Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Trick of It


I generally like to sort out my feelings about a book before posting on it here, but Michael Frayn's The Trick of It is due back at the library today, so this time you're getting my immediate response in all its ambivalence.

I found the premise of the novel irresistible: a young scholar meets and marries the novelist whose work is the primary focus of his academic career. This seemed to me a very clever way to explore the vexing interrelationship between fiction, biography, and literary criticism. And it was. But I'm not sure that the book ever transcended its premise to become something more than a clever idea.

Part of the problem may have been the structure of the novel. It takes the form of a series of letters from the narrator, who teaches at a university in England, to a friend and fellow literary scholar in Australia. So we are privy only to the narrator's version of events, indeed, only to the particular version of events he crafts for the benefit of a friend who he clearly seeks to impress and entertain. We never get an independent glimpse of JL, his novelist wife, or of their interaction with one another. As a consequence, neither she nor the narrator ever became fully realized characters in my mind.

But then—and here's where I begin to vacillate wildly in my assessment—perhaps that is as it should be. For if they were fully fleshed out, then the focus would be on them as individual characters and on their particular relationship rather than on the broader categories of literary scholar/critic and novelist which would surely dull the novel's satiric edge. Also, that the narrator's story of his relationship with JL is abroad in the world in the form of letters becomes important later when the spectre of biography arises.

Another facet of the book which could be regarded as a strength or a weakness is the humour. It's very funny at some points. By way of illustration let me offer up a paragraph that follows upon the initial seduction:

No, I shall certainly not post this letter. Now I know that you will never read it I can be completely frank. Because the terrible truth is this. It seemed to me, even as I broke it, that I had discovered a new taboo governing mankind, one which must have existed unknown since the dawn of time until I stumbled upon it yesterday evening — a taboo against intercourse with an author on your own reading-list. New to me, at any rate. I never heard lewd references to it in the changing-rooms at school, not even from Tony Gleat, who made obscene references to his own and other people's mothers. I have never come across it in Sophocles or the News of the World. This is worse than the love that dare not speak its name; this is the love that doesn't even have a name to speak. Somewhere in common or statute law there must be a distant parallel; illicit sexual relations with a reigning monarch, perhaps. Is it a taboo that you have ever come across? You have probably considered it no more than I ever did. Less, in fact, since your chances of sharing a glass of water late at night on a narrow guest-room bed with Goethe or Mörike down there in Melbourne are so remote. But when you think about it (as you suddenly are at this present moment, surely), when you think of your hand (yes, that hand, it doesn’t matter which — either of the hands with which you were so recently typing Goethe’s name in reverential tones) — feeling the irresistible smoothness of his knee … now sliding under his skirt … now reaching the lace trimming along the edge of his knickers ... then at once you feel (am I right?) the authentic shock of sheer moral horror.

But at other points the humour is so strongly reminiscent of such classic comic novels as Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim or David Lodge's Changing Places, that I found myself checking the publication date thinking it must be from an earlier decade. Now Frayn's characters are literary fellows of course, and a couple of times the narrator even refers to himself as "a comic novel." So perhaps these echoes are deliberate homage. Then again, perhaps they're just overly derivative.

So, I'm left undecided on the overall merit of The Trick of It. Nevertheless, I don't hesitate to recommend it. I found it very funny at some points, as I said, and surprisingly disturbing at others, but consistently thought provoking throughout.

9 comments:

teabird said...

I read this book a few years ago, and haven't stopped forcing people to read it since. I simply loved it for its wit, and for going all transgressive about the mystery of what creativity really is... (And I'm a sucker for books that involve fountain pens...) I love your review!

Suko said...

Kate, I like the fact that you posted on this book despite your ambivalence. Your writing, as always, is razor sharp.

Suko said...

I have an award for you, Kate, and hope you'll stop by my blog to pick it up--or at least "check it out".

Dorothy W. said...

I think this is a book I need to read! I can't resist books about academia, and I'm sure, even if I had some ambivalent feelings like you did, I'd enjoy it too. I often feel ambivalent about satire, actually, because the characters seems to get sacrificed for the sake of the satirical point. But I will read it anyway ...

Kate S. said...

teabird, Yes, there are lots of laughs and much to think about in this one. I'm still savouring the moment when the tables are turned and the narrator finds himself (or at least his family) suddenly the subject of JL's writing much as she has been the subject of his.

Suko, Thanks! Sometimes I have to remind myself that one of the joys of a blog is the freedom to post thoughts-in-progress.

Dorothy, I hope that you do read it as I'd love to read your response to it.

litlove said...

Very interested to read your review here as I almost bought the book and then paused when I read the amazon reviews, which I must say were very like yours. Still, having read you on it, I'm tempted once again, as it is clearly an intriguing novel in several ways.

Kate S. said...

litlove, It has its flaws but it's definitely still worth a look. It's short as well and, while I sometimes find myself resenting the time spent on a doorstopper of a flawed book, I don't mind taking a chance on something a bit pithier!

Diane said...

I never heard of this one, but it does sound good.

Heather said...

Really good review. I really like how you write - very thoughtful.