Skilled novelist, successful playwright and sometime philosopher, Michael Frayn has that rare thing nowadays - a comic gift that is not crass, pitiless or too knowing and niche-audience. A traditionalist and a veteran of the English scene, the (almost) eighty-year-old Frayn’s best-known play is the farce Noises Off, which was successfully filmed by Peter Bogdanovich. Skios is by no means the first of his comic novels and everyone should read The Russian Assistant and Sweet Dreams too.
Just before I read Skios, I savoured Frayn’s last work, the 250-page memoir, My Father’s Fortune which is a masterpiece of London family and social history, particularly illuminating the Second World War years. The book literally made me laugh and cry. As for the former, Frayn cannot resist the comic impulse and suspects that his tendency to exaggerate usefully was inherited from his father, an incredibly resilient and good-humoured asbestos salesman.
The author was raised by his own admission, in “a lower middle class family” (very little money, extended family to support) but he was blessed with a great teacher at grammar school. He managed, against the odds, to enrol in Cambridge. He started his literary life as a journalist with The Guardian and The Observer. Fluent in Russian, he would in time translate all of Chekhov’s classic plays.
Skios hinges upon missing suitcases and mistaken identities and is mostly a refreshing romp. Fluidly and delightfully contrived, like the best of Wodehouse plot machinery- Frayn is a natural heir- the novel takes its title from the fictional, sun-drenched Greek island which is home to the Fred Toppler Foundation.
This seeming cultural organisation is in fact a front institute for dodgy dealings between a high-ranking Greek politican and a Russian oligarch. Both of these sophisticated thugs arrive on the island, amid a flurry of security, ostensibly to hear this year’s guest lecturer. But they are up to something else.
As the 278-page work begins Nikki Hook, the attractive 37-year PA to the wealthy American widow, Mrs Toppler, is getting ready to greet this year’s guest speaker. He is Dr Norman Wilfred, a renowned expert on the organisation of science.
As Nikki walks through the beautifully-appointed grounds of the foundation, prior to meeting the academic at the airport, she begins to fantasise about this stranger. Clearly in search of some love and tenderness, her wishful thinking leads her to hope that, just once, this year’s speaker will be a handsome, significantly younger academic and, importantly, single. Thus will be broken, she hopes, the pattern of fairly colourless guest lecturers whom she has welcomed at the airport on previous occasions.
But Dr Wilfred is in fact balding and paunchy, and is weary from being pampered, business class, on international flights, repeating the same lecture around the world. Once off the plane, his suitcase is mistakenly collected from the carousel by a handsome, blonde bounder called Oliver Fox. This much younger man has arrived on the same plane, and their suitcases are similar, black with red tags.
Due to yet another hilarious misunderstanding in this sparkling tale that functions through such misunderstandings, Dr Wilfred ends up in a remote villa, the intended destination of Oliver Fox. Georgie, the woman with whom Fox was to share it with, is already there.
However, Wilfred's sudden presence frightens her out of her wits when she mistkes him for Oliver in bed. Of course, Wilfred has no idea how to get to the Foundation at which he is a special guest, while all kind of phone misunderstandings and mobile phone let-downs compund the comedy of errors.
Meanwhile, charming his way into Nikki Hook’s life at the airport, and asssming that Georgie has not yet arrived, Fox decides to pretend – like Bean (the movie) - to take on the identity of Dr Wilfred. Nikki escorts him to her four-by four and the fun - and indeed the incipient romance - begins . . . . and it all takes place over 24 hours. Brilliant, except for the madcap climax, a chaotic shoot-out that seems tonally out of step with Frayn's fluent cleverness.