BOOKS: In the Gardens of the Mind ; Feted for Fiction and Drama, Michael Frayn Now Returns to His Roots in Philosophy. BOYD TONKIN Meets a Writer Who Thinks Big, but Never Loses the Human Touch
Tonkin, Boyd, The Independent (London, England)
The apples on the boughs over our heads look almost ready to drop. A century ago, these fruit-laden trees at the back of Michael Frayn and Claire Tomalin's large walled garden near the Thames could have prompted reflections on Newton's mythical revelation. They might have summoned up the reassuring laws that governed the earth below, the skies above, and the thoughts within the minds of the creatures who made sense of this tangible world. Now, after Einstein, after quantumphysics, and after a harvest of revolutions in our grasp of the cosmos and consciousness alike, all that is solid seems to have melted into air. How can we really know that ripe apple will ever hit the turf?
From our table, the famously angular, quizically alert writer gestures over a smooth tract of Surrey lawn to his substantial - looking house. "I think it is striking, when you think about it, how little contact we have at any one instance with the world," he muses. "The eye has to keep moving continuously to have any picture of what's immediately in front of it at the moment. Just looking at this house - that doesn't exist for us at any one instant in time. That is constructed over a period." Blink, and there goes the neighbourhood... and I envisage a Michael Frayn sketch in which new theories of perception wreck the property market in Richmond-upon- Thames overnight.
In English literature, the terrain of philosophical comedy has often been a cramped one. Frayn's work has managed, over four decades, both to command and to extend it. In plays from Alphabetical Order to Copenhagen and Democracy, in novels from The Trick of It to Headlong and Spies, he has blown gales of laughter, intrigue and human perplexity over the shifting landscapes of science and philosophy. Order and chaos, perspective and relativity, randomness and causality: Frayn doesn't so much present versions of such ideas as enact them. Because, in the end, only the perfomance can ever test their worth. As he writes, "there are no rules without the game".
You might even connect the play-within-a-play farce of his global smash Noises Off - a laugh-machine from Sicily to Saskatchewan - to the interest in framing and viewpoint that flows through his career. "Everything is relativistic," he affirms. "There is no general frame of reference. There are particular frames of reference we use for particular purposes." Switch from one to another and the rep disaster in Noises Off becomes a sidesplitting pastiche, or the suburban home of Spies an outpost of Nazi espionage.
Around 30 years ago, the former journalist and 1950s Cambridge graduate in philosophy published a synthesis of the ideas that inspired or engaged him in Constructions. Now he returns to the battleground (or chessboard) of high-level speculation with The Human Touch: Our part in the creation of a universe (Faber, pounds 20). For Frayn, that human touch - our frame, our perspective - in effect creates a world that does exist without us, but not in a form we could grasp.
"There is this paradox that lies behind philosophy and science and everything else," he explains, quiet, precise and remarkably sure of his vast intellectual ground. "On the one hand, human beings are plainly very peripheral phenomena in the universe, both in time and space - an unimportant bubble on the surface of the ocean. But on the other hand, without human beings to perceive it from a particular point of view, and to talk and think about it, I don't see what substance the universe has. To me it's a tautology that, if there's no one there to talk about it, there's nothing that can be said. And at the same time one has to be bear in mind that it has this completely objective existence, independent of us."
With lashings of wit to leaven his erudition, a host of funny anecdotes and some exuberantly Fraynian digressions, The Human Touch develops its vision of a world spun from human stories. …