The Book Club

The Mental Terrain of a WWII Childhood

Dear Erik,

Most readers know Michael Frayn through his plays (particularly Noises Off and Copenhagen). A lot of Frayn’s English fans think his greatest work was the Flann O’Brien-ish newspaper column he wrote for the Guardian in the early 1960s. But Frayn has also been writing novels for 40 years. His recent fiction has taken a turn toward Nabokovian complexity, particularly in Headlong, where he intertwines two suspense stories—one in which an art historian tries to authenticate a lost Bruegel painting and another in which he tries to con the painting’s owner into parting with it cheap.

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Spies is this kind of epistemological mystery-within-a-mystery. The plot is simple—perhaps too simple to carry 300 pages worth of reflection. The narrator, Stephen Wheatley, looks back on his suburban-English adolescence in World War II and at an incident that has scarred his life permanently. Stephen and his best friend Keith suspect—or pretend to suspect—that Keith’s mother is a German spy. So they spend their days staking out the neighborhood from the secrecy of a privet hedge. She’s not a spy (of course), but she does have a secret (of course), the discovery of which will have fateful—in fact, deadly—consequences.

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Without revealing the plot, which is resolved in an immensely dramatic and satisfying fashion, it’s hard to convey just what’s so gripping about this book. But as they fantasize about spies, it becomes clear that the boys are the real spies, reconnoitering the enemy territory of adults, learning about sex and vulnerability and power and betrayal.

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Frayn is about as distant from his childhood as Stephen Wheatley is from his, but what a sensitive understanding he has of the mental terrain. The war, for instance. Stephen has little memory of what an adult would remember from World War II—the privations, the insecurity, the deaths—but vividly recalls the gamesmanship and gadgetry. He has no sense of the preciousness of rationed food and cigarettes but is fascinated by the military hardware that passes overhead on transport trains. He’s ignorant of the wartime adulteries that are being consummated all over his neighborhood, but he’s acutely sensitive to other secrets people might be hiding. Following Keith’s mother as she walks into the woods, Stephen says, “She may have a transmitter hidden here somewhere. Or there may be some kind of secret research laboratory that she’s spying on.”

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It’s not just the mental terrain of childhood that Frayn knows cold but also the emotional terrain, especially as it concerns suggestibility and cowardice. There’s the moment when, after steeling himself to defy Keith’s sadistic father—and succeeding!—Stephen finds he cannot hold out against the word, “Please.” There’s the moment when his neighbor Barbara, a year older than Stephen and presumably smarting a little more under the lash of puberty, tries to win him over to romance by turning him against Keith:

“He’s so stuck-up. Everyone except you really hates him.”I realise that she’s being spiteful just because she knows he doesn’t like her. All the same, I can feel the words “horrible” and “hates him” taking hold somewhere inside me like germs, in spite of myself, and I know the infection from them will gradually creep through me like the sour dullness of a low fever.

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A deep phobia of Stephen’s—so deep that he never identifies it as a phobia—is of germs. He feels it when he sneaks out in the night (“The slime [on a wall] is full of germs—I’m getting germs all over my hands”), when someone holds a knife to his throat. This, too, strikes me as a perfectly accurate rendering of preadolescent fears.

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In general, where most authors romanticize coming of age as a time of easy, obviously liberating “I gotta be free”/”I gotta be me” resolutions, Frayn offers a richer and more accurate rendering. For him, adolescence is a period of claustrophobia, paranoia, and diminishing options, when childhood consolations cease to console and adult freedom of action is not yet anywhere on the horizon.

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Now, one can fault Frayn for telescoping all of childhood into Stephen’s character. Stephen’s intellect strikes me as that of a 6- or 7-year-old. He doesn’t really understand the phrase “for the duration,” so he says, “We have to endure hardships for the sake of the Duration.” Stephen and Keith want to mark their hideout in the shrubbery as private, so Keith puts up a sign reading “privet”—and the bushes happen to be privet. But his emotions are primarily those of burgeoning sexuality—say, those of a 12- or 13-year-old. When Barbara invades the secret hiding place about which Keith has sworn Stephen to secrecy, she sends Stephen into an erotic delirium, even if it comes to him wholly through his discomfiting perceptions and not through his thoughts: “The blue purse has come to rest on top of my hand. I can feel the bobbliness of the leather and the shininess of the popper against my skin, and the wetness on the edge of the flap where she was catching it against her lip.”

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Does that incongruity (between a prepubescent brain and pubescent emotions) bother you? It doesn’t me. Maybe we can go deeper into this tomorrow, but for now let me just remark on one of the niftily orchestrated echoes in this book. Early on, Stephen notes a moue-ing little smile in a photo of Keith’s mother taken around the time of her wedding, and comments that “she’s playing at being the grown-up she has since become.” When Stephen sees exactly that smile at a desperate moment much later in the book, it shows what strikes me as the book’s great motif: that (to quote André Malraux) “There are no adults.”

Best,
Chris

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