Celia’s Secret: an investigation by Michael Frayn and David Burke

Celia's SecretI 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.

13 thoughts on “Celia’s Secret: an investigation by Michael Frayn and David Burke

  • March 7, 2016 at 9:17 am
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    Ah, that does sound interesting! I did watch the play ‘Copenhagen’ and it was actually riveting, about the struggle between science and politics, the desire to advance scientific discover at the cost of selling your soul. So I’ll make a note of this one…

    • March 8, 2016 at 12:14 am
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      If you’ve seen Copenhagen, then I think you’d DEFINITELY enjoy this one, Marina!

  • March 7, 2016 at 10:58 am
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    Sounds absolutely fascinating, Simon! Is that the David Burke who appearing the Sherlock Holmes stories with Jeremy Brett? This sounds exactly like the kind of non-fiction I like – I shall look out for it!

    • March 8, 2016 at 12:15 am
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      Oh, it might well be! I have to confess I didn’t know who David Burke was, but he is an able write for an actor :)

  • March 7, 2016 at 3:26 pm
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    This sounds really interesting.

    • March 8, 2016 at 12:15 am
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      It’s even more interesting than I can reveal in this review ;)

  • March 7, 2016 at 8:54 pm
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    “To be honest, the play sounds pretty boring “. I cannot believe you said that! Anyway the reviews were almost universally excellent and personally I think you would have greatly enjoyed it.

    • March 8, 2016 at 12:16 am
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      I think you probably can believe it ;)
      Our different interests might mean you find this very interesting – though might also mean you spot errors that I wouldn’t have noticed.

  • March 7, 2016 at 9:47 pm
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    This sounds intriguing – I really enjoyed the play but had no idea that this ‘sequel’ existed – I will definitely seek this out.

    • March 8, 2016 at 12:16 am
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      This sounds perfect for you, then!

  • March 8, 2016 at 4:32 pm
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    Oo! This sounds really fascinating! I can also report that the play is NOT boring. I was worried it would be also, but it’s pretty moving and interesting. I’m checking now to see if any of my libraries has this book.

    • March 8, 2016 at 4:36 pm
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      Aha, it was published in the US as “The Copenhagen Papers.” Still not a thrilling title, but at least less romance-y?

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