Michael Frayn’s new novel, his first for 16 years, asks some almost unaskable questions. Anyone who reads Donne’s Songs and Sonnets will recognise the authentic smell of warm, used linen; but who has stopped to consider what it would really have been like to spend a night with the poet? Poetry – and even fiction – is a direct way of coming to know a writer in the abstract. One of the questions Frayn poses is this: what would it be like to ‘know’ an admired author in a carnal and social way; how would it feel to make a Metaphysical, to grope a Great?
Richard, the protagonist of the book, is a lecturer in English at a provincial university. His special subject is an esteemed woman novelist known to him, through years of notes and lecturing, as JL. When she comes to give a talk to his students, Richard is diffident with her and