Headlong

Michael Frayn (Faber and Faber, 1999)

While I don't make a point of being the first person on the block to read a new novel, you might well wonder why I didn't get hold of Headlong when the first notices appeared two years ago. What put me off? How could I have missed it that, both entertaining and intriguing, this was my kind of novel? The most plausible explanation is that the reviews fussed too much over the author's cleverness. There's no denying that Michael Frayn is as clever as they come, nor that in the character of Martin Clay he has given us a very clever hero. But even though Martin narrates the novel in the first person, he could never have written it. There's a lot more to Headlong than cleverness.  

According to the reviews, Headlong tells the story of a philosopher on sabbatical, who, discovering that his twit of a neighbor unwittingly owns a painting by Pieter Bruegel (the elder), schemes to take possession of the lost masterpiece. I'm sure that the critics were coy about how things worked out in the end, but a little thought shows that there are only two possible outcomes, given the facts that (a) Bruegel is an eminent and actual figure in the history of European painting and (b) the rediscovered masterpiece is not actually on view in any museum. The 'happy' ending would be for the painting to disappear into the private collection of a reclusive billionaire. But as Martin himself rules out this alternative almost immediately upon encountering the picture, claiming as his noble objective its glorious transfer to a place of honor in the National Gallery, Bruegel's lost work is consigned to an unhappier fate. As I recall, the reviews made much of a third possibility, one that haunts Martin himself (might he be mistaken?), but given the book that Frayn has written, this is not even unlikely. 

If Headlong has a fault, it's that it's open to easy misconstruction as a bedroom farce with lots of art talk, and I'm sorry that the author didn't take the trouble to steer breezier readers away from this pitfall. 

I

In the film adaptation of Headlong, should there be one, Martin will undoubtedly make a less ambiguous impression than he does on the page. The alchemy of our identification with onscreen characters will simply evaporate most of the reservations excited in any thoughtful mind by the written account of Martin's excellent adventure. In the movie, our attention will fasten on the comical peripeties that beset Martin's attempt to get 'Merrymakers,' as the lost Bruegel is called, out of a dank pile called Upwood. Tony Churt, the master of Upwood, will appear in such an unsympathetic light that even the sternest of audiences will have no trouble rooting for his adversary. Tony's wife, Laura, will be seen as a bored, younger wife who throws herself upon a hapless Martin, extorting kisses for access to the picture gallery. And nobody is likely to feel very sorry for Kate, Martin's wife, because although she supports him she doesn't really believe in him. Only Tilda, Martin's toddler, will survive the translation to celluloid with her honor intact. 'Headlong: The Movie' will be Martin's show. 

But if Headlong really does get turned into a movie, and the movie's any good, that will pretty much spell the end of a readership for the original novel. So I hope that no such project comes to fruition. For all its pages on Bruegel scholarship, Headlong is a breezy read, its sentences falling perfectly into place as the story splashes off the page, and this 'entertainment value' might easily lure a movie producer. But the ethical dissonance of Martin's character could hardly survive the elimination of his narrative voice. Snipped from the movie, this tension would persist only in a book that few people could be troubled to read. 

This is not the place to anatomize the skill called 'critical thinking,' so suffice it to say that while Martin can look at a painting intelligently enough he does not know how to look in the mirror. Lacking a critical grasp of his own motivation, Martin talks better than he listens, and he doesn't listen at all when things seem to be going well. His ambitions have the authenticity of their existence and no more, and each is effaced by the next. 

The human eye sees very little at any one moment. All it can distinguish with any clarity is what falls on the fovea, the pit no bigger than a pinhead in the centre of the retina where the packed receptors are closest to the surface. If I'm holding it at arm's length, as I am, to keep it upright, what I'm seeing at any one moment, really seeing, is a patch of paint about an inch in diameter. I'm seeing one tiny detail. 

