My Father's Fortune: A Life by Michael Frayn

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My Father's Fortune: A Life by Michael Frayn

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Category: Biography
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: George Care
Reviewed by George Care
Summary: My Father's Fortune will move its readers to tears of sadness and joy. It is a magnificent read.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 272 Date: September 2010
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-78-0571270583

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Translator, playwright and esteemed novelist Michael Frayn turns in My Father's Fortune to his own family in this personal memoir; an act of remembrance and a work of preservation. Humorous in parts, laced with philosophical musings and revisited by ghosts, Frayn excels and excites in this humane portrayal of his father, Tommy. This retelling of scenes from this theatre of memory has also its tragedies and vividly portrays his family's courage.

Frayn's mother, Vi a gentle woman, whose training as a violinist was suddenly curtailed, tells him a story about their family origins as descendents of a sixteenth century buccaneer who raided the channel and whose golden hoard was impounded by the Courts of Chancery. It is not difficult to see how the imagination of the young Michael and his sister was entranced by his mother, a lady who had briefly, elegantly modelled gowns for advertisements for Harrods. She came from the posh side of the Archway Road.

Frayn's father came from the other side. A self-confident, resourceful and practical young man dancing deftly out of overcrowded Victorian tenements on the other side of Archway to meet Vi at a party to which he has been invited by a friend. He is eighteen and she just fourteen. The courtship lasts some twelve years. The romance of this meeting is a moment which Frayn narrates with panache. As Tommy shoulders the burdens of family disabilities including Vi's nervously inhibited mother he also becomes a successful salesman. Soon he moves the family to Ewell. Tommy is a bit of a romantic; he elaborates stories and has ambitions not only for himself but for the young Frayn as the future finest batsman for England.

This memoir, which is also a 'bildungsroman' offers a wonderful perspective on the development of the novelist himself, just as the reader becomes impressed with Tommy's practical resilience. This expresses itself in his detailed knowledge of the geography of South London where he sells asbestos sheeting. However circumstances dramatically change and are recorded with gentle irony. Tommy is challenged by his growing deafness and family losses. This dogged and sturdy manner is challenged further by the son's continuing fecklessness and the outbreak of war. In better times Tommy takes pleasure in the variety of butterflies and plants that cluster in his garden. Frayn remarks, tongue-in-cheek, that this plantation is just the kind you would expect from someone who grew up in a crowded tenement on the wrong side of the Holloway Road.

Then the skies above the windy healthy heights of Surrey are suddenly filled with Heinkels and Dorniers droning towards London, reeking havoc in the metropolis. The young Frayn turns his attention to his neighbours; wartime Surrey bristles with eccentrics amongst whom is a technical illustrator. This kindly resident draws these flying machines in labelled cross-section. Michael even gets scale models donated with which he decorates his bedroom. An ineffective shelter is constructed at the bottom of the garden. The narrative is paced with the precision timing of the future dramatist. Suddenly V-weapons explode nearby and the roof is blown off the house!

The women in the household are described with the same thoughtful consideration with which he describes his father. His maternal grandmother, whose life is inhibited by chronic anxiety, haunts the attic backroom. She shares with her daughter the same elegant heart shaped face. The eloquent text is subtly punctuated with evocative photographs. Frayn is ruthlessly honest about his sometimes prickly relationships with his sister and other girls. He can also be extraordinarily funny; yet he confronts chilling tragedies and his attempts to deal with concomitant and sudden loss.

A father's love is perhaps considered more conditional than that of a mother. Here affection is sometimes tempered with elements of competition. However, in writing this book for his own daughter, Michael Frayn admits his own stubbornness manifested from an early age. As well as live theatre his dad has a regard for words; a field in which his son soon begins to excel. After some miserable experiences at a dismal corrugated-iron school, presided over by a sadistic clergyman. A characteristically timely intervention from Tom launches Frayn into Kingston Grammar School, whose exterior may also be drab but where Michael can blossom. The staff are very odd, rendered here with delight, but academically competent. Our young poet starts reading Shelley and listening to Beethoven and writing his essays in elegant but precocious Alexandrines. Such deft wordplay is beyond what is required perhaps but is typical of his growing exuberance, encouraged by his creative partnership with his fellow aesthete Michael Lane. The depiction of this crucial, warm and aesthetic friendship is heart-warming and one of the many amusements in this very funny book.

The philosopher Bergson describes how the past becomes active in the present through the action of human memory. Reading the book will inevitably bring your own personal past awake. From the moment that Tommy Frayn manifests himself at the door of Michael's study wearing either his black homburg or brown trilby muttering his favourite magic phrase Hotchamachacha!- get ready to jive and jitterbug, gambol and rollick as if in a reminiscent jazz dance. Don't be a wallflower. Join the audience as it takes to the floor in the dancehall of the past.

Further reading suggestion:

The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal


Mike Leigh on Mike Leigh by Amy Raphael (Editor)

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