My Father's Fortune: A Life

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For the first time, Michael Frayn, the "master of what is seriously funny,"* turns his humor and narrative genius on his own family's story, to re-create the world that made him who he is

Whether he is deliriously funny or philosophically profound, as a novelist and a playwright Michael Frayn has concerned himself with the ordinary life lived by erring humans, which is always more extraordinary than people think. In My Father's Fortune, Frayn ...

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My Father's Fortune: A Life

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For the first time, Michael Frayn, the "master of what is seriously funny,"* turns his humor and narrative genius on his own family's story, to re-create the world that made him who he is

Whether he is deliriously funny or philosophically profound, as a novelist and a playwright Michael Frayn has concerned himself with the ordinary life lived by erring humans, which is always more extraordinary than people think. In My Father's Fortune, Frayn reveals the original exemplar of the extraordinary-ordinary life: his father, Tom Frayn.

A clever lad, a roofing salesman with a winning smile and a racetrack vocabulary, Tom Frayn emerged undaunted from a childhood spent in two rooms with six other people, all of them deaf. And undaunted he stayed, through German rockets, feckless in-laws, and his own increasing deafness; through the setback of a son as bafflingly slow-witted as the father was quick on his feet; through the shockingly sudden tragedy that darkened his life.

Tom Frayn left his son little more than three watches and two ink-and-wash prints. But the true fortune he passed on was the great humor and spirit revealed in this beguiling memoir.

* Anthony Burgess

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
A sprightly, warmhearted memoir of his dapper salesman father takes playwright and novelist Frayn (Spies) from working-class London through two world wars. Thomas Frayn died in 1970 at the age of 69, largely deaf but still actively selling roofing to contractors in London, a widower who later remarried, and whose enterprising, responsible spirit bequeathed a "fortune" to his son much later in life. The Frayn clan filled a cramped house in a rough neighborhood in Halloway, North London; Tom Frayn left school at age 14, marked as a "smart lad," gaining a clerk's wages that were needed to support the family. Married in 1931 to Violet "Vi" Lawson, who similarly had to quit a prestigious music school to go to work, Tom moved his family to Ewell Village, Surrey, where the author and his younger sister grew up within the stolid middle class. Michael Frayn, however, was not destined to be the brilliant cricketer and wit that his father envisioned, but rather "as dozy as a weekend motorist." The sudden death of his mother of a heart attack when he was 12 "hardened" the author, drove him inward, and he became enamored with music and poetry, eventually attending Cambridge and becoming a journalist. Here is a son's proud, gently poking tribute to the remarkable qualities of an ordinary man, if only on the outside. (Mar.)
Kirkus Reviews

A British novelist and playwright's memoir about growing up with a near-deaf, roofing-salesman father.

Although it takes a few chapters for the narrative to gain its footing, this finely detailed remembrance displays subtle wit and powers of perception that magnify every nook and cranny of ordinary life into something extraordinary. Frayn (Travels with a Typewriter: A Reporter at Large, 2009, etc.) begins with his hearing-impaired father's marriage in the late 1930s. By the time children materialize, the Frayn family has moved from gritty North London to the leafier outland of Ewell, 12 miles outside the city. Frayn's father pursued the same middle-class suburban dreams of many families at the time, when a respectable suburban home could be purchased for less than £1,000. As the book gains steam, it's tough to judge whether the author has photographic mental recall, or if his attentiveness to detail can be attributed to a particularly imaginative sense of historical embellishment. Whatever the case, Frayn evokes the sights, sounds and smells of his boyhood as if it had all taken place yesterday. The author's prose particularly shines when he conjures the dread of V-2 bombings over London during the Blitz. Frayn's dry, Orwellian sense of humor doesn't creep into the narrative until he describes the specific ways in which he failed to live up to his father's hopes for an athletically inclined child—the young author was physically awkward and "slow witted" and didn't embrace conventional sport until much later in life. As the memoir progresses into Frayn's adolescent years, the emphasis subtly shifts to his own exploits as a junior intellectual and culture snob. His father's "fortune," as one might expect, turns out to be much more important than the kind of inheritance found in a retirement account.

