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Naturally the Foundation will Bear your Expenses
on 11 December 2012
Michael Frayn has said that Skios was a literary experiment to see if a farce could be written as a novel. The premise is that Dr Norman Wilfred, a distinguished academic, is to give a lecture on 'scientometrics' at a research foundation on a Greek island. When Dr Wilfred arrives at the venue, he turns out to be suspiciously young and charming. The explanation is that he is not Dr Wilfred, but Oliver Fox, a floppy-haired Hugh Grant-type character, who decided to impersonate Dr Wilfred after seeing Nikki Hook, the attractive administrator who came to meet the visiting speaker at the airport.
Apart from mistaken identity, many other familiar devices of the genre are present: lost clothing, thwarted romantic designs, preparations for a public event which is bound to go awry. It is all firmly in the Wodehouse tradition.
Skios is elegantly written and, particularly in the first half, pretty funny. Frayn is good on the fatuousness of so many lectures of this type (well captured by the title of Dr Wilfred's talk: 'Innovation and Governance: The Promise of Scientometrics').
But Frayn's literary experiment is not, I think, entirely successful. Although some relaxation of the laws of probability is inevitable in a farce, the events related here go beyond the frontier of the merely improbable into the land of the frankly incredible. Too often the reader finds themselves saying, in Victor Meldrew style, 'I don't believe it!'.
The other weakness is the ending, which is unsatisfying and arbitrary. It is almost as if Frayn simply lost patience with assembling the intricate Swiss watch of his plot and simply threw the thing against the wall.