Skios, by Michael Frayn

Purchased from the Book Depository

Author Michael Frayn is nothing if not prolific. He has written 11 novels (a quick check says that I have read seven), 15 plays (I’ve seen three in WestEnd productions) and a number of non-fiction works.

Not just that, but in each of these streams Frayn heads in different directions. “Copenhagen” and “Democracy” are literary plays, taut with interior drama. “Noises Off” is a farce. Headlong is a literary novel that deserved its Booker listing; Towards the End of Morning was a laugh throughout. There is no literary box that Frayn can be stuffed into.

And so we come to Skios, his latest novel. For those who know Frayn’s works, forget “Copenhagen” and Headlong — we are in “Noises Off” territory when we come to this novel. (For a review of Headlong, you can check out Trevor’s thoughts here — he gets it dead on.)

The Fred Toppler Foundation is the centre of “culture” on the small Greek island of Skios. Fred himself is long dead but his widow, the former stripper Bahama LeStarr, is now running the Foundation that she created as his legacy (and her contuining sustenance). Each year it hosts a Great European House Party where the rich and powerful from around the world gather to celebrate (and exchange data) and listen to the annual Toppler “lecture”, the highpoint of the week.

The lecture this year is to be delivered by Dr. Norman Wilfred: Innovation and Governance: the Promise of Scientometrics. Wilfred has been chosen by Mrs. Toppler’s PA, Nikki, the first time she has ever had the chance to choose the distinguished lecturer. Nikki is angling to become the next executive director of the Foundation and this is her chance to prove her worth.

Please God it wasn’t going to be too awful this year, prayed Nikki. All lectures, however unqiue and special, were of course awful, but some were more awful than others. There had to be a lecture. Why? Because there always had been one. There had been a Fred Toppler Lecture every year since the foundation had existed. They had lectures on the Crisis in this and the Challenge of that. They had had an Enigma of, a Whither? and a Why?, the Prospects for and two Reconsiderations of.

That gives you one sense of Frayn’s farce but the much bigger one occurs at the Skios airport. Dr. Wilfred is not the only distinguished guest arriving this day; so too is Oliver Fox, bon vivant and seducer, on his way to a week of sex with Georgie, whom he had met for five minutes in a bar somewhere and arranged a liaison. Oliver is a natural seducer and Georgie is eager for adventure since her partner is heading off for a sailing trip without her.

And so we have the establishing scene at the Skios airport as Nikki, with her carefully labelled “DR NORMAN WILFRED” sign awaits the arrival of her distinguished lecturer:

It was an example of the ever-renewed triumph of hope over probability, thought Nikki, trying to keep the skin round her mouth and eyes soft and amused. Whenever you were waiting for someone and you didn’t know exactly what they looked like, everyone seemed to be them. Fathers with small children. Grandfathers in ill-judged shorts. Women, even … Fat women … Fatter women still… Just for a moment, as each passenger emerged from the baggage hall and hesitated, not knowing where to go, Nikki tensed very slightly with the onset of charm. Then they would spot a familiar word — ‘Polkinghorne’, ‘Whispering Surf’ — and they would raise an acknowledging finger and cease to have any possible resemblance to Dr. Norman Wilfred.

As it happens, when Dr. Wilfred’s distinctive black suitcase with its “unique” identifying red tag comes tumbling down the baggage carousel, the distinguished lecturer is preoccupied with the devastating text he is sending to an obscure scholar in Manitoba who is writing a critical evaluation of his work. Oliver Fox, meanwhile, is looking for a black suitcase with red tag that he has stolen from Annuka Vos, the latest woman to find him wanting.

Oliver picks up the wrong suitcase and the farce is under way. His “date” for the week has been delayed and what harm is there in taking on another identity (he is used to this) for the intervening 24 hours. From here on in, Frayn is at his best — confused twin taxi drivers, worthy guests of the Foundation (and some not so worthy), jilted lovers and a host of others will be enrolled to be part of the author’s scheme.

To appreciate farce, you need to return to your childhood when you lined up the dominoes standing end-on-end in a careful, winding pattern — and then tipped the first one over and watched all the others fall in turn. That’s exactly what Frayn does in this highly readable, very amusing novel — if you want a little more detail on the “plot”, I’ll refer you to Will Rycroft’s excellent review at Just William’s Luck — he does an excellent job of outlining the plot without spoiling it.

