The Craft of Michael Frayn

The Paris Review interviews are an endless source of good advice and inspiration. Here’s a selection from their 2003 interview with Michael Frayn.

On the wide variety of his work 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.

On the difference between novels and plays 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.Because that was what it was about—the difficulty of understanding people’s intentions, even one’s own intentions.

On uncertainty Like anyone who is interested in science I was always interested in quantum mechanics, because it has so many bizarre philosophical implications. I have also been interested in what kind of knowledge you can have of people’s intentions. It just seemed to me that there is a kind of parallel between physical uncertainty and people’s intentions. The reasons why we can’t know everything about the behavior of particles are very different from the reasons why we don’t know everything about people’s intentions, but in both cases there is a theoretical barrier. What Heisenberg demonstrated is that even if we had much better machines, more accurate instruments, there was an absolute limit to our knowledge of physical objects that you couldn’t get beyond. Similarly, however much we know about biology and the structure of the brain, it is in principle impossible to have a complete understanding of intention and thought.

On creating characters Some writers claim that they start not knowing where the story is going to go. I can’t work like that. I do have to know where I think the story is going to go. However, then complications arise. It is like an industrialist setting up a new industry: He has this idea for a wonderful new product he wants to produce and it’s going to be of great value to the world, and all he has to do is build a factory, take on the staff and things will be fine. Then as soon as he starts to build the building, and as soon as he starts taking on the staff, problems arise: They make difficulties, they bring in the union, and so on. As soon as you involve other people in your schemes you get into difficulties. It’s like that with the characters. It sounds a bit whimsical but it does feel like that; as soon as characters come into the story, they begin to take on a life of their own, and they don’t always want to work the plot that you’ve so laboriously provided for them. It irritates me that they are so ungrateful!

On writing farce Farce chose me as its victim. When I first started writing farces, interviewers would ask me, Why do you do farces? Why don’t you write about life as it is? and I couldn’t understand what their lives must be like. I mean it seems to me that everyday life has a very strong tendency towards farce, that is to say, things go wrong. And they go wrong often in a very complex and logically constructed way—one disaster leads to another, and the combination of two disasters leads to a third disaster, which is the essence of classical farce: disaster building upon itself. It seems to me that the same thing happens in life, in my life anyway. I would like to live a life of classical dignity and write plays in blank verse or alexandrines.

On death I can’t say it’s something I think about a great deal. I’m against it, of course, but I can see that what gives life its value is that it is limited. What makes every moment precious is that there aren’t that many of them.

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Knowing vs. knowing about

There’s been a lot of coverage recently of Sam Gosling’s new book Snoop, which is subtitled What Your Stuff Says About You. The central thesis is simple: that the objects we surround ourselves reveal more of our character than perhaps we would wish. 

It’s not a new idea, but it’s an interesting addition to a number of current debates about the way in which we define ourselves, or come to be defined by others. In fiction, of course, there are various ways to delineate a character. Ian Fleming could be counted as a Goslingist: James Bond is more defined by his his choice of cocktails, clothes and cigarettes than by his spiritual quest for meaning. Superheroes, on the other hand, tend to be determined by a single but defining moment: Bruce Wayne, for example, only becomes Batman because of his sense of injustice at his parents’ death. In literature, Paul Watkins’s characters are determined by the age in which they live, victims of history, whereas Nabokov’s are prisoners of a single but obsessive psychological drive. 

All of these are valid, but all are too easily cheapened into the kind of fridge magnet drama so familiar from bad television: Haunted by his tortured childhood/ past as a soldier of fortune/ father’s madness, former surgeon/ vet / sommelier turns detective while battling alcohol addiction / schizophrenia / penchant for fairy cakes. In reality, of course, past experience is pretty simplistic as a determinant of future behaviour. It also leads to predictable drama, in which every character has a secret past that explains exactly why they behave now as they do. 

One of the reasons that reality shows can be so gripping is precisely the absence of this kind of cause and effect psychology. We don’t know the pasts of these people — we rarely even know their second names — so our entire judgement of them as characters is based on their actions and reactions to the people around them. It’s easy for writers of fiction to rail against the proliferation of reality shows on TV, but more useful, I suspect, to see what we can learn. I was reminded of this recently while reading Michael Frayn’s The Russian Interpreter, in this exchange between Manning, the hero, and his best friend Katerina:

“Surely it’s right [says Manning] for us to try to understand our fellow human beings?”

“You don’t come to know people well by knowing about them. I know you very well, Paul, without knowing anything at all about you. I don’t want to find out what you’ve done in the past, or why you did it. That would be idle curiosity. The answers would be irrelevant to what you now are. They might even conceal you from me … Don’t you know that God washes out the past each evening, as if it had never been, and that we are born again each morning? What happened yesterday is just gossip, Paul, just empty gossip.”

