Spies is a novel of an old man remembering back to his boyhood in London during WWII. In particular, he pieces together the consequences of his best friend’s declaration: “My mother is a German spy.” Unlike other boyhood games (Mr. So-and-so is a murderer; Mrs. Whatsit eats baby kittens…), this particular one takes on real moment: the boys get inflated with the potential importance of their “discovery” to the war effort and begin spying on her in earnest. Of course, any such spying is bound to uncover something. At first their discoveries are sweetly comic: an X in her diary every 28 days or so means, to them, a rendez-vous with a German agent but the suspense builds as they find odd things and terrify themselves with speculations.
As Adam Mars-Jones wrote at the time: “The key to the book's success is Frayn's decision to respect young Stephen's point of view without staking everything on recreating it. Stephen's older self frets over the past which is the boy's present, without claiming authority over it.” (You can find another review at Collected Miscellany, too.)
There’s much I loved about this moving, suspenseful, and poignant novel. But one passage in particular stands out for me: a great mini-essay on what it means to understand something, anything. Thinking back, remembering, trying to piece together what happened and how much of it he knew (and what kind of knowing he had—dim, partial, hidden from himself), he stares at a pot of geraniums that stands now where he had once played with his friend:
What do I understand? Now? About anything? Even the simplest things in front of my eyes? What do I understand about the geraniums in that tub?
Only that they’re geraniums in a tub. About the biological, chemical, and molecular processes that lie behind that flaunting scarlet, or even the commercial and economic arrangements that create the market in bedding plants, or the sociological psychological, and aesthetic explanations for the planting out of geraniums in general and these geraniums in particular, I understand more or less nothing.
I don’t need to. I simply glance in that direction and at once I’ve got the general story: geraniums in a tub.(152-3)
He takes us to the edge, philosophically speaking, and then pulls us right back to solid ground. Yes, the idea of what it means to understand is complex. We understand very little. If we really stop and consider how little we know, our ignorance is dizzying, dazzling. We can imagine the treatises, from every discipline, that would help explain how it came to be that middle-class English people tend to have potted geraniums. On the other hand, sometimes, “the general story: geraniums in a tub” is plenty.
I think that’s a key to being a great creator of fiction rather than a scholar. Frayn is smart—smarter than most, for sure—but he knows how to choose a single detail that, in a stroke, conveys a raft of information about class, place, attitude, degree of conventionality, aesthetics. He doesn’t get distracted by all that; he just knows that the people who would be living on that street now are the kind of people who would have geraniums.