‘In its attitude towards Dickens,’ George Orwell wrote, ‘the English public has always been a little like the elephant which feels a blow with a walking-stick as a delightful tickling ... One knows without needing to be told that lawyers delight in Sergeant Buzfuz and that Little Dorrit is a favourite in the Home Office.’ Lawyers these days doubtless read John Mortimer, and dons read the new university wits like David Lodge and Tom Sharpe. But in any wider competition for the post of English humorist-in-residence, Michael Frayn would surely be a prime contender. Now verging on sixty, his collected plays and translations fill three thick volumes, his early newspaper columns for the Guardian and the Observer have been reprinted, and he is well launched into the second phase of his career as a novelist. Frayn’s is a consistently inventive and innovative comic talent, and though he is no Dickens he brings something more than a feather-duster to bear on the British public’s hide.
Above all, Frayn observes the dynamics of institutions, which he sees not as mythical monsters like Chancery and the Circumlocution Office, but as more or less random collections of people at work. Making fun of work and its effects, he has set his novels and plays in theatres, libraries, newspaper offices, and even at a German trade exhibition; and in two out of the three novels he has published since his return to fiction in 1989 he has come to rest, no doubt temporarily, in the neighbourhood of Whitehall. Like most of its predecessors, his new book has a strong element of bedroom farce, and Frayn displays ever greater ingenuity in moving, so to speak, the bedroom furniture into the office.
This is not entirely (though it is mostly) a matter of sex, since Frayn also wants to stress the regressive and infantile side of our working lives. In Towards the End of the Morning, an early novel with a Fleet Street setting, he made much of the sense of impending ‘darkness at noon’ experienced by his protagonist as he approached his 30th birthday. More recently, however, his institutional novels and plays have portrayed our rulers, and their associates in the chattering classes, as people who never grew up. Most of them are mentally and emotionally stuck in their undergraduate days, with a tendency to revert to early adolescence, and even infancy.
To start with a very obvious obsession, Frayn has got more mileage out of the ‘old college’ joke than almost any of his contemporaries; and now that most British writers are no longer Oxbridge graduates this can make him seem rather dated. His play Donkeys’ Years is set in ‘one of the smaller courts, in one of the lesser colleges, at one of the older universities’. A surgeon, a junior minister of education and a top civil servant are among the guests at one of the curious reunions such colleges hold in late September. What ensues is not only a drunken farce but an orgy of wanton destruction, with the politician as ringleader: ‘That was the original Jacobean banister,’ protests a scandalised left-wing don. In The Russian Interpreter, which is set in Moscow, the ineffable Proctor-Gould attaches himself to Manning on the basis of their brief acquaintanceship ‘at John’s’. The Englishman abroad cannot resist such claims. ‘We come from similar backgrounds,’ Manning explains to one of his Russian contacts. ‘We were at the same university.’ Soon he is carted off to the Lubyanka, a victim of Proctor-Gould’s machinations as well as of his own gullibility. But Manning’s period behind bars is curiously reassuring. The sympathetic night warder, who lets him out of his cell every evening and watches with parental concern as he empties his bowels, is like some surrogate college servant.
It is not just Frayn’s Lubyanka which resembles St John’s. In Benefactors David, the reluctant apostle of high-rise architecture, dreams of a housing development with ‘all the flats facing inwards’ onto the life of the community, just like his old college. Frayn’s 1991 novel A Landing on the Sun shows Summerchild, the besotted civil servant, turning a disused Whitehall garret into a home for the ad hoc ‘Strategy Unit’ consisting of himself and a female Oxford philosophy don. Her earnest tutorials on the nature of happiness turn into practical experiments as Summerchild stealthily furnishes the garret as a love-nest. Whether or not such a hideaway with its kitchen facilities and trap-door onto the roof is plausible in the ‘great white hall of bumbledom’, it could certainly be found at the top of many an Oxbridge staircase. Finally, when their idyll is rumbled by his superior, Summerchild embarks on a suicidal midnight odyssey across the roofs of the neighbouring ministries, in conscious imitation of the night-climbers of Cambridge.
