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Headlong
MICHAEL FRAYN

Headlong by Michael Frayn
108 reviews (1999) (344p)
Man Booker Prize Finalist
New York TimesĀ® Best Fiction Books

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Book Description
An unlikely con man wagers wife, wealth, and sanity in pursuit of an elusive Old Master.

Invited to dinner by the boorish local landowner, Martin Clay, an easily distracted philosopher, and his art-historian wife are asked to assess three dusty paintings blocking the draught from the chimney. But hiding beneath the soot is nothing less-Martin believes-than a lost work by Bruegel. So begins a hilarious trail of lies and concealments, desperate schemes and soaring hopes as Martin, betting all that he owns and much that he doesn't, embarks on a quest to prove his hunch, win his wife over, and separate the painting from its owner.

In Headlong, Michael Frayn, "the master of what is seriously funny" (Anthony Burgess), offers a procession of superbly realized characters, from the country squire gone to seed to his giddy, oversexed young wife. All are burdened by human muddle and human cravings; all are searching for a moral compass as they grapple with greed, folly, and desire. And at the heart of the clamor is Breugel's vision, its dark tones warning of the real risks of temptation and obsession.

With this new novel, Michael Frayn has given us entertainment of the highest order. Supremely wise and wickedly funny, Headlong elevates Frayn into the front rank of contemporary novelists.


Amazon.com Review
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


Michael Frayn Award Stats
Major Prize* Nominations 1  
Unique Books Nominated for a Major Prize* 1  
Pulitzer Prize Wins 0  
Pulitzer Prize Nominations 0  
National Book Critics Circle Award Wins 0  
National Book Critics Circle Award Nominations 0  
National Book Award Wins 0  
National Book Award Nominations 0  
Man Booker Prize Wins 0  
Man Booker Prize Nominations 1 Headlong ·  
PEN/Faulkner Award Wins 0  
PEN/Faulkner Award Nominations 0  

*Major Prize = Pulitzer Prize, National Book Critics Circle Award, National Book Award, Man Booker Prize, and PEN/Faulkner Award

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