A consistently understated, mostly engrossing read.

Christopher Buckley
It is not [Frayn's] fault that, as he puts it, "my father moved lightly over the earth, scarcely leaving a footprint, scarcely a shadow." Yet the problem remains—turning Tom Frayn's life story into compelling stuff. That said, by the end, it has become compelling…This is beautiful writing. This is Michael Frayn's gift, not so much to his father, who one guesses would probably just have shrugged, but to a daughter who wanted to know what it had all been like. Rebecca's fortune is quite a large one.
—The New York Times
Jonathan Yardley
My Father's Fortune is funny when it needs to be, touching when it needs to be, and for the most part is cast in smooth, beguiling prose…a lovely tribute.
—The Washington Post
From the Publisher
“Compelling… Beautiful writing… With a dramatist’s sure touch, Frayn introduces a ticking hand grenade on page 107 that may have you saying to yourself: ‘Oh. My. God.’”

The New York Times Book Review


“What a lovely tribute… Funny when it needs to be, touching when it needs to be, and cast in smooth, beguiling prose.”

Washington Post


“Beautifully rendered and seriously funny.”

Boston Globe


“A beautifully written portrait of a vanished way of life and a fondly humorous, very affecting work of homage and love.”



“A wry, unsentimental, but deeply felt family history… The narrative turns wistful as it surveys the gulf—of temperament, circumstance, and class—that opens between father and son as the author pursues an academic and literary life.”

The New Yorker


“Endearing… Part of the fortune of the book’s title is the gift of storytelling. It is because of this inheritance that we have Frayn’s brilliant body of work—which now, thankfully, includes this accomplished memoir.”

Time Out New York


“Engrossing… This finely detailed remembrance displays subtle wit and powers of perception that magnify every nook and cranny of ordinary life into something extraordinary.”

Kirkus Reviews


“Exquisitely written… Frayn’s thoughtful, obsessive, darkly funny exegesis of his father’s life is a heroic recreation of a vanished world.”

Maclean’s (Canada)


“After the brilliant plays—both comic and cerebral—and the subtle novels, one of our best contemporary writers has made the family memoir his own. Not a line, still less a thought, is stale or predictable.”

The Daily Telegraph (UK)


“Genuinely delving, yet decently guarded, My Father’s Fortune is often very funny and soaked in a wistful sort of melancholy that deepens into a compelling sadness. Frayn has written books that make a bigger bang, but none that is so touching.”

The Guardian (UK)


“Ranging from comic star turns to passages of piercingly lucid melancholy, My Father’s Fortune adroitly modulates between humor and tragedy, ruefulness and celebration, intellectual keenness and elegiac depths of feeling. A writer who has long been one of our most engrossingly inquiring minds, Frayn has never written with more searching brilliance than in this quest for his past.”

The Sunday Times (UK)


“Frayn at his very best.”

The Observer (UK)


“Often funny, sometimes painful, but always exquisitely well written, My Father’s Fortune reveals the extraordinariness that can lurk in even the most ordinary of lives.”

The Sunday Telegraph (UK)


“Entrancing... Forever alert to the inner processes of art and mind, Frayn from time to time nips backstage to show how the memoir machinery works. Yet this keen self-awareness never compromises the deep poignancy—and the rich comedy—of the story he has to tell. As always, that’s part of the trick of it for Frayn.”

