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.
About the Author
Michael Frayn is a celebrated British playwright and is also the author of eight novels (including Headlong and Spies) and three screenplays. He lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
AIMS AND APPROACHES
I have a discovery to report. Many of the world's great treasures are known to have been lost over the centuries. I believe I may have found one of them. What follows is the evidence for my claim.
I'm in a difficult position, though. If my claim is not accepted by scholars, I shall look a fool. If it is ... then I shall be in a worse position. The circumstances of the discovery are such that I shall emerge not only as a fool but as an object of outrage and horror.
I could say nothing, and no one would ever know. But if I have any pretensions to be a scholareven to be a normally civilized human beingthen I have an obligation to put my findings on record, so that my colleagues and successors, now and down the years, can evaluate them. And I must describe the tangled circumstances of this discovery of mine as fully and honestly as I can, because to arrive at a judgment they will need to examine them in the minutest detail.
Well, perhaps it's better to be known as a fool or a rogue than not to be known at all.
It's a painful prospect, though. Before I get to the end of this deposition, I shall have to explain some shameful things. The anguish I feel about them is hard to endure. Even worse, though, is the anguish of my uncertainty about what exactly I have done.
Now, where do I start?
The obvious way would be to say what I think this treasure is. And at once a difficulty arises, because it doesn't have a name. I couldsimply describe itand in due course I shallbut it wouldn't mean very much if I tried to now, because it's never been described before, and no one has ever had the slightest idea of what it looked like.
I think that the only way I can come at it, the only way I can bear to try, is to give up all attempt at a retrospective account. I shall have to go back in time to the very beginning, and relive what happened as it happened, from one moment to the next, explaining exactly what I thought as I thought it, when all the puzzles were actually in front of me, and what I was trying to do at each moment given the possibilities that seemed open to me then, without the distortions of hindsight.
This has its disadvantages. My tone's going to sound inappropriately light-minded at times. But that's the way it was. The tone of most of the things we do in life is probably going to turn out to have been painfully unsuitable in the light of what happens later.
So, from the beginning.
We're back in last year. Last year is now. It's early spring. A particularly appropriate jumping-off point, as will become apparent.
What's the first sign that something unusual's starting to happen?
I suppose it's a length of frayed twine.
The same length of twine, it occurs to me, that will bring the story to its end.
The Prospect Presented
* * *
* * *
Early spring, yes. It's one of those cautiously hopeful days at the beginning of April, after the clocks have made their great leap forward but before the weather or the more suspicious trees have quite had the courage to follow them, and Kate and I are traveling north in a car crammed with food and books and old saucepans and spare pieces of furniture. We're on our way to the country.
Where is the country? Good question. I privately think it Begins around Edgware, and goes on until Cape Wrath, but then I don't know much about it. Kate's rather a connoisseur of the stuff, though, and it's not the country for her, not the real country, until we've driven for at least a couple of hours, and turned off the motorway, and got onto the Lavenage road. Even here she's cautious, and I can see what she means. It's all a bit neat and organized still, as if it were merely a representation of the country in an exhibition. The hedges are machined smooth. There are too many stables and riding schools. We get impressive whiffs of decaying vegetable and animal waste from time to time, but we keep passing the wrong sort of housesthe sort of houses you might find around Edgwareand the people don't look right. There aren't many people to be seen, in fact, except in passing cars, like us. A lot of the cars are designed for rural life, it's truespecially squarish vehicles very high off the ground, made to keep their occupants well clear of foot-and-mouth disease. But the people inside them look disconcertingly urban. And on the few occasions when we've got close enough to any of their occupants to smell themwhen we've stopped for petrol at Cold Kinver, for instance, or organic vegetables at Castle Quendonthey haven't smelled of earth or dung or moldy turnips. They've smelled of nothing at all, just like us and the people we know in London. I share Kate's unease about this. We don't want to drive a hundred miles out of London only to meet people who have driven a hundred miles out of London to avoid meeting people like us.
