Playing House

A Landing on the Sun

by Michael Frayn
Viking, 249 pp., $21.00

Daughters of Albion

by A. N. Wilson
Viking, 287 pp., $21.00

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 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 …

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