Michael Frayn reveals the hidden trauma behind the laughter as he heads for Marlborough
Misfortune, not fame, is the spur to success – and being a joker is one of the key elements in overcoming the emotional disasters life serves up that leave you gasping.
That, at least, is the roll call for Michael Frayn, now, at 78, a remarkable prize-winning novelist, funny and serious playwright, screenwriter, biographer, and admired translator of Chekov, who arrives in Marlborough at the end of the month -- to make us laugh.
His latest comic novel, Skios, virtually a farce of mistaken identities with bed-hopping delights and hilarious high powered conference confrontations, all set on a mythical Greek island, has failed to make it from the long to the short-list for next month’s £50,000 Booker Prize.
His novel, Headlong, did reach that stage in 1999, but since he has collected almost 20 major prizes in the past, he can shrug his forever charming shoulders to tell me: “I didn’t honestly expect to be on the short list. It’s nice to win literary prizes, not so nice if you don’t.”
He legitimately points out that the Booker concentrates on serious rather than comic novels, hence his lack of expectation. And given that Howard Jacobson, also due at the Marlborough Literary Festival, won last year with his comic novel, The Finkler Question, a second coming for comedy was most unlikely.
He is surprised to discover that Ed Miliband, the Labour leader, took Skios, now doing nicely in the charts, on holiday with him last month. “Oh good, I hope he enjoyed it,” he adds with his typical light touch.
But where did his comic gene come from? That’s what I want to know – only to discover that comedy, as always, is created out of tragedy, ferments in fraught emotions, grows as a panacea to defeat the nightmares moments that haunt you.”
In Frayn’s case it was his early years, his literary-minded father, Tom, suffering from serious hereditary deafness that didn’t exactly help him in his job as an asbestos tiles salesman.
“It was not a good combination,” admits Frayn, who revealed the past in a moving family memoir, My Father’s Fortune, published three years ago. “He used to keep the conversation initiative by telling jokes, by being funny.”
“That’s because either people laugh or don’t laugh, and you don’t have to listen too closely to their replies. So I too was a joker growing up.”
“In my early adolescence I had a rather difficult time because my mother had died when I was 12. And having done reasonably well at school, I then sank to the bottom of the class because I discovered I could amuse the class by mocking the teacher.”
“I’m afraid I chose that easy and somewhat cowardly option for some years before I started to work again. I had been moved a great deal from one class to another and I found it difficult to keep fitting in with a new group of people.”
“I discovered this was the way to do it – by making them laugh.”
He underplays his emotion stress since his father offered no displays of affection, in fact refusing to allow Frayn and his sister to attend the funeral of their talented violinist mother Violet, who had dramatically dropped dead from a heart attack, aged 41.
Post-war national service provided one escape for Frayn because he was trained as a Russian interpreter/translator, as were thousands in all three services, Frayn taking a course at Cambridge, where he spent a year on the fringe of the university, where he later returned to read moral sciences and philosophy at Emmanuel.
That ability to speak Russian came in practical use on the only occasion he visited Marlborough in the past, working as a volunteer, appropriately as the entertainments officer, at a camp set up for refugees from the Hungarian revolution crushed by Soviet tanks in 1956.
“It was quite difficult because I didn’t speak any Hungarian and none of them spoke English,” he recalls. “The only thing that saved me was that their natural leader, who they all respected, had spent the war in a Soviet prison camp and spoke fluent Russian. So we were able after all to communicate.”
It is these insights into Frayn’s past that reveal the reasons for his past novels and plays dealing with subjects such as spies and nuclear weapons, not to mention democracy itself, though he disdains the offer to pronounce on our current economic chasm and its reverberations.
His days, too, as a soft-hearted journalist on the Manchester Guardian, which produced his brilliant satirical novel Towards The End Of The Morning, often compared with Evelyn Waugh’s unforgettable Scoop, have sealed his success.
“There are tough options in journalism, but working on the Guardian was an easier one,” he admits. “I remember once being sent to cover a murder, so ghastly a murder that the news editor said to me, ‘Now Michael please go and look at the outside of the house where it happened, then to the police press conference’.”
“ ‘And then come straight back to the office. Don’t try to steal anyone’s wedding photographs.’
“So I had it very easy and enjoyed it very much.”
That understanding of the harsh world enables him to lift us out of the gloom and in his own disarming way is enjoying a round of literary events promoting Skios.
“Most audiences come to literary festivals because they want to hear the talks and want to enjoy it,” he insists. “So they tend to be frightfully rewarding audience for authors. And it’s great sometimes to get out of one’s study and meet the people.”
As for those who head for Marlborough town hall on September 29, they might a heed a line I found amid the fun and fornication in Skios: “There was a suggestion of gold in the air.”
pic courtesy of Faber & Faber