The country, what we call the country, begins after we've turned off the Lavenage road down the unmarked lane just past Busy Bee Honey. After a mile or two the lane begins to fall away into a little forgotten fold in the landscape. The county council has evidently not investigated the state of the hedges here for some time. There's a half-mile squish of mud and shit under the tires where a herd of live cows goes regularly back and forth between meadow and milking shed. Beyond the undergrowth on the left, at one point, is a scattering of bricks and broken tiles, growing a mixed crop of nettles and ancient leaky enamelware. Rusty corrugated iron flaps loose on ramshackle empty structures abandoned in the corners of tussocky fields. Lichen-covered five-bar gates lean at drunken angles on broken hinges, secured with rusty barbed wire. We begin to relax our guard; this is the real stuff, all right. This is what we pay a second lot of bills for.
We're both silent as we get closer to our destination. It's not the authenticity of our surroundings that's worrying us now. We've started to think about what we're going to find when we arrive. This is our first visit of the year. How damp will the bed be? How cold the kitchen? Will the knives and forks have been stolen? How much will the mice have eaten? Will they have scoffed crucial parts of the bedding again? Will they have started on the electrical insulation?
This isn't like any of our former visits. This time we're coming not for the weekend, or even the odd week. We're here for two months at least, possibly three or even four. Shall we be able to stand so much reality for so long?
There's another unsettling novelty about this visit, toothe long box jammed among all the junk on the backseat, and held carefully in its place with two seat belts. Faint sounds are beginning to emerge from it. Kate twists round and gazes at the contents.
"You did put the nappy-rash cream in?" she asks.
"We should have woken her up before. You'll have to feed her before we've even got the fire alight."
Yes, what will Tilda feel about the country? How will she and the mice get along? Will she find the cold and damp as bracing as we do? Will she appreciate the reality of everything?
I stop the car in the lake that collects in the dip by the wood where we found the dead tramp.
"Perhaps we should turn around?" I say. "Go back home?"
Kate looks at me. I remember, too late, that this will count as yet another example of what she sees as my infirmity of purpose, my alleged sudden shifts from one project to another. But all she says this time is: "I'll feed her in the car while you unpack. We'll leave the engine running."
So we drive on, and the proposal to abandon the expedition is never put to the vote. And now here we are. There's no sign to announce us, just a little track opening off to the left, and a certain unsurprised sensation of having arrived that we recognize, even if visitors wouldn't.
Since we don't know anyone round here who might want to visit us, though, this isn't really a problem.
We bump slowly up the track. But when we make the turn beyond the elders, from which this summer we're hoping to get around to making elderflower wine, it's not our familiar green front door that confronts us. It's a length of fraying baler twine.
There's a lot of baler twine in real country. One of the ways you can tell this is real country is by how much of it's held together with the stuff. Not just bales. Perhaps not bales at allI've never seen bales of anything tied up with it. Bales of what, anyway? Everything else, thoughblack plastic sheeting, bright blue plastic bags, gates, trousers, agricultural machineryeverything that used to be secured with string or rusty barbed wire before baler twine was invented. It kinks and unravels, but no one ever throws it away, and it's made of plastic, so it never degrades. Some of it's pink and some of it's orange, so it shows up well against the rural greens and browns. This particular piece is pink, and it's tied across the rear of an ancient Land Rover to hold its tailgate shut.
No question about the authenticity of this vehicle. It's as rural as a turnip.
Kate and I look at each other. A visitor! And not some friend from Londona real countryperson. Perhaps, after only two years, local society is putting out friendly feelers.
I get out to investigate, still in the wrong shoes, still not in country mode, balancing delicately from island to island in the mud. There's a huge barking, and two dogs the size of full-grown sheep come bounding around the side of the cottage. I'm a little taken aback to be kept off my own property by guard dogsno, not a little taken abackquite substantially taken aback, smack into the mud I've been avoiding. I'm wrong about the dogs, though; they're not keeping me outthey're welcoming me to the country, enthusiastically thrusting their wet snouts into my groin and wiping their paws confidingly down the front of my sweater. By the time their owner appears around the side of the cottage as well, I look almost as real a part of the scenery as he does. And a more real countryman than him neither Kate nor I has yet set eyes on.
