Michael Frayn Interview

Great interview with Michael Frayn in the current issue of the Paris Review. It covers a lot of ground. From how he approaches his craft (both novels and theatre) and his career in journalism to discussions on the difference between comedy and farce and the role of politics.

I recently picked up Frayn’s most recent novel Spies but haven’t read it yet. Last year I read the interesting work he co-authored with David Burke entitled The Copenhagen Papers: An Intrigue which involves a hoax that grows out of his play Copenhagen. This particular play (which centers on the relationship between Danish atomic physicist Niels Bohr and his protege, German scientist Werner Heisenberg, and a famous, but mysterious, meeting between the two in 1941) happens to be playing in Columbus right now. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I found this interview not only fascinating but fortuitous.

Allow me to give you a taste or two.

He compares wrestling with characters to being an industrialist:

It is like an industrialist setting up a new industry: He has this idea for a wonderful new product he wants to produce and it’s going to be of great value to the world, and all he has to do is build a factory, take on the staff and things will be fine. Then as soon as he starts to build the building, and as soon as he starts taking on the staff, problems arise: They make difficulties, they bring in the union, and so on. As soon as you involve other people in your schemes you get into difficulties. It’s like that with the characters. It sounds a bit whimsical but it does feel like that; as soon as characters come into the story, they begin to take on a life of their own, and they don’t always want to work the plot that you’ve so laboriously provided for them. It irritates me that they are so ungrateful! One has given them life, existence, and they won’t fall in with one’s plans. And just as in life the factory owner has to negotiate with the striker, and say, Alright I’ll pay you more if you do this or change your practices on that, so you have to negotiate with your characters, go along with some of their ideas hoping that they’ll go along with some of yours. And the whole story begins to change.

His facility with language is intimidating. Listen as he describes his literary influences:

INTERVIEWER: Who else did you read who might have been influential?

FRAYN: Goethe as soon as my German was good enough. Vanity Fair, Thomas Love Peacock, Evelyn Waugh, of course, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Henry Green. As soon as my French was good enough, Mauriac, Gide, Sartre—particularly Les Chemins de la liberté, Malraux—and a wonderful romantic novel of Provençal life which probably isn’t considered by anyone now, but which had a great and lasting effect on me: Henri Bosco’s Le Mas théotime. The obvious classics I didn’t get round to until later, when I was a student, insofar as I ever read them at all, and my Russian wasn’t good enough to read anything in Russian until then.

I struggle to read and grasp classic literature in my own language, let alone master another and tackle its literature in the original.

If I need another reason to like him, he provides it:

INTERVIEWER: When did you stop being a communist?

FRAYN: Oh, very quickly. By the time I left school. If I had any lingering sympathies for the Soviet Union they vanished in 1956, when I and four friends at Cambridge who all spoke Russian organized an unofficial exchange with the Soviet Union, and that was an eye-opener.

Nice to know that not every writer was blind to the totalitarian nature of the Soviet Union!

If you are interested in literature, writing, or just interesting people check out the whole interview. It is discussions like this that inspire me to work harder at my own interviews.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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