I seem to be rather a fan of niche non-fiction. One of my favourites is the biography of Ivy Compton-Burnett written by her secretary, but I love the idea of books looking at one aspect of a career or a very particular angle on a person. This being the case, I couldn’t resist picking up Celia’s Secret (2000) by Michael Frayn and David Burke last year on Charing Cross Road. And that’s despite its frankly horrendous title, sounding like the worst sort of romance novel.
I’ve only read one novel by Frayn (Spies) and have seen none of his plays; I certainly know nothing the play Copenhagen, around which this book centres. It doesn’t really matter, though I’m sure fans of Copenhagen will enjoy this even more; Frayn quickly glosses it as characters ‘discovering quantum mechanics and developing nuclear fission, then exploring some of the philosophical darknesses of the human mind’. And then he less quickly glosses (in the introduction)…
The subject of Copenhagen, I should explain, is itself a mystery – the strange visit that the German physicist Werner Hesienberg paid to Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941. They were old friends and colleagues, but Denmark was now under German occupation, and Hesienberg had become an enemy. Though he couldn’t say it openly to Bohr, he had also become the head of the Nazi Government’s nuclear programme. The two men had a private conversation which ended abruptly and angrily, and their great friendship along with it; but no one has ever been able to reconstruct what they said to each other, or to agree on what Heisenberg’s intentions were in making his unwelcome but evidently pressing visit.
To be honest, the play sounds pretty boring – but the aftermath of it is very interesting. The director of the play received a letter from a Celia Rhys-Evans, the current resident of the house where the physicists were interned in England. Celia had discovered notes in German, hidden under the floorboards, and thought the director of the play might be interested in them. The director spoke no German, so he passed them onto Frayn.
From here, Frayn begins a correspondence with Celia. She is an odd character, only giving one sheet of paper at a time, filling her letters with eccentricities and even suggesting that Frayn start paying her for the letters. He deals with these eccentricities because he is so intrigued by the documents he is being sent. And those documents are bizarre. The first seems to be instructions for assembling a table tennis table, but with curious lists and amendments that indicate a code…
The book is divided between Frayn and David Burke, one of the actors in Copenhagen, with whom Frayn discusses the issue. I shan’t spoil what happens in the book, but Celia’s reasons for sending the papers are not all they seem. There are winding paths here, and more surprises and character development than many novels. Indeed, it could easily have been the plot of a novel.
I imagine this was a bit of a gamble for the publisher, as the natural audience for Celia’s Secret might be quite select – but I am evidence that one doesn’t need to have any prior familiarity with Copenhagen to enjoy it.