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A Landing on the Sun - Michael Frayn
Member Name: jodhen
A Landing on the Sun - Michael Frayn
Date: 13/02/01, updated on 14/02/01 (65 review reads)
Advantages: Best line: "He feels. That is his great mistake." Best scene - see below.
Disadvantages: Mockery of civil servants - not neccesarily big, but definitely clever
Have you ever read a book you love but been clueless about the origins of its title? “A Landing on the Sun” is one of those books for me. (The title has probably got some allegorical significance that I’m completely ignorant about. If you know, please let me in on it. The only explanation I can find for the title of this novel is its interest in the shiny roofs of government buildings where the tiles aren’t the only things to get hot.)
“A Landing on the Sun” is the story of Jessel, a civil servant who seems quite satisfied with his job, which as the novel begins, is to report on the Annual Assessment of Departmental Efficiency. The orderly world of his work, with its neat files and sensible, accurate minutes is certainly a comfort to him, contrasting as it does with the chaos of his household; an institutionalised wife, an emotionally unstable son, an over-apologetic mother-in-law.
If all this sounds tedious, depressing and exactly the opposite of what you consider to be a good read, please don’t stop reading this opinion yet! Jessel’s tidy work environment is topsy-turvied when he is asked to investigate the possibly mysterious circumstances of the death of Stephen Summerchild, a fellow civil servant who is apparently even more civil and servile than Jessel, in the mid-seventies. This brings work and home into uncomfortably close quarters, reminding him of a childish pursuit of Summerchild’s daughter, and he gradually realises that there are more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of…, well if not in his philosophy, at least in the dusty turrets of Westminster.
The so-called mystery surrounding Summerchild’s death becomes fairly quickly apparent to the reader, and it is Jessel’s alternately na´ve and wilful misreading of events which provides us with our entertainment. Gradually – and clumsily, reluctantly, pompously, irritatingly and very funnily ̵
1; Jessel comes to terms with what he discovers in a series of transcripts of taped conversations between Summerchild and his director in the "Strategy Unit", Dr Serafin. Sometimes the boundaries blur - disconcerting for us, but surely one civil servant’s life is much the same as another’s? – so that Jessel cannot distinguish between himself and the subject of his inquiry. Sometimes he seems to be on the brink of overcoming his emotional impotence – disconcerting for him, longed for by us. Just when I’m beginning to sympathise with the man, I find myself laughing at his ill-conceived, sanctimonious judgements. Just as the laughter fades into pity, Frayn takes off into absurdity again.
Michael Frayn’s achievement in this novel lies in the subtle and economic way he manoeuvres the reader (using the device of the unreliable narrator to great effect, like Ishiguro’s butler Stevens in “The Remains of the Day”). He leads us gently between the ridiculous and the sublime, from sympathy to amusement, through a philosophical discourse on the notion of happiness, along the edge of a detective novel, by way of a spoof of civil servant life, towards a small human drama. And the honey and celery scene alone makes it worth reading.