A memoir for the Anglophiles.
24 January 2012
It hasn't been all doom and gloom around here as far as nonfiction reading is concerned. In the last few weeks there have been several bright spots in my reading, and one of them was Michael Frayn's memoir My Father's Fortune: A Life.
Frayn is a British playwright and novelist, although I have never read any of his plays or novels. In fact, why I requested this book from the library on one of my regular browses through the new nonfiction releases in the catalog, I'll never know. I think I was aware he's British, and so, of course, I might be interested in his book.
Frayn recounts the life of his father, Tom Frayn, from birth to death. (Making this a blend of biography and memoir, although the majority of the book is told from Frayn's point of view as a child growing up in his father's household.) And he does a really nice job of showing how even the ordinary life of a British salesman and father, is anything but ordinary.
My favorite parts of the book actually came in the beginning, with Frayn describing his father's life as the beloved baby of the family, growing up among family members who were all either completely or almost completely deaf. The circumstances in which his father grew up certainly gave me pause:
"My grandparents' house had four rooms, apart from the kitchen, and according to the 1901 census there were two other couples also living there. Presumably each of these couples occupied one of the rooms. So my grandparents and their four teenage children must have been living in the two remaining rooms. Two adults and four adolescents in two rooms--and all ten residents, presumably, sharing the kitchen...And now here's the new baby chucking his food under the table and screaming his lungs out, with his nappies being boiled on the copper...In the morning everyone trying to get their breakfast, and hot water for shaving, and their clothes pressed and ready for work.* All of them wanting the one lavatory, which at that time was presumably a privy in the back garden." (pp. 13-14.)
Really. Just PICTURE all that. It is a credit to Frayn's writing that he makes it easy to picture.
And the whole book is like that. It's a great picture of life in Great Britain, life in the lower middle class trying to cling to respectability, life as a child in England during World War II, and life as a family member in any number of relationships (as father, as son, as nephew, etc.). It's a great book, and I had to stop several times while I was reading it and just savor it. That, to me, is one of the marks of a very fine book indeed.
*Boiling nappies on the stove AND still having to press your clothes. Christ, I can barely make it in life even with disposable diapers and wrinkle-free shirts. People were made of sterner stuff then.