Literary Connections: making the right connections with literature
Spies now also
an audiobook

very artful

Michael Frayn (born 1933)

Playwright, novelist, translator and one-time journalist, Michael Frayn has written about his plays: 'what they are all about in one way or another is the way in which we impose our ideas upon the world around us'. That would seem to be as true of his novels as his plays - and is a feature he often exploits for comic effect.

I suppose the old Moscow was part of my past, and you can't go back.
Except perhaps in a novel.
Michael Frayn in 'Russian hide and seek', The Guardian 2 July 2005.

This is an echo, conscious or not, of 'You can't go back, everyone knows that...' from the opening page of Spies. And what an effective opening it is! A favourite question on LTA1 goes something like this: "The following extract is the opening of the novel. How appropriate is this as the introduction to the whole novel? You should consider both subject matter and style." It would be really interesting to ask students to read the first three paragraphs and record their reactions before they read any more of the novel - and then ask them to do the same again after they have finished the book. One of the features of Spies is the way it is narrated - what can a reader learn about this from just these three paragraphs?

Spies is a current set text for AQA AS Level English Literature Specification A (LTA1). It won the 2002 Whitbread Novel Award and the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize (Eurasia region, Best Book), and was shortlisted for the Whitbread Book of the Year.

  • Spies (2002) - paperback edition
  • Spies, read by Martin Jarvis: audiobook version (6 hours, abridged). This reading was warmly commended by Sue Arnold in The Guardian on 22 April 2006.
  • The English and Media centre has recently published a study pack on Spies which has been well-received by teachers.
  • Wessex Publications have also recently issued one of their Workbooks on the novel. You can see sample pages on their site.
Frayn on the web

  • British Council Contemporary Writers entry on Michael Frayn
  • 'Write the same thing over and over': Michael Frayn tells Claire Armitstead the secret of literary success, from The Guardian, 31 January 2002. It includes some comments by Frayn on Spies, which had recently been published: "I had this idea of writing about that period and trying to capture something about how people see the world and what they believe about it and the stories they tell about it."
  • 'Have I retired? It's hard to know': Playwright Michael Frayn talks to Mark Lawson about rumours that he has put down his pen - The Guardian, May 3, 2006.
Other books by Michael Frayn
  • Sweet Dreams (1973) - an amusing account of a journey to the metropolis at the nerve-centre of the universe.
  • Noises Off (1982) - an extremely funny drama about plays and acting that had me in tears (of laughter).
  • Headlong (1999) - the witty story of an author determined to make a fortune from his discovery of a lost painting by Bruegel.
Michael Frayn also wrote the hilarious screenplay for the film Clockwise (1986), which starred John Cleese as the punctilious (but ultimately manic) headmaster.

Michael Frayn did his national service with Alan Bennett, another writer with an eye for the ridiculous. See the Alan Bennett page on this site.