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Headlong by Michael Frayn
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Headlong (1999)

by Michael Frayn

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,430398,209 (3.59)48
A British comedy in which academic Martin Clay is asked by a boorish country squire to assess his paintings. Clay spots what he suspects is a Bruegel and so begins a tale of lies and concealment as he schemes to separate the painting from its owner. By the author of Now You Know.
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Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
Michael Frayn's "Headlong" (1999) turns alternately from comic novel to lively art history and back again. The novel is terrific, except for those repeated interruptions, and perhaps the same could be said for the art history, if art history were one's purpose for reading a novel.

The story concerns a British philosopher, Martin Clay, who with his wife, Kate, flees to the country to work on his book. She has her own project to work on, plus a new baby to occupy her. No sooner do they arrive at their county house than they are invited to dinner by Tony and Laura Churt, who have a motive other than pure neighborliness. Tony wants a free appraisal of some art he claims was given to him by his deceased mother. He also wants help selling the art for maximum profit without having to pay the commission to someone like Sotheby's.

The Clays don't want to get involved, that is until Martin glimpses what he becomes convinced is a missing Bruegel masterpiece. Never mind that his wife is the art expert, Martin wants to do this on his own. He concocts a plan to acquire the painting for a fraction of its worth and sell it for a fortune. He convinces himself this would not be cheating Tony Churt but rather a public service.

Of course, things get complicated. For one thing, Laura Churt mistakes Martin's interest in the painting for an interest in her. Why else would he keep coming to the house while Tony was away?

Yet the biggest complication turns out to be all that art history that Frayn inserts into the novel. Although this is a work of fiction, the history appears to be true. If so, it is good stuff, at least for anyone with an interest in art history. For those of us just interested in the story about the Clays and the Churts, it proves an annoying detour.

With less history this could have been a first rate comic novel. With less plot it could have been a first rate art history. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Sep 27, 2017 |
Funny in places. Well written. Not a real page turner though. ( )
  ndpmcIntosh | Mar 21, 2016 |
I'm normally a fan of all Frayn's work and count him as one of the best living writers we have. However, I'm sorry to say this book is on the whole a significant error of judgement in a wide variety of ways, and only just managed to redeem itself in the last one hundred pages or so. This isn't enough to make it a great work of literature or even a good book.

Here are the issues that are wrong with it:

Martin is a dull and weak man, who thinks of himself far more highly than he needs to. As a result, he's neither strong enough nor attractive enough as a character to carry this story.

The characters, particularly the wife Kate, are very shadowy indeed and really more caricatures than genuine people.

The long and dull ramblings about art and Bruegel are … well … long and rambling. Mind you, the ability to make the magnificent Bruegel dull is itself quite impressive. If Frayn had wanted to write an historical novel, he should have done so, as Martin is not strong enough to make the historical sections interesting. It's more of an info-dump than a narrative.

The first 280 or so pages are mind-numbingly tedious.

Here are the issues that are right with it:

After page 280, the plot suddenly becomes interesting and fast-moving enough for the weak characterisation to be unimportant. Actually, the plot did very much remind me of one of the episodes of Midsomer Murders, but for me that's no bad thing as it's a crime series I enjoy.

The Lady of the Manor Laura finally comes into her own at the end of the novel, though she's still sadly underwritten.

The final page is spot on, and (possibly, though the jury's still out ...) worth the 280 pages of drivel to get there. Much like Wagner then in that you have to suffer through one hell of a lot of opera boredom to arrive at that glorious final note.

Verdict: 2.5 stars (the 0.5 for that end page). Rambling nonsense, with an odd spark of genius here and there. ( )
  AnneBrooke | Jan 24, 2015 |
An interesting story, as much as I wanted to shake some sense into the main character. A young couple goes for the summer to their country house and are asked to look at some old paintings that the local impoverished gentry has. The wife is an art historian and the husband a philosopher with some leanings to art history. He believes that one of the pieces is a lost and previously unknown Old Master but the real story is his complete obssesion with learning about it and trying to posses it by various nefarious means. No one comes out looking good in all of this; he gets so caught up in it that he manages to sabotage his marriage and the fate of the pieces. The owner and his wife are dealing backhandedly as well; the husband to try and shop the paintings else and the wife thinks it's all about seducing her away from her awful marriage. Of course, nothing good comes from it but the journey is compelling and the background research very interesting. The final few chapters were exasperating, though, as Martin is completely done in by his own myopia about the picture. I know that was the point but I just wanted someone, sometime, to tell the truth.
  amyem58 | Jul 14, 2014 |
Enjoyed the Bruegel mystery tour very much, and the first third of the book while it was setting the scene. But for me the farce of the last third of the book didn't really succeed and I did skip over quite a bit of the last few chapters, wanting to hear the plot but not all the detail. ( )
  Ma_Washigeri | Jun 17, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 39 (next | show all)
"A formidably learned, unfortunately ponderous comic romp from the British playwright (whose Noises Off is a contemporary classic) and novelist (Now You Know, 1993, etc.)."
added by bookfitz | editKirkus Reviews (May 20, 2010)
 
