Books: The price of art and fame

Headlong by Michael Frayn Faber pounds 16.99

Most people know the dream of discovering a rare and valuable work of art. There it lies unnoticed and waiting for you, in the attic or junk shop or at a car-boot sale, the lost masterpiece which will make your fortune. Since the fantasy is such a common one, the trick for any novelist wishing to use it, as Michael Frayn does in his witty and learned new novel Headlong, is to add enriching complications. What if you, the prospective owner, are an aspiring art historian? What if the current owner is a close but rather objectionable neighbour? What if other paintings are also involved, and other alleged owners, and indeed other art historians?

Martin Clay and his wife Kate are both art historians, though he is comparatively new to the discipline, having begun a philosopher, and she is currently absorbed in their baby Tilda. When they move to their damp country cottage so that Martin can for once meet a deadline and finish a book, they're invited to dinner by the local landowner Tony Churt, a rough, uncompromising but rather shambolic character, "with the grip of a man used to wringing the necks of wounded game birds" (Alan Bates could do the part in a film). Churt has inherited a Giordano, showing the rape of Helen, which he thinks might be worth a bob or two: would Martin care to offer his opinion? Oh, and while he's at it, why not take a look at these three Dutch buggers, smaller in size so presumably worth much less - what about them?

In fact, one of these Dutch buggers is a Bruegel, the "Merrymakers", a representation of spring painted in 1565, and part - the missing part - of his great sequence on the Seasons. Or so, at a glance, Martin decides. His problem is how to get the painting from Churt (who is desperate for money to keep up his estate) without letting him know its origin and value. To begin with, he doesn't even let Kate know, but treks up to London to confirm his hunch. His library researches there excite him. It wouldn't be the first Bruegel to appear out of the blue centuries later: the last, a minor work, sold for nearly pounds 1m. Of course Martin is not thinking about the money, but of professional recognition, and public duty, and the good he will do the nation, indeed the world. Still ...

Thus begins his headlong pursuit, much of it cerebral, since he has to convince himself, then Kate, then Churt's attractive young wife Laura - who mistakes his interest in the painting for a desire to go to bed with her - that he is a) right b) behaving honourably and c) not going to screw it up. His anxieties and intellectual self-justifications are part of the novel's manic pace. His growing obsession with Bruegel, which sends him off at various tangents, threatens the success of his scam. And learning about the personal turmoil in which Bruegel painted his canvas only adds to his own.

If the scholarship in Headlong points to Michael Frayn's own deep fascination with Bruegel, he never loses the plot. The novel is farce in the best sense, and has affinities with Frayn's screenplay for Clockwise, in which the John Cleese character keeps running up against new obstacles that prevent him from fulfilling his quest. In Martin's case, the obstacles are legion: Churt's brother, who claims the family paintings are his; Churt himself, who wants to clean the Bruegel in rough and ready fashion; a rival art historian called Quiss (always distrust someone whose surname begins with Q); a dodgy London dealer; not to mention thefts, impersonations, dogs, inheritance tax, nominalism, bank loans, mobile phones, car chases, Land Rovers with wonky steering, and - a key motif - baler twine. Among the questions to be faced before the end is one of the oldest in the book: is the price worth paying to save an artistic masterpiece that of a human life?

The novel is narrated by Martin, and though mostly reliable as a narrator (he may lie to himself, but he doesn't lie to us), in practically every other respect, and especially in respect of practicality, he can't be relied on at all. Reading him, you feel like a child at a pantomime, exasperatedly aware of what's behind him, or under his nose, frustrated at his inability to see and do the obvious. Against the odds (for he's too cold a fish to be really likeable), you're desperate for him to succeed. But Frayn masterfully manipulates events so that he won't or can't, not yet. As you're dragged into his headlong race for fame and riches, you never know what will happen next, only that more torture lies in store.

To play the torturer for nearly 400 pages, yet give pleasure to the reader, takes special charm and cunning. Frayn works the trick so that we, like Martin, are trapped inside a labyrinth of narrative. It's a pity only that the cover of Headlong shows a real painting by Bruegel, "The Fall of Icarus". But the imaginary one discovered by Martin is described in persuasive, loving detail within. And the scenario the novel invents for us - a landscape of human comedy, with sadness etched beneath - is a homage to Bruegel in Frayn's own manner.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum