Skiosby Michael Frayn
The great master of farce turns to an exclusive island retreat for a comedy of mislaid identities, unruly passions, and demented, delicious disorder
On the private Greek island of Skios, the high-paying guests of a world-renowned foundation prepare for the annual keynote address, to be given this year by Dr. Norman Wilfred, an eminent authority on the/b>
The great master of farce turns to an exclusive island retreat for a comedy of mislaid identities, unruly passions, and demented, delicious disorder
On the private Greek island of Skios, the high-paying guests of a world-renowned foundation prepare for the annual keynote address, to be given this year by Dr. Norman Wilfred, an eminent authority on the scientific organization of science. He turns out to be surprisingly youthful, handsome, and charmingquite unlike his reputation as dry and intimidating. Everyone is soon eating out of his hands. So, even sooner, is Nikki, the foundation's attractive and efficient organizer.
Meanwhile, in a remote villa at the other end of the island, Nikki's old friend Georgie has rashly agreed to spend a furtive horizontal weekend with a notorious schemer, who has characteristically failed to turn up. Trapped there with her instead is a pompous, balding individual called Dr. Norman Wilfred, who has lost his whereabouts, his luggage, his temper, and increasingly all sense of realityindeed, everything he possesses other than the text of a well-traveled lecture on the scientific organization of science.
In a spiraling farce about upright academics, gilded captains of industry, ambitious climbers, and dotty philanthropists, Michael Frayn, the farceur "by whom all others must be measured" (CurtainUp), tells a story of personal and professional disintegration, probing his eternal theme of how we know what we know even as he delivers us to the outer limits of hilarity.
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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By Michael Frayn
Metropolitan BooksCopyright © 2012 Michael Frayn
All right reserved.
“I just want to say a big thank-you to our distinguished guest,” said Nikki Hook, “for making this evening such a fascinating and wonderful occasion, and one that I’m sure none of us here will ever forget…”
She stopped and read the sentence aloud again to herself, then deleted “fascinating and wonderful” and inserted “unique and special,” which sounded a little bit more—well—unique and special. A little bit more Mrs. Fred Toppler, in fact, which was what counted, because it was after all Mrs. Fred Toppler, not Nikki, who was going to be so grateful, and find it all so extraordinary. Nikki was merely Mrs. Fred Toppler’s PA. She provided the thoughts for Mrs. Toppler to think, but in the end it was Mrs. Toppler who had to think them.
Outside the windows of Nikki’s office the tumbling gardens and hillsides of the Fred Toppler Foundation were vivid in the blaze of the Mediterranean afternoon. Cascades of well-watered bougainvillea and plumbago challenged the saturated blue of the sky. The fishermen’s cottages along the waterfront and the caïques rocking at anchor on the dazzle of the sea were as blinding white and as heavenly blue as the Greek flag stirring lethargically on the flagpole.
Nikki, though, looking out at it all as she composed Mrs. Toppler’s thoughts for her, was as discreetly cool as the air-conditioning. Her discreetly blonded hair was unruffled, her white shirt and blue skirt a discreet echo of the Greek whites and blues outside, her expression pleasantly but discreetly open to the world. She was discreetly British, because Mrs. Toppler, who was American, like the late Mr. Fred, appreciated it. Europeans in general embodied for her the civilized values that the Fred Toppler Foundation existed to promote, and the British were Europeans who had the tact and good sense to speak English. Anyway, everyone liked Nikki, though, not just Mrs. Toppler. She was so nice! She had been a really nice girl already when she was three. She had still been one when she was seventeen, at an age when niceness was a much rarer achievement, and she remained one nearly twenty years later. Discreetly tanned, discreetly blond, discreetly effective, and discreetly nice.
As Nikki watched, people began to emerge from the fishermen’s cottages and drift towards the tables scattered in the shade of the great plane tree on the central square. They were not fishermen; they were not even Greek. They were not tourists or holidaymakers. They were the English-speaking guests of the foundation’s annual Great European House Party. They had spent the day in seminars studying Minoan cooking and early Christian meditation techniques, in classes watching demonstrations of traditional Macedonian dancing and late medieval flower arrangement. They had interspersed their labors with swims and siestas, with civilized conversation over breakfast and midmorning coffee, over prelunch drinks, lunch, and postlunch coffee, over afternoon tea and snacks. Now they were moving towards further spiritual refreshment over dinner and various pre- and postdinner drinks.
