Tale of Exorcising Boyhood Memory, with physics.(BOOKS)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 5, 2002 | Go to article overview

Tale of Exorcising Boyhood Memory, with physics.(BOOKS)


Byline: Hans Nichols, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Perchance, Michael Frayn's 10th novel, "Spies," could have been written as a play. The plot is conveniently chronological and the number of characters is under a dozen. The setting is sparse. Indeed, most of the scenes could be rendered in black and white. But what a joy for the reader - and an accomplishment for the writer - that Mr. Frayn chooses a novel to unpack this boyhood mystery. And what a surprise that, as a novelist, Mr. Frayn arrives at a different set of conclusions than he does as a playwright.

Of course, Mr. Frayn may be best know to Washingtonians as a playwright, not a novelist. His play, "Copenhagen," played London's West End for three years, received numerous awards, and recently ran for four (all too brief) weeks at the Kennedy Center. Those who caught the play will find familiar themes in the novel, as Mr. Frayn uses "Spies" to chase a few of the stray electrons that escaped from "Copenhagen." To be certain, Mr. Frayn is not as ambitious with the novel as he was with the play. There he succeeds in reducing a cocktail of complexities - nuclear physics, memory, perspective - into human terms.

In the play, and to a lesser extent in the novel, his subject is Werner Heisenberg's "principle of uncertainty," a frequently cited, but scarcely understood, axiom of quantum theory. As Mr. Frayn is doubtlessly aware, to paraphrase the Heisenberg Principle is to do it an injustice, especially when the paraphrasing and analogizing leaves the realm of physics and enters the provinces of philosophy, history, and, even worse, politics.

Rather than explore the uncertainty principle in the jargon of philosophy or physics, Mr. Frayn, sensibly, sticks to the tools of the novelist (and playwright): characters and narration. As his characters struggle to recall the past, they can never be certain of the accuracy of their own memory. In "Copenhagen," questions about the reliability of memory are left decidedly unanswered. The only possible conclusion is that there isn't any. However, in "Spies," Mr. Frayn keys a slightly different note: The past becomes a much more manageable entity. His story concludes with a degree of certainty about what actually has happened. So as a novelist, Mr. Frayn believes that time and perspective provide clarification, not confusion.

That's not to say the writer doesn't have a little fun with his readers along the way, inserting the occasional false passage, dummy quote, and trap door. One of his favorite tricks is to have the narrator say something and then snatch it back with, "but that's not what I said." Mr. Frayn is able to play with his reader through the dual narration of a young Stephen Wheatley and his older, wiser, self. The story begins with a graying Stephen journeying back to the hamlet of his youth. Why? His reasons are mysterious but something compels him to return. As he puts it, he needs to smell a shrub, "I scarcely like to name . . . It's too ridiculous." "A trip down Memory Lane, perhaps," mocks his son. "Exactly," he replies, "The last house before you go round the bend and it turns into Amnesia Avenue."

Incidentally, amnesia is one thing the older Stephen does not have, as he vividly recalls the smells, the emotions, and the precise sequences of events of a summer that passed 60 years ago. Upon returning to his street, the ominous "Close," our older narrator observes the younger one. Little Stephen is walking across the street to see his best friend, the spoiled but imaginative, Keith Hayward. The two of them, not the most popular boys on the block, play the sort of games that require sacred oaths, bayonets, flashlights, and secret hideouts - standard boy stuff in wartime England. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Tale of Exorcising Boyhood Memory, with physics.(BOOKS)
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.