Sunday, September 9, 2012

Trapped in subjectivity: Michael Frayn

Subjectivity and (self-) deception are at the heart of Michael Frayn's fictions. His novels often place us in the position of a participant in the story, and frequently feature narrators whose view of the world and of themselves is slightly askew. That divergence between how they see themselves and how we come to view them is not only a source of comedy, it is also usually the narrator's tragedy.

In Headlong (Faber, 1999), the narrator is Martin, an academic who believes he's stumbled across a previously unknown painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the home of his country neighbor Tony Churt (perhaps a portmanteau of "churlish" and "curt"?). Our doubts about Martin's identification of the painting—he thinks he's found a missing work from Bruegel's series The Months—are multiplied by his increasingly erratic behavior. He decides to keep the boorish Churt in the dark, pays a bit too much attention to Churt's neglected and resentful wife Laura, and becomes financially enmeshed in the sale of another of Churt's paintings.

As Martin focuses on minute details in the painting for clues that the seemingly bucolic scenes depict the horrors of Spanish repression in Breugel's Netherlands, he's increasingly blind to the destructive effects of his obsession on his own family. Exactly who is using whom grows less and less certain, while the likelihood that all of these entanglements are going to lead to disaster for Martin becomes more and more so. As Frayn writes in Stage Directions: Writings on Theatre 1970-2008 (Faber, 2008), "Martin slowly discovers the terrible strength conferred by possession, and the terrible weakness implicit in coveting" (p. 52). The lesson is not a happy one.

Martin is an example of a familiar type in Frayn's work, the character whose well-ordered, rational existence collapses into utter chaos. In the film Clockwise (1988), for which Frayn wrote the screenplay, that character is Brian Stimpson (John Cleese), whose attempt to arrive on time at a headmasters' conference goes increasingly haywire. In Frayn's latest novel Skios (Faber, 2012), the victim of his own assumptions is Dr. Norman Wilfred, a proponent of "scientometrics," who travels to a Greek island to give a well-rehearsed speech at a foundation-sponsored dinner. When he arrives, though, he discovers that his luggage, his destination and his identity have been switched with those of someone else. Things go swiftly downhill—at times literally—from there.

Skios is breezily entertaining at times, but has the feeling of Frayn operating on auto-pilot. It begins with a major implausibility: would a highly efficient and well-prepared personal assistant so readily accept a much younger man claiming to be the middle-aged Wilfred? Frayn seems to lose interest in the proceedings at what should be the comically frenzied denouement, making a half-hearted metafictional gesture and allowing the action to trail off anticlimactically.

Now You Know (Viking, 1993), like Skios, tells a story not from the point of view of a single character, but from the points of view of several in turn. It's about the unforeseen consequences of good intentions: when a whistleblowing civil servant goes to work for the charismatic and hypocritical founder of a dysfunctional open government pressure group, she decides to bring the group's practice in line with its theory. Long-hidden secrets are dragged into the light—but perhaps there's a reason why some things are known but not openly acknowledged. Not for the first or last time in Frayn's work, naïveté can be dangerous.

As can too much knowledge. In The Trick of It (Viking, 1989), an epistolary novel whose correspondence is only seen from one side, Richard is an academic who teaches the work of contemporary novelist JL. (She comes across as something like a blend of Margaret Drabble and Angela Carter.) When the writer and the critic have an ill-advised one-night stand, Richard's intellectual and erotic obsessions form a self-amplifying feedback loop. The line between comic exaggeration, embellishment, and fantasy in his letters becomes less and less distinguishable as he plummets toward the inevitable crash-landing.

Frayn is known as a writer of intellectually engaging comedies, but he also has a less farcical side. Spies (Faber, 2002) is told from the point of view of Stephen, an elderly man revisiting the London neighborhood in which he was a boy during World War II. Stephen reminisces about his childhood friend Keith and their game of spying on the neighbors, concocting tales and gathering evidence. When Keith claims that his mother is a German spy, the two boys begin to follow her—only to discover that she makes mysterious visits to the waste ground beyond the railroad tracks. Secrets are uncovered and the truth, when it emerges, has tragic consequences for everyone involved.

In A Landing On the Sun (Viking, 1991) the narrator, a government functionary named Jessel, is trying to piece together clues to the apparent suicide fifteen years previously of another civil servant, Summerchild. As Jessel follows the trail deeper into the papers, transcripts and tapes of Summerchild's final involvement in a mysterious two-person commission, he finds himself identifying more and more with the Summerchild's desire to break out of the bureaucratic constraints, and begins to vicariously relive the sequence of events that led to his death.

Point of view is also central to Frayn's most famous plays, Copenhagen (1998) and Noises Off (1985). The latter follows an underfunded theatrical company as they tour about the provinces flogging an unfunny slapstick farce called Nothing On. We see the first act of Nothing On portrayed from three different perspectives (dress rehearsal, backstage and front of house) on three different occasions, and watch in amused horror as the cast's untidy love affairs, clandestine drinking and professional despair increasingly spill out onto the stage.

Copenhagen is based on a real-life incident that took place in September 1941 between the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, Bohr's former student who had become head of nuclear research for the Nazi regime. A brief conversation between the two men shattered their friendship; why Heisenberg made the trip to occupied Denmark and what was said in that fateful conversation have been the subject of speculation ever since. In Copenhagen the participants offer their separate perspectives on their exchange and its meaning: was Heisenberg signalling to Bohr that he would not pursue the creation of a German atomic bomb? Was he trying to find out whether there was an Allied atomic weapons program? Or was he trying to secure Bohr's cooperation with what Heisenberg then viewed as the side that would inevitably win the war?

In an essay on Copenhagen in Stage Directions (originally published in The Guardian, 22 March 2002), Frayn writes,

One of the most striking comments on the play was made by Jochen Heisenberg, Werner Heisenberg's son, when I met him, to my considerable alarm, after the premiere of the play in New York. "Of course, your Heisenberg is nothing like my father," he told me. "I never saw my father express emotion about anything except music. But I understand that the characters in a play have to be rather more forthcoming than that."

This seems to me a chastening reminder of the difficulties of representing a real person in fiction, but a profoundly sensible indication of the purpose in attempting it, which is surely to make explicit the ideas and feelings that never quite get expressed in the confusing onrush of life, and to bring out the underlying structure of events. I take it that the 19th-century German playwright, Friedrich Hebbel, was making a similar point when he uttered his great dictum (one that every playwright ought to have in pokerwork over his desk): "In a good play everyone is right." I assume he means by this not that the audience is invited to approve of everyone's actions, but that everyone should be allowed the freedom and eloquence to make the most convincing case that he can for himself. Whether or not this is a universal rule of playwriting it must surely apply to this particular play, where a central argument is about our inability, in our observation of both the physical world and the mental, ever to escape from particular viewpoints. (p. 78)
This inability to escape from our own subjectivity has consequences both comic and tragic, and the exploration of those consequences has been a fundamental preoccupation of Frayn's work for the past three decades.

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