violet Elizabeth here, Barbara Berrill, is more insidious than her lisping counterpart. It is she who proves the most consummately professional spy of them all, busy mapping a grown-up world of illicit liaisons and hasty concealments, while invoking the aid of its sophistications to entice Stephen from the lingering security of his unawareness. There are shades of The Go-Between, especially through a reference to “the old country of the past”, in the implication that the whole experience has disabled Stephen for a viable adulthood, but Frayn's emphasis here is on wider issues of morality and the nature and impact of truth. As a backdrop to the story's feline manoeuvrings, the suburb, that painstakingly manufactured Eden, with its perfumes of buddleia, lime and honeysuckle, renews its sinister potential as an inalienably English metaphor for delusion and betrayal.
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 mysterious house where the blackout curtains are always drawn”: Keith's idea.
Keith's parents, uniquely in the close, have a car. It's up on blocks, “to prevent its being commandeered, as Keith explained, by invading Germans”. Stephen foolishly asks “if the Germans, with the evil ingenuity for which they were notorious, might not take the wheels from the wall and put them back on the car”. Keith, for once not narrowing his eyes with menace, says that his father has locked the wheelnuts in a secret drawer.
Out of the blue, Keith produces a new fantasy that is distinctly odd. “My mother,” he announces, “is a German spy.” Not, you notice, his ghastly father, all sinister smiles and “old bean”, much given to caning Keith for trivial misdemeanours, but his very nice and rather glamorous mother. It soon becomes clear which parent Keith himself takes after.
Reading the mother's diary on the sly, the boys discover a page marked with an X each month, coinciding with the dark of the moon. That'll be when her controller parachutes in to debrief her, then. So far, so ridiculous; but when they start following her, they find that she really is up to something covert. Out by the railway embankment, she has a dead-letter drop: an old Gamages Croquet Set box hidden in the grass, containing, on inspection, a packet of 20 Craven A and a sheet of notepaper marked with an X.
Whatever is going on (and the truth is more complex and involved than you might think), it is probably nothing to do with German spies and certainly nothing that will be improved by the meddling of small boys. In fact, the reader grasps the who, what and wherefore early on, about halfway through, but the story loses none of its fascination. A degree of foreknowledge only makes you more apprehensive.
The major drawback is the way the boys fail to distinguish between make-believe and reality, or rather the way they give them equal weight. Michael Frayn, in the guise of Stephen, explains all this with clinical precision. In their treasure chest, an old trunk, the boys keep a carving knife, salvaged from a bomb-site, which “both is and is not” Keith's father's bayonet, the one that killed five Germans in the Great War. “In its physical nature”, it may be only a carving knife. “In its inward nature, though, it possesses the identity of the bayonet.”
Fair enough. But when Stephen extends the logic to claim that he both believes and does not believe that Keith's mother is a German spy, one feels a certain strain. Surely even a ten-year-old knows better than that. A girl, with all the precocious worldly-wisdom of girls, offers a better theory for the lady's furtive behaviour, and Stephen immediately discards the spy fantasy, only to resume it straight afterwards. One can see the double-vision effect Frayn is trying for, but it doesn't quite come off.
What carries the day is the sense of adult drama off-stage, the carefully chosen period detail—pigbins for household scraps on street corners, Double BST prolonging daylight till after 10 pm—the scrupulous style and the powerful, tense scene-setting. Familiar elements from The Go-Between and What Maisie Knew emerge, but are quickly forgotten in the sheer, immersive pleasure of reading.
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 forever.” Or: “And then, out of the darkness, his voice. A single quiet word …” What Keith declares is this: “‘My mother’, he said reflectively, almost regretfully, ‘is a German spy.’”
From Keith's accusation, the boys construct a game. At least, as Stephen says, “Things start as a game, and then they turn into a test, which I fail.” The boys hide in a privet bush. A locked trunk holds a broken carving knife they call a bayonet, some matches, a crumpled pack of Players—boys’ things. From their fort, they spy on the pretend spy and slowly become entwined in a story of fear and betrayal.