I read Skios in two quick sittings and enjoyed every minute of the experience. Yes, you have to give the author a lot of licence — Frayn both deserves and rewards it. I don’t expect to see Skios on the Booker longlist when it is announced in a few months but if you are looking for the perfect book to take on a summer holiday, I can’t find a better recommendation.

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15 Responses to “Skios, by Michael Frayn”

  1. Guy Savage Says:

    Thanks Kevin. I haven’t read everything from Frayn but this novel sounds quite a change of pace from the ones I have read which were really quite weighty.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: It is a delight — the perfect kind of book where you want the author to do all the work and you will just go along for the ride.

  3. leroyhunter Says:

    Sounds like great entertainment Kevin. I have Headlong to get to on the shelf first, but I’ll remember this one for the future. Frayn is wonderfully protean and always writes beautifully.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Leroy: I loved Headlong as much as I loved this novel — indeed, in “literary” novel terms it is probably a better work. But I have to say that any Michael Frayn work is worth the time — he is a rare talent.

  5. kimbofo Says:

    I heard Frayn speak about this novel at a Faber event I attended a few weeks back (I had a brief fan-girl moment when I rode a lift with him and Edna O’Brien, all very surreal) — and he was delightfully self-deprecating. He said the inspiration for this novel came from always wondering about those people at airports, standing at the arrivals gate, holding name cards up. He said he’d always wanted to just go up to one of these people and pretend to be the person named on the card — but he didn’t have the courage to ever do it. Of course, he could do it via fiction…

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kimbofo: Well that is pretty much exactly what he does in the book — and has great fun with the results. I understand that he is as charming in person as he is in print.

  7. Pye Says:

    I think the funniest book I ever read was Michael Frayn’s “Tin Men”. There are still parts of that one that come into my mind every now and then and make me laugh even though it must be about 40 years since I first read it! This discussion reminded me of it anew, and I’ve just been over and ordered myself a copy from one of the Amazon Marketplace booksellers. What a joy it will be to read it again. Michael Frayn is one writer who never stales for me.I can’t wait to read Skios, but will be saving it for my summer vacation. It sounds like the perfect pool-side read from your review, Kevin.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Pye: I remember Tin Men well (although the reading was more like 10 years ago, rather than 40 in my case). Given that I spent my working life in the newspaper business the idea of an automated headline writer was great for a laugh — now when you look at some of the newspaper websites it is hard not to think that someone succeeded in perfecting the form. :-)

    And Skios will be a perfect summer poolside read, although if you are being met by someone holding up a sign with your name on it, take care.

  9. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I don’t know Frayn at all, but this does sound fun. Generally I want to do some lifting myself, but there are occasions one wants the author to carry the load and I’ve nothing against a little (a lot of) improbability in the service of good comedy. Lovely base concept too.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: If you don’t know Frayn, it is worth having a look at his catalogue — I suspect you might find him an author who is worth a book a year when the mood is right (which means you have a 10+ year experience ahead of you). Most of his novels are shortish with strong characters who make it easy to engage with the book. I agree that they don’t involve a lot of “lifting” from the reader — my metaphor would be that you do have to do a fair bit of “hanging on” as the improbable, but delightful, plots unfold.

    This would not be a bad one to start with at all. On the other hand, givern your day-job experience with boilerplate, you might want to start with Tin Men — it is about journalism not legalese but I think it would strike pretty close to home.

  11. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Tin Men, 176 pages I see from Amazon, perfect for an introduction. Duly noted Kevin. Thanks. A sample is winging its way to my kindle as we speak (type).

  12. Guy Savage Says:

    Skios just arrived.

    BTW, have you seen Silk?

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: Silk has been ordered but has not yet arrived. At the moment, we are checking out Midsomer Murders post-Tom and the latest series of Lewis.

  14. Guy Savage Says:

    Just finished Silk and preordered Silk 2. Terrific stuff when you’re in the mood for something legal.

  15. Dan @ copenhagen airport Says:

    Skios is an excellent book, glad to see more people reading it and reviewing it, hopefully encourage more people to check it out.

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