The truth, surely, is somewhere in between. People’s pasts do help determine how they act today. But Katerina has a point. It’s too easy, writing fiction, to reach for the cause-and-effect solution: what Sidney Lumet dismissively calls the “rubber ducky” effect (“he had his rubber ducky taken from him as a child, and that’s why he turned to crime”). You don’t know people well by knowing about them: you know them well by what they do.

Units of the public language

Three quite separate things happened in the past week that together seem to add up to a whole. First, I read that Gordon Brown is looking for a new speechwriter. Second, I went to a debate at the RSA about the crisis in democracy. Why, the panel wondered, do voters feel alienated from politics, and disinclined to participate? And third, I came across this passage in Michael Frayn’s 1966 novel The Russian Interpreter, in which the narrator, based in Moscow, attends a cultural event with an English acquaintance:

On the slightest pretext, at even quite small receptions, Proctor-Gould would make a speech. The phrases which came rolling so steadily and emphatically out on these occasions — ‘the cultural treasure-house we share’, ‘setting our barren suspicions and fears behind us’, ‘practical steps to increase our mutual confidence’ — were not exactly cliches. They were units of the public language.

Forty years on, replace Proctor-Gould’s words with “hard-working families”, “the broken society” or “sharing the proceeds of growth”, then wonder why voters might feel disconnected …

The Comfort of Death

I’ve been thinking a lot about Death this week. Before you reach for your black ties and canapes, I don’t mean death, but Death, as he appears in The Seventh Seal, The Book Thief and now, at the National Theatre, Michael Frayn’s play Afterlife, based on the life of the German impresario Max Reinhardt. Afterlife interweaves Reinhardt’s life in Anschluss-era Salzburg with text from his epic production of Everyman, the 15th century English morality play, in which God, feeling that Man has neglected him in favour of material goods, sends Death to stir things up a bit. In the original, Everyman is a wealthy merchant who enjoys the finer things in life. Confronted with the reality of his own extinction, he initially tries to bribe Death out of it; then, through a series of encounters, comes to realise that all he can take with him to his final reckoning are his good deeds. Having learned his lesson, he goes on to redeem himself and earn his place in Heaven.

There’s an obvious moral parallel to be drawn between Reinhardt, the solipsistic, sybaritic director and Everyman, but Frayn has written something far richer and more complex than that. There’s the political picture, of an Austria riddled with anti-Semitism and openly flirting with the Death that lurks across the border; there’s the creative picture, of a theatrical genius confronted with the ultimate ephemerality of his work; and there’s the personal picture, confronting the audience, of how much reality we can face. Do we need to see Death conquered to sleep easy in our beds?

Frayn’s Death first arrives on stage in a play within a play within a play (I may have lost count at this point). And yet, with all the artifice of theatre stripped away, the audience still gasped in shock. For all our apparent sophistication, Frayn suggests, the old black magic retains its power. The same is also true of Bergman’s Seventh Seal, which defies decades of parody to remain as clammily compulsive as it ever was. So why, I wondered, coming out of the theatre, is Death such a perversely comforting figure?

First, the Western character of Death is himself a servant, not a master. He’s not vindictive, not judgmental, just an honest Joe getting on with the job. When Bergman’s Knight asks for clemency, Death sighs, “They all say that,” like some infernal traffic warden. Second, he’s the ultimate equal opportunities employer. There’s no glass ceiling, no class prejudice, no skills gap: as Everyman discovers, you can’t buy your way out (although I’m betting Rupert Murdoch has a back-up plan). Markus Zusak’s novel The Book Thief is narrated by Death. This is how he introduces himself:

HERE IS A SMALL FACT: You are going to die.

I am in all truthfulness attempting to be cheerful about this whole topic, though most people find themselves hindered in believing me, no matter my protestations. Please, trust me. I most definitely can be cheerful. I can be amiable. Agreeable. Affable. And that’s only the As. Just don’t ask me to be nice. Nice has nothing to do with me.

REACTION TO THE AFOREMENTIONED FACT: Does this worry you? I urge you — don’t be afraid. I’m nothing if not fair. 

Third, he often has a sense of humour: laughter in the dark. Bergman’s Death is teasing; Zusak’s world-weary, wanting to be liked; Frayn’s is silent but mocking, puncturing complacency, the ultimate satirist. And fourth, he communicates. Death in life is an event, Death in fiction a relationship. In Philip Pullman’s  trilogy His Dark Materials, your Death is fully personalised, following you like a shadow, protecting you until the moment comes. 

For many centuries in Western culture, and still in many traditions around the world, Death was a familiar character in fiction, drama and at public rituals and celebrations. But he rarely appears in our contemporary culture, which obsessively conceals the realities of death, and has abandoned long-established traditions of public mourning. And I wondered, watching Afterlife, if, by losing Death, we’re losing something comforting. Because the reason Death the character, in all his ragged humour, world-weariness and lack of judgement, is reassuring is that that Death himself, like all of us, is everyman.