|With its sumptuous surfaces and alluring sense of gravitas, classic Dutch painting has fascinated writers for centuries. It's easy to see why. Giant religious representations and gaudy classical scenes already have the weight of literature behind them. But an enigmatic portrait or dimly lit interior seems like a virtual incubator for narrative, and now Michael Frayn joins the Netherlandish fray in Headlong, which features a Bruegel canvas in the starring role.|
The other star of the novel is youngish art historian Martin Clay (a Hugh Grant character gone to fat), who identifies the lost Bruegel in a tumbledown country home. The picture elicits an immediate shock of recognition:
Already, somewhere in those first few instants, something has begun to stir inside me. In my head, in the pit of my stomach. It's as if the sun's emerging from the clouds, and the world's changing in front of my eyes, from grey to golden. I can feel the warmth of the sunlight spreading over my skin, passing like a wave of beneficence through my entire body. The sight of this masterwork glimmering through the "grimy pane of time" fires up Martin's customarily dilettantish intellect, and he decides to secure it for the nation--and make himself a fortune--without revealing its true value to the owner. Much double-dealing, bamboozling, and suppressed hysteria ensue as he and the owner try to outfox each other. Yet the heart of the novel is Martin's search for the meaning of the painting that has become his "triumph and torment and downfall." Bouncing from gallery to museum to library, he delivers an extended (and entertaining) lesson on iconography and landscape.
As Martin's obsession takes hold, the pace of the novel also accelerates into a breathless rush of action, comic anguish, and scholarly speculation. Not surprisingly, some of Martin's machinations go haywire, which leads to a certain amount of irritating slapstick--shady deals in underground parking lots, art treasures being tipped into the back of a filthy Land Rover, and so forth. But even if he makes his plot work overtime, Frayn is superb in the quest for the meaning of art, not to mention the lure of money and intellectual reputation. And for that alone, Headlong deserves to be called picture perfect. --Eithne Farry