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the Complete Review
the complete review - non-fiction


Celia's Secret
(The Copenhagen Papers)

Michael Frayn and David Burke

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To purchase The Copenhagen Papers

Title: Celia's Secret
Authors: Michael Frayn and David Burke
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2000
Length: 129 pages
Availability: The Copenhagen Papers - US
Celia's Secret - UK
The Copenhagen Papers - Canada
Celia's Secret - India
Celias Geheimnis - Deutschland
  • UK title: Celia's Secret
  • US title: The Copenhagen Papers
  • UK subtitle: An Investigation
  • US subtitle: An Intrigue
  • Confusion caused to readers: great

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Our Assessment:

B+ : an amusing little story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph A 27/5/2000 Will Cohu
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung A 20/3/2001 Frank Schirrmacher
New Statesman A 24/7/2000 Robert Winder
The NY Times A 13/6/2001 Richard Bernstein
The Spectator A 20/5/2000 Nicholas Fearn
TLS . 1/9/2000 Maggie Gee
Die Welt A 21/7/2001 .

  Review Consensus:

  A great deal of fun -- though many wonder whether the book itself isn't some sort of hoax.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Frayn writes dryly about the absurdities of his self-deception, portraying himself as a solipsistic Nabokovian figure, seeing only the facts that complement his fiction. The story reveals the con trick as a form of courtship between guller and gulled, a kind of doomed romance, and it is an instructive little drama." - Will Cohu, Daily Telegraph

  • "This is the way the whole brief book proceeds: it's a series of trapdoors and false bottoms. Not the least beguiling of its many glittering aspects is that, after a while, we can hardly avoid the suspicion that none of this is true, that Frayn never even wrote a play called Copenhagen, that every word in this parable of deceit is contrived." - Robert Winder, New Statesman

  • "(A) deliciously intricate, whimsically philosophical little intrigue that, in Mr. Frayn's view especially, mockingly duplicates some of the themes of the play Copenhagen (.....) The greatest fun of The Copenhagen Papers is the companionship of Mr. Frayn and Mr. Burke." - Richard Bernstein, The New York Times

  • "The ingenuity of the trickster is matched only by the ingenuity Frayn shows in suspending his disbelief. He and Burke tell the story of the investigation in alternate chapters, with Burke stealing much of the show. Where Frayn is concerned with damage limitation, his collaborator has clearly thoroughly enjoyed his contribution." - Nicholas Fearn, The Spectator

  • "If the story is true, Celia's Secret is a better book, telling us chastening truths about the gullibility of clever men and demonstrating the extraordinary lengths to which practical jokers will go in what is at bottom an act of aggression -- making a fool of someone else." - Maggie Gee, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Ein wahnwitzig fallenreiches, spannendes Dokument von der Verwischung der Grenzen zwischen Fiktion und Fakten, historischer Wahrheit und hysterischer Vermutung." - Die Welt

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Michael Frayn's play, Copenhagen (see our review), about Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, premiered in May 1998. David Burke played the role of Niels Bohr for the full fifteen months of its first run.
       Actors and playwrights usually don't have that much to do with one another, especially once a play is out of rehearsal. Frayn and Burke certainly had fairly little to do with one another most of the time -- at least directly. Or -- at least for Frayn -- knowingly.
       Performing the same role, day in and day out, can be something of a chore. Minds occasionally drift, untoward thoughts occur. David Burke describes this quite well:

I have one particularly alarming idée fixe that afflicts me from time to time. It is the temptation to do or say something so outrageous that it would stop the play, empty the house, and end my career.
       Onstage Burke shows admirable restraint -- no show-stoppers yet -- but it turns out he has a devilish other side to him. Behind the scenes he is apparently something of a jokester. Not a particularly nice one, either, from the examples he gives .....
       Celia's Secret -- or The Copenhagen Papers, as US publisher Henry Holt (whose Metropolitan imprint apparently never met a British title they liked -- see Tibor Fischer's Don't Read This Book if You're Stupid (and our review)) would have it -- describes one such prank. The director of Copenhagen, Michael Blakemore, was the original target. He received a letter from a Celia Rhys-Evans in which she enclosed "two crumpled and torn sheets of paper, handwritten on both sides in German." She claimed to have found them years earlier under the floorboards of Farm Hall -- where Heisenberg had been interned for six months after the end of World War II.
       Were these documents that might provide new insight into the German atomic programme ? Or possibly even into the very subject of Heisenberg's meeting with Bohr that stood at the centre of Copenhagen ?
       Blakemore was all aflutter with excitement and contacted Frayn. And Frayn eagerly pounced on the pages. Knowing some German he hoped to be able to decipher them and perhaps determine their significance.
       Frayn (and Blakemore) thought they were authentic. David Burke -- and the readers of this volume -- know they weren't. It's not meant to be a secret in the book: the chapters are written alternately by Frayn and Burke, each describing what was going through their minds and how they proceeded. It was, of course, Burke that thought of the whole scheme, and forged the documents and sent them off.
       The joke worked better than expected. Yes, the papers didn't make that much sense -- a peculiar juxtaposition of instructions for assembling a table tennis table and some nuclear-related terminology -- but there had to be more than met the eye. Frayn entered a correspondence with the mysterious Celia, and received additional pieces of the puzzle. He devoted considerable time and effort to figuring out what they might really be (and say).
       Burke, meanwhile, couldn't believe how easy it was to play this game, and revelled in the sheer joy of such deceit ("Was this what van Meegeren felt when he finished another Vermeer ?"). He was, in fact quite amazed: "Was there no end to his gullibility ?" Almost none, in fact: "He seemed to have an infinite capacity for making something out of absolutely anything I sent him."
       One sympathizes with Frayn. It was easy to believe -- and certainly to want to believe. And then he was just finishing up work on his own forgery book, Headlong (see our review), in which he put his character in a similarly hopeless position. Truth and fiction -- they can be hard to separate. Even here.
       The joke comes undone, eventually. It finds a nice conclusion. Still, it could have gone on for longer. For as long as the two wanted to play at it -- and there certainly was that temptation to continue to play at it.
       Frayn admirably bares his soul, acknowledging that he was duped. Burke at least maintains that his conscience gnawed at him almost all the while (but also admits that he enjoyed himself thoroughly with much of the creative invention). Both present the story nicely and well. It is a quick read, with quite a few laughs (and some cringing, too). And it is an interesting exploration of gullibility and questions of authenticity and what we seek and demand of art and of life.
       A thoughtful little piece, though a bit light. Still, it can certainly be recommended.

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Celia's Secret / The Copenhagen Papers: Reviews: Michael Frayn: Other books by Michael Frayn under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

       Michael Frayn was born in 1933. He is best known as a playwright. He has also written several acclaimed novels.

       David Burke is an actor. He played the role of Niels Bohr in the London production of Frayn's Copenhagen.

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