Moral vision ought to compensate for this obliviousness of sense; it ought to be able, most of all, to hold before its own, hopefully larger, focal point things not present at the moment. Morality begins in remembering (which is why it seems so artificial to the young, who have so little to remember). The things that remain important over time we call 'principles,' and moral sense is the ability to remember principles in difficult circumstances. For Martin, however, principles have been replaced by attitudes - rather a disgrace in a teaching philosopher. He's that existentialist demon, the sentimentalist. 

When it comes to love, Martin knows what love is supposed to look like, and he knows how needing someone is supposed to feel. Thus informed, he assumes the appropriate emotional postures vis-Ó-vis his wife and daughter and delights in the satisfaction of a job well done - when he manages to do it well. This is neither cynical nor insincere, for Martin believes his own spiel. But when the peaceful reflective moments pass and he must act, Martin acts as though Kate were an adversary. He tells her nothing about his scheme until he has to, and then he blames her for his own inability to explain it rationally. And his one moment of worry that the scheme will mortgage his daughter's future doesn't last. 

Tilda occasions a lovely moment of near-rapture that fails to take off because it too directly follows an exchange of illicit kisses with Laura. Laura understands nothing about art, not even what she likes, and in the early pages, when she misunderstands Martin and seems to think that he's studying 'normalisation' in Netherlandish art, he heaps scorn upon her (in the privacy of his first-person narrative, of course). But the term sticks in his mind. 

I'm propelled and energized by the sheer joy of being with my little bubbling daughter. I've often felt a spontaneous surge of delight at coming home and seeing her, but I've never thought of running wildly around with her in my arms before, and it occurs to me that I'm perhaps behaving just a touch normalistically. Normalism, I realize, now that the term's been introduced into the discourse, is an important concept. it's the art and science of behaving normally. A difficult thing to do, perhaps, at any time, and particularly difficult - and particularly important - if your life's become in some way abnormal, as for instance in the midst of a complex commercial transaction where different forms of confidence have to be maintained simultaneously with parties whose interests are mutually antagonistic. it involves skill not only in performance, but in observing and remembering what normal behaviour's actually like. 

'Normalism' couldn't be more apt; it's the perfect label for the art and science of acting as though there were no need to act! How dreadful to require it in the bosom of one's family, and how tawdry to need it for the sake of a swindle.  Note the aggrandizing, only partly facetious, language in which Martin refers to his scheme, which rather makes it sound like an intrigue worthy of Bruegel's patron and roaster of heretics, the implacable Cardinal Granvelle. 

Martin is a certain kind of man, who knows how common, capable of claiming the highest moral ground while grunting with unseemly selfishness. He is the sort of person who in life makes me wonder if my ideas about virtue might be exaggerated or impractical - mine!  From the start, his dislike of Tony Churt, tempered by flickers of an extremely patronizing pity, animates the plot. Leaving Upwood for the first time, after dinner with the Churts and an appraising glance at some old masters that Tony wants to sell, Martin is galvanized by contempt: 

I'm going to have the picture off him. This is my great project. I don't know how I'm going to do it, but do it I shall. On that central point I'm already absolutely clear. 
I feel a flash of pure savagery. I'm going to have his property off him. He can't make good his claim to it. It's written in a language he can't read, because the only language he can read in his necessity is money. If he knew what it was, he'd hold the world to ransom. And if the ransom wasn't forthcoming he'd sell it to any money that presented itself - to a Swiss bank, an American investment trust, a Japanese gangster. It would vanish even deeper into the darkness, even further from the light of common day. 
If fuel prices rose high enough, he'd sell it for firewood. 
In any case, he owns it no more than I do. No one can own a work of art. You can own the oak, you can own the paint. You can't own the shimmer of the green, the comicality of the pouted lips, the departure of the ship. 
So I'm going to have it off him. I'm not going to do it by deceit. I'm not going to stoop to the kind of methods he might use himself. I'm going to do it by boldness and skill, in full accordance with the rules of war. 
I know how he despises me, and all the skills and connections of mine that he was hoping to make use of. I'm going to play the hand in what he regards as his strongest suit. I'm going to give him a lesson in the gentlemanly attributes of ruthlessness and style. 

