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on 2 October 2000
A philosopher turned art historian chances upon a rare find in a debilitated country house - a lost painting by Bruegel, the 16th century Flemish master. There are only two problems - how can he coax it from its (semi-) legitimate owner, and how can he really be sure it's genuine, certain enough to jeopardize his wife and daughter's future?
What transpires is a headlong plunge into shame and hypocrisy. The Babel-like demolition of Martin's aspiring academic pride is painfully inevitable. Drawn deeper and deeper into a self-constructed conspiracy theory - the politicization of Bruegel's "Months" - he decides that he must possess the painting at any cost, or, rather, the attendant glory of its restoration to the world. The result is a dizzying fall from grace, scorched by his selfish, reckless ambition.
You will certainly enjoy it if, like me, you are a lover of Bruegel's beautiful paintings. I found the art history intriguing - a trail of evidence in search of a crime, and a powerful deconstruction of the terrifying political and social climate in which Bruegel worked.
The book benefits greatly from having to hand the paintings it describes - these allow you to investigate for yourself the illuminating details picked out by the narrator. I recommend Bruegel, by Keith Roberts: it has a concise biography and excellent, full-page, colour reproductions of the "Months" and other paintings described throughout the book.
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Frayn has produced a witty and erudite book, which is smoothly written, witty, and has .... a plot (shock for a Booker shortlisted novel). If you can wade through the art history information (that is used as a sort of sixteenth century Inspector Morse story line), you will enjoy the whole experience.
For what it is worth I was on the "People's Jury" on Channel Four, discussing the six books on the Booker Shortlist. Two of us (myself included) voted this the best out of the six. If you want something a bit different, that involves the reader as a co-conspiritor in the murky events, then this is the book for you. The ending takes you through a brilliant roller coaster of 'will they or won't they succeed'. I will leave you to delight in the ending.
Excellent stuff. A worthy Booker shortlisted book, and best of the bunch in my opinion.
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on 14 September 2000
If Michael Frayn can get an audience thinking that they had the potential to become a nuclear-scientist if only they had got that GCSE in Physics, as he demonstrated in his huge stage success, Copenhagen, then in Headlong he demonstrates the ease in which his readers could slip into rusty, tweed-jackety academia. He opens up art history, giving fascinating desciptions of not just the paintings, but the historical context in which they were painted. So you get three novels in one - a rural farce, a treatsise on art and a social history thrown into one. I thought it was an excellent read - it reminded me very much of David Lodge's Small World. It's one of those books you want to read again when you have finished. I agree though that you need the pictures there with you (although he has such an amazing way with words that he brings the paintings alive through his words). But if that makes you buy another book, surely that's so much the better (Wouldn't you at Amazon agree! ). I'm sure sales of the Taschen series on Breugel must have shot up. It would be interesting to find out if that is the case.
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on 15 January 2014
OK, this is not a book for everyone, I grant you. I don't read History and have (or should probably say had) no interest whatsoever in Art History. BUT. And it is a very big but. This is fabulous. Frayn has constructed a wonderfully funny (in its characters and their various frustrations) and fascinating exploration of a genre of painting of which I had no knowledge. The London couple and their Lords of the Manor neighbours are straight from theatrical farce, their situation more akin to the Antiques Roadshow, their background more University Challenge. Put them together and you have Headlong; a stunningly well-researched, brilliantly plotted, stylishly presented .... farce? Drama? Art History PHD project? Almost impossible to categorize and completely impossible to describe (having tried to persuade friends and failed horribly), this is unique and strangely but completely addictive and unputdownable. I read it in two straight sitting and loved it. No, it's not easy, but good things cost, and this is craftsmanship, skill and worth every penny and minute of your time. Oh, it does help if you love Breughel, with or without the h...
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Here we have a perfect example of how a book can affect people in very different ways. Highly recommended by several people whose opinions I value and with whom I often find myself in agreement, I assumed I would love this book. Hmm!

When our first-person narrator, Martin Clay, is invited by his cartoonishly-oafish country bumpkin neighbour to look at his art collection, Martin (though hardly an expert) thinks he has spotted a missing Breugel. Martin then plots how to acquire this painting for himself, ostensibly to have the honour of being the one who discovered it, but the two million or so he expects to get for it is a further motivation.

There seems to be an unfortunate habit developing amongst authors whereby they do a ton of research and then decide they're going to use it all - every single word - loosely bunging a flimsy plot into the gaps and then calling it a novel. At least sixty percent of this book is Frayn regurgitating the history of the 16th century Netherlands together with everything he could find on Breugel. Not subtly weaving it into the story and not with any redeeming beauty of writing - just pouring it out in a 'Look what I know!' kind of way.

"On the table in front of me I have Friedländer (of course), Glück, Grossman, Tolnay, Stechow, Genaille and Bianconi. They quote each other freely, together with various other authors not available in the London Library - Hulin de Loo, Michel, Romdahl, Stridbeck and Dvořák - and they refer to the often mutually contradictory iconography used in two breviaries illuminated by Simon Bening of Bruges in the second and third decades of the sixteenth century, the Hours of Hennessy and the Hours of Costa; in the Grimani Breviary, also done, a little earlier, by Simon Bening and his father Alexander Bening, although the calendar itself is attributed to Gerard Horenbout; and in our own dear 'Calendrier flamand', as I think of it, in the Bavarian State Library."

