Michael Frayn’s long and creative life has been driven by a fascination with working things out that carries within it a deep sense of the unknowable and the contingent. He can turn this to spirited comic effect – for example, in Donkeys’ Years (1977) and Noises Off (1982), two of the funniest farces written in our time. But it has also led to a profound exploration of moral ambiguity in plays such as Copenhagen (1998) and Democracy (2003). His talent for the serio-comic is underwritten by a logical and investigative temperament allied to a deep-seated and unselfconscious modesty. Where some artists perpetually strive to transcend limits, his instinct is to recognise them as his true material.
Frayn is nearing ninety and Among Others presents itself as a ‘pretty capricious’ selection of snapshots of some of those who have influenced or intrigued him. It is based on the premise that ‘more than anything else … it’s the other human beings in our lives who make us who we are’. He excludes his parents and other early influences because he has written about them before. To some extent, he develops here material previously published, adding to obituaries or introductions to the works of friends. Modesty and generosity are to the fore: ‘I’ve usually been one of the least clever in any group I’ve been part of’; ‘I seem to be a particularly influenceable subject – a natural lieutenant … always eager to be diverted by passing attractions.’ All this might have amounted to slim pickings were it not for the deftness with which Frayn works his miscellany into a kind of late-style summation of his experiences and temperament.
While these thirteen rather self-effacing pen portraits reveal no secrets, Frayn’s observations of others provide stray materials for an account of himself and his preoccupations. The Observer journalist John Gale is remembered as a master of the offbeat – of ‘anything that seemed to catch life lightly and casually,