The Independent (UK)

Library Journal
In his first autobiographical work, award-winning English playwright/New York Times best-selling novelist Frayn pays tribute to his father, Tom, and recalls his own provincial English childhood. Tom, a charming roofing salesman, grew up in a home crammed with immediate and extended family members, all of whom were deaf. With a lighthearted brogue and a strong work ethic, he rose from the trenches of extreme poverty. Frayn does not mythologize his father; rather, he celebrates him as an imperfect everyman whose fortunes were bleak at times. He writes elegantly and with finesse, making such seemingly mundane details as the placement of furniture and untold hours of cricket practice amusing. British actor/Audie Award winner Martin Jarvis's stodgy, upper-crust narration well suits Frayn's cerebral style. At times long-winded, this title may not attract a wide audience, but it will appeal to Frayn devotees and fans of British literature. Purchase where demand warrants.—Risa Getman, Hendrick Hudson Free Lib., Montrose, NY
The Barnes & Noble Review

With My Father's Fortune: A Life, playwright, novelist, translator, journalist, and screenwriter Michael Frayn adds memoirist to his attributes. Is this inspired mischief maker constitutionally suited to the task? Throughout his artistic career he has exercised a humane nominalism, poking holes in the idea of an enduring self -- indeed, his characters have questioned the possibility of understanding anything at all. "I'm not sure…if I really understand even what it means to understand something," admits the central figure in Spies, Frayn's last novel -- this, as he tries to summon up what was going on in the head of his much younger self. But in this moving autobiographical work, Frayn's reservations about what can be known surface only as a droll counterpoint to the emotional drama that emerges, from the evidence of censuses, vital records, family photos, interviews, recollections, and from Frayn's bold and busy imaginings.

Michael Frayn's parents and grandparents inhabited that social tideland in industrial England in which people drifted back and forth between the lower-middle and working classes. His paternal grandfather had gone from shop assistant to shop owner and back again. Frayn's maternal grandparents had their own vicissitudes, including an unsuccessful sojourn in the U.S. where the author's mother, Vi, was born. Their return to England eventually brought short-lived business success, followed by lasting business failure.

Frayn's father, Tom, a lively and engaging fellow, left school at fourteen to become an office boy. At the age of 18, now a wages clerk, he went to a party on a chance invitation and there he met the 14-year-old Vi. They fell for each other immediately. The sheer arbitrariness and existential ramifications of this conjunction is stunning to Frayn -- as is the inadvertency of his own conception many years later. Again and again he stops to wonder at both the fragility and the determining might of the chain that leads from past to present. A single terrible link, a decision made long in the past, lies at the heart of this book. At first only hinted at, it is finally revealed to be the cause of his family's greatest tragedy.

Though Tom rose to become a successful salesman, the improvidence of both families prevented the couple from marrying until 11 years after their fortuitous meeting. Even then they had to take Vi's mother into their small flat. Here, as elsewhere throughout the book, Frayn enters into the present tense to envision the setup, a bustling routine involving room measurements, furniture placement, the positioning of actors, and testing of scenarios -- all done with comic panache. He himself arrives on the scene in September, 1933. "There's rather a lot of me in the family snapshots dating from the next year or two," Frayn reports -- before issuing a familiar caveat. "Or at any rate of a chunky, chubby boy with abundant blond curls who slowly changes over the next three-quarters of a century, as I believe from my confused recollections and from a certain amount of documentary evidence, into the gaunt, balding old gent I now identify as me."

Eventually the family, which grew to include Frayn's sister, moved to the London suburbs and it is there they lived through the war -- though they were almost blown up by a German V-1 "Doodlebug." It is there too, less than three months after the war ended, that Frayn's mother dropped dead from a heart attack, a tragedy so devastating that the family is never able to discuss it. Frayn's father was left with the bringing up of two children while holding his job. He was increasingly mystified and troubled by his son. No good at sports or mathematics, the boy developed into a condescending young man whose private career goal was to become a romantic poet. Looking at a class photo from those days, Frayn sees himself wearing "a most unpleasant sneer" (photographic evidence supplied). "Have I put the expression on specially, in honor of the occasion?" he asks. "Or -- good God -- do I look like that all the time?...Is this what my father sees across the supper table each evening?"

