Headlong (Frayn novel)

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First edition (publ. Faber) featuring Bruegel's Landscape with the Fall of Icarus

Headlong (ISBN 0-8050-6285-8) is a novel by Michael Frayn, published in 1999.

The plot centres on the discovery of a long-lost painting from Pieter Bruegel's series The Months. The story is essentially a farce, but contains a large amount of scholarship about the painter. Frayn distinguishes between the iconology and iconography of the paintings and suggests that rather than simply being a series of pastoral images they symbolise a Dutch populace undergoing great suffering as a result of Spanish rule.

The novel was shortlisted for the 1999 Booker Prize.

Plot[edit]

Martin, the main character, is supposed to be writing a book. He finds himself invited to dinner at the house of a repellent and warring couple, on whom the land and property they own seems entirely wasted. Martin happens on a painting which he takes to be by Brueghel. Painstaking research leads him (via a full scale reassessment of the interpretation of the five surviving pictures in Brueghel's The Months) to identify the picture as the missing sixth picture of Brueghel's famous book of hours. Meantime his wife, (an actual art historian whereas he is only peripherally connected with the scholarly art world), and their baby live in a cottage and he fears his wife eyes him with increasing disdain as, instead of working on his book, he pursues the Breughel data.

Martin has to fake the promise of an affair with the woman of the house to get hold of the picture, and indulge in a series of implausible transactions in other pictures to keep his access to the Brueghel open. Once he gets it, his troubles have only begun. Finally, as he is about to succeed in taking it to a safe place and secure his fortune, he crashes the old Landrover and the picture goes up in smoke. You never do find out whether it was actually a Breughel or not.