Issue 168, Winter 2003
Michael Frayn works in an office around the corner from his house in north London. It is an apartment on a modern block, light and airy. His quiet study overlooks a communal park, an old canal that has been drained and planted with trees and shrubs. It is sparsely furnished, with a huge desk, a couple of armchairs, and some bookshelves. Opposite the desk on a low shelf is a row of bronze statuettes, the prizes he has won for several of his plays—the Olivier, the Evening Standard, the Tony. Frayn and his wife, the biographer and critic Claire Tomalin, have just bought a large house by the river near Richmond, where there is enough room for both to have offices at home.
Frayn grew up in south London. His father, who was deaf, worked as an asbestos salesman and his mother was a violinist, gave up a promising professional future to supplement the family income as a shop assistant. She died when Frayn was twelve, and that early loss has left a deep scar that shows up in touches of bittersweet wistfulness, even in his most hilarious comedies. He was educated at Kingston Grammar School and Cambridge, where he read French and Russian and philosophy, and began to write. His first piece for the theater was a sketch for the student revue for Footlights. After university he worked as a journalist at The Manchester Guardian and The Observer, then left to write full-time.
Over the years Frayn has produced an oeuvre as substantial as it is varied—from Noises Off, one of the funniest English farces, to Copenhagen, a worldwide hit about the meeting in 1941 between two giants of atomic physics; through a dozen plays, among them Alphabetical Order, Make and Break, and Benefactors; and as many novels, including The Tin Men, Towards the End of the Morning, and Headlong; a collection of philosophical aphorisms, Constructions; selections of his journalism; and translations of Chekhov’s major plays. Frayn’s deep intelligence, comic genius, and humane values have made him one of Britain’s best-loved authors. Despite a certain aloofness, he is warm, generous, and always of impeccable courtesy.
There are authors who go on mining the same terrain book after book, while every work of yours is a new departure. Take the recent novels: Headlong is based on the discovery of a Brueghel painting that has been missing for centuries and contains a good deal of research and art history, while A Landing on the Sun is almost a spy thriller, and The Trick of It is about the nature of creativity and writing. In between you write plays, which are equally varied. Do you deliberately set out to surprise and be new every time?
Let me say for a start that I don’t think it is a very good idea to write different sorts of things. If I were to give serious practical advice to a young writer about how to succeed I would say, Write the same book, or the same play, over and over again, just very slightly different, so that people get used to it. It takes some time, but if you do it often enough, finally people will get the hang of it, and get familiar with it, and they’ll like it. Then you go on producing a consistent product and you’ll have a market for it. Because the consumer of books or plays, including myself, very reasonably wants to know or have some idea in advance what the book or the play is going to be like. It is the same as buying breakfast cereal: if you buy a packet of cornflakes, you want to be sure it will contain cornflakes and not muesli. It is very irritating if the packet doesn’t contain what you expected it to contain. Similarly it is a reasonable demand from the theatergoer or novel reader that he should get a constant product, which is identified by the author’s brand name.
If I could have done this, I would have. But I don’t have much control over what I produce. All I can do is to write the stories that come to me. And what a story is, is in part the way of telling it. A story is not an event in the outside world—it consists in the telling. It is only when you think that you have found a way of telling the story that you can start writing it. Different stories naturally suggest different ways of telling them. If I had been better organized as a writer, I would have gone beyond the stories’ dictates and imposed my own central imprint on everything.
But everything does bear your imprint. It’s the form that changes.
That is like saying that a criminal commits different sorts of crimes—sometimes he does bank robberies, sometimes he murders people, sometimes he forges pension books—but on all of them he leaves the same fingerprints. He can’t help it. I don’t think there is anything deeper in it than that. That is what consistency is—you have these intellectual fingerprints, and you can’t help leaving them on things.
You once said that you started writing novels because your first attempt at theater, a revue for Footlights at Cambridge, was a complete flop. Then you went back to writing for the theater when you lost your voice as novelist, and now you alternate between the two. What dictates the form?
