The narrative of Spies relies entirely on the memory of a 70+ year-old narrator, Stephen Wheatley, who returns to his childhood town and tries to recall the events that happened there almost six decades ago. His narration jumps between two distinct periods of time, the past and the present, which immediately considers the role of time as a force of change, resolution, and even unresolved problems. The narrative thus introduces two major “problems” that should prompt the reader to question the integrity and accuracy of the story as a whole.
Several times within the novel, Stephen is honest about the potential inaccuracies of his memories. He frequently modifies his narration with qualifiers like “I think” and immediately confesses his own uncertainty to the reader. In response to Keith’s declaration that Keith’s mother is a German spy, the older Stephen describes his reaction at the time: “I don’t think I say anything at all. I think I just look at Keith with my mouth slightly open.” Often, the reader can even follow Stephen’s process of working out the past. He begins the story at the tea table in Keith’s house where he heard the “soft clinking made by the four blue beads that weighted the lace cloth covering the tall jug of lemon barley. . . No, wait. I've got that wrong. The glass beads are clinking against the glass of the jug because the cover's stirring in the breeze. We're outside…” In effect, Frayn consistently portrays the inherently faulty aspect of human memory through the protagonist, who is always unsure of the actual sequence of events and whether or not they even happened. In fact, many psychological studies on memory have shown that our memories are not as accurate as we think or would like them to be—humans tend to have many gaps in our memories that we fill with details that will make the story more coherent to ourselves. Although as readers we may never know what details are right or wrong in the novel, it is that uncertainty that generates a nuanced meaning and appeal for Frayn’s story. Thus, the way in which Stephen remembers the events at the Close meaningfully reveals how that past has affected him and his initiation into adulthood.
As such, Spies is like a psychological excavation of Stephen’s memory. The manner in which he tells the story provides an in-depth look into how and what kinds of memories he forms. First, Stephen describes the structure of his own memory as resembling not a timeline, but rather a more impressionistic scattering of fragments, “a collection of vivid particulars.” As we experience the replaying of Stephen’s childhood, we are given very detailed descriptions, which suggest that Stephen is particularly in tune with his senses. In particular, he pays special attention to his sense of smell. It is the sweetly rank smell of privet/liguster that prompts him to go back to the Close in the first place, and throughout the novel, he makes a meticulous effort to list the different scents that capture his attention: for example, the “sad, sour smell of the elders” and “the sawdust, motor oil, swept concrete, car” smells of Keith’s father’s workshop. In fact, smell is one of the senses in the body that is most deeply connected with the formation of memories, as the actual structures in the brain associated with smell are physically linked to the region responsible for memories. In this way, Spies offers an elaborate compositional picture of one man’s memory.
The specific details of the memory do not make up the complete picture, but they are further refined by the emotions Stephen felt as those events unfolded. In turn, Frayn illustrates the emotional dimension of memories and, in effect, adds another layer that makes them seem even more vivid and real. For example, as Stephen tries to identify the source of that unsettling smell, he associates specific scents to particular states of feelings by noting that “It’s not like the heartbreaking tender sweetness of the lime blossom, for which this city’s known, or the serene summer happiness of the honeysuckle.”
The product of the novel’s structure as a recollection of the past, particularly as a series of associations with specific smells and emotions, is the understanding of how these events personally affect Stephen and allow him to grow, how they make him the man he is in the present. Frayn’s Spies is classified as a bildungsroman, a genre of books that deals with the formative years of the main character that result in psychological and moral development. This specific time in Stephen’s life, when he is sucked into the dangerous secret of Keith’s mother and Uncle Peter, is the moment when he realizes how naïve and innocent he is as a young boy. In Stephen’s transition to becoming an adult, Barbara Berrill also plays an important role because she not only introduces Stephen to an adult world of freedom by goading him into opening his and Keith’s secret box—and effectively subverting the rules created by childhood whims—and smoking a cigarette, but she also shares a kiss with him and leads Stephen into another world of young love and sexuality. As Stephen slowly pieces together the puzzle of Keith’s mother’s suspicious operations, he describes that he is “leaving behind the old tunnels and terrors of childhood and stepping into a new world of even darker tunnels and more elusive terrors,” and he learns that the “very things that seemed so simple and straightforward then are not simple and straightforward at all but infinitely complex and painful.” Thus, Frayn’s novel follows the common trajectory of most bildungsromans, illustrating the loss of innocence and the realization of a bleaker world as one becomes an adult.
However, this particular series of events does not only introduce Stephen to a more grown-up world, but it also continues to vex him throughout his life. The unsettling smell of privet induces the same emotions he felt back then and provokes the lingering feeling of guilt that he carries for decades. In fact, he admits that he returns to the Close partly hoping to find the scarf that he failed to give to Keith’s mother and hid in the Lanes. This all speaks to Stephen’s own conception of himself and his belief of how he fits into the world, both his past English one and the present German one. As evident in Stephen’s self-comparison with Keith, Stephen is never content with himself, and he even refers to himself as “unsatisfactory.” Thus, his failure to deliver the scarf to Keith’s mother, the teasing he received from his classmates at school, his gut intuition that “there's something not quite right about him and his family,” the difficult start to his new life in Germany, and his homesick return to the Close all point to the unfortunate truth that even as an elderly man Stephen still may not have found a stable footing for himself in the world.
Memory and the Self ThemeTracker
Memory and the Self Quotes in Spies
Glimpses of different things flash into my mind, in random sequence, and are gone. A shower of sparks . . . A feeling of shame . . . Someone unseen coughing, trying not to be heard . . .
Everything is as it was, I discover when I reach my destination, and everything has changed.
Gratitude not only to Keith's mother but to Keith himself, to all the others after him whose adjutant and audience I was, and to everyone else who wrote and performed the drama of life in which I had a small, often frightening, but always absorbing part: Thank you for having me. Thank you, thank you.
What I remember, when I examine my memory carefully, isn’t a narrative at all. It’s a collection of vivid particulars. Certain words spoken, certain objects glimpsed. Certain gestures and expressions. Certain moods, certain weathers, certain times of day and states of light. Certain individual moments that seem to mean so much but that mean in fact so little until the hidden links between them have been found.
So far as I can piece it together, as the heir to Stephen’s thoughts, he neither thought she was nor didn’t think she was. Without Keith there to tell him what to think he’d stopped thinking about it all. Most of the time you don't go around thinking that things are so or not so, any more than you go around understanding or not understanding them. You take them for granted.
Lamorna. I find the word on my tongue over and over again, saying itself of its own accord. Lamorna is the softness of Barbara Berrill's dress as she leaned across me to look in the trunk. Lamorna is the correct scientific description of the contrast between the bobbly texture of her purse and the smooth shininess of its button. Lamorna is the indoor-firework smell of the match, and its two shining reflections in her eyes. But Lamorna is also the name of the softness in Keith's mother's voice…
Once again I feel the locked box beginning to open and reveal its mysteries. I'm leaving behind the old tunnels and terrors of childhood—and stepping into a new world of even darker tunnels and more elusive terrors.
Now all the mysteries have been resolved, or as resolved as they’re ever likely to be. All that remains is the familiar slight ache in the bones, like an old wound when the weather changes. Heimweh or Fernweh? A longing to be there or a longing to be here, even though I’m here already?