There are good rites of passage, kisses, and stolen cigarettes, moments of self-confidence and insight where before there had been only childish playfulness and a willingness to believe.
Though Frayn has set the book in recollection, he sticks to the child's eye view. We meet the old Stephen Wheatley first, on his way back to his boyhood suburbia. Frayn adores this technique. His warning, at the start of the wonderful Headlong, is even more suitable to Spies:
I shall have to go back in time to the very beginning, and relive what happened as it happened, from one moment to the next, explaining exactly what I thought as I thought it, when all the puzzles were actually in front of me, and what I was trying to do at each moment given the possibilities that seemed open to me then, without the distortions of hindsight.
This has its disadvantages.
Well, yes. This technique drums up about as much trust between narrator and reader as a used car salesman does when he announces that “This, time, honestly, I'm taking a bath, but I'll tell you the truth: for you I don't mind.” Yeah, right.
In Spies, despite our access to the grown-up Wheatley, that which confounds the boys confounds the reader. Though Stephen is ignorant of it, the Wheatleys are German Jews. Stephen senses the difference; his rules differ from other folk's rules. But Frayn hides their Jewishness from us until the very last moment, after much misunderstanding on Stephen's part about the nature of the “Juice.” To what end? The unnecessary and empty suspense can't jibe with Frayn's insistence that the book be cast as a recollection. The same is true for the willful naïveté of the child narrator. If we are not to benefit from the older man's perspective until the last dozen or so pages, why introduce him at the start?
The old Wheatley obviously knows who is hiding out in the old barns. Why must we follow the misadventures of a child? Because Frayn holds the misadventures of his characters dear. He informs them through retrospect only when it suits his authorial intent. When swept up in the book, these manipulations are tolerable. When not, not.
The man in the old barns, the love affairs, the Jews, these are fragile structures to hold a book about a child's world. Frayn treats these flimsy framing devices with grave import, rather than as throwaway MacGuffins—a frustrating quality in a book that deals so well with the naïveté of children and their pretend worlds.
For Frayn has once again picked up his pretend worlds. The “what ifs” of Headlong and Copenhagen were strong, historical things. The imaginative play here is a children's game. For all the attempts, Spies never approaches the gravitas of Copenhagen or the academic suspense of Headlong. (Despite intentions, this is to its credit.)
When far away from Richard Ford's latest collection of stories, A Multitude of Sins, recollection colors the pages and the stories seem better, and more varied, than they truly are.2
One remembers a multitude of settings, from New Orleans to Maine, and the titular multitude of sins. In capsule form, the stories seem varied and strong. Upon returning to the book, the multitude of sins resolves to one sin (adultery), the geographic variance turns out to be one place: Fordville. Superficial differences abound. People duck hunt and are slightly more eccentric in New Orleans, so Ford sets the New Orleans story in a duck blind. But a duck blind, the Grand Canyon, Maine, Michigan: these spots are simply canvasses upon which Ford paints his tonal renderings of the same folks (they stretch all the way from reasonably successful to very successful, from rather well educated to overeducated, from utterly self-absorbed to … utterly self-absorbed).
Ford portentously titled the best story in the book “Crèche.” A woman, Faith, takes her sister's two girls (the sister is in rehab), her mother, and her sister's ex-husband skiing in Michigan for Christmas. They strap lights all over a rubber tree in their Nordic lodge. Faith, though barely decipherable from other Ford characters (she is slightly more attractive, more successful, good Hollywood job), is a strong character. Her feelings for the girls seem legitimate and involuntary. This is a welcome break in a stream of cold, calculated, non-lovers. She is a confident woman, and her sister's ex shakes her up with some menacing advances when he ambushes her on a cross-country ski trail, drunk. “‘Yep, life leads you into some pretty interesting situations.’ He is repeating himself. There is another zipping noise. This is big-time fun in Roger's world view.” She escapes back to the condo, locks him out, and goes to bed. With the heaping form of her mother next to her, she muses on marriage. What she comes up with is pure Richard Ford: “Though maybe marriage was only a long plain of self-revelation at the end of which there's someone else who doesn't know you very well.”
