Michael Frayn’s “My Father’s Fortune”

March 25, 2011

Now in his late 70s, Michael Frayn, the accomplished British novelist (“A Landing on the Sun”) and playwright (“Noises Off”), turns his hand for the first time to nonfiction, a memoir of his childhood and the maddening, endearing father who played so large a role in it. “My Father’s Fortune” is funny when it needs to be, touching when it needs to be, and for the most part is cast in smooth, beguiling prose with the exception of one rather bizarre grammatical tic, about which more later.

For many years the Reader’s Digest ran a popular feature called “My Most Unforgettable Character.” Thomas Frayn was precisely that so far as his only son was — and is — concerned. He was born, in January 1901, into a poor London family of which “every single member except for the two-month-old Thomas” was “deaf and dumb” (and in time it caught up with Tommy too), or so they were described in that year’s census, though in fact they could speak. Frayn writes:

“What they were all suffering from was presumably, as I have discovered from the Internet, late-onset hereditary deafness, for which apparently the gene has now been discovered, though I’m not quite sure what’s happened to it in the three generations since then. A puzzle remains, though. If it’s hereditary it’s not surprising that one of the parents was also deaf. But both of them! Was this pure coincidence? Or had they been drawn to each other in the first place because of their deafness?”

Tommy’s education was limited, indeed. “At the local central school he was given personal tuition in French by a master who perched on the desk in front of him and brought a book down on his head each time he made a mistake. As a teaching technique this was remarkably effective — it knocked every single word of French out of him.” Never mind. Tommy was smart, and soon he was “leaving school at the age of fourteen and just starting out in the world to help support his family.” In time, he worked his way up to a job as sales representative for Turners Asbestos Cement, which manufactured and sold roofing and was a particularly important government supplier during World War II.

When he was 18, he met Violet Alice Lawson — she “was still only fourteen” — and fell in love with her immediately. They waited until 1931 to marry however, because in the meantime, with the death of his father in 1920, Tommy had become his family’s principal means of support, a burden he shouldered without complaint, just as he declined to complain when, at his marriage, Vi’s querulous mother moved in with them and remained with them for the next 18 years.

Michael, their first child, was born in September 1933, followed four years later by a sister, Gillian Mary, known to all as Jill. “So there we all finally are,” Frayn writes. “Mother and father, a boy and a girl (and Nanny [grandmother] to fuss over them). At 3 Hillside Road, East Ewell, twelve miles out of the smoky heart of London — a detached house at last . . . with no one quarreling and banging about on the other side of the wall, no one overhead, no one underneath. In a trim green cul-de-sac where no trams clatter and no drunks sing and vomit.” They had crawled into the lower regions of the middle class, where they remained — at times somewhat precariously — until Tommy’s death at the age of 69.

Shockingly, and heartbreakingly, Vi preceded him by fully 35 years, succumbing to a sudden heart attack in November 1945, leaving her little family totally bereft and bewildered. For a time Tommy hired a housekeeper to care for the children and the house, but that didn’t work out, so the responsibility fell to Nanny, 73 years old and “decidedly frail.” Times were hard:

“What those bleak years after my mother’s death were like for my father is perhaps indicated by the state of his health. I don’t know what the original symptoms were, but he was diagnosed as ‘run down,’ that vague metaphor of an overtaxed car battery, and was prescribed a daily dose of burgundy — Australian burgundy, which at the time was probably rather like topping him up with battery acid. . . . He was often confined to bed. His flu one winter turned into double pneumonia. . . . Later he slipped a disc in his back and could scarcely get in and out of his car. For months or years he was in constant pain and undergoing continually changing treatments.”

Yet through all that, he “kept things going for my sister and me.” While both of his children went through boilerplate adolescent self-absorption and rebellion — Michael, by his ready admission, was an especially vexing case — Tommy soldiered on, carrying out his parental duties as best he could and giving more love than he seems to have received, though he expressed it tacitly. Now Frayn reflects: “The same strange thought recurs, and it’s one that it’s taken me all these years to think: the realization that he loved my sister and me and that we brought him happiness.” What seems to have provoked this understanding is “the joy that my [own] children have given me,” but then it often takes people many years and much experience to understand their parents, and even then that understanding inevitably is incomplete.

Reading about this traveling salesman of asbestos roofing — and, yes, that particular chicken eventually came home to roost — one can’t help thinking of Willy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” and of all the maudlin lines Arthur Miller managed to conjure up to describe him: “I don’t say he’s a great man. Willy Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper.” But Tommy Frayn is a much better character, full of “sharpness and cheek,” not to mention a much better man. He had a smile that really could light up a room — “It’s what everyone always remembered about him. It emerged from the depths of him. When he smiled the smile became him; he became the smile” — but what he gave his son ran deeper than that:

“To me personally he left a fortune — an intangible and unrecorded legacy more precious than money or anything he might ever have written down. The humor he used to deal with his customers and circumvent his deafness, his indifference to all systems of belief, the smile on his face that I sometimes find so disconcertingly on mine. My very existence, in the first place, of course – and the beginnings of a life that turned out to be so much easier than his. I didn’t have to share two rooms with six other people or a kitchen and lavatory with four more. I didn’t have to leave school at fourteen, or go out and sell things, or support feckless parents and in-laws. He loved me, saw to it that I was fed and clothed and educated, and left me reasonably free to get on with things in my own way. What more can anyone want from a father?”

What indeed, and what a lovely tribute. What a pity it is, therefore, that from beginning to end “My Father’s Fortune” is marred by Frayn’s apparent inability to distinguish between subject and object, or, as grammarians have it, between the nominative and objective cases. To wit: “John, ten years older than me. . .,” “with as much aplomb as Lane and me,” “she’s thirty years younger than him.” Really, what are they teaching at Cambridge these days? Are editorial pencils no longer used at Faber & Faber, Frayn’s British publisher, or Metropolitan, his American one? This may seem mere nitpicking, but it’s not. These are basic, rudimentary grammatical errors, and the ones I’ve cited are merely three among many. For a writer of Frayn’s reputation and accomplishment, they are inexcusable.

MY FATHER’S FORTUNE

A Life

By Michael Frayn

Metropolitan.
273 pp. $25

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