Dad at a Distance
By CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY
Published: March 3, 2011
Contemporary British letters do not lack for memoirs, autobiographies and other works in which the main event is the father-son relationship. John Mortimer’s wonderful play “A Voyage Round My Father,” about his dad, a celebrated, blind barrister; Max Hastings’s funny and touching “Did You Really Shoot the Television?,” about his feckless but irresistible father; Auberon Waugh’s sublimely titled “Will This Do?,” about life with Evelyn, who comes off (to my mind, anyway) as the Dad From Hell; then there is Auberon’s own son Alexander’s superb multigenerational layer-cake memoir, featuring Auberon-Evelyn-Arthur; Martin Amis’s nuanced but adoring portrait of his dad, Kingsley; and most recently Christopher Hitchens’s brilliant “Hitch-22,” featuring his complex, fraught relationship with his father, Commander Hitchens of the Royal Navy. Rich terrain — and I’ve probably omitted a dozen or so others.
MY FATHER’S FORTUNE
By Michael Frayn
Illustrated. 273 pp. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt & Company. $25.
Excerpt: ‘My Father’s Fortune’ (March 6, 2011)
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Courtesy of Michael Frayn; from “My Father’s Fortune”
Tom Frayn with Michael and his sister, Jill, in 1937.
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Courtesy of Michael Frayn; from “My Father’s Fortune”
Tom Frayn, Michael and his sister, Jill, are joined by Michael’s mother, Violet; her mother, Nell Lawson; and an uncle, Sid Bubbers, in 1943.
Comes now Michael Frayn’s “My Father’s Fortune,” about his dad. Frayn says at the outset that his father has been dead for 40 years and that he wrote the book at the urging of his 47-year-old daughter, Rebecca, who wanted to know more about her antecedents. One senses that Frayn was initially reticent about the project; but by the time it ends, as many such books do, on a confessional, apologetic note, you feel his relief at having gotten it out. Rebecca owes her dad a kiss and a big thank-you.
Michael Frayn is probably best known in the United States for his hugely successful 1982 comedy, “Noises Off,” which was nominated for a Tony Award for best play. He is probably next-best-known here for his drama “Copenhagen,” about — as Monty Python used to put it, “and now for something completely different” — an encounter in 1941 between the German physicist Werner Heisenberg and the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. It won the Tony for best play in 2000.
Frayn boasts a résumé that would make even Gore Vidal feel inadequate (well, maybe not). Fifteen plays; 10 novels; screenplays; he’s translated Chekhov and Tolstoy and won so many literary awards and medals that if he wore them all at once, he’d look like one of those Soviet generals on top of Lenin’s tomb on May Day. He is, in so many words, a significant literary personage.
I had to keep reminding myself of this fact during the first 70 or so pages of this book. At one point, a line from Clive James’s review of Leonid Brezhnev’s memoirs, which is mentioned in “Hitch-22,” came to me: “Here is a book so dull that a whirling dervish could read himself to sleep with it. If you were to recite even a single page in the open air, birds would fall out of the sky and dogs drop dead.”
I hasten, indeed sprint, to qualify that somewhat impolite reference, for a few pages later, Frayn’s book kicked in and began to engage. It is not his fault that, as he puts it, “my father moved lightly over the earth, scarcely leaving a footprint, scarcely a shadow.” Yet the problem remains — turning Tom Frayn’s life story into compelling stuff. That said, by the end, it has become compelling. And with a dramatist’s sure touch, Frayn introduces a ticking hand grenade on Page 107 that may have you saying to yourself: “Oh. My. God.” Any translator of Chekhov is familiar with Chekhov’s rule: introduce a rifle in Act I, and it must be fired by Act III.
I don’t want to spoil it for you, but there’s no point in being coy, so here it is: It turns out Dad works for a company that makes asbestos roofing and piping. Not only that, but he’s constantly bringing home asbestos samples — huge chunks and slabs of pressed carcinogenic material from which the family makes (one cringes) myriad household items. Young Michael makes toys out of the stuff, hacksawing away at it, merrily filling the air with asbestos particles. My “Oh. My. God” moment came when they started making tomato planters out of it. Alas, the rifle does go off in Act III, but not quite as expected.
Frayn’s childhood was a mix, or, to use one of his logophile father’s favorite words, gallimaufry: a bit of Dickens, a bit of Wodehouse. He was 10 years old in 1943 and thus had a front-row seat at the blitz and the buzz bombing. He relates vivid and hairy memories of the “doodlebugs,” the improbably cute nickname given to the V-1 missiles that annihilated 6,000 Britons and wounded tens of thousands more.
His mother dropped dead of a heart attack in November 1945, having survived the war. He and his younger sister, Jill, were not allowed to attend the funeral, presumably on the grounds it might upset them. Their father wasn’t emotionally frigid, exactly, but neither was he a hugger.
“I suppose that he loved my mother,” Frayn writes. “And loved me and my sister, though he never said. Perhaps, it occurs to me now with a shock of surprise, he loved us as blindly and helplessly as years later I love my own children — was filled with the same joy at the sight of us as I am at the sight of them.”
Dad remarries a whack job named Elsie, the widow of a tinned-ham entrepreneur. The Frayns’ modest living standard suddenly rises to the level of petite bourgeoisie as they move from a rented home named Duckmore into nicer digs named Chez Nous. For a time, Elsie is Lady Bountiful, cheerful and loving and dispensing pound notes from her handbag — until we discover that she suffers from what we now call bipolar disorder. Michael spends the balance of his father’s second marriage tiptoeing around Chez Nous on eggshells.
But by now Michael is in secondary school, where his keen intellect is nurtured by a Mr. Chips type nicknamed Gobbo, the kind of teacher who makes a critical difference in a young man’s life. Frayn forms a close male attachment — not homosexual (oddly, for a British memoir) — with a fellow student named Lane. Years later, Lane, now a senior civil servant in Canada (that must have been an exciting life), rebukes his old pal for having spoken publicly about their friendship and saying that it had “homoerotic overtones.”
With the help of an assiduous and beguiling crammer (tutor), Frayn matriculates at Cambridge, somewhat to the disappointment of Frayn Sr., who had hoped his son would follow him into the — gasp — asbestos business. After he graduates with a perfectly respectable 2.1 degree (a “first” being the best), his father can only shake his head. “I knew it wouldn’t come to anything, going to Cambridge.” But by then Frayn has already gotten a reporting job on The Manchester Guardian. Modestly, he barely says a word about his later successes.
And there the story does not end. There is redemption. There’s a heart-rending deathbed scene. And the rifle — hand grenade, doodlebug, whatever — that has been introduced on Page 107 finally goes off, casting a terrible pall.
In the final pages, Frayn, who in addition to Russian well knows his Greek and Latin, writes of his father, “I have borne him as best I could out of the ashes of the past in the way that the pious Aeneas bore his father Anchises on his back out of the ashes of Troy, in those pages of Virgil that fluttered away in the wind so many years ago.”
This is beautiful writing. This is Michael Frayn’s gift, not so much to his father, who one guesses would probably just have shrugged, but to a daughter who wanted to know what it had all been like. Rebecca’s fortune is quite a large one. h
Christopher Buckley’s latest book is “Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir.”