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From Barnes & NobleNo One Expects the Spanish Inquisition!
What would you do if you found a missing masterpiece in your neighbor's attic -- a Van Gogh, say, or a Picasso -- that no one else knew existed? And what if this neighbor was an unforgivable boor, a wife-beater, and a cheat, and possibly a thief? What if he knew nothing whatsoever about art?
What if he asked you to help him sell a few paintings, this one included?
In Headlong, Michael Frayn confronts an ordinarily sedate British scholar of philosophy with just such a quandary -- and hilarity and mayhem ensue. Martin Clay is supposed to be quietly ensconced in his country home, with his art-historian wife Kate and his baby daughter Tilda, writing a treatise on the role of nominalism in the formation of the art of the Netherlands in the 15th century. But Martin is all too easily distracted from his given course, and when Tony Churt, the ill-mannered and down-on-his-luck owner of the local estate, asks for his advice, he's eager to comply.
The advice, as it turns out, revolves around four paintings that have presumably been in Churt's family for generations, paintings that are awkwardly stuffed in a damp, unused breakfast room. Churt, in serious money trouble, needs to sell these paintings, and hopes that Martin and Kate can appraise them. There is a gargantuan Giordano, which is fairly impressive, but as Martin has never heard of Giordano, he thinks it can't be worth much. There are two smaller 17th-century Dutch paintings, both nice, but both apparently from unknown artists working in the styles of greater artists.
And then there's the last one. Painted on an enormous oak panel that the Churts are using to block the draft from the old fireplace is a scene of springtime celebration -- a scene that, for Martin, is immediately recognizable as the work of Dutch master Pieter Bruegel. More importantly, it seems to be the missing member of a six-painting series, a painting that disappeared over 400 years ago. If this painting is what Martin thinks it is, it will not only make him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams, but it will also secure his scholarly future.
But there's one catch: First, he's got to get the painting away from Tony Churt.
Thus begins Martin's comedy -- and tragedy -- of errors. In pursuit of his painting, Martin must get past both his doubting wife, who has seen him take on such wild goose chases before, and the amorous young Laura Churt, Tony's neglected spouse. He also has to outwit another scholar, who may or may not be on the case, and out maneuver Churt himself, who might be using Martin in a scheme that is at best fraudulent, and quite possibly illegal.
But Martin must also overcome his own doubts. Could one glance at this painting really have provided enough evidence that it's a Bruegel? And if so, why did this painting disappear?
Headlong follows Martin through his wild-eyed research into the world of the 16th-century Netherlands, a world filled with both religious and political oppression. We learn, as he does, much about art history, and European history, and a bit about classical philosophy. But mostly we watch Martin's breakneck descent from husband, father, and scholar to schemer, liar, and thief, as his passion for this painting overtakes all else around him. As the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition spread across northern Europe, we wonder what lessons, if any, Bruegel's example teaches Martin, and to what extent he abandons the values his study of philosophy has required.
All this is rendered in Michael Frayn's impeccably hysterical prose. Frayn, author of numerous other novels and volumes of non-fiction, is also a playwright, best known for his riotous farce, Noises Off. In Headlong, Frayn turns a satiric eye on both the landed gentry and the scholarly class, exposing both the ridiculousness and the dark underside of each. Frayn's quick wit is matched by his spectacularly-drawn characters, however, and is made all the more poignant by the sense he conveys of the stakes of Martin's story. If the painting turns out not to be a Bruegel, Martin may well have destroyed his entire life for nothing. And if it is -- well, the outcome may be even worse.
"There are some paintings in the history of art that break free," Martin tells us near the beginning of his adventure, "just as some human beings do, from the confines of the particular little world into which they were born." These paintings -- and these people -- often break free for no particular reason. As Frayn reminds us, some of these paintings, and some of these people, achieve fame beyond the circumstances of their origin, but all too often they wind up lost, consigned to the ash heap of history.