Monday, April 11, 2011

"Headlong" a novel by Michael Frayn

If the narrator of Michael Frayn's "Headlong" has a name, I can't remember it, so I'll just call him Michael.  Poor Michael can't catch a break, but despite his machinations and rationalizations he's nevertheless a sympathetic character who is no more venal that most of us and probably better in some ways.  Michael is a man of impulse.  Usually his instincts are spot on, but when he spies what he believes to be a lost Bruegel at a neighbor's house, his desire for the painting overwhelms his scruples, his common sense, and even his love for his wife and child.

Kate, Michael's wife and mother of baby Tilda, is an iconographer who is writing the standard reference work on comparative Christian iconography.  Michael, a philosopher, is supposed to be working on his book on nominalism, but his interest in art history shoves everything else off the stage once he spots that Breugel.  Tony Churt, a shambolic aristocrat with no money, lives in his great house with wife Laura and a pack of dogs that disrupt nearly everything.  He wants to sell some of his paintings off the books in order to hold onto his house and estate; Michael wants to buy the Breugel without letting Tony know just how much it's worth.  Complications ensue.

I didn't know much about Breugel beyond some vague images in my head and the wonderful poem by Auden.  Like Icarus, Michael falls headlong into near-disaster but manages to avoid Icarus' watery fate.  As a former academic, I know I should relish research, but the truth is I don't much enjoy doing it.  I do appreciate it when someone else takes the trouble however, and this novel is full of accounts of Breugel's life.  In fact, it takes the reader through the stages of Michael's search for information on Bruegel and his work, making it seem like a detective's quest for the truth.  As Michael digs deeper and deeper in one library after another, we share his mounting excitement with each new discovery.  As the pieces of the puzzle emerge, we too are convinced that Michael's find is worth millions.  Of course, this painting is a fantasy, but the historical account of Breugel and the terrible conflict between the Catholics and the Protestants in the Netherlands in the 16th c. is real enough and stands in marked contrast to the comic tone of Michael's bumbling efforts to deceive his neighbor, elicit the help of both his wife and Tony's, and beat out another art historian who is also on the chase. 

The last novel I read also involved art.  If you read my previous blog, you know what a sad tale it tells.  Frayn's novel is a complete turnaround, more reminiscent of "Lucky Jim" than "La Boheme."  In a word, it is delightful.

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