In a story titled “Under the Radar,” a young wife announces to her husband that she has cheated on him. He pulls over to the side of the road, and they have an argument. He hits her. They watch a truck run over a raccoon. In one of the more deft maneuvers of the book (and certainly the only good thing in this story), Marjorie switches the fight and is now the aggressor. She capitalizes on his violence to muster the righteousness she needs to be mad, and to put the cause of the violence, her infidelity, behind her.
“I was sorry when I told you,” Marjorie said, very composed. … “Though not very sorry,” she said. “Only sorry because I had to tell you. And now that I've told you and you've hit me in my face and probably broken my nose, I'm not sorry about anything—except that. Though I'm sorry about being married to you, which I'll remedy as soon as I can.” She was still not crying. “So now, will you as a gesture of whatever good there is in you, get out and go over and do something to help that poor injured creature [the raccoon] that motherfucking rednecks maimed with their motherfucking pick-up truck and then because they're pieces of shit and low forms of degraded humanity, laughed about? Can you do that, Steven? Is that within your range?”
Once she gets her husband on the road, she hits him with the car. The true failing in these stories is that they deal entirely with aftermath. Boiled down to the essence, fiction is a series of set-ups: a character must choose life or love, society or individual, here or there, go on or don't go on. The choices made and the outcomes of those choices constitute the moral weather of a book. The most important things in A Multitude of Sins were completed before we picked it up; it is a book set entirely in the figurative past perfect. Therefore, however a character might fall—one actually falls into the Grand Canyon, subtle like a jack hammer, this Ford—his castigation is an exercise in cruelty. It does not set anything right, because we did not witness the act for which the character is punished. It is like sex without love: lurid and base. Only it is not that much fun, because the sex, too, is in the past. Ford has written only about one fingertip after another burned by the post-coital cigarette.
One would be tempted to ignore The Dive from Clausen's Pier if Knopf had not rolled it out in a 75,000 copy first printing (the same number of copies allotted to Richard Ford).3 Someone at Knopf is hoping for “Ann Packer, the new Donna Tartt,” “Oh, Ann Packer, she's the new black.” Only this “dive from Clausen's Pier” is a dive into very shallow water: a post-college story of young men and women trapped in their Midwestern routines.
Though initially stifling, our prairies are demonstrated to be, if not quite as “interesting” as the coasts, the heart of all things American. Here is a Midwest full of nice, unpretentious boys and well-meaning girls.
At the start of the book, Carrie Bell is unhappy with her high school sweetheart cum fiancé, Mike, and has been quietly mean to him. The best thing in the book is the subtle bitchiness with which Carrie ignores his questions and drops conversations about their future children and marriage date. Mike asks a question in the opening pages and she shrugs and reaches into her purse for some chapstick. Her petulance is well wrought.
The dive of the title comes quickly. At a Memorial Day beach outing, Mike dives and breaks his neck. Now come hospital visits and strained relationships, as everyone tries to accept the newly crippled Mike. Illness and injury, both mental and physical, can be a wonderful trope for the novel. The recitations from incarceration in a mental hospital constitute a sub-genre of amazing accomplishment. Here, the hospital is a kind of fianchetto. All else is blocked, break someone's neck! We will get at the emotions that way!
Throughout, Packer fails to distinguish between stage direction and action. Consider this:
From the kitchen table I watched as she filled her coffeemaker with cold water, then opened the freezer and reached for the coffee bag that contained her special mix.
“Mom, I need the real thing this morning.”
She smiled over her shoulder. “OK, but it'll be on your conscience if I end up with the shakes all day.” She got a different bag and started the coffee, then sat opposite me. I pushed the muffins toward her. “These look sinful,” she said. “What kind are they?”
“Carrot. But don't worry, I got the ones with only half butter.”
“Well, in that case …”
I broke off a piece of mine and put it in my mouth …
Let me spare us. I had intended to excerpt another three-hundred words of that scene—it builds up to a wonderful denouement regarding Carrie's desire to replace her mother's curtains. Which she does. At length.