"Heel!" he says, in an effortlessly landowning kind of voice, and the dogs become instantly subservient. I'm tempted to lie at his feet myself, but find the ground a little too muddy, at any rate until I've got my country trousers on, and instead take the hand he's holding out.
"Tony Churt," he says. "One of your neighbors."
He has the grip of a man who's used to wringing the necks of wounded game birds. He's taller than me, and as I raise my eyes to meet his I have plenty of time to take in mud-splashed boots, then mud-colored corduroy trousers and a mud-colored checked jacket. There are holes in his mud-colored jersey, and any hint of garishness suggested by the triangle of muddy green flannel shirt above it is counteracted by his muddy brown tie. He even has a gun, properly broken, in the crook of his arm. His long face, stretching away above me toward a mud-colored flat cap, is the only feature that doesn't quite fit the prevailing color scheme. It's simultaneously raw and bluish-gray, with little overlooked dribbles of dried blood where the razor's nicked it.
"Thought you might be round the back," he says. "Skelton said you were coming down."
Mr. Skelton, as Kate and I call him, is the man who fixes the local pumps and septic tanks. We phoned ahead to book his services. I introduce Kate. Tony Churt raises the mud-colored cap and reveals a brief glimpse of receding mud-colored hair.
"Glad to meet you at last," he says. "I've heard so much about you both."
"From Mr. Skelton?" asks Kate. Though why not? A man who understands your sewerage might have a lot he could tell about you.
"From everyone." Everyone? The woman in the paper shop, who knows which papers we take? Charlie Till, who knows what size of free-range eggs we prefer? "We're all so pleased to have you down here. Great bonus."
The country is finally taking us to its muddy bosom. And Tony Churt has a faint smell that I find instantly and reassuringly authentic. It's the sign that we've always missed in the few other people we've got near enough to sniff, though exactly what it is I find difficult to say. There's dog in the mixture, certainly, and the tarry trace of oiled waterproofs. Also the harshness that goes with a certain kind of rugged woollen cloth. Something else, too. Something stiff and morally bracing. Carbolic soap and cold water, perhaps.
"Laura and I wondered if you might like to come over one evening," he says. "Dinner, why not?"
"How kind of you."
"Nothing special. Say hello. Tell you the local gossip. Get you to tell us what's going on in the great world out there. We get a bit out of touch down here. Monday week? Tuesday? When would suit you?"
I mention Tilda.
"Bring her. Of course. Wonderful. Plenty of rooms to park her in. Upwood. Know where it is? So we'll say Monday week, then? Eightish? That fit in with feeding times? We might possibly ask you to help us with a little advice while we're about it, if we may."
A little advice. Of course. As I reverse to let him out, an alarm goes off inside the car with shattering loudness. Our clever little daughter is trying to warn us that someone is breaking into our lives.
Do we know where Upwood is? Yes, even we know where Upwood is. It's the big rambling house half-hidden in the trees at the head of our private valley. And now of course we know who Tony Churt is as well. He owns the valley.
Well, not all the valley. Not the patch of land around our cottage, for instance. Our property, as the urban owners of odd half-acres in the country like to tell you humorously in such circumstances, marches with his. The march isn't long enough to make either property very footsore, it's true, but it gives us a bond. We're fellow landowners. Neighboring proprietors. Brother magnates.
By the time I've got three fan-heaters whirring, and a great log crackling in the hearth, with Tilda full of her mother's milk asleep in front of it, and four assorted oil stoves scenting the rest of the cottage with the cozy stink of kerosene, we're in curiously high spirits. There are fresh patches of damp in the bedroom, it's true, and strange efflorescences on several walls. The mice have eaten the towels and left droppings inside the refrigerator. Other, more surprising changes have come to light, too. I put on a pair of country trousers that I find hanging in the bedroom closet, and can't get them done up round the waist. They've shrunk in the damp. Or is it me that's expanded? Am I catching largeness off Kate? I look at her moving slowly and bulkily about, stacking supplies of nappies on shelves. Three months after the birth, and she's still enormous. She rolls a little as she walks. She doesshe rolls! I laugh at her. She smiles at my laughter, and frowns to know the cause of it. I don't say anything, but when she sits down on the long stool in front of the fire to gaze at Tilda, as the gray spring evening outside the windows deepens into night and the three of us fill our little world, I come up behind her, lean over her, take two fat handfuls of face, and tilt it up to kiss, obscurely pleased that there's so much of her to love. Nor am I absolutely displeased that there's a little more of me now to love her.
