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Knowing and Not Knowing

Spies

by Michael Frayn
Metropolitan, 261 pp., $23.00

Michael Frayn is, in the quietest, most intelligent and low-key way, something of a freak. Nobody since Chekhov has been as good at both plays and fiction, or as productive: Spies is his tenth novel, Copenhagen was his thirteenth play. This is such an odd dual achievement that one can pass over it too quickly; but the fact is that it is extraordinarily rare to have made such an impact in both forms of writing. When one considers, also, how few novelists have made a success of screenwriting—especially in proportion to the number who try—it is hard to resist the conclusion that something about scenic form, perhaps its linearity and lack of redundant detail, is incompatible with the inherently expansive mode of fiction, even apparently spare, story-driven fiction. It’s as if fiction and drama depended on separate talents, separately inherited.

The reason why Frayn is an exception to this rule perhaps lies in the central preoccupation of his work, which has to do with the way people can be possessed by ideas. It is as if he goes to work not as a playwright or as a novelist, but as a philosopher who one day suddenly noticed that the odd thing about philosophy was not the ideas themselves so much as their effect on people—and so turned from the study of those ideas to the examination of their human consequences. Frayn can write both fiction and drama because he is in a sense coming from somewhere else. All his characters are seized by ideas, possessed by them, turned inside out by them, and, as often as not, made ridiculous by them. If one had to attach an epigraph to his collected works, it might well be Mark Twain’s “It ain’t what people don’t know that hurts them, it’s what they do know that ain’t so.”

Frayn’s work in the theater concentrates on people in the grip of notions, most of which, we can see from our perspective in the audience, are limited, or false, or fixed in a context—this is as true of the actors in Noises Off, farcically struggling to stage a farce, as of the three protagonists in Copenhagen, wrestling to reconcile their interpretations of a single fateful encounter. We see these people from a perspective they can never have, from the outside. We know something they don’t.

In Frayn’s novels we see similar characters from the inside, and are invited to share their perspective on the world—a perspective that is always to some extent partial, or deluded, or constricted, and that then creates an ironic gap between the way the character sees the world and the way we see him. To put it another way, a Frayn protagonist is a man in the grip of an idea. When Frayn wants us to look at him from the outside, he writes a play; when he wants us to look out at the world through his eyes, he writes a novel.

There are always ironies in Frayn: the way his characters seem to themselves is never the way they seem to us. It wouldn’t be quite true to say that the effect of this is always comic; but it very often is. A typical example of Frayn’s dramatic irony comes from Towards the End of the Morning, his very funny and still all too accurate 1967 novel about journalism.* Bob, one of the two main characters, is an amiably drifting young reporter who is so consumed by a desire to be attractive to the opposite sex that he fails to notice the several women who are falling all over him—his landlady, for instance, or his girlfriend and would-be fiancée, Tessa. This is Bob in bed with the young and attractive Tessa:

He lay on his side, holding the covers over him by their edges, gazing at some of his copies of Vogue, which Tessa had been looking through and left lying on the carpet in front of the fire, where they glowed pink and red. He thought about models’ bottoms, feeling Tessa’s bulking large against the small of his back. Funny how he never seemed to meet girls… Just not attractive to women in some ways…

The irony is clear, and funny, and sad—and it is perfectly in tune with the theme of the book that the thing which is deluding Bob, is getting between him and real women, is the fantasy women of the magazine ads. Frayn manages to keep the reader aware that the novel is essentially about people wasting their lives, while keeping the book within the tonal boundaries of the comic novel.

Latterly Frayn’s novels have moved away from the third-person narrative of Towards the End of the Morning, in the direction of first-person narration. This has been accompanied by a darkening of tone. His narrators never know all that much of the truth to start with, and they never tell us all the truth they know. Their silences and blanknesses give an air of modernistic elision to their narrative; we know we aren’t being given the whole picture. They are men isolated and marginalized by the grip of their own obsessions, and they have a nimbus of claustrophobia and anxiety around them; there isn’t one of them you would conceivably want to be. But the books are also, every one of them, very funny.