After about a billion pages of stage direction and “Are you okay?” “Are you okay?”—it is a needy girl's heaven—Carrie Bell chucks it all and moves to New York. Where, of course, she meets a lot of homosexuals, immigrants, and people who do interesting things. Packer tells us that they are interesting, but the reader will not be convinced.
Carrie falls in love with a pedantic, forty-year-old spoiled brat unpersuasively nick-named Kilroy. Carrie's observations about New York are feeble. The conversations overheard are not realistic. The reader will occasionally credit Packer with a tongue-in-cheek representation of sophomoric prattle, but will soon realize he has overestimated her.
Packer, I suspect, has long wanted to write about clothes. In The Dive from Clausen's Pier, she has found a way to indulge herself. Carrie Bell is a fledgling designer and seamstress. Her descriptions of the clothes she designs, though, far from interesting the reader (as Philip Roth did with his wonderful description of glove-making in American Pastoral) simply fall flat. The garments of which Carrie Bell is proud do not sound attractive. “I needed something wonderful to wear to the wedding. … I imagined a brown stretch-lace T-shirt over a long brown taffeta skirt, a knee length burgundy satin dress with a matching swing coat. I wanted something dark and rich for a Christmastime wedding. A gold peplum jacket over a paisley brocade skirt, a deep red wrap dress with a plunging V neckline.”
Carrie gives up on New York, and the book turns from unpleasant to downright awful. The climax in The Dive from Clausen's Pier has Carrie Bell move back in with her mom. She forfeits whatever unlikely success awaited her and gains happiness doing alterations in her mother's kitchen. The moral of the story seems to be that life is best spent on as even a keel as possible, that one should sacrifice for mediocrity, and that after college, whatever you do: move back in with your parents.
I am ambivalent regarding Jonathan Safran Foer's much-hyped book Everything Is Illuminated.4
A character named after the author goes to the Ukraine to find a woman who was instrumental in saving his grandfather from the Nazis. While the character is there, he hires a guide named Alexander. They tour the Ukraine looking for a woman named Augustine, and the fictional Foer hires the fictional Alexander as a writer. We read Alexander's account of the visit. The other major bit of Everything Is Illuminated is a magical realist historical fiction about the town of Trachimbord and the history of Foer's bloodline. The third little bit consists of letters from Alexander to Foer concerning the pieces that Foer has mailed to Alexander (the Magical Realism) and the criticisms that Foer has made of what Alexander has written. What we are reading, therefore, is set up as an epistolary, collaborative draft.
Thus removed from the author, much of Everything Is Illuminated is “written” (one does hate to be forced to use the pomo scare quote) by a character with a Russian/English dictionary in one hand, and a thesaurus in the other. This is the source of much comedy, and Foer sustains the joke surprisingly well. Consider this scene, in which the Grandfather of the tour guide Alexander, the fictional Foer, Alexander, and a dog named Sammy Davis Junior, Junior try to decide what to eat.
“We will eat,” I told him. “Good,” he said, holding the photograph very near to his face. Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior was persisting to cry. “One thing, though,” the hero said. “What?” “You should know …” “Yes?” “I am a … how to say this …” “What?” “I'm a …” “You are very hungry, yes?” “I'm a vegetarian.” “I do not understand.” “I don't eat meat.” “Why not?” “I just don't.” “How can you not eat meat?” “I just don't.” “He does not eat meat,” I told Grandfather. “Yes he does,” he informed me. “Yes you do” I likewise informed the hero. “No, I don't.” “Why not?” I inquired him again. “I just don't. No meat.” “Pork?” “No.” “Meat?” “No meat.” “Steak?” “Nope.” “Chickens?” “No.” “Do you eat veal?” “Oh, God. Absolutely no veal.”
And so on. The timing is worthy of Abbot and Costello. The eastern European bloc against vegetarianism is spot on. However, what of this willfully naïve “There was a sadness amid him and the photograph, and nothing in the world frightened me more”? If Foer had written that without the triple distance, it would be laughable stuff, over the top. Foer is writing like an amateur action painter, and one is tempted to ask if he can draw.
