HEAD-LONG by Michael Frayn

HEAD-LONG

KIRKUS REVIEW

A formidably learned, unfortunately ponderous comic romp from the British playwright (whose Noises Off is a contemporary classic) and novelist (Now You Know, 1993, etc.). Narrator and antihero Martin Clay is a professor of philosophy and amateur art buff, happily married to Julia (herself an art historian), and the doting father of baby daughter Tilda. When the three go on extended holiday in the English countryside, and accept a dinner invitation from insufferably hearty local landowner Tony Churt, Martin’s bland life is jolted into concupiscent confusion—for, stowed ingloriously away near some paintings whose value he is invited to judge is the soot-covered find that Martin instantly recognizes as a missing masterpiece executed by 16th-century painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Concealing his excitement, Martin sacrifices his vacation (also further deserting the academic book he’s supposedly writing), journeying back and forth to London to research the Dutch master’s life and times—meanwhile refining the intricate scam by which he’ll spirit away the priceless work that, he assures himself, the oafish Churt cannot possibly appreciate. Following some exhaustively regurgitated arcana, Frayn’s plot finally kicks into gear, as Martin’s master plan suffers repeated modifications, owing to the canny Julia’s suspicions, the seductive mendacity of Tony’s young wife Laura, the appearance of “another Churt” (Tony’s scapegrace younger brother), and several related accidents and misunderstandings. It’s all too little, too late. This otherwise admirably engineered story falls apart because Frayn doesn’t seem to have decided whether he’s writing a “headlong” intellectual farce, or a complex homage to a great artist (there’s an impressive enormity of both detail and perceptive speculation about Bruegel’s sensibility and oeuvre) whose lively paintings are subtly encoded, containing “hidden allusions to persecution” practiced by the Spanish rulers of Bruegel’s Netherlands. Art historians will understandably love it. Other readers may find it rather more oppressively educational than entertaining. (First printing of 50,000; author tour)

Pub Date: Sept. 2nd, 1999
ISBN: 0-8050-6285-8
Publisher: Henry Holt
Review Posted Online:




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