Headlong: A Novel
An unlikely con man wagers wife, wealth, and sanity in pursuit of an elusive Old Master.
Invited to dinner by the boorish local landowner, Martin Clay, an easily distracted philosopher, and his art-historian wife are asked to assess three dusty paintings blocking the draught from the chimney. But hiding beneath the soot is nothing less-Martin believes-than a lost work by Bruegel. So begins a hilarious trail of lies and concealments, desperate schemes and soaring hopes as Martin, betting all that he owns and much that he doesn’t, embarks on a quest to prove his hunch, win his wife over, and separate the painting from its owner.
In Headlong, Michael Frayn, “the master of what is seriously funny” (Anthony Burgess), offers a procession of superbly realized characters, from the country squire gone to seed to his giddy, oversexed young wife. All are burdened by human muddle and human cravings; all are searching for a moral compass as they grapple with greed, folly, and desire. And at the heart of the clamor is Breugel’s vision, its dark tones warning of the real risks of temptation and obsession.
With this new novel, Michael Frayn has given us entertainment of the highest order. Supremely wise and wickedly funny, Headlong elevates Frayn into the front rank of contemporary novelists.
With its sumptuous surfaces and alluring sense of gravitas, classic Dutch painting has fascinated writers for centuries. It’s easy to see why. Giant religious representations and gaudy classical scenes already have the weight of literature behind them. But an enigmatic portrait or dimly lit interior seems like a virtual incubator for narrative, and now Michael Frayn joins the Netherlandish fray in Headlong, which features a Bruegel canvas in the starring role.
The other star of the novel is youngish art historian Martin Clay (a Hugh Grant character gone to fat), who identifies the lost Bruegel in a tumbledown country home. The picture elicits an immediate shock of recognition:
Already, somewhere in those first few instants, something has begun to stir inside me. In my head, in the pit of my stomach. It’s as if the sun’s emerging from the clouds, and the world’s changing in front of my eyes, from grey to golden. I can feel the warmth of the sunlight spreading over my skin, passing like a wave of beneficence through my entire body.
The sight of this masterwork glimmering through the “grimy pane of time” fires up Martin’s customarily dilettantish intellect, and he decides to secure it for the nation—and make himself a fortune—without revealing its true value to the owner. Much double-dealing, bamboozling, and suppressed hysteria ensue as he and the owner try to outfox each other. Yet the heart of the novel is Martin’s search for the meaning of the painting that has become his “triumph and torment and downfall.” Bouncing from gallery to museum to library, he delivers an extended (and entertaining) lesson on iconography and landscape.
As Martin’s obsession takes hold, the pace of the novel also accelerates into a breathless rush of action, comic anguish, and scholarly speculation. Not surprisingly, some of Martin’s machinations go haywire, which leads to a certain amount of irritating slapstick—shady deals in underground parking lots, art treasures being tipped into the back of a filthy Land Rover, and so forth. But even if he makes his plot work overtime, Frayn is superb in the quest for the meaning of art, not to mention the lure of money and intellectual reputation. And for that alone, Headlong deserves to be called picture perfect. —Eithne Farry
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No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition!
What would you do if you found a missing masterpiece in your neighbor’s attic—a Van Gogh, say, or a Picasso—that no one else knew existed? And what if this neighbor was an unforgivable boor, a wife-beater, and a cheat, and possibly a thief? What if he knew nothing whatsoever about art?
What if he asked you to help him sell a few paintings, this one included?
In Headlong, Michael Frayn confronts an ordinarily sedate British scholar of philosophy with just such a quandary—and hilarity and mayhem ensue. Martin Clay is supposed to be quietly ensconced in his country home, with his art-historian wife Kate and his baby daughter Tilda, writing a treatise on the role of nominalism in the formation of the art of the Netherlands in the 15th century. But Martin is all too easily distracted from his given course, and when Tony Churt, the ill-mannered and down-on-his-luck owner of the local estate, asks for his advice, he’s eager to comply.
The advice, as it turns out, revolves around four paintings that have presumably been in Churt’s family for generations, paintings that are awkwardly stuffed in a damp, unused breakfast room. Churt, in serious money trouble, needs to sell these paintings, and hopes that Martin and Kate can appraise them. There is a gargantuan Giordano, which is fairly impressive, but as Martin has never heard of Giordano, he thinks it can’t be worth much. There are two smaller 17th-century Dutch paintings, both nice, but both apparently from unknown artists working in the styles of greater artists.
And then there’s the last one. Painted on an enormous oak panel that the Churts are using to block the draft from the old fireplace is a scene of springtime celebration—a scene that, for Martin, is immediately recognizable as the work of Dutch master Pieter Bruegel. More importantly, it seems to be the missing member of a six-painting series, a painting that disappeared over 400 years ago. If this painting is what Martin thinks it is, it will not only make him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, but it will also secure his scholarly future.
But there’s one catch: First, he’s got to get the painting away from Tony Churt.
Thus begins Martin’s comedy—and tragedy—of errors. In pursuit of his painting, Martin must get past both his doubting wife, who has seen him take on such wild goose chases before, and the amorous young Laura Churt, Tony’s neglected spouse. He also has to outwit another scholar, who may or may not be on the case, and out maneuver Churt himself, who might be using Martin in a scheme that is at best fraudulent, and quite possibly illegal.
But Martin must also overcome his own doubts. Could one glance at this painting really have provided enough evidence that it’s a Bruegel? And if so, why did this painting disappear?
Headlong follows Martin through his wild-eyed research into the world of the 16th-century Netherlands, a world filled with both religious and political oppression. We learn, as he does, much about art history, and European history, and a bit about classical philosophy. But mostly we watch Martin’s breakneck descent from husband, father, and scholar to schemer, liar, and thief, as his passion for this painting overtakes all else around him. As the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition spread across northern Europe, we wonder what lessons, if any, Bruegel’s example teaches Martin, and to what extent he abandons the values his study of philosophy has required.
All this is rendered in Michael Frayn’s impeccably hysterical prose. Frayn, author of numerous other novels and volumes of non-fiction, is also a playwright, best known for his riotous farce, Noises Off. In Headlong, Frayn turns a satiric eye on both the landed gentry and the scholarly class, exposing both the ridiculousness and the dark underside of each. Frayn’s quick wit is matched by his spectacularly-drawn characters, however, and is made all the more poignant by the sense he conveys of the stakes of Martin’s story. If the painting turns out not to be a Bruegel, Martin may well have destroyed his entire life for nothing. And if it is—well, the outcome may be even worse.
“There are some paintings in the history of art that break free,” Martin tells us near the beginning of his adventure, “just as some human beings do, from the confines of the particular little world into which they were born.” These paintings—and these people—often break free for no particular reason. As Frayn reminds us, some of these paintings, and some of these people, achieve fame beyond the circumstances of their origin, but all too often they wind up lost, consigned to the ash heap of history. —Kathleen Fitzpatrick