Martin, however, is no gentleman, and knows nothing about ruthlessness and style that he encountered second-hand in books and movies. His grandiosity also wants candor, for giving lessons to resented twits isn't the point. The object of Martin's scheme is to make the discovery of a missing masterpiece establish his own superiority. 

I must stop talking about this strange and terrifying venture I'm now launched upon, even humorously to myself, as a confidence trick, because it's not - it's a public service, a contribution to the common weal at least as notable as anything than Rockefeller or Getty ever did. Tony Churt's unhesitating readiness to sell Helen to someone he assumes to be a criminal suggests very plainly the kind of fate that I'm almost certainly saving my  picture from. If there were any justice in the world I should get my name incised in large Roman capitals across the top of the gallery that it's finally housed in.  

But museum cornices are for the inscription of names like Bruegel's. What happens to Martin offers no proof that justice is in short supply. Friendliness and disinterested helpfulness simply don't occur to Martin. 

I'm losing my sovereignty all round. I'm becoming a mere object. 

Headlong, at heart, is a caper comedy. In caper dramas, we sit on the edge of our seat while dashing thieves (or spies, for whom stealing is a virtue) face harrowing perils in the pursuit of loot. As a rule, these bravos are well-equipped, and sometimes, as in the James Bond thrillers, the dandy gadgets provide most of the entertainment. if the caper doesn't succeed, it only just misses, testifying to the perpetrator's skill. The caper comedy misses by a mile. Nothing goes as planned. The equipment, such as it is, blows up in the poor sod's face. Or, as in Headlong, there is no equipment, only a man who misinterprets everything while laboring under the conviction that he's much cleverer than everyone else. The heroes of thrillers face firing squads, or at least extended incarceration; fellows like Martin risk nothing worse than social and financial embarrassment. The inevitable failure of the caper reveals their essential foolishness. Given what a more intelligent person would have done with a rediscovered Bruegel, Martin's mismanagement must take full credit for what happens to the picture in the end. The only problem is that, insofar as Frayn evokes the painting's beauty and significance, the comedy isn't very funny.  

II

Keeping Headlong headlong is the speed and Úlan with which Martin acquires his expertise about Bruegel. Martin is at his best when he's passing on what he has learned: he's a born teacher. His enthusiasm for both the period and the artist are infectious. It distinguishes him from the lot of grubby, annoying, and untrustworthy antiheroes that litters the field of modern English novels. Although he's a bit of a shit, he's genuinely committed to 'learning,' and he makes an engaging lecturer. It remains to be seen whether Frayn can do for Bruegel what Tracy Chevalier has done, in her very different way, for Vermeer. 

While Martin's interactions in the here and now partake of the flavor of bedroom farce - a genre of which Frayn proved himself a past master in 'Noises Off' - the history of his Bruegel scholarship reads almost like a thriller, not least because Bruegel's career climaxed during the ominous run-up to the Eighty Years' War between Spain and the Dutch (1568-1648).  Philip II of Spain, Catholic zealot that he was, and determined to reverse his father's more tentative policy toward the Reformers, unleashed the Inquisition upon the Low Countries. Cardinal Granvelle, his agent, was one of Bruegel's patrons. 

