Category: Michael Frayn

book review – The Russian Interpreter – Michael Frayn

In many ways this novella leaves you feeling that there could have been more. Maybe there should have been but the reader is expected to fill in the blanks themselves.

When you sit back and think about it the Russian Interpreter is a tightly contained story with a small cast. Ultimately it is a love triangle but with three men instead of the usual two. But it is also about the cold war and the suspicion that westerners were held in at all times by a Communist Russian State. The problem with the last theme is that is feels too stereotypically done.

He idea of being followed, having to stick to the rules and arousing suspicion at the slightest default from them is a very old concept. Spy thrillers have made the KGB man lurking in the shadows with his Mac pulled up to his chin something with a cartoonish quality.

At the heart of this story there are two characters. Manning. a student studying for his PhD and Proctor-Gould some sort of cultural enterepeneur who has a passion for Russia.

The story starts with Proctor-Gould looking for Manning and in the time it takes for that to happen you are filled in on the students life. He is frustrated by his studies, bored with Russia to the extent he dreams of getting away and keeps friendships with his minder at the university Sasha and a friend Katya who seems to be a victim of the regime.

But this is clearly not Stalinist times as there are references to the country no longer having a cult of personality so you are left to assume it must be 1970s or 1980s because it is still clearly in the period of the cold war.

Manning starts working for Proctor-Gould and the student finds himself taken further away from his studies and he is introduced to the mysterious and flirtatious Raya who seduces Manning but only to get to Proctor-Gould. That leaves Manning, who works for as a translator in the odd position of having to translate love messages between the pair.

But Raya becomes a problem stealing the belongings from Proctor-Gould’s hotel room and stumbling across a secret that involves the books that the English businessman hands out to Russian friends. In that collection of books there is something important enough for the businessman to resort to breaking and entering and to lie to his friend Manning.

As Raya is exposed as a thief and exits stage left the spotlight falls on the two friends and their relationships becomes clouded by the distrust that seems to pollute the Russian atmosphere. Manning winds up wondering just who can he trust. He is lied to by everyone and ends up being booted out of the country.

If there is a message as such from the book then it is around this idea of trust. When no one can be trusted and the price of backing the wrong horse is so high how can you survive in that kind of society? The problem is getting to that question involves giving to get through what often feels like a parody of a John le Carre type world.

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The Russian Interpreter – post III

Whatever story has been spun on Manning becomes largely irelevant as he finds himself in prison enjoying some of the confusion and misery inflicted by the Soviet state on millions of its own people. Did the book that was handed out by the Englishman contain a microdot or royalties for a censored Russian writer? Whatever the truth is never really established with the money being far too much to fully cover the writer and royalties explanation.

After a spell in prison Manning is whisked straight to the airport to be sent home. As he sits on the plane about to leave Proctor-Gould comes stumbling up the aisle and as he sits down next to him as they take off and Moscow dissapears below the lies, confusion and deceit starts all over again.

A review will follow soon…

The Russian Interpreter – post II

With Manning now working for Proctor-Gould the student finds himself taken further away from his studies and he is introduced to the mysterious and flirtatious Raya who seduces Manning but only to get to Proctor-Gould. That leaves Manning, who works for Proctor-Gould as a translator in the odd position of having to translate love messages between the pair.

But Raya becomes a problem stealing the belongings from Proctor-Gould’s hotel room and stumbling across a secret that involves the books that the English businessman hands out to Russian friends. In that collection of books there is something important enough for the businessman to resort to breaking and entering and to lie to his friend Manning.

As Raya is exposed as a thief and exits stage left the spotlight falls on the two friends and their relationships becomes clouded by the distrust that seems to pollute the Russian atmosphere. Is Proctor-Gould some sort of spy and why does he keep lying to Manning? Is it to protect his friend or implicate him further?

More tomorrow…

The Russian Interpreter – post I

At the heart of this story there are two characters. Manning is a student studying for his PhD and Proctor-Gould is some sort of cultural enterepeneur who has a passion for Russia.

The story starts with Proctor-Gould looking for Manning and in the time it takesfor that to happen you are filled in on the students life. He is frustrated by his studies, bored with Russia to the extent he dreams of getting away and keeps friendships with his minder at the university Sasha and a friend Katya who seems to be a victim of the regime.

But this is clearly not Stalinist times as there are references to the country no longer having a cult of personality so yu are left to assume it must be 1970s or 1980s because it is still cearly in the period of the cold war.

One slight problem from the start is that this feels like so many other books set in Russia and as a result it is quite hard to take it seriously. It feels like a parody without intentionally meaning to be one.

More tomorrow…

book review – spies


Writing a story that is looking back through the memories and eyes of a child is fraught with danger because there is a thin line between being patronising and dumbing down or alternatively giving the character too much of an adult like insight.

Michael Frayn
treads that line fantastically partly helped by the technique of returning occasionally to the present date for a reality check before diving back into the memories.

The fact that as a reader you are often slightly ahead of the plot is not the point because this is really about how a young boy reacts to the atmosphere of living in a normal cul-de-sac in the middle of the war.

His friendship with the affluent and pampered single child Keith is key to the story as a youthful Stephen is led by his domineering friend into believing that his mother is a spy.

Stephen takes the game more seriously than his friend and they follow his mother around discovering not that she is a spy but that she is protecting her brother-in-law, eho has deserted from the air force. The reader realises that long before Stephen does but where Frayn leaves you guessing is with the fallout of such a relationship. The results are a marriage that seems to implode, a friendship that ends and a growing up experience for the main character that he never forgets.

The book is uncomfortable on occasions, incredibly well observed and casts a different light onj a wartime experience. The idea that we all have secrets to hide and things that if watched and logged would appear odd to the rest pf the world is universal and there is a powerful reminder here that it is often the innocent who unwittingly find the guilty.

book review – spies


Writing a story that is looking back through the memories and eyes of a child is fraught with danger because there is a thin line between being patronising and dumbing down or alternatively giving the character too much of an adult like insight.

Michael Frayn
treads that line fantastically partly helped by the technique of returning occasionally to the present date for a reality check before diving back into the memories.

The fact that as a reader you are often slightly ahead of the plot is not the point because this is really about how a young boy reacts to the atmosphere of living in a normal cul-de-sac in the middle of the war.

His friendship with the affluent and pampered single child Keith is key to the story as a youthful Stephen is led by his domineering friend into believing that his mother is a spy.

Stephen takes the game more seriously than his friend and they follow his mother around discovering not that she is a spy but that she is protecting her brother-in-law, eho has deserted from the air force. The reader realises that long before Stephen does but where Frayn leaves you guessing is with the fallout of such a relationship. The results are a marriage that seems to implode, a friendship that ends and a growing up experience for the main character that he never forgets.

The book is uncomfortable on occasions, incredibly well observed and casts a different light onj a wartime experience. The idea that we all have secrets to hide and things that if watched and logged would appear odd to the rest pf the world is universal and there is a powerful reminder here that it is often the innocent who unwittingly find the guilty.

spies – post III

This book is so wonderfully crafted as you get into the mind of a young boy who discovers the dangers of playing in an adult world.

Stephen becomes the only one playing the game and in the end he switches sides and becomes the only link with the man at the end of the lanes. As the truth unravels and he recollects the final stages of the game, which end in deadly consequences, the loose ends are tied up.

But there is still room for a twist or two and the experience of reading the book is to ponder on the way that adults often take children for granted as possible witnesses and interpreters of their schemes and plans as well as the dangers of failing to take them seriously.

A review will follow soon…