Books: A brush with history

Headlong by Michael Frayn Faber & Faber, pounds 16.99, 394pp: Penelope Lively admires the art that disguises high ideas as low farce
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The Independent Culture
ON PAGE 310 of this enthralIing novel the narrator, a philosopher by trade, is driving a Land Rover and trailer round St James's Square. In the trailer is a painting valued at something over pounds 100,000, wrapped in black plastic and smelling of sheep urine. He can't find a parking space long enough to accommodate both vehicles. A few pages earlier, we were deep into a measured disquisition on the iconography of Bruegel's Massacre of the Innocents. Such is Michael Frayn's elegant pacing that both modes are equally absorbing - helter-skelter action and reflective discussion. The reflection stems from the narrator, but the dry authorial voice is what makes it so compelling - plus the fact that what is being discussed is integral to the action.

Was Pieter Bruegel a political subversive? Are his paintings filled with coded references to Spanish oppression and atrocities in the Netherlands? Such is the narrator's obsession. Why? Partly because he is a man for obsessions, one suspects, and has already been skiving off straight philosophy to write on the impact of nominalism on Netherlands art of the 16th century, but essentially because he gets a glimpse of a large unframed board painting which his rather awful country-landowning neighbours have been using to keep soot from falling down a chimney. So there we are on page 40, pitched nicely into this gripping dialogue between manic events and a sober consideration of the historical and iconographic evidence.

Martin's wife Kate doesn't approve of his abandonment of philosophy. She is an art historian, and as his obsession spirals out of control there will be plenty more to dismay her. But married love is the strong undertow to the narrative: Martin's appalled realisation of what his mania is doing to his wife, Kate's weary willingness to do everything in her power to help because she loves him.

There is also a most plausible baby - and babies are famously treacherous material. It's a walk-on part here, but one which significantly underlines the private haven which Martin seems liable to destroy.

The dialogue is frequently impeccable. There is a masterly scene when Martin and Kate dine with the landowning couple, in which personality and mood are first established and then subverted in exchanges of escalating farce. Indeed, farce is the keynote and the conduit: the narrative dexterity that keeps you hooked.

But the ballast of the book lies in the implications raised. What is at issue is art: great paintings, and the question of whether a work of art can be privately owned or is an asset for all. The collision between art and cash, and its corollary - the conversion of art into a corruptive force. Deft use is made of that old conundrum: which would you rescue first, a human being or a great work?

Martin pursues his obsession through the archives of the V & A, the London Library, the British Library. The effect on any archive-minded reader is insidious: an awful compulsion to follow up the matter oneself. A more rational response is the urge to see Bruegel paintings immediately, and an instant resort to whatever there is to hand about Netherlands history. Not all readers may react thus; we do not go to fiction for instruction. Ah, but we do go to it for stimulation, enlightenment and sharpened vision.

And the view here serves up all of that. There is some probing consideration of various authorities on Bruegel's masterpieces, and a caustic run-down of the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands, but much else besides. The big auction houses and other purveyors of fine art get some interesting attention. The Churts - they of the scene-setting dinner - are a happy creation as representatives of our fin-de-siecle landowning gentry. Country life gets a good going over, along with the concept of the second home.

This is a novel steeped in what has to be called research, a word one shies away from in this context. We have all met those novels from which you emerge feeling battered over the head by the author's assiduous scholarship. Headlong is the opposite: its learning becomes a fascinating alternative climate into which you plunge in respite from the hectic narrative. It's brilliant - I loved it.