by Michael Frayn (1999)
Picador (2000)
352 pp

Just a few days after seeing his play Democracy, I was wandering around London’s National Gallery bookshop when I first saw Michael Frayn’s novel Headlong. I didn’t know he wrote novels because I knew Frayn only for Copenhagen, Noises Off, and now Democracy, all great plays. I was even more surprised when I saw that Headlong was a Booker finalist, losing out that year to Coetzee’s Disgrace. I didn’t buy Headlong that day. And in the intervening years I never saw it on a bookshelf again nor have I seen it come up in book discussions. Now, I’m sure I’ve just been myopic, but I’ve seen dozens of discussions devoted to Disgrace and almost as many devoted to another 1999 Booker finalist, The Blackwater Lightship. Who knows when or if I would have picked up and read this book had KevinfromCanada not recommended it to me when I asked him for books related to one of my favorites A Month in the Country (also, Booker shortlisted, and also almost forgotten). Thank goodness he recommended it to me. I haven’t had as much fun reading a book in a long time.

Much like Copenhagen and Democracy postulate ways to fill in historical gaps and curious motives (both excellently, in my opinion), Headlong looks at one of the many blank spaces in art history and fills it in — or doesn’t: you get to evaluate the evidence. Let me just say that lost art — and its potential discovery — fascinates me. I also love when an intelligent person — Frayn, here — discusses art in the historical context surrounding its creation. But even if you don’t enjoy such things, I still think there’s plenty in this book to love. For one, it’s absolutely hilarious.

Our narrator is Martin Clay. He used to be a psychologist, but a wild interest in the effects of nominalism on 15th-century Netherland painting has caused him to leave psychology behind to study art. The action of the book begins when he begins a sabbatical from teaching to write a book on his new interest. His wife Kate and their new daughter Tilda join him at their country home. We get the sense that Kate has begrudgingly allowed Martin to chase this whim. Apparently he dives headlong into something for a time and then moves quickly on to something else.  Nevertheless, we sense that she does love him and wishes him to find happiness by chasing his dreams. But with a new daughter, those dreams had better be kept in check. This dream of writing a book, for instance, had better be fulfilled while on this short sabbatical.

We know from page one that his book on nominalism is not going to be written during this sabbatical. Something else has taken his interest. We also understand that he might have debased himself a bit while pursuing his new obsession:

I have a discovery to report. Many of the world’s great treasures are known to have been lost over the centuries. I believe I may have found one of them. What follows is the evidence for my claim.

I’m in a difficult position, though. If my claim is not accepted by scholars, I shall look a fool. If it is . . . then I shall be in a worse position. The circumstances of the discovery are such that I shall emerge not only as a fool but as an object of outrage and horror.

This new discovery is made almost right when the Clays get to their country home. Their neighbor Tony Churt has parked his landrover in their driveway and is waiting for them when they arrive. He’s heard they were coming and invites them over for dinner with he and his much younger wife Laura. And while there, he hopes to get their opinion on something. Without much enthusiasm, the Clays make their visit to the Churt estate, Upwood, once stately but now dilapidated. The estate is behind on its taxes, and Tony would like to pawn off some of the old artwork to get himself out of the red — something his young wife failed to do when after they were married her father shut down the trust fund.

So Martin goes to look. We see that he’s really out of his depths when asked to put a value on the paintings. Here are his thoughts:

All right, knock off a thousand for plausibility. But then the frame must be worth a few hundred. And probably the bare breast increases its salability. Perhaps even the naked knee’s an attraction. Add a tenner for the intimate expression on her face. Another couple of thousand out of politeness to my hosts. A thousand off as a sop to honesty . . . Where have we got to?

But among the few pieces of art, stopping the soot from the chimney, is something Martin believes is a true treasure:

I recognize it instantly.

I say I recognize it. I’ve never seen it before. I’ve never seen even a description of it. No description of it, so far as I know, has ever been given. No one knows for sure who, if anyone apart from the artist himself, has ever seen it.