First of all, I don’t think it is strange to be both novelist and playwright. I wonder why others don’t do both. I think the great difference is that in a novel it is possible for the writer to be inside the head of at least one of the characters. He doesn’t have to be, but if you think of most of the novels you’ve read, the author has known what all the characters’ thoughts and feelings and intentions were. If you read: She felt bitter resentment about what he had said. He intended to set off for Birmingham, but he changed his mind. She realized that he had not understood what she had said, etcetera—all these things seem absolutely natural, you don’t even notice that is the way most novels are written. In fact it is quite odd, because it implies that the author has absolute knowledge of what’s going on inside the head of his characters. Sometimes the author chooses not to exercise that right, and sometimes he exercises it in the case of one or two characters but not all. But it is the natural mode for the storyteller to know what’s happening inside his characters’ heads.
By contrast, in the play it is impossible to indicate directly what is going on inside people’s heads. All we know when we watch a play is what the characters are saying and what they are doing. Of course characters can say, I’m thinking so and so, or I’m feeling such and such, but this is not the same as knowing directly. You have to trust that the character is speaking truthfully, that he can understand himself—because characters often don’t.
Now, some stories require that you know what people are thinking, and some stories require that you don’t. In Copenhagen the whole point of the play is trying to find out what Heisenberg was thinking and what his intentions were in going to Copenhagen to see Niels Bohr. If I tried to write it as a novel the whole story would be told in one paragraph. I’d say, Heisenberg decided to go to Copenhagen in 1941 in order to talk to Niels Bohr about such and such, because he hoped that Bohr would say so and so . . . But I wanted to look at the difficulty of knowing that exists in life. So it seemed natural to be outside Heisenberg’s head and have to work out what was going on inside it.
When you got the story, did you know at once it would be a play rather than a novel?
Yes. Because that was what it was about—the difficulty of understanding people’s intentions, even one’s own intentions.
So it is the story that chooses the form, not you, the author?
Absolutely. In Headlong, for instance, it seemed that we needed to know all the time what Martin Clay—the art historian protagonist—was thinking and feeling, because a lot of the story depends on his misunderstanding the situation, and misunderstanding his own feelings and intentions. We need to know what he thinks he is up to, then stand back as readers to say: “Hold on! He is not being honest with himself here. His motives are much more mixed than he is saying.”
How do the stories come to you? Headlong, for example.
Well, the stories come in different ways. I can’t remember exactly where most of them came from, I can only remember them growing in my head. But I can recall the precise moment when I thought of the idea of Headlong. I was in Vienna with Claire, and we had gone to visit Georg Eisler, a painter friend who was ill in hospital, and also to see an exhibition of his work. He was too ill to see us for long and we had time on our hands, and of course we went to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. I had often been there before, and every time I go I look at the Brueghels—they have about a third of the world’s extant Brueghels.
As always I spent a long time gazing at The Hunters in the Snow, which I think is one of the most wonderful paintings in the world. Then I looked at the picture next to it, The Return of The Herd, and then the next one after that, The Gloomy Day, and for some reason I read the sign on the wall. Now, I’d never read the sign on the wall in all the years that I had been to the museum and looked at those pictures, never read what it actually said, which is: these three pictures are part of a series of six that Brueghel painted to illustrate the seasons; three are in Vienna, one is in Prague, one is in the Metropolitan in New York, and one is missing. Even as I read the sign I thought, Well, if you thought you’d found the missing picture, what would you do? It would present a lot of difficulties, because plainly it wouldn’t be identified as Brueghel or it wouldn’t be missing, and it wouldn’t be in a museum, some art historian would have looked at it and identified it. So it would have to be in a place where art historians don’t much go, probably belonging to somebody who didn’t know what it was, and the difficulty would arise as to what you would say to the owner. Would you simply say, I think you’ve got the missing Brueghel on the wall there? What if you thought that the owner was an unscrupulous man in desperate need of money, who would certainly sell the picture to the highest bidder? The highest bidder is unlikely to be the National Gallery in London, because it doesn’t have any money. So it is quite likely that the buyer would be an investment trust, which buys the picture purely as investment, does not put it on display but locks it up in some vault, and no one would ever see it. So you might say you have a public duty for altruistic reasons to be a little devious, and to acquire the picture first, and then identify it as the missing Brueghel. But of course if you do that, you also make your reputation as an art historian, as well as lots of money. So you have mixed motives, and mixed motives are always interesting.