For most people, I expect, the discovery of a lost masterpiece would prompt an immediate phone call to some expert or other, and that would be that. But because Martin's scheme (the details of which shift on the fly) precludes any premature publicity, Martin has to do the experts' work himself. His first hunch is that 'Merrymakers' belongs to a cycle of six paintings that appeared in the inventory of a merchant named Nicolaes Jongelinck in 1566, the year after they were painted, under the heading 'De Twelff Maenden' (The Twelve Months). 'Merrymakers' is the same size as the five known survivors, and stylistically quite similar, a pastoral view seen from an elevated vantage. It also closes a thematic gap. Assuming, as contemporary scholars apparently do, that each picture shows the vegetation and the activities of two adjacent months, Martins' painting bridges the missing span of late spring. Having satisfied himself on this point, Martin moves on to ask how, why, and when 'Merrymakers' was separated from the others. We know that the cycle passed into the possession of the City of Antwerp, which in turn bestowed it upon a new Governor General of the Netherlands in 1594. When this Hapsburg worthy died soon thereafter, his collection was shipped to Vienna. Of the five that are known to have reached the capital, one, 'Haymaking,' drifted off to Prague, probably in the eighteenth century. Another, The Corn Harvest, wound up in New York, having been expropriated by Napoleon. Three still hang on the walls of Vienna's Kunsthistoriches Museum: Hunters in the Snow, The Gloomy Day, and The Return of the Herd.  

Bruegel is famous for painting the earliest pictures of peasant life that exclude explicit references to religious themes on the one hand and to aristocratic life on the other. His catalogue includes several versions of religious subjects - an Adoration, a Conversion of Saul, a Road to Calvary - and he painted a few works in the apocalyptic tradition of Bosch, but the salient of his work is vernacular realism. When I first saw 'The Corn Harvest' at the Met, it occurred to me that Bruegel had simply blown up a vignette in the background of an Annunciation and cropped the detail (the art books in my library are full of such croppings). His daring lay in moving the peasants toiling comically in the background of earlier paintings into the foreground. By painting peasants more or less as they appeared in fields or taverns, he threw up a political challenge to the accepted program of art. His paintings do not point toward heaven, nor do they exalt the Church, self-proclaimed representative of heaven on earth. And it is toward a conception of Bruegel as a Reformer that Martin Clay's attention inexorably bends.

I have a feeling that one day some official looked a little more closely at this innocent series of pastorals hanging on the walls of the Royal Palace in Brussels, or awaiting shipment to Vienna. Someone with a fresh eye, perhaps. A prelate, one of Granvelle's successors, being shown over the collection for the first time, or for the last before it was crated up. And suddenly he sees in one of the pictures something that no one had ever seen before.

The clinching detail, which will prove (to Martin's satisfaction, anyway) that Bruegel bore witness to Spanish oppression, despite the lack of any explicit references to it in any of his pictures, ultimately eludes our hero. He hasn't been able to spend very much time with his discovery; 'Merrymakers' is shunted about like the soubrette in a farce. The opportunity to corroborate his theory with a careful inspection of the painting comes just a moment too late. Martin remains convinced just the same. (Kate, by the way, disagrees, but then it emerges, sort of, that she's Catholic, hence sympathetic to Spain.) 

Having pored over prints of Bruegel's paintings in the wake of reading Headlong, I've concluded that Bruegel is rather like Erasmus, an earnest but generous humanist not without contempt for vulgar foolishness. Peasants clearly interested him, but whether he meant to assert that they are worthy of interest as exponents of a human dignity hitherto reserved for gods and kings seems doubtful to me, for his peasants are very gross, and there is no question in my mind that the artist intends them as such. 

One of these days, a writer of elegance will wow us with a lucid account of the metamorphosis of novels into screenplays. Perhaps the author will conclude that the sophistication of moviemaking contributed heavily to the development of the kind of novel that's unlikely to be adapted for the big screen. Just as the introduction of photography inspired painters to abandon the pursuit of illusion, so 'prestige' novelists will be seen to have cast aside the realist baggage of plot and character development, leaving these elements to the cinema. In field after field, the industrial revolution has replaced the old, 'elitist' tensions of art with new and demotic currents of entertainment. The film version of Headlong, if there is one, will replace Martin's thorny ethics and his hours of enthusiastic research with an acerbic fake-out. It's a pity that Bruegel won't be on hand to set it up.  (March 2001)

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