This piece was written in 2009.
When I read this book I could see nothing in it but the idea that you have been given this gift of life and you have to do the right thing by it. That to give up on finding love and happiness is to scorn this gift.
And yet…maybe the very opposite is true. Maybe what I should have seen is the idea that you should stay where you are, that the miserable life you know is better than the unknown dangers of the happiness and love you could choose to seek.
And yet…maybe it is simply thus: the best whodunnit ever.
There is a sex scene. Even though I’ve read the book twice, I forgot this until rereading it a third time today:
I got back into my own bed. The point is that you raise your hand if you can see someone else with red hair. Serafin raises her hand. Summerchild raises his violin. I raise my trombone. I begin to play with great pleasure. The secret, I discover, is in the long, regular strokes of the slide. I laugh as I play – it’s so easy and so delightful. The sunlight flashes on the bell of the instrument. It swells in the lovely warmth, and pulses, and melts, and all the sweetness of the world comes bursting out…
I am wide awake as I get out of bed this time, and the appallingly cosy warm wetness around my shrinking genitals turns soberly chill as the night air strikes it. I look very levelly at myself in the bathroom mirror as I wait for the water to run warm, and the same old face I went to bed with looks levelly back at me. My beard is trim and grey again, not wild and red. I think we are both shocked and surprised, my face and I. This hasn’t happened to us for a number of years. What’s going on? The great muddle of the world, the great muddle of the past, is reaching out for us, reaching into us, and we don’t like it.
My face has stopped looking at me, though, I realise. I think it’s thinking about something else. About how insidious, how overpowering, how irresistible that forgotten sweetness for one moment was.
Generally I’m pleased that Frayn has so much to say that he can leave the sex altogether for the many writers who face the daunting task of empty pages and not nearly enough to put on them. Yet I read this and think even sex is something he could make better than it is.
Having thought about this book for months, and reread it several times against my own principles, I fail to see an adequate way of reviewing it.
I have this strong sense it is an important book that everybody in the world should read. Perhaps the bottom line is that if you are miserable and wish to stay where you are, it will comfort you. It won’t make you feel less miserable, but it will make you feel like you are better off than the crazy people. If you are miserable and believe that you should seek love and happiness, it will make you see with clarity and certainty that anything is worth that.
And if perchance you are one of those lucky people who is quite content with his lot, you will nonetheless be delighted by a charming and amusing account of human nature.
I have this strong sense that the world would be a better place if everybody read this book. But maybe I have to feel like that, having given up one life in search of another. Mostly I believe in the optimism I took from it. But there are days when I sit and wonder, Jesus, Michael Frayn, what the fuck have you done to me?
On those days I want to reword the definition of happiness as put forward by Summerchild as he and Serafin set upon an investigation into the nature of happiness. Eventually it becomes simple and clear to them. Summerchild says:
I should say that happiness is being where one is and not wanting to be anywhere else.
Yes. To be sure. If you are happy that is so clearly true. And yet….there are these days where I wonder if it is enough to say happiness is not being where you don’t want to be? Would that do instead?