Tomorrow evening all this civilization would reach its climax in a champagne reception and formal dinner, at the end of which the guests would be spiritually prepared for the most important event of the House Party, the Fred Toppler Lecture. The lecture was one of the highlights of the Greek cultural calendar. The residents would be joined by important visitors from Athens, ferried out to the island by air and sea. There would be articles in the papers attacking the choice of subject and speaker, and lamenting the sad decline in its quality.
Please God it wasn’t going to be too awful this year, prayed Nikki. All lectures, however unique and special, were of course awful, but some were more awful than others. There had to be a lecture. Why? Because there always had been one. There had been a Fred Toppler Lecture every year since the foundation had existed. They had had lectures on the Crisis in this and the Challenge of that. They had had an Enigma of, a Whither? and a Why?, three Prospects for and two Reconsiderations of. As the director of the foundation had become more eccentric and reclusive, so had his choices of lecturer become more idiosyncratic. The Post-syncretistic Approach to whatever it was the previous year had caused even Mrs. Toppler, who was prepared to thank almost anybody for almost anything, to choke on the task, which was perhaps the unconscious reason she had left the “not” out of this being an occasion they would not forget in a hurry. Nikki had seized the chance of the director’s absence on a retreat in Nepal to choose this year’s lecturer herself.
“Dr. Norman Wilfred needs no introduction,” Mrs. Fred Toppler would be saying tomorrow when she introduced him. Nikki looked at the unneeded introduction that followed, paraphrased from the CV that Dr. Wilfred’s personal assistant had sent her. His list of publications and appointments, of fellowships and awards, was mind-numbing. Lucinda Knowles, Nikki’s counterpart at the J. G. Fledge Institute, had assured her that Dr. Wilfred was both a serious expert in the management of science and a genuine celebrity. Her friend Jane Gee, at the Cartagena Festival, said he was the lecturer everybody currently wanted.
So this year—“Innovation and Governance: The Promise of Scientometrics.” There was something about the word “promise” that made Nikki’s heart suddenly sink. Her choice was going to be just as awful as all the others. Even now he was five miles up in the sky, on his way from London, above Switzerland or northern Italy. She had a clear and discouraging picture of him as he sat there in business class sipping his complimentary champagne. All those committees and international lectures would have taken their toll. His jowls would be heavy with importance, his waistline thick and his hair thin with it. He would have dragged “Innovation and Governance” around the world, from Toronto to Tokyo, from Oslo to Oswego, until the typescript was yellow from the Alpine sun, tear-stained from the tropical rains, and exhausted from repetition.
She printed up the unnecessary introduction and the big thank-you, the solid bookends that bracketed whatever was to come. Too late now to alter what that was going to be. It was coming towards them all at 500 mph.
She looked at her watch. She had just the right amount of time in hand to deliver the texts to Mrs. Toppler and then double-check a few things on her list, before she left for the airport. She stepped out of the door of her office into the great brick wall of late-afternoon heat.
Copyright © 2012 by Michael Frayn
Excerpted from Skios by Michael Frayn Copyright © 2012 by Michael Frayn. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Michael Frayn is the author of ten novels, including the bestselling Headlong, which was a New York Times Editors' Choice selection and a Booker Prize finalist, and Spies, which received the Whitbread Fiction Award. He has also written a memoir, My Father's Fortune, and fifteen plays, among them Noises Off and Copenhagen, which won three Tony Awards. He lives just south of London.
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Incredibly inane! One star overrates this discombobulated cascade of coincidences, most of which are absurd. The author also needs to approach at least the end of the 20th Century: why would a world reknown "scientist" (with an able personal assistant to boot) go around clutching to his repeatedly repeddled lecture on sheets of paper, modified according to location, in this age of laptops, flash drives and other means of storage, or, why would a most efficient administrator confuse the apparently (widely cited on the web) elderly visage of a scientist with young playboy with blonde locks? Most other characters are not more than sad caricatures, some approaching stereotyping... Not worth spending your money; I wasted mine...
This book starts out as a great light read. A series of unlikely events places several characters in interesting situations. The characters, absent much development, are then faced with an ever-compounding series of ever more unlikely events. Its all a bit much. There are a few pleasantly comic moments, but how this book made the Booker long list is beyond me.
