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Headlong: A Novel Hardcover – September 2, 1999
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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
From Publishers Weekly
Frayn, a highly successful playwright (Noises Off) as well as a novelist of note (A Landing on the Sun; Now You Know), is an odd combination of skilled farceur and scholar, and these strands in his work seem somewhat at odds in this new novel, his first in six years. It is an intellectual comedy, veering occasionally into knockabout, revolving around a philosophical historian, Martin Clay, and his discovery, in the dilapidated manor house of a frightful country neighbor, of a painting he believes to be a missing Bruegel. The comedy arises from Martin's efforts to ascertain its provenance, raise some money for a token payment and somehow spirit the painting away from the churlish Tony Churt, calm the suspicions of his art historian wife, Kate, who is surprised by his sudden interest in her field, and fend off the advances of the highly flirtatious Laura Churt. Frayn is wonderfully funny about English country life, the mustier byways of art history, the art auction business and the deviousness that lurks within apparently mild-mannered art historians. But he has obviously read up extensively on Bruegel, his period and the possible political symbolism of the series of paintings of the seasons to which Churt's picture apparently belongs; and Frayn cannot resist giving the benefits of his scholarship back to the reader, at often exhaustive length, entirely halting his promisingly frolicsome narrative in the process. His attempts to give his lighthearted plot some intellectual weight almost sink the good partsAa pity, since Frayn proves himself again and again a highly civilized entertainer, and the good parts are both funny and true. 50,000 first printing; 7-city author tour.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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