At the moment I’m reading a novel by Michael Frayn called Spies. I picked it up at a second-hand bookshop on the
Thames, in front of the BFI which is a
place I love to browse, as only knowing Frayn as a playwright I was curious.
Turning each page in rapid succession I realise Frayn’s novels are every bit as good as his plays. Spies is a story about the anxieties and adventures of two imaginative boys during the Second World War - the period soberly referred to as ‘The Duration’ - as well as the winding and unwinding of memory and conscience as an older man looks back on a compelling chapter of his boyhood.
Standing in a street etched deeply in his psyche, and watched over by an unknown boy in a window, Older Stephen pictures Young Stephen (that is, his younger self) sitting for hours and hours in exactly the spot where a pot of geraniums now flourish. I love his observation:
“I ignore him (the boy at the window). I go on thinking about that head over there, the one growing out of the geranium pot. The thing that’s so difficult to grasp is that it’s the very same head as the one that’s here on my shoulders thinking about it – and yet I’ve still no more idea of what’s going on inside it than the boy behind the curtains has about what’s going on inside my present head.”
Older Stephen juggles images and recollections, struggling to clarify the memory of himself hiding endlessly in a privet hedge (aka a secret WWII lookout) with the same fogginess Young Stephen struggles to comprehend current events and childish imaginings:
“Most of the time you don’t go around thinking that things are so or not so, any more than you go around understanding or not understanding them. You take them for granted.”
It is this undiagnosed habit of ‘taking things for granted’ which interests his older self, as he can see how many times his youthful self should have stopped to ask ‘why’. Older Stephen is also intrigued by his ability to take disparate incidents and perceptions, rooted or not rooted in fact, and join the dots. That is, file a story in his mind, a story which inevitably becomes a belief, whether or not it is fully logical or fair.
In a complex weave of subtle elements, Frayn, through the voice of Older Stephen, suggests we all have an innate desire to settle “the shifting thoughts” in our heads… the “sticky mess” of confusion and discomfort… so as to make sense of our experience. Indeed one of the reasons the novel is so illuminating, is because it is driven by the human, but fallible, desire to make an inner narrative, a truth, out of a straggly collection of events and judgements. And by a seemingly universal tendency for personal narratives to take on a life of their own… so it often seems too late to go back… too late to reframe or question… too late (or perhaps painful) to bring an examiner’s light to the presumptions and actions already taken by ourselves and others… however objectively incomplete that narrative (or judgement) may have become.
Of course there are many purely positive reasons why narrative is important, indeed crucial, as a tool for life and art. I haven’t finished the novel yet, so I expect to be further surprised by what Older Stephen sees in Young Stephen; or learns from the juxtaposition of present rationale and post judgement. What strikes me already, however, is the extent to which playwrights and scriptwriters have humorously played with the repercussions of narrative as a human foible.
Take Frayn’s own theatrical hit, Noises Off: conscious and unconscious, intended and unintended consequences flow when a set of characters are intent on keeping up appearances, are determined to maintain a particular narrative no matter how many ludicrous events occur because of that dogged determination. The confusion and hilarity of Oscar Wilde’s ‘bunburying’ in The Importance of Being Earnest comes from a similar source; as does much of the posturing and improvisation by Basil in Fawlty Towers.
For, in a dramatic piece of work, when people have an overly desperate need to force things to conform to their practical or psychological interpretation, to prolong a narrative, however reasonably or unreasonably constructed, it is easy to identify and laugh at the human bind.
It takes a writer of Frayn’s skill, however, to gently and painstakingly prize open a character’s psychology to illuminate this same tendency in a person’s more personal story; in a human-being’s subconscious, even as the inner narrative is being formed.
For reasons I can’t explain, while reading the novel I have been transported in my narrative back to
. I am seeing a little old man driving a small
silver van. He is coming toward a closed
gate at the top of a hill, past bountiful cypress trees in the middle of Tuscan
countryside. I see him often, and every
time I shake my head in disbelief. For
this little guy pulls the van up in front of our fence, gets out and opens two
sides of a large heavy gate, then gets back in and drives a hundred
metres through a garden before pulling up again and doing the same with another
iron gate of similar proportions. He
then leaves the gates open, much to the annoyance of tenants, and continues on
the white chalky road a little before turning left and finishing the
journey in his own driveway. Italy
The reason this scene, repeated as often as a Pavlov's dog experiment, is so ridiculous - is that the apartments, garden and pool between these gates are on private property. When the Commune gave permission for the owner to renovate and extend the buildings, they compelled him to put another road, of similar quality, immediately around the top periphery of the hill, so residents on the other side of the incline wouldn’t be inconvenienced. He duly did and that road is always kept well graded and accessible even in the middle of winter. This little guy, however, seeks to enforce his right to use the ‘old access way’, despite there being a far more convenient alternative immediately before him - such is his staunch determination to prolong the narrative in his head which says “the landowner should not have been given permission by the Commune to make any changes to the road and I refuse to accept it”.
I used to get a great kick out of watching this guy get out of his car in pouring rain and snow in order to maintain justice as he saw it, for I figured he only had himself to blame if he caught his death of cold for being so bloody minded. Well, ninety percent of the time I found it funny, until one day when I left my car in front of one of the gates for five minutes (rushing back inside to grab something I’d forgotten) which resulted in the old guy turning up and giving me an unexpectedly aggressive telling-off. “Use the other road, you fool” I wanted to say, “it’s only three metres to your right and you’re making a huge drama out of nothing”… but in the heat of the moment, and with the noise of his incessant car horn, I couldn’t find the right Italian words so I simply waved my arms with commensurate passion and swore back at him.
The confrontation aside, I’m sure my point is clear: it’s hilarious to see exaggerated examples of desperate ‘hanging on’ to narrative, to one reality, if faced with obvious evidence of other or better interpretations. It’s like banging your head on a brick wall and hoping by the time you stop the provocation which got you started has gone away.
But a clever writer like Frayn leaves readers wondering: when do each of us hang on to inner narratives and perceptions which serve no long-term beneficial purpose? And how often do we, or others, prolong a psychological narrative with heavy justification in order to make ourselves feel better; possibly at the expense of someone else? I have no idea, of course, if that was Frayn’s intended message in the novel. There are other themes. Yet the wonderful value in a work of artistic depth and quality - whether literature, theatre or the fine arts – is that it touches our humanity, raising questions and reflections which might otherwise never surface.
And having said that, I now need to get back to the book, I want to know how Spies ends.
I’m hooked on the narrative.