Foer has protected the historical narrative from criticism by making it a mystical Talmudic/Kabalic fairy tale. One cannot call Foer out for inserting needless lyricism. “4 quarters of a chicken” instead of “a chicken,” or “half a baker's dozen of eggs.” Six and a half eggs? Foer writes of a Klezmer band at an early nineteenth-century wedding, but Klezmer arose from the meeting of jazz and Jewish folk music in America in the twentieth century. Alexander at one point asks Foer: “Are you being a humorous writer here, or an uninformed one?” The reader will echo Alexander's question.
It is adolescent, though sometimes effective, to name a character after yourself in a novel. It is doubly adolescent to give credit for most of the writing of the book to some other character in that novel. To credit authorship to a character whose command of the language is limited is triply adolescent. After all of that, to insist that the book is not even finished, that is chicken.
Foer could not get far enough away. This insecurity is reminiscent of the uptick a teenager puts at the end of every concrete statement to turn it into a question.
That said, Foer has done some real work, and composed a vivid and funny book. Alexander is a very good character, and his development and complexity outweigh his running gag. Most debut novelists cannot get it together to imagine anything beyond their campus quad, their parents’ divorce, the intricacies of dating in New York City. Everything Is Illuminated lists bathetic at times, is sloppy at others, and still shines through as one of the best books of the year.
The characters in William Kennedy's novels can play pool and know where the bodies are buried. Roscoe, the seventh in his Albany series, is the story of a garrulous, voracious politico.5
The title character is the backroom power, the second-in-command of an Irish political machine and loyal to that machine in a chivalrous way that makes all conclusions foregone. If it is for the benefit of the Boss, it is good. You want Roscoe in your fox-hole. He will not have crises of faith. He is capable and intelligent. He is the twentieth-century knight. He shares much with the hero of all crime noir and hardboiled detective stories, but Kennedy has moved him out of the genre ghetto by taking chances with lyricism and exposition that most detective writers are unwilling to take.
Kennedy is comfortable with dream sequences and with long, detailed recitations of how to run a city, a whorehouse, or a cockfight.
You can also train your bird to lose: practice him with muffs on so he becomes a coward, take away his protein or his water, give him a candle to study all night before a fight to paralyze his pupil, give him diarrhea with Epsom salts, drug him with cocaine, tie his spurs so they're too tight, or too loose and fall off, or so their angle will make him miss his target; and if an eye is gone, pit him on his blind side so he can't see the enemy. Or, conversely, put curare on your bird's spurs to paralyze the enemy; put grease, or drops from heated lemon skin, on his head to make it slippery, so the enemy's bite won't hold; put cocaine or Xylocaine on his feathers so when the enemy bites his mouth goes to sleep and precision is skewed.
Cockfighting, in Kennedy's world, runs much as politics does. Roscoe is an expert handler. Things have soured, though. He wants out. He is fat, tired, and a car wreck has destroyed his insides.
He perseveres through this book for one last victory and one last cover-up for the party.
Throughout, characters from the rest of the Albany books, such as the Phelans and Legs Diamond and Marcus Gorman, appear, giving the atmosphere of a small city to a book about a small city. In a city the size of Albany, one gets the feeling, you frequently run into people you know. Sometimes, it feels like you have the whole town figured out. Then the city, or Kennedy, throws you a curve: things are more complicated, more unknowable, than they seem.
Kennedy shifts the chronotrope around so much that the book, though fewer than three hundred pages, seems to swirl out in grand scale. We learn whatever Kennedy feels we must. He takes us back to Roscoe's wedding to the tramp sister of the true love of his life, who married his best friend. We read Roscoe and company as youngsters maneuvering the first political coup by fixing both sides of an election. We solve, finally, Legs Diamond's murder.
Throughout, Kennedy liberally deploys his own version of history and his own shape of fact. Roscoe himself holds the motto that “Truth is in the details, even if you invent the details.” We will not learn Kennedy's Albany through AP-style objectivity any more than Roscoe will be able to do what needs doing by sticking exactly to the events. William Kennedy wrote in the Times last January that writing without the infusion of actual experience felt like cheating, but that “enormous distinctions exist between what is exact and what is authentic for the work.”
