Michael Frayn – Headlong

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Shortlisted for various prizes in 1999 when first published, this book is an intellectual thriller with a element of comedy. I think I read it then, having discovered it recently tucked up high on my bookshelf, but it was worth a second look. This is a book for the art lover, or the history buff, who enjoys suspense without violence. There are elements of social satire, and farce, and the voice of the narrator is convincingly maintained throughout – he’s clever and educated, a philosopher with obsessive drive, and poor judgement.

The blurb talks about the moral dilemmas facing the character: an honest man who takes a dishonest approach to acquiring a painting he thinks might be a lost masterpiece by Breugel. Throughout he is out of his depth, and out of his field. Driven to solve the problem of how to place this “missing” painting in its sequence, he enters into a series of confused encounters with the lord of a local manor fallen on hard times, and with the Lord’s dissatisfied wife. The scenes of inept love making here are some of the most entertaining in the book. We also see the tender and loving relationship between the narrator and his wife, as well as dysfunctional elements – the lack of communication, his secrecy and ambition, her failure to question or check the wild ideas he has that could lead to a jail sentence.

Headlong is an apt title, as the book races along at pace, and even the various sorties into the history of art and the beginnings of the Dutch War of Independence are engaging. I should have read this book with a copy of Breugel’s paintings in front of me. Next time I will.

Breugel – webmuseum, Paris

Further reviews of this book

The Oldfield Park Bookshop – Guardian Review


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