Michael Frayn’s new novel is a loss-of-innocence story in which an elderly narrator is prompted to disinter long-buried memories of a particular time and place. Slowly at first, a narrative begins to emerge: a golden summer, a semi-rural idyll, the first stirrings of adolescence. Rather than having a poignant romance with someone close to his own age, though, the protagonist becomes embroiled in adult affairs which he is ill-equipped to understand. Childish misapprehensions unearth grown-up betrayals, with unhappy results for everyone concerned; and the narrator is left with a lifelong unease that can only be confronted and examined from the perspective of old age.
In one sense, the book’s most obvious model is L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between. Like Hartley’s narrator, Leo, Frayn’s protagonist, Stephen Wheatley, is tormented by a schoolboy code prohibiting sneaking, blubbing and emotional expression in general. Leo is bullied by ‘Jenkins and Strode’, Stephen by ‘Hanning and Neale’. Both boys worship the family of their posher, more worldly best friend, and both are unwillingly recruited into that family’s clandestine traffic. A summer heatwave building to a rainstorm points up the emotional climate of The Go-Between: the waning of the moon performs a similar function in Spies. Flowers play central symbolic roles in both novels, and both are also haunted by war: Hartley’s novel, set at the time of the Boer War, glances forward to the Somme, while Frayn returns to a Second World War childhood.
Frayn does more, however, than recycle the one-golden-summer, traumatic-discovery-of-sexuality novel; he plays complicated variations on his essentially old-fashioned scheme. The Go-Between’s big secret – the illicit affair between Marian Maudsley of Brandham Hall and the Lawrentian farmer Ted Burgess – is revealed to the reader fairly early on, and Hartley makes no bones about drawing up a chargesheet against late Victorian sexual and class hypocrisy. Spies is a much shorter book, but it’s also much more taciturn about its secrets. And although the novel seems to be a very English exercise in nostalgia, it eventually turns out to have been quietly developing some entirely different themes. These aren’t all impossible to guess at, but Frayn’s careful narrative framing and skilful misdirection make the book’s final revelations seem both surprising and, in retrospect, obvious all along.
The book opens with the jarring scent of a plant, ‘the same almost embarrassingly familiar breath of sweetness that comes every year about this time’, which the aged narrator’s daughter identifies as ‘Liguster’. The emotions evoked by the smell set the old man travelling back to the town where he grew up, to the life he lived as a child and to ‘those six simple words that turned our world inside out’. These words are ‘My mother is a German spy,’ and they are spoken to Stephen by his friend Keith Hayward from No. 9, the Close. Keith has his own playroom and bedroom and goes to the local prep school. His mother is languid and elegant, while his father works manfully around the house before cycling off at weekends in a Home Guard uniform complete with bayonet – although Keith claims he’s really doing undercover work for the Secret Service. Keith even has an uncle away with Bomber Command, and generally forms ‘the officer corps in our two-man army’. Stephen, on the other hand, is ‘the Other Ranks – and grateful to be so’. To his shame, he lives in a semi-detached house – one of the only ones on the Close – and shares a bedroom with his insufferable older brother. He feels there’s ‘something not quite right’ about his ‘unsatisfactory family’; his mother is perpetually harried, and his placid, office-working father has never once addressed him as ‘old bean’. He doesn’t have his own cricket bat, goes to the wrong kind of school, and can’t believe how lucky he is that Keith has befriended him.
Keith doesn’t reveal how he knows his mother is a spy, but Stephen takes his authority for granted. (Keith has discovered some surprising things before – notably that one of the houses on their street is occupied by ‘the Juice, a sinister organisation apparently behind all kinds of plots and swindles’.) They start following Keith’s mother around, logging her every move in a notebook marked ‘SECRIT’. At first, their attempts to interpret her inscrutably ordinary activities throw up little more than philosophical problems (‘Even what appears to be happening directly in front of your eyes, you realise when you think about it, turns out to be something you can’t actually quite see after all, to involve all kinds of assumptions and interpretations’). But Keith soon finds hard evidence of a genuine secret: a tiny ‘x’ jotted between a date and a phase of the moon in his mother’s pocket diary. Next to another date, there’s an exclamation mark.
