The most reliable gauge of compulsive readability – the book compels me to stay up later than I wish, despite knowing I will suffer a bad case of concrete-headedness in the morning – proved its usefulness again Monday night, when I stayed up until midnight reading and rereading Michael Frayn’s Constructions. I say “rereading” because the book’s form – 309 concise, aphoristic statements, none longer than three or four paragraphs – encourages the reader frequently to reexamine the sentences and paragraphs he has just read, not because they are confusing but because their elegant concision masks such compacted depths of thought. Frayn’s method is redolent of two thinkers he cites – Pascal and Wittgenstein – and I would suggest J.L. Austin’s How to Do Things With Words as a possible cousin twice removed. The book defies genre – philosophy, criticism, notebook, aperçus, pensées, covert memoir? Doubtless, academic philosophers would dismiss it as amateurish maundering, too well written and amusing to be taken seriously. In other words, it’s great fun for the common reader, starting with statement No. 1:
“The complexity of the universe is beyond expression in any possible notation.
“Lift up your eyes. Not even what you see before you can ever be fully expressed.
Close your eyes. Not even what you see now.”
Frayn common sensically assumes that any common sensical reader can be trusted to rely upon the evidence of his senses. Thus, he is a writer we can learn to trust, though I know Frayn only by reputation and have never read his work before. He is an English playwright and novelist best known for his 1998 drama Copenhagen, about the 1941 meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. I learned about Constructions from the redoubtable Brad Bigelow at the Neglected Books Page, who provides an excerpt, commentary and other tools for enjoying Constructions. I was fortunate: The library at the university where I work had a copy of the book, published in1974 by Wildwood House, of London. It’s a blandly ugly piece of bookmaking, the cover printed in a shade of gray-beige I associate with stairwells in a parking garage, and the pages already brown along the edges. The book was last checked out in 1982, and I don’t think the book has ever been published in the United States.
Frayn covers a lot of ground and, as you would except of a playwright, devotes much time and energy to the treacherous nature of language and the tendency of humans to miscommunicate, intentionally or otherwise. But I see the book’s principal concern as aesthetics, with emphasis on literature in the broadest sense. Here’s No. 206:
“The central tradition of literature is not description or historical narrative but storytelling; the creation of a fictitious world. Even where the old stories were about actual events and personages they were embodied in fictions, in parallels with the real world rather than representations of it. The factual possibilities of literature are a late departure. Looking at (say) the Old Testament, you might come to feel that fiction isn’t an extension of fact, but that fact is a special case of fiction.”
And No. 207:
“The great pleasure of fiction is that it is fiction – another world, set among the world we know, often overlapping with it, often aping it, but essentially not it. We read ourselves and our world in it. Its evocativeness consists in this: that we detect a sense of familiarity in its strangeness. Just as a familiar smell in unfamiliar surroundings can suddenly evoke with great intensity a whole world we took for granted when it was before our eyes.”
Frayn’s analysis is bracingly hope-filled and generous. There’s no slumming in fashionable nihilism. He’s profligate with insights, digressing on photography as art, the importance of metaphor in ordinary language, the “mythology” of vulgarized science – all rendered without philosophical jargon, in plain language rooted in the commonalities of everyday life. Here’s a Wittgensteinian example from the novelist’s desk, No. 258:
“Someone asks me what colour eyes a character in one of my novels has; I never mentioned it in the book.
“A moment’s thought, and I supply an answer. What did my moment’s thought consist of? Remembering, inventing, deciding, or deducing? Not exactly any of these; not exactly all combined.”
Frayn is the temperamental opposite of a solipsist. He revels in the otherness and haecceity of the world. No. 262:
“If we had no experience of a world external to us, we should have no experience of ourselves, either. Our relationship with the world is that intimate!”
Indeed. And in Frayn’s understanding, that’s good news for writers. No. 308:
“And the glory of writing is it dependence upon the world – the necessity it puts us in of coming back again and again to confront the complexity of what lies before our eyes.”
My university library already has a copy of Frayn’s latest book, The Human Touch, a sequel of sorts to Constructions, though much longer and less aphoristic. It’s an English edition from Faber and Faber, and won’t be published in the U.S. until 2007, but my university often acquires overseas editions. It looks promising.