Frayn brings us through subsequent events, expressing his mortification at having been the callow youth that he was, an alien character whose pomposities he presents most entertainingly. He attempts to plumb the mystery of his father's state of mind, troubled that he himself had been more of a trial than a blessing to the man -- an uneasiness calmed by book's end. He honors the fortune his father bequeathed to him: his smile, his skepticism, his tendency toward fiction, and that most fortunate gift of all, his very existence: "a life," as the subtitle suggests, and that of his children, and of theirs. This is a beautifully written portrait of a vanished way of life and a fondly humorous, very affecting work of homage and love.

--Katherine A, Powers

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780805093773
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 2/15/2011
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Frayn is the author of ten novels, including the best-selling Headlong, which was a New York Times Editor's Choice selection and a Booker Prize finalist, and Spies, which received the Whitbread Fiction Award. Michael Frayn is also the author of My Father's Fortune: A Life, The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe, Democracy: A Play, A Landing on the Sun: A Novel, The Copenhagen Papers: An Intrigue and The Trick of It: A Novel. He has also written fifteen plays, among them Noises Off and Copenhagen, which won three Tony Awards in 1999. He lives just south of London.

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Read an Excerpt


The handle of my study door softly turns. I look up from my typewriter, startled. The two older children are at school, my wife's out with the baby, the house is empty. I'm working alone on the top floor.

The door opens a few inches. Around the edge of it, with a certain deferential caution, comes a hat. A black homburg.

The year must be 1969, I realize from the internal evidence when I reconstruct the scene in my memory. No one round our way locks their front doors in 1969. But then no one still wears homburg hats. I'm looking at the last homburg in southeast London, perhaps in Western Europe.

I feel a familiar touch of exasperation. Of course! Naturally! The black homburg! Just when I've got a chance to work undistracted! Why hadn't he phoned, like anyone else? Why hadn't he rung the bell or shouted "Anyone at home?" Why hadn't he at least taken his hat off?

The hat is followed by a pair of spectacles—a hearing aid—a trim gray moustache. And my father's familiar smile, like the sun coming up.

My exasperation evaporates in the warmth of it.


1969, yes, when I was writing my first play. It must have been. The good year, shortly before the end of his life, the year's reprieve between his first cancer and the second. He just happens to be passing, driving from somewhere in southeast London to somewhere else, on his way to put his head round the doors of building contractors and architects in Woolwich or Eltham, selling them roofing. He has always been turning up like this in my life, unannounced, on the move, a law unto himself, excused by his deafness from the usual social conventions. Not always in a black homburg—sometimes in a brown trilby. But usually in one or the other.

When he takes the hat off it reveals the last of his trim silvering hair receding above the leathery corrugations of his forehead, and brushed precisely flat. His features are as neat and well ordered as his three-piece suit and polished toe caps. He has a touch of Fred Astaire's lightness and quickness about him.

"Not interrupting the muse, am I?" he asks, as I make him coffee. "Not depriving the world of some great new book?"

"It's not a book this time—it's a play."

"Are you? Where are you going?"

"A play. The thing I'm writing."

"Bit crowded at this time of year, Brighton."

He can probably hear me, actually, even if he hasn't turned his hearing aid on. It's over a quarter of a century since he first went deaf, and I've long been used both to raising my voice and to his pretending not to understand even so, for comic effect. More smiles when my wife comes in. "Would you like some lunch?" she asks him, but after a lifetime of softly modulating her voice she finds it almost impossible to make him hear even the vowel sounds. He's rather in awe of her, though, so he doesn't like to disrupt the flow of the conversation.

"Not too bad," he replies. "And the children?"

"They're very well. But how about lunch? Something to eat?"

"No fear!"


"Of course not. Up Dog Kennel Hill and across Peckham Rye."

It's forty years since my father died. I've often thought about him since, of course. As he was when I was a child, as he was when I grew apart from him in my adolescence, as he was when we became closer again in those last years of his life. I can sometimes still feel some of his expressions on my own face and know, even without a mirror, that I'm looking like him. And yet I'm so unlike him! Slow where he was quick, scruffy where he was dapper, head in the clouds where he was feet on the ground. And inside, behind our mutual expressions, in the way we think and feel, we're totally different. Aren't we? In all the years I've spent imagining myself into the heads of characters in plays and novels I've never really tried to feel what it was like to be that rather striking real character in the homburg hat. Your parents are your parents. They are what they are.

