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 …

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