The Book Club

Spies: A Way To Entrance Those Who’ve Never Read Frayn

Dear Erik,

Frayn aims to write intellectually satisfying fiction, a genre I don’t generally like. An overload of look-how-smart-I-am moments wilts my pleasure even in Nabokov. Frayn is unusually immune to this smarty-pants instinct. It’s one of the reasons I find him such a terrific novelist and will cut him a lot of slack. But I find no slack-cutting necessary for the ending of Spies, which you found so disappointing.

It’s true that the book is dense with foreshadowing, literally from start to finish: The description of “homesickness for where I am” that appears on the first page is explained (with a reference to Heimweh and Fernweh) on the last. But I don’t think it’s Frayn’s intention to blow us away with such revelations. Otherwise, he would have kept the fate of the book’s most sympathetic character—Keith’s mother—more of a secret. And we know from the book’s fourth page (“She must be in her nineties now.”) that at least she won’t die of the children’s misdeeds.

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Yes, I sussed out the ending, which I described as “dramatic and satisfying,” not as the kind of thing that makes you sit up and say, Holy frickin’ bejaysus! But the fact that it’s not a shock is a matter of artistic choice rather than failure to gain a desired effect. Frayn has bigger fish to fry, the largest of which, as you nicely point out, is the poisonous dysfunctionality of Keith and Stephen’s friendship.

To call Keith one of the most unpleasant children in all of English fiction is a doozy of a claim. (Especially if you think, as I sometimes do, that the most realistic picture ever drawn of the English character is Lord of the Flies.) But I suppose you’re right. Keith is unpleasant for two reasons: 1) His father, with his annoying habits of whistling “the same tune that never reaches its destination” and demeaningly addressing his son as “Old Bean” is an odd combination of sadist and bore, and 2) he (Keith) is too lacking in imagination to do anything except imitate his father. He even tells Stephen at one point, “What are you blubbing about? That didn’t hurt. If you think that hurt you don’t know what hurting is.”

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Despite the dazzling pairings of Stephen/Keith and Keith/Keith’s father, the book is marked in general by a lack of credible relationships. That’s appropriate to the age Frayn is describing. Stephen, like most pre-adolescents, is unwilling ever to admit he doesn’t know something. Shortly after someone has called him a “sheeny” at school—which outrages Stephen’s father but provokes no effort on Stephen’s part to find out what the word means—he has this exchange with the 12-year-old (I assume) seductress Barbara Berrill:

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 “You mean you don’t know what privet is?” she says softly.
“Of course I do,” I say scornfully. And I do, just from the way she asked me. Or at any rate I know that it must be one of those things like bosoms and sheenies that ambush you when you least expect it.

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That said, Stephen and Keith do more fighting back tears, nodding, and having nothing to say than the theme of boyhood awkwardness makes strictly necessary. When Keith is humiliated in front of a gang of neighborhood kids, they just glower and pout at one another:

It’s Keith, dismounting from his bicycle on his way home from school, smiling his father’s little thin smile … I should step forward and help him. I should explain what’s going on. I do nothing, though. … Keith says nothing. For a moment our eyes meet, and I see the eyelids come down in the familiar curtain of contempt. … They all look at me. “He won’t even speak to you now!” … I don’t respond … Keith’s father has gone back to his workbench, Keith has gone up to his playroom. Nothing has been said. Nothing awkward is going to occur.

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I fear that, during this scene, nothing awkward occurs because Frayn hasn’t drawn the neighborhood children fully enough to craft a plausibly awkward scene.

One regret is that Frayn’s magnificent sense of humor appears only very fleetingly in these pages. It appears when Stephen fantasizes (or deduces—Frayn has a beautiful way of eroding the boundaries between the two) that Keith’s mother is nursing a shot-down German fighter. “Gradually she takes him to her bosom,” he thinks. “I feel light-headed. … It’s something to do with that bosom she’s taken him to.” Later he remarks of his adult occupation: “I don’t suppose you’ve ever read the English-language installation and maintenance manuals for Siemens transformers and high-voltage switchgear, but if by any chance you have then you’re familiar with at any rate some of my work.”

Anyhow, I’m awfully fond of Spies. It beats the Siemens high-voltage switchgear manual, and it may even beat Headlong as a way to entrance those who’ve never read Frayn with the puckish gloom of his recent novels.

Always a pleasure, mon vieux haricot,
C

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