"So," I say, sitting down beside her, "we're in with the gentry. All our vaguely leftish prejudices down the drain. Instant corruption."
"We could say Tilda was ill."
"You don't want to go?"
Do I? Yes! Why not? Social adventure. Human contact. Life.
"We shan't enjoy it," says Kate.
"Of course not. It'll be terrible."
She says nothing, which is a sign of disagreement. That is, she agrees it'll be terrible, but she knows I mean it'll be wonderfully terrible, a source of amusement, and this is not how she sees life at all. Also, she knows that my mind's made up. For once. And that although it sometimes unmakes itself of its own accord, it's unlikely to be discomposed by external pressure.
"Come on," I say. "He was charming. He raised his cap to you."
"I don't understand why he's asking us."
"He saidhe wants our advice."
"Well, you don't have to give it."
Because what sort of advice does he want from us? Not, I imagine, our moral advice. Nor our advice about agriculture or animal husbandry. Is some small but vexing question of etiquette or precedence bothering him? Should the Lord Lieutenant take the divorced wife of the Queen's second cousin in to dinner? Do I think it would be all right for him to wear a cummerbund to the Hunt Ball?
Or could it be my professional advice that he wants? My opinions as a philosopher on some epistemological question that's come to haunt him? Can he ever truly know that his tenants have feelings? Is everything around himhis estate, his brown checked jacket, his Land Roverreally a dream?
No, Kate and I both know what sort of advice he wants. It's Kate's professional opinion. He has a painting that's always been rumored in the family to be a Constable, a Tintoretto, a Rembrandt, etc. A vase, a jug, a china dog, a porcelain shepherdess, which he of course doesn't suppose for a moment is of any interest or value, but which he'd be grateful if she'd just cast an eye over, if only to set his mind at rest, etc., etc.
"I'll do all the talking," I assure her.
Silence. She means I always do. I mean I'll explain to him that she's on holiday, she's on maternity leave, she can't be asked to identify things. And that even if she weren't on holiday, even if there were no small baby in the forefront of her thoughts, even if she were sitting in her office at the Hamlish, being paid to think about art, she doesn't think about art like that. She doesn't identify things. She's not that sort of art historian, whatever the woman in the newspaper shop or the man who fixes the septic tank may have told him.
More silence. I know what she's thinking. She's thinking that perhaps it's my views on art he wants. Perhaps, she's suggesting ironically, the Churt family has some painting that they've always believed to be by the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, an artist whose name opens up delicate ground between us. I shan't rise to this. I shall remain as silent as she is. But it's a little unkind of her to bring the subject up now, however wordlessly. I've given her no recent cause for recrimination. In fact, I've just suddenly and surprisingly kissed her, which she loves my doing. But I shan't say a word. I shan't even not say a word. I shall simply nudge her fat shoulder and laugh her out of it.
"Come on," I say. "Just tell him it's a Constable and maybe he'll invite me to go shooting with him."
And as soon as I say it, and the silence sets in again, I realize that even joking about the possibility of my finding alternatives to writing my book while I'm down here is going to stir her suspicions. She was uneasy enough about my sudden pounce sideways out of philosophy into something more like art, or at any rate the philosophy of art, as if I were trespassing on her territory. She was uneasier still when I decided to take a year off to launch my new career by writing a book about the impact of nominalism on Netherlandish art of the fifteenth century; openly alarmed when, seven months into my sabbatical, I suddenly put the book aside to write an extended essay on one particular artist of the period who'd come to seem to me grossly underrated; and not relieved, but even more alarmed, when two months later, deciding that the Master of the Embroidered Foliage, far from being underrated, had no virtues that I could now perceive I abandoned this extramarital fling as suddenly as I'd begun it, and returned to the lawful embrace of nominalism, now with only five months left to finish the book before I'm due back in my department. Eight of my fourteen months of freedom have gone. She suspects that considerably less than eight fourteenths of the book that is going to launch my new career has yet been written. She fears that, come September, I'll turn out to have jumped off philosophy and fallen short of art. She thinks that I've lost my way in life. That, while her reputation in comparative Christian iconography slowly and methodically grows from year to year, like the standard work of reference she's writing on the subject, I've embarrassingly fallen off the back of the cart. This is why we've come down to the countryto get away from any friends or acquaintances, libraries or galleries, that might put some bright new idea into my head. We shall cook, look after Tilda, and write. There'll be nothing to tempt us out of the house, because there'll be nothing to do out there except fall down in the mud, and no one to speak to but sheep and cows. And now, within hours of arriving, I'm humorously contemplating another sudden relaunch as country gentleman. No wonder she's saying nothing.