Brian Jessel, the narrator of A Landing on the Sun, is a younger civil servant who many years later has to investigate Summerchild’s death in order to find out, and hush up, whatever scandal was involved. As he breaks into the locked garret and pores over the Strategy Unit’s abandoned files and tapes, Jessel realises that Summerchild and his mistress had created a ‘complete civilisation’ in there; they were even growing tomato plants on the roof. This ‘landing on the sun’ is the novel’s figure for happiness, or rather for ‘micro-happiness’, which, Jessel believes, is the only sort possible. The re-created college room and the middle-aged adolescent’s fantasy of a love-affair with teacher are, however briefly, a setting for Utopia.
Elsewhere Michael Frayn’s comedy has more usually taken an anti-utopian turn. He has written one explicitly dystopian novel, A Very Private Life, and has portrayed pseudo-utopian communist societies on at least three occasions: the Soviet Union in The Russian Interpreter, Castro’s Cuba in the play Clouds, and an alternative post-1917 revolutionary England in another play, Balmoral. Here the royal castle has been transmuted into a spartan state-run writers’ retreat housing Warwick Deeping, Hugh Walpole, Godfrey Within and an obscure erotic poetess called Enid Blyton. Balmoral, which flopped on the stage, is a sort of extended boarding-school ragging. We expect official ideologies to be subverted, and semblances of order to turn into mayhem, in these works, but what is more interesting is Frayn’s sense of the reversibility of our ordinary distinctions between capitalism and socialism, England and Russia, and between hotel or college room, boarding-school and prison.
His new novel takes us through a different set of reversals. At its centre is the disastrous meeting of Terry, a Cockney rogue who leads a high-profile militant campaign for open government, and Hilary who is meant to strike us initially as a prim and dedicated civil servant. Terry is out to get at the facts of the Hassam case – a particularly nasty instance of death while in police custody – and Hilary is one of the Home Office team charged with seeing that the facts in the case are properly ‘contained’. She herself seems to be thoroughly contained by her role (as does Terry by his), and she reflects that the Civil Service is fast taking over her whole life (‘I can see why it’s called the Home Office’). But Hilary comes from a broken home, and soon she will break out of this one. Such impulses are no surprise to Terry, an ex-convict – he was done for theft, false pretences and ‘actual bodily harm’ – who knows that within the corridors of power there is ‘always someone bursting to tell. It’s the pressure. Like the garden hose.’ His campaign, which is called OPEN, thrives on people like Hilary who bring to it the secrets of the confessional.
Officially, Terry’s campaigning appeal is based on an apocalyptic vision of Whitehall being transformed into a city of glass: he and his followers will sound the trumpet, and the walls of secrecy will come tumbling down. But Terry himself has a secret or two, since he is also a philanderer with a strong interest in not being caught out wearing glass trousers. As for Hilary’s story, it curiously recalls the life of Uncumber, the heroine of Frayn’s enchanting Science Fiction fairy-tale from the late Sixties, A Very Private Life. Uncumber is a rebellious daughter of the ruling classes (the ‘Deciders’), who spend their lives in hermetically-sealed houses relating to one another solely through the medium of the holovision chamber. (Frayn appears here as a prophet both of the spread of the home computer and of Virtual Reality.) The Deciders’ houses are connected to the outside world by means of electric cables, food taps, and a delivery tube through which even babies arrive. When something goes wrong, the repairmen, members of the subhuman ‘outside classes’, are called in; and the ‘Kind People’ are there to enforce the law and prevent any trouble. This society is, deliberately, the complete opposite of a city of glass. The Deciders enjoy total privacy – which is perfect freedom, they think – so long as they obey the rules. But Uncumber won’t obey them.