Headlong is built on this kind of premise, a dizzying vision or speculation which takes over the whole modest world of the central character. He is Martin Clay, a philosophy lecturer on sabbatical, diligently avoiding work on the book he is supposed to be writing on nominalism, and he is convinced that his disorderly neighbour in the country has, but doesn’t know he has, a lost Bruegel among the mountains of family junk in his rotting ancestral pile. The trick is to remove the painting from its owner without letting him know what he’s got, and this is how Martin thinks he will do it. It’s a piece of accelerated delusion. Groucho would have been proud of him.
 
"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."
added by bookfitz | editPublishers Weekly (Aug 30, 1999)
 
Martin's scholarly detective work is the heart of the story, putting it in a genre that includes A. S. Byatt's ''Possession,'' Carol Shields's ''Swann'' and Tom Stoppard's ''Arcadia.'' In the course of Martin's researches, we learn a great deal about Bruegel and the Netherlands of the 16th century -- political struggle, Spanish imperialism, the Inquisition. Frayn presents many intriguing theories of Bruegel's relationship to his time: did he simply ignore it -- art as escapism? Did he propagandize? Did he conspire with the nationalists? Did he collaborate with their oppressors? Or was he, as Martin briefly considers, ''a hired hack of the Counter-Reformation?'' That this research is so exciting is Frayn's great triumph. He's made a funny, fast-moving book out of a man reading other books.
 
This intersection of the art market, the class system, and what might be termed the English or British character furnishes an ideal locus for Michael Frayn. In his essays and in his plays and screenplays (Noises Off and Clockwise being notable here) he has raised an edifice of gentle but by no means innocuous satire of his fellow countrymen... The great secret about the English rural idyll – an idyll most harshly dissipated in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs – is that the bucolic scene is very often one of cruelty, surliness, and resentment, rife with nbreeding and inefficiency, and populated quite largely by people who would, had they only the talent or the resources, do anything to sell up and move to the city. (Without elaboration, Martin alludes to ‘the lake that collects in the dip by the wood where we found the dead tramp’.) We are, in any case, very swiftly presented with a truly rebarbative example of the squire at his worst.
added by SnootyBaronet | editNew York Review of Books, Christopher Hitchens
 

» Add other authors (18 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Frayn, Michaelprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bown, JaneAuthor photographsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Breugel, PieterCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jong, Sjaak deTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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I have a discovery to report.
(French translation) J'ai fait une découverte. Le monde doit le savoir.
Quotations
I bless Lufthansa, and my admirable quickness and recklessness in pressing my refresher, paper napkin and even my handkerchief on her when the old-fashioned fountain pen she was using leaked over her; and the happy marriage that followed two months, one week and three days later, when she used her fountain pen once again, and let me use it as well because I'd forgotten to bring anything to write with.
Odd, though, all these dealings of mine with myself. First I’ve agreed a principle with myself, now I’m making out a case to myself, and debating my own feelings and intentions with myself. Who is this self, this phantom internal partner, with whom I’m entering into all these arrangements? (I ask myself.)
The only way I can fulfill my pledge is to study my picture until I find what I’m looking for. The only way I can study it is to acquire it. The only way I can acquire it is to break my pledge.
An antinomy, as we call it back in the department.
Where is the country? Good question. I privately think it begins around Edgware, and goes on until Cape Wrath, but then I don’t know much about it. Kate’s rather a connoisseur of the stuff, though, and it’s not the country for her, not the real country, until we’ve driven for at least a couple of hours, and turned off the motorway, and got onto the Lavenage road. Even here she’s cautious, and I can see what she means. It’s all a bit neat and organised still, as if it were merely a representation of the country in an exhibition. … I share Kate’s unease about this. We don’t want to drive a hundred miles out of London only to meet people who have driven a hundred miles out of London to avoid meeting people like us.
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Invited to dinner by a boorish local landowner, Martin Clay, as easily distracted philosopher, and his art historian wife are asked to assess three sooty paintings languishing in a damp corner. But hiding beneath the dirt is nothing less-Martin believes-than a priceless lost old master. So begins a hilarious trail of lies and concealments, desperate schemes, and soaring hopes as Martin, betting all that he wons and much that he doesn't, embarks on a quest to prove his hunch, win his wife over, and seperate the painting from its owner. (0-312026746-0)
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