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

Article excerpt


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. …