Is there a funnier play in the modern repertory than Michael Frayn’s “Noises Off”? I doubt it. Not surprisingly, the same comic élan can be found in Frayn’s novels, most recently in the intricately plotted, hilarious “Skios” (2012), which features everything you need for a perfect late-summer romantic comedy: a blissful Greek island, a hoity-toity think tank, multiple mistaken identities and a pace as frenetic as any Marx Brothers movie.
As it happens, Frayn’s early novels are just as good, and now — thanks to the estimable Valancourt Books, a small press based in Richmond — five of them have been reissued with new introductions by the author. Besides “The Tin Men” and “Towards the End of the Morning,” about which more anon, these include “The Russian Interpreter,” “A Very Private Life” and “Sweet Dreams.” This last I read years ago and look forward to rereading: In it, Frayn imagines a consumerist heaven, a design-your-own afterlife.
Published in 1965, “The Tin Men” was Frayn’s first novel and has long been one of my favorite books. It opens as media mogul Rothermere Vulgurian paces around an office lined with million-dollar paintings while berating his public-relations adviser, Sir Prestwick Wining. After pausing “to pick absent-mindedly at the impasto on a Pollock,” Vulgurian says, “I counted five cigarette ends and four used matches on the floor of the lift this morning. What do you think of that?”
To which Sir Prestwick answers, “Someone must have used a lighter, R.V.” Badda-boom.
Other jokes are far more subtle. The founder of the Arts and Crafts movement hated machine culture, so naturally the novel’s action takes place at the William Morris Institute of Automation Research. The plot itself focuses on an upcoming visit by the queen to this busy state-of-the-art computer facility.
How busy? In the institute’s Newspaper Department, prototypes are being “programmed to produce a perfectly satisfactory daily newspaper with all the variety and news sense of the old hand-made article.” Researchers have diligently identified the standard variables and invariables in such human-interest stories as “I Plan to Give Away My Baby, Says Mother-to-be” and “Child Told Dress Unsuitable by Teacher.” Soon even an editorial celebrating a royal wedding will practically write itself. One need only choose between such phrases as “it is fashionable to scoff at the traditional morality of marriage and family life” and “it is no longer fashionable to scoff at the traditional morality of marriage and family life.” Either one works.
In the institute’s Sport Department, it is taken for granted that “the main object of organized sports and games is to produce a profusion of statistics.” However, the department head, Hugh Rowe, can usually be found working on his unwritten novel’s dust jacket copy. Will the book achieve “the staggering feat of uniting the sober density of Robbe-Grillet to the broad comic tradition of P.G. Wodehouse,” or will it be “the story of a whisky priest, tortured by the consciousness of having committed every sin?” Then, again, perhaps the book might focus on “four men — a refugee dictator, an advertising copywriter, an alcoholic war-hero, and a class-conscious trade unionist — who find themselves marooned on a tiny island in the steaming heat of the Torres Strait. With them is a beautiful young society woman who was on her way to enter a nunnery. . . .” There are other possibilities, as well, and perhaps a computer just might be of help.
In Britain, “Towards the End of the Morning,” initially published in 1967, is widely regarded as the best comic novel about journalists since Evelyn Waugh’s “Scoop.” (I myself would vote American and pick William Kotzwinkle’s “The Midnight Examiner.”) Here, though, Frayn treads quite near the line separating comedy from pathos. Even while laughing, most notably during the doomed Magic Carpet junket to the Middle East, I couldn’t help but feel sorry for his self-deluding characters.
Chief among these is John Dyson, who oversees, with two assistants, his newspaper’s crosswords, a column called “In Years Gone By,” and uplifting little “Meditations” sent in by rural clerics. As it is, he can barely stand the pressure, although long, beery lunches with alcoholic colleagues do help. Now in his 30s, Dyson is desperate to build a new career as a television personality. So far, though, he has mainly done BBC radio work: “As a matter of fact,” he tells his assistant Bob, “I’m getting quite a following in West Africa. The producer had a letter this week from some girl in Conakry, of all places, asking for my photograph.”
Dyson and his wife, Jannie, live in a dilapidated house in a decaying neighborhood with their young sons Gawain and Damian. The latter, we are told, “was an imaginative child, but what he imagined was extremely boring.” Already, Frayn writes, one “could see the name Damian Dyson on the spine of some thick volume embodying a lifetime of diligent pedantry, or an endless, worthy novel about feuds and forbidden passions through seven generations in a Norfolk rush-cutting community.”
When Dyson’s big break comes — an invitation to join a televised discussion of race relations — he first looks up his fellow panelist Lord Boddy in “Who’s Who.” The nobleman’s publications include “The Case for Disarmament” (1939); “Let Victory be Ours” (1942); “The Russians — Our Comrades!” (1945); “World Communism: A Study in Tyranny” (1949)” and similar works revealing a mind carefully attuned to the zeitgeist.
Quite understandably, the nervous Dyson wonders about the demeanor he should adopt for the broadcast. “Should he lean forward passionately and denounce things? Or should he sit back in his chair and smile calmly at the idiocies of mankind?” It goes without saying that he knows nothing about race relations, nor do the other panelists, all of whom parrot hysterically inane catchphrases.
Meanwhile, Bob’s girlfriend — the insecure daughter of a clergyman — arrives in risqué London. As Tessa exits the train station, she glimpses “men in well-cut dark overcoats” who, she is convinced, are “on their way from spending the afternoon in small Bayswater hotels with other men’s wives.” In fact, Tessa accurately perceives that romantic Mrs. Dyson and randy Mrs. Mounce, the wife of obnoxious Pictures editor Reg Mounce, are both smitten with the rather emotionally dimwitted Bob, who “liked to have time to think what he was going to feel about something before it happened.”
And much does happen. Reg Mounce grows obsessed that a letter giving him a month’s notice must be a prank. But is it? Then Dyson’s department acquires a new trainee, the ultra-sophisticated and ambitious Erskine Morris. Bob explains to him how to edit newspaper copy: “It’s just a matter of checking the facts and the spelling, crossing out the first sentence, and removing any attempts at jokes.” Morris, of course, needs no help whatsoever.
Besides these five superb light novels, let me also recommend Valancourt’s edition of Frayn’s “Matchbox Theatre,” a collection of 30 comic mini-dramas for the mind rather than the stage. It’s apparent that, whatever the genre, Michael Frayn is always a captivating writer and — note to copy editor — that’s no joke.
Michael Dirda is a regular book reviewer for Style and the author of the just-published “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books.”
By Michael Frayn
Valancourt. 152 pp. paperback; $14.99
By Michael Frayn
Valancourt. 210 pp. paperback; $15.99