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

By Tonkin, Boyd | The Independent (London, England), September 22, 2006 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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.

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.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
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.

Cited article

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
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
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?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
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.

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.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?