The Human Touch by Michael Frayn

I can’t imagine reading this book, having lived through Manny’s reading of it. It was awful, listening to him talk about how completely Frayn had misunderstood everything in science and philosophy he talked about. When he did come to actual interesting content by Frayn he couldn’t stand the round about, waffling way in which he wrote, peppering everything with asides which were sometimes entertaining and generally irrelevant. Somehow Bill Bryson writing mostly of irrelevancies is okay, but not Frayn. Maybe he isn’t good enough a writer.

Having started this book some years ago, I am certainly never going to read it now. I don’t have the discerning eye resulting from knowledge of the fields to be able to read it in a discriminating way. But I want to make a few points which come from my understanding of Frayn which explain the failure of this book.

The first is that this book is the consequence of a shambles – Frayn’s mulling over the world for a great many years. So when, for example, he discusses some point of AI which has been obsolete for decades, or a Chomsky theory which he himself abandoned before the old queen died, this is, I suspect, because his ideas came from that period. We happen to be reading them now.

The second is that this book undoubtedly reflects something Frayn talks about in Stage Directions – he found it very hard to go back to novels after working as a dramatist for a long period because writing plays was writing in a highly disciplined limited way, whereas novel writing was like open countryside compared with the city. Limitless. He found it necessary to create ways to give the novel limits. One can see that, for example, in one of my favourites, The Trick of It. In this context, what could be more unbounded, less able to be disciplined, than the subject of The Human Touch?

The third is that Frayn – and again this comes from reading Stage Directions – is obsessed with the notion of the audience and in particular with is ability to change the thing it is watching. Nothing is objective. The meaning of everything and anything comes from its audience. Again, one can see how strongly this comes to bear on the ideas he discusses in The Human Touch. If Frayn had stuck to novel writing and never written plays, I don’t think this book would ever have been conceived of, let alone written.

However wrong Frayn gets the science and academic philosophy into which he ventures, nonetheless he had a germ of interesting content of his own which has been so drowned in a bad book that Manny in his review couldn’t even bring himself to talk about it. He didn’t want to give the book one way to escape from its awfulness. It is a mystery to me that this book was published. A mystery that it didn’t go through some kind of editorial process that could have transformed it into something worthwhile. A mystery that nobody who did read it prepublication had any sort of knowledge which extended far enough to explain to him that most of the book is drivel. Alan Lightman post publication was very kind to it. Other reviewers to a man seem to have either not read it at all, lied through their teeth, or were utterly ignorant of good layman’s knowledge of the fields in question – science, philosophy, maths.

One could conclude that this is an exercise in the complete failure of the publication system. And yet, then one comes upon this, from the WestEnd Whingers, not about this book, but about the nature of the entity of Michael Frayn:

To stage one verse play may be regarded as a misfortune; to stage two looks like carelessness. Or malice.

Yes, after the unpleasantness of Fram, the National has contrived to prescribe for the general public’s indigestion yet another unpalatable dose of doggerel in the form of Michael Frayn’s Afterlife.

Surely some mistake? We think this is how it must have happened…

Picture the scene at the National’s literary department the day that the eagerly awaited jiffy bag from Mr Frayn finally thuds into their in-tray with the force of a brick into a box of kittens.

They tear off the top of the bag and all gather round to gasp in awe at the first sight of a brand new play by the very clever man who penned the brilliant Noises Off and some other plays that were clearly written by someone of great intelligence and went down very well with the critics.

Tentatively holding the edge of the front page by only his fingertips, Nicholas Hytner gingerly turns the page…

“Salzburg. 1920. Yes. Different. Ooh, Max Reinhardt. Yes, people may have heard of him. None of your Fridtjof Nansen nonsense. Heh heh. Promising, promising…”

Mr Hytner turn the page to Act 1 and freezes. The room, hitherto silent yet buzzing with anticipation, is suddenly merely silent.

“It’s… in… verse!” someone – possibly Chris Campbell – finally whispers.

“Oh, no!” cries the entire congregation.

“What are we going to do?”

“We’ll have to send it back”

“Send it back? Send it back? It’s Michael Bloody Frayn not Marks and Spencer. We can’t send it back!”

“Well, someone’s going to have to tell him! We tried all this rhyming stuff in that bloody Harrison thing and look where that got us.”

They all shudder.

Mr Hytner turns to the next page. Then the next. Then the next and so on faster and faster until:

“Wait! It’s OK. It’s not ALL in verse. Just some of it!”

“Perhaps we could just ask him to take out the rhyming bits?”

“Well, I’m not asking him. It’s Michael Bloody Frayn! You ask him.”

“You do it. You’re in charge, aren’t you?”

The phone rings. They all stare at it, then at each other. No-one moves.

“Oh for heaven’s sake….”

Mr Hytner answers it cautiously.

“Hello? Yes, oh, hello, Mr Frayn. Yes, Sir, it’s just arrived. We’re looking at it now. Yes. Marvellous. These rhyming bits… Yes, oh, I see, I see. Yes, very clever. Yes of course we’ll put it into production right away, Mr Frayn.”

For the rest of the absolutely hilarious description of the National’s staging of Afterlife go here But the point is, maybe it is this simple. The Human Touch thudded into somebody’s inbox, killing a few kittens on its arrival, and the rest was inevitable. And to think, if it had been the right size, the size it should have been, not even the teensiest new born kitty would have even noticed it landing….

4 thoughts on “The Human Touch by Michael Frayn

    • But Bryson is so boring after a while. I was actually being sarcastic there – Frayn is billion times better writer!

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