Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Towards the End of the Morning by Michael Frayn


"Sublimely funny" says the back cover of this book, first published in 1967, and reissued with an introduction by the author. Hmm. It didn't really do it for me, and I'm brooding about why I wasn't very amused. Its age shouldn't really be a problem, since my regular reading matter covers most of the last 150 years in a fairly indiscriminate way. And in the late 1960s I was something of a fan of Frayn's Guardian articles, which certainly did make me laugh out loud - somewhere upstairs there is a collection of them. Towards the End of the Morning is set in a Fleet Street newspaper office, not very loosely based on the Guardian and Observer offices, in the Nature Notes and Crossword department. Nature Notes is an obvious nod to Waugh's Scoop, in which William Boot is a nature columnist for The Daily Beast ("Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole"), but all we discover about the production of "The Country Day by Day" is that columnists are remarkably recalcitrant when it comes to filing their copy; "In Years Gone By", originating from the same office, fares rather better with the arrival of a new and ambitious trainee.

"We mostly worked at a rather gentlemanly pace," says Frayn in the introduction, and long, liquid lunches are certainly in evidence. In fact, over the course of this short novel, not very much happens - even the attempted sacking of the Picture Editor is something of a non-event, as he first refuses to believe the letter of dismissal is real, and then decides that if he ignores it, it will all "simmer down". John Dyson, head of the Nature Notes office, is keen to get into television and, despite his cringemaking first appearance, it looks as if he may be successful, until he finds himself trapped in Ljubliana as his next engagement draws ever closer. Meanwhile his junior colleague, Bob, struggling to fend off an older colleague's wife, finds himself entangled in an engagement he's not quite sure about. All of this is faintly reminiscent of Kingsley Amis of a decade before, though Frayn's characters have nothing like the crassness or destructiveness of Jim Dixon: they are a gentler and more wistful breed.

Reflecting on my lack of real enthusiasm for this novel, I find myself returning to
Lucky Jim, a book which I dislike but have read several times (as with most of Amis's work). Frayn's characters mostly compare well with those of Amis, who are generally loathsome, and the situations in which they find themselves are less frenetically hilarious or catastrophic. They are more readily sympathetic and should be more believable, and Frayn is a witty and elegant writer. Yet, despite my distaste, I am more drawn to the bravura of Amis's writing: somehow, his cast of horrible men, with all their lies and drinking and lechery, have more immediacy and reality than Frayn's surprisingly civilised journalists. I suspect that when it was first published, Frayn's book appealed to many of its readers because they knew (or thought they knew) the Fleet Street people it portrayed; forty-odd years later, they mean little to me. Having decided not to clutter my bookshelves with something I'm unlikely to read again, however, I listed it on Bookmooch, and there was a request within 24 hours; I hope its new owner will enjoy it.

12 comments:

  1. Am I right in remembering he is the author of Headlong? A book sort of about art as I recall. I couldn't finish it. I was bored to pieces.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You're right, Nan. I've got another of his books, Spies, on my TBR pile, but I think I'l give it a while before tackling it.

    ReplyDelete
  3. For once, we really differ in tastes. It's a long time since I read Towards the End of the Morning but it certainly made me laugh first time around. The Tin Men, which I mentioned on LJ recently, I still find very funny indeed. I don't like all his novels, though; Headlong is good but I wouldn't want to read it again. OTOH I thought Spies was brilliant and am hanging on to my copy.

    I am a great admirer of Kingsley Amis and have read Lucky Jim a trillion times. Too many people (not you, I'm sure), confuse the man (at least, the later man), with the work and so are put off him for quite the wrong reasons. Yes, many of his characters are unpleasant (he knew this). Yes, after about Jake's Thing misogyny creeps in. His last novel, The Biographer's Moustache, was dreadful. All that drinking gets boring. But, but, but...he was an absolute master of English prose style. He tackled many different genres: Colonel Sun, a Bond novel; The Green Man, a horror novel ( I find it terrifying); The Riverside Villas Murder, a classic detective story. He worked extremely hard, was a very astute critic and I can't help liking him. My favourite of his novels, apart from Lucky Jim, is I Like It Here. The hero is likable, the tone generally happy, lots of very funny writing.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Callmemadam, you make me hope that I shall enjoy Spies more. My reading of Amis is patchy, and I can't say I enjoyed Jake's Thing much, but I did like The Green Man.

    ReplyDelete
  5. This is exactly the kind of book I am very likely to have picked up and taken home to read, so I am very glad to have read your review. I will certainly think twice about it. Life is too short to read almost good books!

    ReplyDelete
  6. I think Nick Hornby gives the author mixed reviews in Polysyllabic Spree, which I just finished reading. Certainly I am not interested in this book - wouldn't pick it up - but your commentators have reminded me about Green Man, which I have heard about and would like to read one day!!!

    ReplyDelete
  7. Becca, what a responsibility to have out you off, oh dear!

    Susan, The Green Man is worth a read - hate the main character, but it's genuinely scary!

    ReplyDelete
  8. I found it really, really funny when I read it first time round. But that was at the tail end of the old "Fleet Street" in the early 90s and the book presented a startlingly accurate picture of newspaper life as it was then.

    There is nothing so unfunny as out of date satire, so I may not find it so funny now.

    Frayn doesn't make any intellectual concessions in his serious books. They deal with difficult ideas and can be demanding.

    Some people may think of this as "boring" but it really is horses for courses.

    ReplyDelete
  9. My book club has read it and the meeting is tonight. I thought I would see what the critics said about it since I had the same feelings as Ms Cat has - indifference, a slightly bad taste in my mouth.
    Thanks for confirming that it was not just me.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I'm glad it was useful! What did your book club think?

    ReplyDelete
  11. I have read Towards.. a number of times - and enjoyed it immensely each time. But that might be because I am in my 60s & therefore can perhaps better appreciate the era in which it was written. As a period piece from half a century ago, it unerringly captures the ethos.
    In fact, I enjoyed all of Frayn's work, up to Headlong - he seems to have gone a bit too post modern since then. For Frayn fans, ther eare some neglected gems, my favourites are the play Balmoral (set in a Communist UK in the nineteen-thirties - the Balmoral writers' home includes Enid Blyton!) and Sweet Dreams (which latter shows he writes not just like an angel, but like a God, you will understand this when you read it.)

    ReplyDelete
  12. Hi Paul! and thanks for your interesting comment. I don't think ti was lack of appreciation of the zeitgeist that was the problem, I'm not that much younger than you, and I was predisposed to like the book because when I was young I liked Frayn's writing very much indeed - in fact, I was slightly surprised I hadn't read it before.

    Looking back over what I said, I clearly found it well-constructed, and I know I liked the early chapters more than the later ones. Some of the newspaper office detail was really quite fun: I did enjoy the upstart new journalist who, shock horror, brought his own portable typewriter, evidence of overweening ambition. Perhaps it was simply that Frayn depicted the dreariness of it all rather too effectively, and my complaint should be with the 1960s, but I found the Ljubliana section unfunny - though again, perhaps not implausible. My recall of it is quite good, which does suggest that it's a good book, but I think I'll go on to something fresh rather than trying it again.

    ReplyDelete