The other forty per cent is a fairly unsubtle farce as our unlikeable, intellectually snobbish hero tries to do down his equally unlikeable 'half-educated' neighbours, while trying not to fall out with his enigma of a wife - the woman with the least personality of any fictional character I have encountered. There are some funny moments, but many of the jokes are inviting the reader to join with the author/narrator in laughing at the bumpkins for their ignorance of art and philosophy or in mocking the narrator for his snobbery. This combination means that the whole book has a sneering quality which left me unable to empathise with any of the overblown unattractive characters.

Despite the fact that by a third of the way through I began to skip whole sections devoted to presumably partially made-up art history, it still took me the best part of two weeks to plough through the remaining snippets of plot, mainly because I couldn't bear to read any more about the tedious, self-absorbed and yet apparently irresistible-to-women Martin. And since the ending was pretty much inevitable it was hardly a surprise, except in that the author managed to make it more unpleasant than I anticipated by adding in an incident of entirely unnecessary animal cruelty.

Sorry to all of you who love Frayn - you're obviously seeing something in this that I'm not...but I'm afraid I found this one a major disappointment and doubt I'll be seeking out any more of the author's work.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 April 2014
The discussion about art, and in particular the relation between art, religion and politics, is educational almost beyond the point of fiction. It didn't fit with a story that is very entertaining but essentially silly. I don't know why he didn't make a more serious novel out of it - maybe because this is Michael Frayn, author of light novels about serious subjects. Despite that slight frustration, the art was so brilliantly researched and explained, this is one of my very favourite novels.
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on 12 January 2016
One of the best books I have read. I have to say that I read it using a kindle, making frequent detours to click on names and topics (nominalism, iconology, iconography). It was an education. Frayne opened my eyes to a period in History that was not something I knew. As someone who lived briefly in the Netherlands, I am ashamed of how ignorant I was of this traumatic period in their history. The evils of the Spanish occupation and comparisons to Nazi occupied Netherlands really emphasised the traumas that the Netherlandish peoples have been through, thanks to the Roman Catholic Church and later the ideology of the former Catholic Mr Hitler.

This was a book that is also very funny. If you have met people like Tony Churt, it makes it all the more fun. Laura is another fascinating character, so real in ones mind's eye. Met many of her type as well. I find myself lapsing into Tony Churt speak, dropping the subject or article at the start of a sentence. Must stop that. Really must.

And finally Art History. If you want an introduction, albeit comic, into the passions of art, this will surely set your intellectual juices flowing.

My only sadness is it is over and I don't know what on earth I can read next. Will I ever be as entertained as I was with Headlong?
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on 20 May 2013
I was led to read this after first reading Michael Frayne's book 'Spies', having found some aspects of the latter had kept me on board. Again, the storyline in Headlong is itself quite intriguing and I did like the elements of farce...
Headlong is the story of a philosopher and aspirant art historian who gradually becomes fixated upon his neighbour's painting, convinced in his own mind that this is an original of the famous Breugel. He is more than interested in the painting, as he would like, by hook or by crook, to possess it for himself. Michael is intrinsically selfish and yet, oddly, almost likeable for the fool that he is and it is his misconceptions that lead to so much farce. The only minus is that the art history surrounding the Breugel becomes almost self-consciously a lesson in aesthetics which, at times, can make the narrative tedious.
Headlong was a story which I thought just possible and had more credibility than Frayne's other book "Spies", even though there is, again, a sense that at times the author feels it incumbent to display erudition when the focus needs to be on the storyline and the characters.
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on 10 October 2000
This book was short-listed for the Booker prize; dare I admit that I found it a bit boring and didn't manage to finish it ? I probably bought it because of the cover picture of Breughel's famous and beautiful 'The Fall of Ikaros'. Being Flemish, I have an unreserved love for Flemish painting and anything vaguely connected to it. Unfortunately, I felt slightly cheated. This book doesn't have Breughel's perfect technical mastery combined with concealed subversion. The novel tries to penetrate the soul of Sixteenth Century Flanders but somehow seems to miss the point. The novel is tedious and goes on and on speculating whether the painting is authentic or not - Breughel is never tedious. In Breughel's paintings, life goes on regardless. Ikaros falls from the sky, but the farmer keeps ploughing. Probably I am much too harsh and I apologize to the author for it. I am not an art historian and, yes, the book is very erudite. It describes the mad journey of a man who thinks he might have discovered an unknown Breughel. He plans to buy it cheap and sell it dear ... can't tell you more without giving away the end.
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on 25 November 2014
I'm a big fan of fray - I thought Skios was hilarious, and Towards the End of the Morning was gently brilliant. Headlong has moments of glory, where Frayn's talent for conveying farce in a kind way is given its chance to shine. However there is waaaaayyy too much tedious art history in this book: sitting there like great unwelcome blocks that have to be navigated in order to get onto the next bit of the plot. Much of the art history just didn't progress matters at all - I ended up skimming over many of them and don't feel I missed out.
The characterisation doesn't get the chance to shine as it does in many of his other books - only the hero Martin comes through in 3D. The others are rather thin and repetitively stereo typed. This book's worth a read, but be prepared to skim and don't expect a classic.
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