Maybe I have high standards, but to get a good review from me in this genre requires at least one laugh out loud moment, plus one I-need-to-put-the-book-down-or-I'll-die episode, and this book didn't have those. (Note, just about anything I've read from Christopher Moore falls into that category.) It brought a few smiles, and story moved well enough, but it just didn't deliver a lot of out-and-out comedic moments. The basis of the plot is an identity swap between a pompous academic and a ne'er do well loafer who through a bit of design and a lot of luck switch places. Both attempt to fit in where they end up, with comedic results. It can be taken as a comment on high-class society (or possibly organized crime), but not too sure those who read this genre would be looking for a message on either one. Book moves fairly well, the characters are developed enough, and there are some funny spots, just not any REALLY funny spots. Fans of Christopher Moore or Michael Frayn's other works may enjoy this book.
It's the annual event everyone's been waiting for on the private Greek island of Skios. Nikki, the manager of the prestigious Fred Toppler, has scored a major coup, one that should cement her position as the next Director of the foundation. For the guest lecturer, she has obtained the services of the renowned science management guru, Dr. Norman Wilfred. Rich and famous people are flying in from all over the world, eager to hear the latest nuggets of wisdom from Dr. Wilfred. This will be a major triumph. What could go wrong? Unfortunately, almost everything. A mixup at the airport has a charming imposter, Oliver Fox, taking Dr. Wilfred's place. He knows nothing about the subject, but his good looks and ingraiting ways disguise that fact. The real Dr. Wilfred is stuck at the villa Fox was to stay at; no suitcase, no phone, no way to remedy his situation. Oh, and there is a naked woman sunning at the pool. Georgia is Nikki's best friend and as it turns out, Oliver's weekend fling. She has no idea what is going on, or where Fox has gone. Michael Frayn has written a comedic tour-de-force. The plotting on a comedy is so difficult. It must be very tight, moving the reader forward on a froth of laughter before they can stop and apply the logic to the situation that makes it unbelievable. Frayn is a master, and the reader is thoroughly entertained, eagerly reading to see what happens next and how the entire situation is resolved. Skios is longlisted this year for the Mann Booker prize and it is easy to see why. This book is recommended for readers ready for an entertaining read that skewers the upper class and academia.
Comedy of Errors Dr. Norman Wilfred has flown to Skios to give a distinguished speech to a group of rich academics at the Toppler Foundation. Due to an unfortunate string of coincidences, he is whisked off to a villa while a con artist, Oliver Fox, takes his place at the Toppler gathering. At first blush, this may seem like to be only a farcical comedy of errors. Fun is poked at the distinguished empty-headedness of academia, at silly assumptions people make when they don't have all the information (which, of course, they never do), and at the openness of people to accept whatever is said--as long as it is said by a charismatic person. However, I can see why this book was chosen for the Booker longlist--upon a more careful reading this book has a much deeper undercurrent. It asks questions about identity and about chance Eureka! moments. I found the ease with with Oliver Fox moved into Norman Wilfred's life almost believable because that IS how academia works sometimes. Sometimes, it IS more about how charming you are than about what's actually coming out of your mouth. Sometimes it IS more about your name and about who people think you are than about who you ACTUALLY are. I understand that this book isn't for everybody...but I'm a person who doesn't generally read farcical novels, and I enjoyed this one immensely.
The first thing I’m going to say is that Skios would make a pretty funny movie because anything with mistaken identity is funny. Dr. Norman Wilfred is going to Skios, a private island on Greece, to give a lecture. On the same flight goes Oliver Fox, kind of a free spirit-modern-hippie who is there for a rendezvous with a married woman. Nikki, in charge of picking the Dr. at the airport picks Oliver instead and that is when the confusion starts. The book is funny but not hilarious. I liked the humor and the confusion but at some point became tired of it. Why? God only knows!
I am not a laugh out loud person, but Skios had me laughing throughout. There were a few holes in the premise, but after the first few pages, I didn't care. It was a farce. A satire of the public speaking circuit, of organizations and people who take themselves too seriously, set on the imaginary Greek Island Skios. If you allow yourself to honestly reflect on your own weaknesses, you will identify with the portrayals of some of the people or organizations, you will laugh with the misadventures of the four primary characters. Grab a pretty drink, smile the next time you feel required to make small talk and enjoy a fun half skip from reality.