cover image A Landing on the Sun

A Landing on the Sun

Michael Frayn. Viking Books, $21 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-670-83932-2

Frayn, a hit British dramatist ( Noises Off ) and comic novelist ( The Trick of It ) has created a tender civil service comedy of the kind that only an Englishman could bring off. The almost anonymous narrator, a basically dry-as- dust denizen of Whitehall, is charged with investigating the mysterious demise of a colleague, Stephen Summerchild, who had fallen to his death from high in the Admiralty offices years before. Bit by bit, through old files, photographs and a cache of uproarious tapes, he pieces together the strangest romance: that of Summerchild and a Russian-born Oxford philosophy don who had been summoned, in a moment of government madness, to investigate the nature of happiness. Amid much beautifully spoofed academic chatter, the two find a profound attraction and create a literal love nest in a tiny room high under the government eaves. Meanwhile the narrator so enters into their ridiculous but poignant relationship that he almost, but not quite, breaks loose of his own fusty ways; and he does learn why Summerchild fell. Frayn writes with great wit, a haunting sense of the atmosphere and texture of quiet London lives and places, and a profound knowledge of the official heart. This is a masterly comic performance with a hint of rue. (Feb.)