Headlong by Michael Frayn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In many ways Headlong follows the model of the tragedy, in that the outcome is the inevitable result of a fatal mistake by the main character, philosopher Martin Clay. For those who prefer the definition of tragedy as hinging on a fatal character flaw, Clay is a gloriously flawed character. He is self-absorbed, dismissive, delusional, presumptuous, pedantic, duplicitous, deceitful, withholds information, jealous, and insecure. I won’t give away which of these flaws is his downfall.
The outcome may be tragic, but the journey itself is entirely wrought with tragicomic elements. Consistent with Frayn's best known work, the play Noises Off, there is considerable bouncing and banging about, with doors slamming, people running in and out, misunderstandings, blurting out the wrong thing, sex farce, pictures flying out of windows, dogs sticking their snouts into indiscrete places, ridiculous hiding in the woods, and a smattering of references to The Importance of Being Ernest.
I kept thinking as I was reading this book that it would have been a very different story if it had been written by Dan Brown. In their story telling Frayn and Brown share some similarities: a huge amount of historical documentation backs up their work, and both exhibit a willingness to create a scenario in which a plausible historical event that cannot be substantiated is allowed to take flight. In this case of Headlong, the main character Martin Clay believes he has found a missing painting by Bruegel that would complete a set of paintings of the seasons. As Clay searches for historical backing for his claim, we are introduced to the intrigues of the social and political context in which Bruegel painted. This, however, is where the similarity ends, because if this were a Dan Brown book it would hinge upon some sort of conspiracy theory involving lesser-known Church sects and it would have been a whole lot less funny.
What we do find out about is the Spanish Inquisition, portrayed in Bruegel's paintings through subtle references to all its bloody splendor. I came away from this book with considerable respect for Bruegel as an artist, considering the challenges that he had to surmount. Frayn has produced a ripping good yarn. It gets a little slow as we have to plod through Netherlandish history, but these details are necessary to the resolution of the mystery… as necessary as pink baler twine!
View all my reviews >>