Not only is Michael Frayn’s novel, Headlong, an artful narrative about artistic theft; it’s also an intelligent and provocative primer on the life and times of the artist, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Headlong’s basic premise involves the supposed discovery of a long-lost Bruegel painting and the discoverer’s plot to acquire it for himself. When Martin Clay, a flawed middle-aged philosopher, and his wife, an art historian, visit the country home of an English neighbor, they view four old family paintings. One, Martin instantly decides, is part of Bruegel’s 1565 Months series.
Commissioned by a wealthy Antwerp patron, Niclaes Jonghelinck, there are five extant paintings in the Months series. Art critics have long debated whether the original assignment was for twelve, or six. Frayn imagines that Bruegel actually painted six, and then walks his anti-hero through the steps that must be taken to prove the authenticity of his unlikely find. Martin conducts in-depth research, probing Breugel’s biography, his temperament, his artistic techniques, and even his artistic tendencies. Martin also investigates the historical moment swirling around the Renaissance Netherlands, when the country was poised between Calvinism and Catholicism and when artists needed to remain a-political.
Meanwhile, Martin’s foil, the painting’s owner, has his own Machiavellian agenda, one that results in some richly satiric scenes and some very funny verbal exchanges. A caricature of poverty-stricken British nobility gone to seed, Tony Churt twits Martin throughout Headlong. The reader knows that no one in this novel is trustworthy, but is constantly surprised by the mind-bending machinations, first of Martin, then of Churt, then of Martin, then of Churt. The wives enter into the proceedings, too, adding further humorous dimensions. Every page brings a new speculation, or a new revelation, or a new upending of the reader’s precarious assumptions.
Headlong is worth reading for two quite different reasons. First of all, I learned a lot about an artistic era and an artistic genre that were relatively unfamiliar to me. I also enhanced my understanding of the techniques used by art historians when determining provenance and legitimacy. I even discovered some notions about forgery that I hadn’t considered before. Second, I was impressed by Michael Frayn’s authorial talents. Headlong’s characters, for the most part, are rather unlikeable. And he lampoons them with panache. Despite the fact that I wouldn’t want to spend one minute with either Martin or Churt in person, I enjoyed them on the printed page. I couldn’t stop caring about the outcome of this riotous narrative, a very witty indictment of artistic authentication and avariciousness. – Ann Ronald
Also available by Michael Frayn: Spies; Skios; Towards the End of the Morning; A Landing on the Sun; The Trick of It; Matchbox Theatre:Thirty Short Entertainments; The Tin Men; My Father’s Fortune; The Russian Interpreter; The Human Touch;A Very Private Life; Sweet Dreams; Travels with a Typewriter; Stage Directions, Writing on Theatre, 1970-2008; The Original Michael Frayn; Collected Columns; Celia’s Secret; The Additional Michael Frayn; Constructions; Alphabetical Order; Threebies;