It was my children, wondering about their own origins, who first set me thinking about him in a rather different way. They wanted me to write something about my childhood—anything about the past that I could remember, before it had all vanished from my memory forever. Rebecca, my eldest daughter, felt that she and her two sisters—all of them now older than I was when that hat came round the door—"had risen from an unknown place." For a long time I resisted. How could I ever contrive to lay my hands on that lost world, which had now slipped so far away even from me?

And then it occurred to me that it was my father who was one of my last links with that elusive past and who might take us all back to it. Once again I saw his head coming round my door—the homburg, the hearing aid, the smile. Sixty-eight years of good and bad fortune were written in the corrugations of his forehead, the crinkled skin fanning back from the corners of his eyes, and the deep curving crevasses on either side of his mouth. So many things I should have asked him while he was still here to tell me. I might even have tried to talk to him about the thing he never once mentioned, the event that in one single instant broke his life in two—that broke all our lives in two—into Before and After. Did he ever wish he could have said something about it to me?

I went back to my very first conscious memory of him. I suppose I was three years old. He had appeared unexpectedly through a door, just as he did in my recollection of him at the end of his life. And, yes, wearing a homburg hat. He was coming in through the French windows of the dining room, just home from work, still carrying his files and folders. What makes this particular occasion stick in my mind is that I was crying, and that I lied to him about the reason. I'd misbehaved in some way and been scolded by my mother, but I felt so ashamed of my babyishness that I told him it was because I'd banged my head on the edge of the dining table.

Was it really the same man under that first homburg and the second? What had happened to him in the intervening years was etched not only into the skin of his face but deep into the core of the man himself. But then, if I was three when he appeared through the French windows, he must have been thirty-five. More than half a lifetime was written upon him already.

I go over that first remembered encounter with him again, now I'm trying so hard to recall things, and what catches my attention this time is not my lying, or his sympathetic smile as he was taken in, but an odd marginal detail of the scene: the fact that he was coming in through the French windows. They were at the back of the house. If he'd just arrived home from work he'd got out of the car on the driveway by the front door. Why had he walked all the way round to the back garden before he came indoors?

Maybe he'd forgotten his keys. Or maybe he already had a penchant for appearing through doors unexpectedly. But, as I turned this tiny anomaly over in my mind, it occurred to me that there was perhaps another reason—something quite simple, that would explain a lot about him. If I was right, I should have to begin by tracing his path to the French windows that day in 1936—all the way back, perhaps, to the unknown place from which he himself had arisen.

So back I've gone, as people often do when they get older, scrabbling among the birth and death certificates that marked my family's progress through the world. I've looked up the census returns and the electors' lists and walked around the streets where my father grew up. I've tried to remember what little he told me and to reconstruct the world as he saw it, with the problems he was set and the pleasures and successes he found. I've made myself come face-to-face at last with that event I could never talk to him about, and its consequences for him and all of us.

The quest that I'd so reluctantly begun came to occupy my mind and heart alike. I laughed aloud to myself sometimes at the things that came back to me and at other times could scarcely see what I was doing for tears. I also discovered many things about him—and a few about myself—that I'd never known and that took me completely by surprise.

And now, when he puts his head round my study door again and smiles at me, as he does, I see him—and myself, and the world we shared—a little differently.


Excerpted from My Father's Fortune by Michael Frayn Copyright 2011 by Michael Frayn Published in 2011 by Henry Holt and Company All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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Table of Contents

Homburg 1

Part 1

1 Smart Lad 9

2 House of Straw 21

3 Duckmore 41

4 Furniture and Fittings 59

5 Quick/Slow 79

6 Fire Resistance 97

7 A Glass of Sherry 111

Part 2

1 Child Care 137

2 Top to Bottom 159

3 Skylark 181

4 Chez Nous 199

5 Black Dog 219

6 Closer 239

7 Legatees 255

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