Like Michael Frayn's father, most of us "move lightly over the earth," leaving traces of our brief presence only in the hearts and minds of our loved ones who remain behind. The difference in Tommy Frayn's case is that his son is a prize-winning novelist and dramatist, and thus able to endow his father's outwardly ordinary life with elements of humor, pathos and even courage. Frayn's memoir is a tender, witty look through one man's story at working class life in 20th-century England.
Born in 1901 into a family that suffered from congenital deafness (a condition that would surface in his own life as an adult), Thomas Allen Frayn spent much of his childhood in two rooms with his parents and four siblings. By age 14, Tommy had left school to take a job as an office boy, launching him into the world of work that would define his life. He was a born salesman, a gregarious, natural storyteller, even as his deafness impeded his dealings with customers and he responded by making himself "more of a character."
But apart from his work, the other pole of Tommy Frayn's existence --- a source of pleasure and pain --- was family. Shortly after marrying Violet Lawson in 1931 (Michael was born in 1933; his sister, Jill, three-and-a-half years later), her family's economic fortunes crashed and her mother moved into the household where she remained for 18 years. Tommy was an attentive husband and father until a blindingly unexpected family tragedy in 1945 permanently altered the course of his life's final quarter-century.
Michael Frayn lovingly reveals the quirks of his father's personality to create a fully realized character. Tommy struggled to overcome his disappointment that his son would never become a cricket star and was baffled by Michael's affinity for romantic poetry and brief flirtation with Communism. The elder Frayn's parsimony was epic, and Michael captures it with characteristic wit. "Some people, brought up as my father was in straitened circumstances, run wild when they get a little money and spend, spend, spend," he notes. "This is a pitfall that my father shows no signs of falling into." Even the family's small collection of books --- a telephone directory, Shakespeare's complete works and two volumes of photographs of Switzerland --- are "presumably surplus stock" or presents for customers of his father's company, a supplier of asbestos. "A lot of our possessions have come to us in a somewhat similar way," Frayn confesses.
Much of the family saga told here played out against the perils and privation of the Second World War, and Frayn delivers a seriocomic account of the period all referred to as "the Duration." Of a backyard air-raid shelter that turned into a stagnant pond, he writes that "the chances of dying in the shelter, either of exposure, drowning, or some waterborne disease such as cholera or bilharzia, are visibly much higher than of dying through enemy action in the house." And yet he recognizes the razor-thin line that separated life and sudden death in the story of the "doodlebug," a deadly species of drone that buzzed past the Frayn home one evening and slammed into a nearby house, killing all its inhabitants.
By the early 1950s, Michael had endured two years of service as a Russian interpreter in the British army and then three years at Cambridge (topics it appears he's reserving for another memoir). The subject of payment for his higher education was one of some humorous contention between father and son. As he embarks on a career in journalism, there's a recognition that though his life has turned in a direction almost incomprehensible to his father, something more than a grudging sense of pride forms in the older man.
For all their many moments of conflict and misunderstanding, Michael Frayn proves himself a compassionate judge of his father's quirky legacy, probably the most any parent can ask of a child. "To me personally he left a fortune --- an intangible and unrecorded legacy more precious than money or anything he might ever have written down," he writes. "The humor he used to deal with his customers and circumvent his deafness, his indifference to all systems of belief, the smile on his face that I sometimes find so disconcertingly on mine." It's not hard to imagine Tommy Frayn reading those words with that very same smile.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (firstname.lastname@example.org) on March 28, 2011
My Father's Fortune: A Life