Perhaps the darkest of Frayn’s fictions is The Trick of It, from 1989; it is also the book which in summary sounds most like a comic novel. It is an epistolary novel, narrated by an unnamed academic, who marries the woman writer who is the chief subject of his work. The darkness comes from the fact that the narrator never seems to realize quite how crazy he is, or just how much he hates his wife. In order to separate her from her fans and readers and (he hopes) the sources of her talent, he ends up first making her move to the country, and then taking a job teaching in Abu Dhabi. His attempt at creative strangulation doesn’t work, and the reader can see something he never realizes about himself, that his deepest desire is to have his wife, his favorite writer, entirely to himself. We leave him alone, with his thoughts “fizzing up inside my head like some monstrous Alka- Seltzer.” Actually, he was like that right from the start of the book, only he didn’t realize it.

Frayn’s 1991 novel A Landing on the Sun is another book about obsession. It starts out by pretending to be a thriller about a mysterious death in Whitehall, before turning into an inquiry into the nature of happiness. The narrator of the book is Jessel, an utterly orderly, utterly miserable bureaucrat commissioned to write a report on the security aspects of the mysterious death, who discovers that the secret at its heart is the oldest and most scandalous one of all: love. Jessel is one of Frayn’s men in torment, with the characteristic quality of not quite admitting his agony, or thinking that it is something else—and his tone never wavers from the flat and bleak. As with The Trick of It, you don’t want to spend a second longer in his company than it takes to finish the novel.

Headlong, Frayn’s last novel before Spies, features another obsessed first-person narrator, though it is the lightest of these three deranged-male-narrator novels. It tells the story of an art historian, Martin Clay, who moves to the country and becomes obsessed with the idea that his snooty neighbors unknowingly own a missing Breughel, from a series depicting the four seasons. The tone is toward the lighter end of Frayn’s palette. At a dinner party—the neighbors are shamelessly trying to use his art-historical expertise to value a painting—Clay begins to explain the nature of his work to Laura, the sexy, bored wife. (“It’s a distinction drawn by Panofsky,” he explains, apropos his interest in “the difference between iconography and iconology.”) She seems distracted, and leaves the room. He, collapsing into church giggles at the awfulness of the evening, follows, and is appalled to hear her sobbing in the kitchen:

My laughter dies instantly… Laura’s a lonely young woman shut up in this remote pile with her brutally insensitive husband. She turns to one of their rare visitors for a moment of human contact, a passing glimpse of the great sunlit world outside, and what happens? The visitor talks about things that he knows she in her simplicity won’t understand. He rebuffs and scorns her. This is why she ran out of the room so sharply. She was in tears.
I suppose I should pretend not to have heard. But tact is overcome by ordinary human sympathy. I raise my hand to tap on the door and announce my presence when the sobbing bursts out with a new and uncontrollable wildness.
I stay my hand just in time. Because it’s not sobbing, I realize, now that I hear the paroxysm from the start.
It’s hysterical laughter, just like mine.

For a moment, Clay sees himself from something like the reader’s perspective, and catches a glimpse of just how ridiculous he can seem—which naturally doesn’t stop him from being consumed by his obsession with the putative Breughel. Frayn has his cake and eats it, as writers are uniquely well equipped to do, by extracting the comedy from Clay’s idée fixe while making it clear that his obsession may have serious consequences. But the tone of Headlong, overall, is bright—a little too much so, perhaps, since the book also contains a good deal of serious learning about Breughel, and there is an imbalance between the Breughel passages, which verge on the thesis-like, and the comedy, which verges on farce. It makes Headlong a rare example of a novel that doesn’t seem sufficiently slight.

It is as if Frayn has been closing in on the perfect tone, or the perfect level of oxygenation: The Trick of It and A Landing on the Sun are fine but slightly airless novels, whereas Headlong is a little airy. He has found that tone and that oxygen, I think, in Spies, which is a novel about obsession and irony, only more so. It is a study of the difference between what we think we know and what is real, and also of the difference between what we really know and what we are prepared to admit. It is a dark book, and a sad one, but it is not as claustrophobic as some of the earlier novels, perhaps because the narrator, Stephen Wheatley, is an old man looking back on the events he describes, and so has the one thing Frayn’s narrators usually lack: perspective.