She is, first of all, seduced by the image of an older man, Noli, whose face comes up on the holovision screen one day when she dials a wrong number. She leaves home through the airlock and sets out across the world towards the remote area code where, she believes, Noli is to be found. She does find him, and though his language is incomprehensible to her she forces her way into his household. To her Alice-in-Wonderland eyes it appears as a ruined palace, inhabited by a small harem of three queens, the ‘cook-queen’, the ‘thin queen’ and the ‘surprised queen’. Finally, realising that Noli is ‘a charlatan and a lay-about and a womaniser and really just a little boy at heart’, she leaves, and eventually is allowed to rejoin the Deciders.
When in Now you know Hilary burns her boats at the Home Office, she does so partly because she is sickened by the death of Mr Hassam, but much more because she is mesmerised by Terry. To her, like Noli to Uncumber, he ‘really is a king’ – at first, anyhow. And like Uncumber, Hilary is in one respect a nasty little troublemaker, though, given her successes at Oxford and in the administrative fast stream, this has been pretty well disguised. She is bad news to the Home Office, and equally bad news to her little adoptive family in the offices of OPEN, where she soon talks her way into a job.
At the moment of walking out of the Home Office, Hilary has an intoxicating and terrifying moment of freedom; but she is already in thrall to Terry, whom she loves and hates and to whom she has entrusted stolen documents which could easily have her sent to prison. Terry is a professional enfant terrible; in one of his headline-grabbing ideas, a crowd of demonstrators in cat-masks gathers outside the house of a Permanent Under-Secretary (‘A cat may look at a king ...’). In Hilary he has met his match, and, after making love to her over one of the office desks, he begins experiencing fatherly feelings. He is, anyway, old enough to be her father, whom she has never known. Soon Hilary is being mothered by Jacqui, Terry’s office manager and long-time girlfriend, who overlooks the tell-tale signs in both capacities. This fragile family romance can last only as long as Jacqui and Hilary remain ignorant of one another’s sex lives, which in the nature of farce is not very long. As for Terry, he is so much a little boy at heart that he feels himself shrinking from his normal six foot two to nearer four foot six the moment he approaches the abode of his legal wife, who is stuck away on a Woolwich housing estate. Not for nothing is his full name Terry Little.
In A Very Private Life we were told that Uncumber had escaped from the privacy of the inside world only to find an even greater privacy outside. In her case, this was exaggerated by the linguistic incomprehensions which are quite a common feature of Frayn’s writings. Himself a noted translator of Chekhov, he has boldly incorporated dialogues in two or more languages in a number of his novels and plays. In Now you know a not dissimilar effect is obtained through differences of idiolect, since the narrative is made up of a series of monologues recounting the events as experienced by Terry, Hilary, Jacqui and some of the other members of OPEN. The privacies thus opened up for inspection show very clearly that everyone has something, usually something infantile, to hide. But Hilary’s disastrous arrival in the offices of OPEN is like the coming of a Freedom of Information Act and the sounding of the trumpet. Too much of OPEN’s philosophy is, apparently, more than humankind can bear.
With this in mind, it would obviously be impertinent to ask what a passion for farcical plots which bring out the adolescent and infantile sides of his characters reveals about the writer himself. Frayn is clearly not the sort of intellectual humorist who is too fastidious to make jokes about smutty magazines and lavatories blocked up with sanitary towels. (Indeed, there is probably a PhD to be written on towel-fetishism in his writings.) His schoolboyish and – as I suppose – inoffensive male chauvinism has only superficially been moderated since the Sixties and Seventies, when characters with names like Samantha Light-body and Lady Driver frequented his work. But George Orwell for one would not have held this against him, and the truth is that Frayn is among the funniest novelists alive today. ‘Life, I have come to see, is nothing more nor less than another way of writing file,’ notes Jessel, the civil servant who is the narrator of A Landing on the Sun. Clearly Michael Frayn ought to be a favourite in the home office, with or without the capital letters.