Roscoe is not, by any means, the most straightforward of the stories told in the handful of books I have reviewed here (that credit goes to Packer's guileless novel). Roscoe moves around freely, and with healthy disregard for the likely, the possible, and the true. But the risks Kennedy takes are not motivated by vanity or avant-gardism. He does not glibly avoid the most important elements, but rather seeks them out and engages them. Kennedy does not hobble along on overwrought crutches but rather finds what is necessary for the story he wants to tell. There is no disingenuous game of misdirection. Kennedy's clear vision of Albany shines with authenticity.
Spies, by Michael Frayn; Metropolitan Books, 288 pages.
A Multitude of Sins, by Richard Ford; Knopf, 304 pages.
The Dive from Clausen's Pier, by Ann Packer; Knopf, 384 pages.
Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer; Houghton Mifflin, 288 pages.
Roscoe, by William Kennedy; Viking, 294 pages.
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 writers begin by trying to paint the psychology of their characters; good writers are generally much less interested in human beings than in the way people use language. Dickens, Austen, or Dostoevsky take great pains in establishing the characteristic sentences of a Joe Gargery, an Esther Summerson, or a Prince Mishkin; after that, characterisation can more or less look after itself. Frayn's principal subject from the start, I think, has been the more or less anguished relations people have with language. Put like that, it sounds like an austere sort of interest, but Frayn has perceived that here lies not just a rich seam of philosophical inquiry, but an inexhaustible source of preposterous comic invention. Conventionally, one says that he is interested in the ways people use language, but it would be more accurate to say that his subject is the way language uses people. Frayn's characters are helplessly hung out to dry on the fixed and ruthless patterns of language. They are unable to say what they want to say, and find themselves following some sort of script instead.
This is firmly established even in Frayn's early newspaper sketches. A correspondence between sisters-in-law is refined until it reaches the bare, conventional minimum, which consists of an apology for being a bad correspondent and the statement that nothing has happened and everyone is well. Three sons take their old mother for a drive; she appears to have something interesting to say, a story about Lloyd George in a wheelbarrow, but her audience is at the mercy of the convention that three brothers on a Sunday afternoon drive must discuss house prices, and she is briskly silenced. Party conversations, exchanges between foreigners, attempts by Wittgenstein to explain why fog on a motorway needs to be identified by an illuminated sign reading FOG (‘I want to say: my offer of help is being abused’), and dozens of other brilliant improvisations explore the idea that brute external reality is out there, romping insanely, and the only tools at our disposal to capture it are conventional and grossly inadequate habits of speech.
Frayn's first novels continue the inquiry. The Tin Men is fundamentally about the helplessness of men before the elaborate systems they construct. The characters are trapped in the sort of sentences they know how to say; the entirely silent director, the woman addicted to the pronoun ‘one’, the much-loved buffoon who automatically agrees with the last thing he was asked, or the brilliant tyro novelist helplessly parroting other people's styles: all are the slaves of language. There is more to it than that, and the book is more largely about the way systems of all sorts tend to take over once they are in place—at the end, it makes perfect sense to all concerned that since the Queen has been delayed, the Institute must be opened according to plan and on time, even if the ceremony is performed by the appalling Nobbs. But the principal idea here is the ruthless grip of language, of the power of the half-perceived script.
Subsequently, the theme proved more or less inexhaustible. Towards the End of the Morning is a sublimely funny comedy about the ways newspapers try to put lives into words. All its characters, struggling to express themselves on a television chat-show, in a letter to a lover, flirting with their lodgers, fail helplessly. They can only say the sorts of things they suppose they ought to be saying. The Russian Interpreter is, too, a richly funny book, but with rather a chilly undertow, as every character ceaselessly asks of every other character, not so much ‘what are you concealing?’ as ‘what do you mean?’ The condition of total inability to communicate, here and in A Very Private Life, takes on a strange ecstatic quality. Lovers who can't communicate with each other are able, instead, to pursue the script they have constructed undisturbed by reality. The same seclusion produces, in Sweet Dreams, a book both terrifying and deliriously funny; a book about the sort of heaven which a silly Hampstead liberal of the 1970s might construct for himself out of the terrible poverty of his aspirational imagination.