Spies opens with Stephen Wheatley, suddenly overcome by a memory from his childhood, going back to the place he grew up in, almost half a century before. In those days his life, like everyone else’s, had been dominated by the war:

I look up at the sky, the one feature of every landscape and townscape that endures from generation to generation and century to century. Even the sky has changed. Once the war was written across it in a tangled scribble of heroic vapour trails. There were the upraised fingers of the searchlights at night and the immense coloured palaces of falling flares. Now even the sky has become mild and bland.

The city is an unnamed but recognizable London, and Wheatley is returning to it from abroad—where, exactly, is a surprise reserved for the very end of the novel. The return visit is triggered by an overpoweringly vivid smell, “the same almost embarrassingly familiar breath of sweetness that comes every year about this time.” The smell turns out to be caused by privet, a word which has especially vivid connotations for Stephen, since it is what his friend Keith Hayward used to write on the outside of their secret hiding place in a hedge, in the mistaken belief that the word he was writing was “Private.”

Keith and Stephen were brought up on a suburban London street called the Close, and they were best friends. At the time of the events described in Spies, the boys must have been (we are never told precisely) about ten. Stephen goes to a state school, “where half the boys are gangling oafs,” whereas Keith goes to a public (i.e., private) school. Stephen is the subordinate member of the partnership:

It was Keith, not me, who’d devised the overhead cableway that connected our two houses, along which messages could be catapulted back and forth, like bills and change in the local grocer’s, and who’d gone on to develop the amazing underground railway, operated by pneumatic pressure, like another cash system we’d seen on expeditions to a nearby department store, through which we could ourselves pass swiftly and effortlessly back and forth, unobserved by the rest of the neighborhood. Or, at any rate, the cableway and pneumatic tubes along which we and our messages would pass, as soon as we put the plans into effect.
It was Keith who’d discovered that Trewinnick, the mysterious house next to his with the perpetually drawn blackout, was occupied by the Juice, a sinister organization apparently behind all kinds of plots and swindles.

The subtlety here is in the way Frayn keeps us aware of both the child’s perspective and the man’s. We can see that Keith is a fantasist while also feeling the drama and energy of his fantasies from the point of view of the young, fascinated Stephen. We are simultaneously inside and outside the world of the child.

The whole neighborhood is landscaped by Keith’s fantasies. There is the golf course, “where Keith has seen some strange wild animal, a kind of talking monkey, hiding among the gorse bushes,” and the small garden plots “where he once saw a crashed German plane with the pilot sitting dead in the cockpit.” There is Keith’s father, a British secret agent who’d allegedly won a medal in the Great War “for killing five Germans…with a bayonet,” and the family car, which “stood in perfect immobility on four carefully carpentered wooden chocks, to prevent its being commandeered, Keith explained, by invading Germans.”

There is a note of wildness and violence in Keith’s fantasies, apparent to the reader and the old Stephen but not to the young one, and it is this which leads the book to its dark turn. Keith’s mother, who seems calm and self-sufficient and slightly distracted, suddenly becomes the focus of the boys’ imaginative world:

The rest of our lives was determined in that one brief moment as the beads clinked against the jug and Keith’s mother walked away from us, through the brightness of the morning, over the last of the fallen white blossoms on the red brick path, erect, composed, and invulnerable, and Keith watched her go with the dreamy look in his eye that I remembered from the start of so many of our projects.
“My mother,” he said reflectively, almost regretfully, “is a German spy.”

