May 24, 2012


by Michael Frayn
288 pages, Metropolitan Books

Review by Bill Kirton

As well as being an entertaining, absorbing read, this is a master class in the art and craft of writing. It’s a memoir in the course of which Frayn sketches the broad sweep of the history of his immediate family, with his recollections of his father and the similarities and differences between them as his primary focus.

It must be difficult, when writing something as personal as this, to separate the writer and the person doing the recollecting. When taking something as intimate as a childhood memory or a close family relationship and then using writerly skills to present it in its clearest form and with exactly the impact you felt it had on you yourself, you run the risk of fictionalising it, creating a distance between you and the memory. In fact, Stendhal, in his memoirs, often stopped and told the reader ‘I’m not going to describe this any further because it would be to “faire du roman”’, i.e. turn it into fiction. But Frayn has no such problems; he’s totally honest about what are the facts of events and what he’s guessing may have been happening. He often prefaces a description of an incident, a person or an experience by telling us that he thinks it was thus but it may have been otherwise. Many of the sequences begin with ‘I’m pretty sure that …’, ‘I suppose …’ and other such expressions.

But the people and places in his life are all given a real, independent presence, with their hairstyles, the clothes they wear, their habits and way of speaking, or their rooms, the colours of the walls, the character of their neighbours. And subtly, amongst them all, interacting with them, observing and affecting them, there’s Frayn the boy and young man, being evoked at his various stages by Frayn the writer as the one becomes the other.

The ‘Fortune’ of the title is carefully chosen because the book’s not just about the shifting finances of the Frayn clan during the war and post-war years but also the luck, bad and good, which befell his father and the family. One of his earliest memories is of his mother telling him, when he was about six, that his forebears were French and that, in the 16th century, one of them, a pirate, was caught and hanged. His ship was impounded and its gold was still being held ‘in Chancery’ for any Frayn who could prove he was a descendant. And it’s from such telling little details that Frayn constructs the various themes of his tale and sets up ironies, parallels, mysterious ‘correspondances’ (sic) which give meaning to events as they unfold.

Frayn makes much of the accidental nature of life, nowhere more so than in recounting how his parents met. He feels ‘an instant of vertigo’ when he thinks of the implications of that chance event but then  he recounts it in the simplest terms, telling how a friend asked Tom, Frayn’s father to be, to go to a party with him because the friend fancied a girl called Vi who was going to be there. Tom shrugged and agreed to go. Frayn’s aunt told him that, when the two men came into the room, Tom saw the girl his friend fancied, walked straight across to her and said ‘I’m Tom. I suppose you’re Vi’. And that was it. From that meeting came, in Frayn’s words, ‘My existence, for a start, and my sister’s. The lives of my three children and my sister’s two. Of our eleven grandchildren…’

He’s articulating simple truths that govern the existence of each one of us, and his narrative recalls not just his own people and surroundings but the changing face and pace of London, the shifting social and cultural moods and habits of Britain. When you read My Father's Fortune, you get to know Frayn and his family but your own memories are triggered or new ones are formed by sharing his persuasive evocation of life over the decades from the thirties onwards. It’s a wonderful book.

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