Frayn's plays, too, were by now exploring the same world of rigid structures and human failures. The newspaper comedy of Alphabetical Order neatly explores, in its two acts, attempts to contain chaos with order, and attempts to escape systems through individual wilfulness. In Donkeys' Years, a college reunion shows people trying to say the things they ought to say, trying to take on the roles they used to inhabit, at the mercy of what their lives have actually become. The exemplary and most startling scene is, perhaps, at the beginning of Clouds; two strangers, both English, start up a conversation, both under the impression that they are talking to a foreigner with fluent English. It takes a few minutes before they simultaneously, humiliatingly, discover that what they have been listening to, and speaking back, is rather a different sort of discourse; the sort of English which English people use, speaking to foreigners.
Noises Off, his most celebrated play, shows how this vision of people existing within a cage of language is both a metaphor and a simple statement of fact. Some of its characters, like Brooke or Garry, are absolutely helpless once the script fails: others, like Dotty, can only attempt the script, and exist in a sort of unguided stream of nonsense. What is made ruthlessly clear is that even when the script fails, the characters fall helplessly into another script. They are characters in a farce, offstage as well as on; they say the sort of things which they know how to say; they are puppets, and the puppet-master is linguistic convention. The sense here, and in the appalling mechanisms of his film Clockwise, is of people unable to escape from plot, conventions, systems of all varieties. They are as flies to wanton boys.
Subsequently, things began to loosen up. Perhaps the failure of his play about an audience in a theatre, Look, Look, marked some kind of turning point. I thought and think Look, Look a grossly underrated play; in it, Frayn attempted something very difficult and complex. Previous considerations of order and chaos had moved from images of lucid control to complete collapse by degrees; this began in confusion and incoherence, as a diverse and incompatible chorus of voices tried to tell us about a planned, orderly spectacle. It didn't quite work, but from that point on Frayn's work lost some of its characteristic mechanistic gusto.
In his recent work, he has seemed to become more interested in getting to one of those ‘Cretan Liar’ paradoxes beloved of philosophers, by imperceptible degrees. In the last two decades, much of his work has preferred to concentrate on a terrible, insoluble impasse, or on the spectacle of a long-dreamt-of treasure turning to ashes in the hand of a hero. The Trick of It is a novel whose entire subject is the inability of the narrator of the novel to narrate a novel. Copenhagen reaches a total impasse; First and Last, a magnificent and terrifying television drama about a man trying to make sense of his life and his country through an arbitrary and idiotic task, ends like Headlong with the prize rusting in the victor's hands. What has never failed is the respect for the life of ideas, and no one else writing today could write a play like Copenhagen, which is at once a dazzlingly engaging entertainment and a rich exploration of scientific thought. If you put Copenhagen next to, say, the currently all-conquering Proof by David Auburn, one thing is instantly clear. Frayn trusts his audience to be interested in ideas as ideas; he is not about to treat ideas of this magnitude as just another source of slick metaphors about ‘Do-you-love-me-and-how-do-I-know-that-you-love-me?’ He sees, with great propriety, that ideas have human implications beyond their local application; he never treats them as slick, useful slogans.
Spies his most recent novel, should not surprise us, then, by being both surprising and, recognisably, a continuation of old concerns. One would not have predicted a novel about a wartime childhood from Frayn; memory, nostalgia, and the reparation of long-forgotten wrongs are not subjects he has shown much interest in before. In fact, this is a wonderfully odd novel; as the eccentric games of the two boys turn into a wild and disastrous fantasy about the secret wickedness of adults, we start to perceive that those themes of preconception, of convention, of the mutual unreadability of human beings are still presenting opportunities, situations and dramas of the most vivid kind to Frayn. There seems no reason, at this point, to suppose that his work is ever going to dry up. The fundamental ideas are almost infinitely complex in implication, his powers of invention and variation apparently unflagging. A remarkable writer.