My Father’s Fortune, by Michael Frayn, Faber RRP£16.99, 272 pages
So strange, what families preserve of the past, and what they fail to,” novelist and playwright Michael Frayn notes towards the end of this wonderfully evocative memoir. Like many family chronicles focused on the first half of the 20th century, My Father’s Fortune stars a group of people who, for all their relish of the familial hearth, made a point of concealing vast acreages of their lives behind a cloud of obfuscation. Reading about the author’s still-born sibling, whose (non) existence he found out about 70 years later, or the (unmentioned) hereditary deafness that afflicted most of his older relatives, I realised that they reminded me of my own family – its fugitive aunts and its lost great-grandfathers, commemorated only by a line on a marriage certificate.
The Frayns were Devonshire émigrés, relocated to London at the end of the Victorian age, and as close to urban underclass as you could get beyond the Whitechapel stews. Tom, Frayn’s father, left school at 14, but prospered by dint of his personality. A travelling salesman, he possessed not only the gift of the gab but also a colossal cheek. Weighed down by poverty and family obligation, he courted Frayn’s mother – a talented teenage violinist, whose photographs her son later found in 1920s society magazines advertising the latest Harrods modes – for 12 years.
By the mid-1930s the family – parents, Frayn and his sister Jill, a sorrowful and fatalistic grandmother – had removed to Ewell in genteel north Surrey: it is here that the book comes into its own. Rather than trying to make his father seem larger than life, Frayn lets him breathe through comic understatement. He is particularly good on the older man’s economising: the razor blades bought by the gross, which last for ever “because they’re too blunt and nicked to shave with”, the shiny new nails disdained in favour of a jam-jar full of bent and well-rusted old ones on the scullery windowsill. Suspicious of material goods, always renting his home and driving company cars, Tom’s leavings – on his death in 1969 – fit into a small cardboard box.
Frayn’s mother drops dead of a heart attack in 1945. Elsie, her well-heeled replacement, decamps in a huff, and is herself replaced by the meek and much younger Gladys. Running alongside are the outlines of Frayn’s own early life, in which grammar school and Cambridge give way to a job on the Guardian. Dad is rarely impressed: “You won’t always be able to make the front page,” he observes in 1958, having read a series of reports from the cod war off Iceland.
The reticence of the English literary memoir is invariably deceptive. A fan of the American equivalent, in which stupendous drunks and lurid adulteries follow in quick succession, would probably wonder what point My Father’s Fortune was trying to prove, but as nearly always happens in these cases, its self-effacement masks – or fails to mask – a profoundly affecting study of family myths and legends.
DJ Taylor is the author of ‘At the Chime of a City Clock’ (Constable)