Stephen and Keith therefore become spies themselves, with the goal of finding out the truth about Keith’s mother. (“I think I feel a brief pang of admiring jealousy for yet another demonstration of his unending good fortune. A father in the Secret Service and a mother who’s a German spy—when the rest of us can’t muster even one parent of any interest!”) They begin to hide in their hole in the privet hedge, and take notes on her movements. And it begins to seem, not just to the boys but to the reader, that there are indeed some strange features to her behavior. She goes out to deliver letters several times a day, for instance. And when the boys begin following her, she seems to vanish—until they realize that she is heading, not into town toward the shops, but out through a dark tunnel beneath the railway, toward the barns and small garden plots on the outskirts of the suburb. She visits her sister, who lives in the same street, with a puzzling frequency; perhaps that is something to do with the fact that her sister’s husband, Uncle Peter, is away on active duty in the RAF. Then the boys look in her diary, and find a tiny X marked there once a month, and begin to suspect that their fantasy, which in their hearts they are aware is only a fantasy, does after all contain a terrible truth.

Part of the relish with which Stephen throws himself into these activities has to do with a sense of the general unsatisfactoriness of his own family life. His father—who seems, to the reader, kind and gentle—seems odd, and not quite right, to his own son:

What I want to know, though, is why there’s something awkward about going out to play on Friday evenings. Why my father has never killed any Germans. Why no one in the whole of my family is in the RAF. Why we have an embarrassing name like Wheatley. Why we can’t be called something more like Hayward. There’s something sad about my life, and I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.

Sometimes, foreign visitors come to the house, and speak to Stephen’s father in a strange language, which he suspects might be German—but when he tries to get his friend interested in this mystery, “Keith’s lips register a slight dismissive amusement,” and they return to the far more gripping question of Keith’s mother. Before long, she has realized that the boys are following her, and confronts Stephen with a request that they stop. He is amazed. “I look her full in the face for the first time in sheer astonishment. Does she really not know that Keith’s the instigator and commander of every enterprise we undertake?” This is a nicely judged moment, and it registers something often forgotten in novels about children, which is that the adult’s view of the child’s world is likely to be just as mistaken as the child’s view of adult affairs.

Keith and Stephen are wildly wrong about what is happening, but they are right that something is happening which shouldn’t be. Children are better at knowing that something is going on than they are at knowing exactly what it is. It is not just Keith and Stephen’s fantasy that a man is hiding in the hinterland of the Close, and coming out at night; and it is this man whom Keith’s mother seems to be going to visit. It doesn’t seem possible that he can be a German spy, although she does indeed seem to be passing him messages. But what does all this have to do with Aunt Dee, with whom Keith’s mother seems so much involved, or with the missing Uncle Peter? Before long, Keith’s mother is having to come to Stephen again, this time to ask for his help—and by now, things really have gone irretrievably wrong.

We learn, right at the end of the novel, from the perspective of the older Stephen, that not all the young spies’ theories were completely off the mark. It turns out that there was after all a German spy in the Close—only that he was the very last person Stephen would have thought of, and he was spying for the other side. The street did contain some members of the Juice, only they weren’t the people living in the house with boarded-up windows, who were, it turns out, Greek Orthodox. There was a reason why Stephen’s father preferred him to be at home on Friday evenings, “when the first star is ventured upon the sky.” There is a reason why all his life Stephen has felt a longing to be elsewhere at the same time as a longing to be home, “the terrible pull of opposites that torments the displaced everywhere.”

A recent work of infant psychology was called The Scientist in the Crib. The idea was that children perform experiments on the world, and draw conclusions from the data they receive in return. Spies makes a similar suggestion about the world of older children: that they are in some sense all spies, making close observations of the world around them, and constructing theories based on the results. The most exciting observations, and the biggest secrets, have of course to do with love and sex; and so it proves to be in the Close. The identity of the hiding man, the “German spy,” is something which the older Stephen realizes that his younger self “might both know and yet not know at the same time.” It is a secret which ends in disaster, a disaster—and this is one of the many mature things in Frayn’s novel—which is in no sense the children’s fault. Spies depicts the beginning of an education in the sad, adult truth that some terrible things happen without offering a chance of escape or redress.

  1. *

    First published in the US as Against Entropy.

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