I’m indebted to writer and publisher Michael Wilding for introducing me to Michael Frayn, whom I’d heard of but never read. He was enjoying Frayn’s 1998 novel Headlong and I’d just finished an historical novel of no distinction and was looking for something good. Unable because of my eyesight to read printed books, I had to hope Headlong had been digitised. It had.
I clicked for a sample of the e-book version of Headlong. I read two chapters and couldn’t wait to ‘buy with a click’ the whole book. Over the next five or six days (I read rather slowly) I scarcely lifted my head from the Kindle. More than once I laughed out loud.
Headlong is a comic masterpiece, a story utterly unbelievable but made engrossing and convincing in its own terms in the peculiar way parody and satire can work if the writing is good enough. It was short-listed for the 1999 Booker Prize won by J M Coetzee’s Disgrace, a very different kind of novel. It has been dramatised for BBC Radio and will be hard to beat for a spot on my 2013 ‘best books’ column for the NRB.
Having finished Headlong I decided to try Spies (2002), thinking that Frayn couldn’t go wrong with a subject like that. Unhappily, or perhaps happily, due to my poor eyesight I mistakenly bought his most recent novel, Skios (2012). It was another farce and a delight in which a playboy takes the place of a hapless management expert at a conference of philanthropic right-wingers on a Greek island.
Misunderstanding, mishap and misalliances come thick and fast and, again, I found myself laughing out aloud. A merciless glass is held up to the pretensions of experts and the corruption of politicians, but comedy rules.
I corrected my mistake and bought Spies (2002) without sampling it first. I was bitterly disappointed. Frayn uses the technique of characters stepping outside themselves, as it were, and writing about their lives in the third person to great comic effect. In Spies I found it ineffective. It may just be my personal uninterest in books written from the point of view of a child (an elderly man projects himself back to his youth), but I also thought Frayn committed the imitative fallacy – in writing about dreariness the writing itself became dreary. When reference was made to a jug containing barley water covered by a net weighted down with small glass beads I felt ill. I encountered such horrors in my childhood and didn’t want to be reminded of them. I gave up on Spies.
A much earlier novel, At the End of the Morning (1967), was described on the Kindle site as ‘a superbly funny comedy’ and so it proved. The world of newspapers and journalism provides a fertile field for humour, as Evelyn Waugh demonstrated in Scoop (1938). Frayn’s book reminded me of John Cleese’s lament in A Fish Called Wanda about how awful it was to be English. Scenes like the lunch party where noxious children dominate the proceedings, a television panel where nothing is said in the most orotund fashion and others in the pubs and at a funeral are as funny as anything in Monty Python.
There is more of Michael Frayn to read – novels, a travel book, a memoir and a philosophical exercise – but I’ll stick to the comedy.