And here is where the already fun narrative takes on a new dimension by adding some fascinating discussions of art and, in particular, about the history of this piece which no one knew existed anymore. I read this book next to a computer so I could look up images of the art work discussed (except for the one Martin thinks he’s found), and it was a very rewarding experience.

But this book is rewarding all the way around. We have as fast-paced a narrative as one can hope to find. Frayn’s writing is smooth, and very very funny. Throw in some genuinely intriguing art history (as opposed to that falsely intriguing stuff making bestsellers), and it’s already a winner for me. But now, throw in Frayn’s skill at tying the human drama to the art drama. As Martin formulates his own plot to attain this painting, without showing too much interest, he realizes just what he’s willing to do to get it, including leading on the young Mrs. Churt. And no matter how honest you are with your wife, that kind of thing just isn’t going to sit well. So amid all of the excitement, we get to witness the personal and sad drama of a marriage in decline. With his natural skill for dialogue, Frayn shows us the intricate machinations Martin and Kate develop to both punish and forgive one another.

I’m going to end this review with a rather lengthy excerpt of a light argument between Martin and Kate. It showcases a bit of Frayn’s skill at playing with multiple layers — the theoretical, the intimate, and the sad — and multiple character motives and misunderstandings. And all with a humorous overtone that softens it up and makes it very delightfully British:

“In any case,” I say, rocking Tilda tenderly back and forth, “however terrible it is to destroy works of art, it isn’t as terrible as torturing people to death.”

“Isn’t it?” she says coolly. “Though the Calvinists did plenty of that, too, in the areas they controlled.”

I ignore the irrelevant provocation, and swoop like a hawk on those first two shocking words. “Are you suggesting that destroying pictures and statues might be worse than destroying people?”

“Of course not,” she should reply, if she had any sense. But she doesn’t. She allows herself to be maneuvered into a position far more extreme than she intended, as people do when they’re angry. “Isn’t it?” she repeats. “Isn’t what people do more important in the end than what they feel? Isn’t what they leave behind more important that what they were?”

This is art history grown monstrous in its self-importance. I drive home the implications of what she’s said with complete ruthlessness. “You’re implying that a painting might be worth more than us? Than you and me?”

She thinks. She’s becoming quiet and still. It occurs to me that she’s perhaps not just allowing herself to be maneuvered — that she really does think that she means what she’s saying. I have a glimpse into the depths of her, into the quiet darkness that usually remains hidden. And yes, she has some kind of hard obstinacy lurking down there. Some element of fanaticism, even, that I lack completely. And without which, I realize with dismay, even in the midst of my merciless pursuit of her, human beings never leave anything much behind them anyway.

“More than me, yes,” she says finally. She does mean it, too. I should take her hands in mine, of course, and smile at her tenderly, and tell her how much more she is to me, at any rate, than any painting in the world could ever be. But I don’t. I’ve not finished with her yet. 

“More than me?” I ask her quietly.

She thinks once more. “Possibly,” she says slowly at last. Okay. Fine. This is damage I can take, because she still hasn’t seen the ambush I’m leading her into. I don’t even say the words. I simply kiss the top of Tilda’s head, very gently, as she lies against my shoulder, and then look up at Kate with the question in my eyes.

And again she thinks. She seems to change right in front of my eyes. She looks away, and all that hardness in her is transmuted into a kind of terrible sadness.

I break. I shouldn’t have done this to her. I repent unreservedly. I love her.  I feel the most wrenching tenderness toward her.

She gets up and gently takes Tilda from me. I as gently let her go. Kate carries her toward the front door, then comes back.

“There seems to be at any rate one picture in the world,” she says quietly, “that you think is worth more than either me or Tilda.” She turns and disappears into the house. I remain sitting on the picnic blanket, unable to move, like someone who’s been knocked down in the street. That happened to me once.

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