It must be, I would have thought, quite rare for a writer to sit down and sadistically decide “I am going to write a farce”, as Frayn appears to have done here. Farce has an inflexible set of rules and protocols that can work well on stage, when in the course of a performance improbabilities can be disguised and belief suspended, but within the pages of a novel, set aside every now and then for reflection and consideration, the natural objections that spring to mind – “he wouldn’t behave that stupidly!” or “She would check before doing that” – come to the fore and won’t be ignored. I’ve long admired the artistry of successful farceurs, on the basis that farce is one of the most difficult forms of literature to pull off successfully, but trying and missing is a bit like jumping the Grand Canyon – failure even by a small margin is pretty catastrophic. So to mix my metaphors Frayn is on a highwire from the outset with this novel, and while the effort is impressive I would struggle to describe the performance as enjoyable.
This all has a strong period feel to it, and in the character of the academic travelling from one far flung conference to another, peddling his tired theories about nothing much I was reminded of the portrait in Larkin’s “Naturally the Foundation…” from Whitsun Wedding. The other strong echo was of Carry On films – Carry On Conferencing. So spot the foreigner with the silly accent, who can’t speak proper English, and has an identical twin brother, with much hilarity ensuing. Things are thrown in pools. Lonely secretaries yearn to be taken away from all of this. Russians are gangsters; Americans are fat and stupid. Someone even gets into bed with the wrong person and only realises their mistake when things start to get intimate. We only needed a matron and a bit of drag to complete the picture. I am not complaining – all these characteristics one would expect in a farce – but you do have to wonder who finds this funny in 2013?
Despite all this I was willing to give Frayn the benefit of the doubt. This was a gentle undemanding read, with what felt strongly like half an eye on the TV adaptation market. The jokes just about work, and the plotting was sufficiently tight to keep me reading. But there are only so many times the same plot devices can be used to keep the action moving, and ultimately Frayn completely ducks out of even trying to make the novel’s ending work. Having orchestrated a big finale, with all of the characters moving towards a final scene in which all the threads are drawn together, misunderstandings explained, lovers reconciled etc, it all falls flat.
If you want a beach read and some gentle discourse on identity, academia and relationships, you could do worse, but you could do a lot better – David Lodge’s “Small Worlds” for example.