Friday, December 21, 2018

the last book I read

A Landing On The Sun by Michael Frayn.

Jessel (no, not that one) is a mid-ranking civil servant in some anonymous government department in Whitehall, dutifully producing and reviewing various reports requested by mysterious superiors and then carefully filed and never read by anyone. One day a slightly more interesting piece of work lands on his desk: review the circumstances of the death of Stephen Summerchild, one of Jessel's predecessors in a similar job, who fell to his death from the roof of a government building 15 years earlier (which according the the novel's internal timeline would have been in 1974, in the early days of the second Wilson government).

There's been a cursory report on the incident on file for a while, but it's been rumoured that a television company are sniffing sound for some material for a documentary and might find the incident to be of interest, so Jessel is tasked with having another look and making sure there are no skeletons lurking in the closet. Jessel has some personal interest in the case because he vaguely knew Summerchild through being in an orchestra with his daughter Millie while they were both at school, though Summerchild's death scuppered any fledgling romance.

The first thing Jessel discovers is that Summerchild had been involved with the start-up of some ill-defined government Strategy Unit, part of whose initiation had involved the hiring of an Oxford professor of philosophy, Elizabeth Serafin, and the locating of the Unit (basically just Summerchild and Serafin) in a little-used attic room in a secluded corner of some government building. Jessel finds his way up to the attic and finds it little-changed since the Unit used it, and various boxes of documents lying around which he starts to sift through. Some of these documents turn out to be transcripts of discussions between Summerchild and Serafin which were originally recorded on cassette tapes; it also transpires that after the Unit's transcriber, Mrs. Padmore, resigned, further conversations were taped but never transcribed. Jessel finds these tapes in a cupboard in the kitchen next to the attic room and starts the lengthy job of listening to them.

And a rum experience it is too. The early exchanges are mainly about defining the Unit's terms of reference, which are very vague and have something to do with Quality Of Life, which Serafin takes to mean that part of their job is defining what that phrase means, and by implication (since the two concepts seem to overlap) what "happiness" means. Inevitably discussions around this subject start to pull in details from the two protagonists' personal lives: Summerchild is apparently happily married with a teenage daughter (Millie), Serafin is married to a famous philosopher and has two older sons but we are invited to infer that the marriage is no longer a very happy one, and further to infer that this is because of his repeated infidelities.

To Jessel's further appalled fascination, the conversations captured on the tapes go on to reveal that Summerchild and Serafin were conducting a clandestine love affair in their little attic hidey-hole, to the extent of basically moving in together. They'd brought cooking equipment in, an airbed, and had even taken to climbing out of the skylight in the kitchen to sunbathe on the roof.

But even poorly-defined projects have targets and people whose job it is to monitor them, and eventually the hands-off approach that had been taken to the Strategy Unit is put aside and management types come calling to check on progress. Finding Summerchild and Serafin ensconced in domestic bliss rustling up lunch in the kitchen with the airbed propped up against the wall prompts something of a review of the project's aims and viability, and when Summerchild next arrives he finds that the locks on the attic room have been changed. He's able to get into the room via some hair-raising manoeuvres round the outside of the building, but then finds that the phone has been cut off as well, so he can't contact Serafin to tell her. Escaping up through the skylight onto the roof, he attempts to find another way down, and, Jessel concludes, accidentally falls to his death while trying to scale a wall of the old Admiralty buildings.

There are a couple of things that we have to remember here: firstly that all that we're learning about the Summerchild/Serafin relationship and everything that went on up in the attic room is derived from Jessel's listening to the tapes, and a lot of the time he's trying to work out what's going on from various obscure distant banging noises. So there's a possibility that he's completely misinterpreted things and has constructed a whole fantasy world from some half-heard sounds on a tape; we are invited to assume that Jessel has it about right, though, and we don't get the sort of rug-pull that we get at the end of The Conversation which throws everything that has gone before into doubt. But the possibility remains. Secondly, it would have been fairly straightforward for Jessel, on the wholly justified pretext of government business, to have gone to see Serafin, still alive and living in Oxford, and talked to her about the whole affair, but he doesn't.

Frayn has lots of fun with the early business of the Strategy Unit as Serafin leads Summerchild through some philosophical discussions about happiness - some of this reminded me a bit of the sort of stuff you get in David Lodge's books (like, for instance, Thinks...). We never really get any feeling for why the two main protagonists fall hopelessly in love with each other, or exactly how they conduct their relationship under the bizarre circumstances they find themselves in. If they're humping on the desk then either Jessel is too polite to mention it or they've turned off the tape recorder.

This is a lighter and less serious book than the other Frayn on this list, Spies, for all that it ends with the death of one of the principal characters. It doesn't quite go where you think it's going to go at the start, and once you think you've got into the rhythm of it it doesn't quite go where you think it's going to go at the end either. None of this is necessarily a bad thing, of course, and while I didn't think it was as good as either Spies or Headlong, the only other Frayn I've read, I still enjoyed it very much.

A Landing On The Sun was made into a BBC Screen Two drama in 1994 (Frayn himself wrote the screenplay), starring Robert Glenister (who I have LITERALLY MET in real life, albeit briefly) as Jessel and Roger Allam (best known to those with small children as the narrator of Sarah And Duck) as Summerchild. No clips of this appear to exist on YouTube, although I did find what appears to be a complete Screen Two adaptation of an earlier entry on this list, The Children Of Dynmouth.

The book also won the short-lived Sunday Express Book Of The Year prize in 1991. I have read all but two of these (the entries for 1989 and 1992) and two of the winners have also previously featured on this blog: The Colour Of Blood and Age Of Iron.

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