There’s always a bad moment, Howard knows, after the porter’s unlocked your room, switched everything on, drawn the curtains, and gone away with a huge tip because you had only a folder of fresh banknotes in your pocket, when you sit down helplessly and think, well, here we are, this is it, I’ve arrived. Now what? Shall I go down and eat in the hotel restaurant, or shall I go out? And if you’re not careful you sit there blankly in the one armchair, with the curtains drawn and your bag on the stand, until it’s too late to do anything.
But just before this moment arrives, as soon as the door closes on the porter, Howard notices the writing-table, and all the little giveaways which the management has arranged under the lamp–books of matches, a long-stemmed rose in water, writing-paper, and picture postcards of the hotel. The postcards absorb him at once. They show (for instance) guests dining in the hotel’s famous Oak Room, with the celebrated choice of 142 dishes from all over the world, to the accompaniment of a three-piece Mariachi band. If you tilt the card back and forth a little, the picture appears to move. The hands of the Mariachi players strum their guitars. The forks of the diners flash from plate to mouth and back. Sommeliers reach discreetly forward to refill glasses. The waiters’ spoons dig up down up down in the great trifle on the world-famous dessert trolley. Gentlemen’s jaws chomp, ladies’ smiles flash. A couple in one corner kiss discreetly over the brandy.
Howard tilts the card back and forth until he has seen the couple in the corner leave, and the manager quietly coping with a customer who refuses to pay the bill, then puts it carefully into his pocket to save for his children, who love this kind of toy. He puts four books of matches into his pocket as well. These are for his wife, who smokes. For himself he will take a handful of the pencils they always leave out for you … But here he makes a surprising discovery. At the top of the blotter, where the pencils should be, is a pencil-case. It’s made of red plastic, and there’s something familiar about it which he can’t quite identify; something about the feel of its grained texture, and of the shiny red popper button on the flap … He pulls it open. There’s something even more familiar still about the contrast between the grained texture on the outside, and the red smoothness of the inside.
Then for some reason, he smells it–and at once he knows. It’s his first pencil-case, that he had for his sixth birthday. For nearly thirty years it’s been lost. And now it’s been lovingly found again by the management of the hotel to welcome him. It has its new smell still–the perfect red plastic smell, the smell of writing numbers in arithmetic books ruled in squares; the smell it had before it got mixed up in the dust and Plasticine and tangled electric flex in the toy-drawer.
There are very few books I’ve ever read a second time. For me, the bigger problem is what not to read. There is only one book, however, I’ve read a third, fourth, and, recently, fifth time: Michael Frayn’s Sweet Dreams.
Frayn’s name is considerably better known now than when I first read the book in the late 1970s. At the time, the US paperback edition I bought compared him to Vonnegut, guaranteed bait for a geeky undergrad like me. In reality, Frayn’s writing is not that much like Vonnegut’s, but by the time I’d reached the fourth page, I no longer cared.
Sweet Dreams opens as the protagonist, Howard Baker, a thirty-something Englishman, is sitting at a stop light. A dozen different thoughts flash through his head while he waits to proceed onto what he thinks is Hornsey Lane. But when he puts the car into gear and accelerates, he finds it’s not Hornsey Lane: “It’s a ten-lane expressway, on a warm mid-summer evening, with the sky clearing after a day of rain.”
The highway approaches a great metropolis. Neon signs flash against the pale sunset and the black clouds in the north. “He recognises some of them–the Pan-Am symbol, Dagens Nyheter, the Seven Names of God.” Over the car radio, St Juliana of Norwich tells him, “And all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
The city proves to be a marvelous place, the best of all cities blended into one. He checks into a wonderful hotel, where the porter shows him that he can fly–if he wants to. Frayn’s limpid prose–and if any writing deserves that adjective, it’s the writing in Sweet Dreams–is perfect for capturing this heavenly place. Take this description below of Howard’s first night’s sleep in the city.
He goes to sleep with the feeling that things are going to go right for him in this town.
And enjoys a perfect night’s sleep–deep, clear, and refreshing, like gliding down through sunlit water on a hot day; such a perfect night’s sleep that he is entirely unconscious of how much he is enjoying it, or of its depth, clarity, and refreshingness, or its resemblance to gliding through sunlit water on a hot day; so perfect that from time to time he half wakes, just enough to become conscious of how unconscious of everything he is.
As you may have guessed by now, Howard has, in fact, gone to heaven, even though he never quite realizes the fact. Heaven turns out to have all the same problems Howard ran into on Earth. Still, Howard has such sincerity and wonder that these problems seem somehow new, fresh, and full of possibilities, not difficulties.
I think that spirit is what brings me back to Sweet Dreams. Frayn achieves such a delicate balance between innocence and cynicism that he leaves you optimistic, light-hearted, but not naÃ¯ve. The tone of this book is comic but not boisterous; satirical but not biting; affectionate but not cloying. It’s one of the most perfectly realized books I’ve ever read–and perhaps the only book I’ll read a sixth time.
Frayn himself once remarked on the book,
Sweet Dreams is an ironic examination of the illogicality of the idea of heaven. I feel the same way about the idea of an ideal society on earth–they all fall to pieces logically. You can improve society piecemeal, of course, but I think the awful thing about changing anything is how many other changes that one change must necessitate. You can’t make one thing better without making other things worse…. Sweet Dreams is the best book, and the prose there is as good as I’ll ever write. But I don’t like what it reveals about me.
Sweet Dreams was long out of print, but it seems to be back on the shelves again thanks to the success of Frayn’s Spies. Anthony Burgess put it on his list of the best 99 English novels since 1939, and it deserves to be kept in print and widely read from now on.
- Margaret Drabble, New York Times Book Review, 13 January 1974
- Frayn has a most unusual talent. His books see, so deceptively simple, but they linger in the mind for years, and can be re-read with the greatest pleasure. “Sweet Dreams” is no exception. … The novel is a satire on modern fashions–clothes, houses, jobs, attitudes, beliefs–but it’s more than that. It’s an account of growing older, it’s a comment on the nature of man. … The accuracy of Frayn’s observation is dazzling; in a few words, he creates a man, a room, a dinner party. What he does, he does precisely. … Most satirists and writers of Utopias dislike people profoundly, but Frayn’s work is informed with the most beautiful goodwill.
- New Yorker, 14 January 1974
- Frayn, as he must be to carry off this sort of thing, is an impeccable writer. He is not a science fictionist but a moralist, and his novel is a kind of Candide–a vividly contemporary Candide, full of the most serious high comedy and the most enormous belly laughs