Dutch art has become fashionable with nineties novelists. Witness Deborah Moggach's Tulip Fever
, set in 1630s Amsterdam where a painted portrait is the focus for a tale of doomed love. Or Tracy Chevalier's Girl With a Pearl Earring
, which centres on Vermeer's prosperous household in Delft in the 1660s. Michael Frayn has joined the Flemish fray in Headlong
, where a Bruegel has a starring role. With these paintings the author can step into a story rather than a myth. Big religious representations and gaudy Classical scenes already have the weight of literature behind them. But an enigmatic portrait, a picture of a dimly lit interior or frolicking peasants is a tale waiting to be told. They're an invitation to interpretation, and Frayn's narrator accepts this role with alacrity.
Youngish art historian Martin Clay (a Hugh Grant character gone to fat) identifies a lost Bruegel in a tumble-down country home. His intellectual dilettantism becomes focused by the arresting sight of a painting glimmering through the "grimy pane of time", and he decides to secure the painting for the nation, and a fortune for himself, without letting the owner discover its true value. There follows much double-dealing, bamboozling and suppressed hysteria as Martin and the owner try to outwit each other. At the heart of the novel is Martin's search for the meaning of the painting that has become his fate, his "triumph and torment and downfall". He pitches from gallery to museum to library delivering an extended history lesson on iconography, iconology, landscape and the ever elusive story in the Bruegel. As his obsession takes hold, the pace of the novel picks up too, a breathless rush of action, comic anguish and scholarly speculation. At points there is some irritating slapstick--shady deals in underground car parks, art treasures being tipped into the back of a mucky Landrover, as Martin's machinations go haywire, and disaster looms.
Frayn is good on the quest for the meaning of art and the lure of money and intellectual reputation, even if the plot is made to work too hard. Martin so beautifully describes the Bruegels he's studying that the reader cannot help wanting to look at them too, to step out of the story and into the picture. Thus, Headlong might have benefited from a set of illustrations. Of course, the whole novel could be an elaborate, enjoyable art hoax, and the Breugels he's describing don't actually exist at all. And if that's the case, it's very successfully done. --Eithne Farry
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
'Frayn's plot - a high-precision feat of fictional engineering - accelerates exhilaratingly . . . a black and brilliant comedy of uncertainties.' -- Sunday Times
'Ingenious ... As entertaining as it is intelligent, as stimulating as it is funny.' -- New York Times
'As you are dragged into this headlong race for fame and fortune, you never know what will happen next, only that more torture lies in store.' --Independent on Sunday