He turns the pages again. More xs. More exclamation marks. As I record them, a pattern begins to emerge. The x, whatever it is, happens once a month. Sometimes it’s crossed out and entered a day or two earlier or later. The exclamation mark, however, has happened only three times so far this year, and at irregular intervals – on a Saturday in January, on another Saturday in March, and on a Tuesday in April. This last date, I’m somehow disturbed to see, is also marked ‘wedding anniv’.
Because the xs keep rough step with the lunar calendar, the boys surmise that she meets her German controller on moonless nights.
They redouble their surveillance from a private hideout – which Keith marks ‘PRIVET’ – in the bushes by a bombed-out house. Just as they’re about to lose interest, they notice something else: during her frequent trips to the shops and the postbox, Keith’s mother occasionally vanishes for short periods of time before reappearing with uncanny abruptness back in the Close. Eventually they work out where she goes, but this only deepens the mystery. Stephen certainly can’t work out what she’s up to; he still half-believes she’s a spy, but a local girl has some equally troubling explanations which come from knowledge of what her sister gets up to in the blackout. Cracks appear in Keith and Stephen’s friendship, and Stephen finds himself abetting Mrs Hayward in her secret activities. The object of his mission remains opaque even when he guiltily agrees to deliver a basket and a letter for her, and the final revelation – involving neither German parachutists nor Lawrentian groundsmen – has to wait for the end of the novel, by which time most of the principal characters appear in a completely new light.
As you’d expect of a book by Michael Frayn, Spies is a cleverly conceived and intricately executed novel in which different layers of irony are nested like Russian dolls. Its retrospective framing makes for slow going at first, but the pace soon picks up, and the gradual acceleration of incidents makes reading the final stretch a frantic, mildly agonising experience. The stage-management is expert and inconspicuous, and although the shock entrances and cliffhanger chapter-breaks could easily have seemed mechanical or contrived, the illusion of inevitability rarely fades. Like a number of Frayn’s works, though, Spies creates its most powerful effects by contrasting the clockwork perfection of the plotting with the irresolvable aspects of the protagonist’s experience.
The book is mostly written in the first person and the present tense, although the younger Stephen is sometimes imagined in the third person; some of the gear-changes seem clunky at first, but their significance becomes apparent by the end of the book. The technique is flexible, licensing something close to interior monologue when we’re firmly in the past but also allowing some of Stephen’s childish perceptions to be couched in the lightly comic tones of adult recollection. Frayn does, however, fall into one of the occupational hazards of retrospective narration: the cliché of the one small moment. James Joyce once wrote a memorable parody of this – ‘I have often thought since on looking back over that strange time that it was that small act, trivial in itself, that striking of that match, that determined the whole aftercourse of both our lives’ – and Spies contains a number of similar sentences. ‘From those six random words, anyway, came everything that followed.’ ‘The rest of our lives was determined in that one brief moment as the beads clinked against the jug and Keith’s mother walked away.’ ‘It’s just possible, it seems to me as I look back on it down the corridor of the years, that this was another turning point in the story – that everything thereafter would have followed a quite different course if Keith’s mother hadn’t made that simple, offhand suggestion.’
Counterbalancing this, however, there are frequent rueful acknowledgments of the bathetic way things don’t seem to change at all. ‘So what did happen after that night? Nothing. Life went on.’ And this sense of the disjunction between inner and outer lives is the book’s most characteristic note. Stephen starts out as a kind of solipsist; at one point the whole district is compared to ‘a Potemkin village’ assembled just for him, with equally unreal inhabitants:
What did he think Mr McAfee did, when he went off at the weekend in his special constable’s uniform? If the question ever crossed Stephen’s mind, he simply assumed that Mr McAfee continued to do what he was doing when he cycled down the road, which was being a special constable . . . What did Stephen’s father do? He vanished in the morning, he reappeared in the evening. Vanishing and reappearing seemed a full enough job description for all practical purposes.
Before it is taken over by the discovery of sexuality, betrayal and other complicated adult phenomena, Spies is a novel about the more difficult discovery that other people exist.