I nudge her shoulder again, reassuringly, and announce a change of subject. "The iconography of sports jackets. Why does Tony Churt's brown checked sports jacket make it clear that he's a country landowner, while my gray pepper-and-salt sports jacket announces me as an urban intellectual? Why does the seediness of my jacket suggest high-mindedness and poverty, while the seediness of his indicates wealth and limited intelligence?"
Kate says nothing. But says it much more companionably now. Her moment of panic and distrust is over.
"In fact," I say, "the iconography of the entire estate is quite interesting. The battered Land Rover, the broken gatesthey're all expressions of a certain style of ironic understatement. They all shout money. We could do a joint paper on the iconic significance of frayed pink baler twine."
"Does he have money?" says Kate.
"Of course he does."
We go on gazing into the fire together.
"His name's probably another irony. Tony Churt. He's really Sir Tony. He's Lord Churt."
"Is he, in fact?"
"No idea. I'm going to go on thinking of him as Tony."
Tilda stirs, then settles again. We gaze at her instead of the fire. She's lovely.
"You're getting as fat as me," says Kate, still looking at Tilda, but I think meaning me, an ambiguity I find curiously touching.
I say nothing. So I'm getting fat, like her and Tilda. All right. It suits me. I've a fat, phlegmatic, cheerful disposition. We all three of us do. I'm going to finish my book, whatever Kate thinks. Everything's going to be all right. I know that. How do I know it? Well, how do I know that the sun's warm and oranges are orange and Tilda's lovely? There's a simple but philosophically rather profound answer to all these questions:
I just do.
Reading Group Guide
1. On page 8, Martin speculates on how, exactly, one distinguishes the "real" country from terrain that might be mistaken for the country. He and Kate have different ways of determining authenticity, in this instance and throughout Headlong. How do their methods vary? Is there a correct approach or do you think authenticity is too ambiguous to judge? What does Michael Frayn seem to suggest?
2. As a writer, Frayn is perhaps best known for his comedic works. Discuss the farcical elements of Headlong. Does Frayn's use of comedy succeed?
3. Throughout Headlong, Martin Clay misinterprets outward appearances. For example, he wrongly believes that Tony Churt's shabby image is a humble disguise intended to obscure his wealth. What are some other instances in which Martin misjudges appearances? What do his mistaken inferences teach us about him? If he consistently misreads people and objects, then how reliable is his assertion that the canvas in the Churts' breakfast room is indeed a Bruegel? What does Headlong tell us about the correlation between images and their underlying meanings?
4. On page 127, Martin asks himself, "Well, who am I talking to now? Who is the ghostly audience for the long tale I tell through every minute of the day? . . . You, yes. In the Reading Room with me, occupying my chair. Who are you? You're almost as elusive as Bruegel." How well does Martin know himself and others? Has he come to a better understanding by the novel's end? If so, how do you think the change comes about?
5. Kate and Martin's marriage goes through a number of changes in Headlong. Discuss Frayn's portrait of their marriage. Do their problems seem resolved at the novel's conclusion or do you think the author intentionally leaves their situation open-ended?
6. Even after all of his detailed research, Martin never establishes if there is a missing Bruegel in this particular sequence of paintings, let alone if the Churts' canvas is the lost work. Do you think his endeavor was doomed at the outset? What is it that keeps him from ever really getting to the bottom of the mystery? Why does Frayn leave the questions Martin poses unanswered?
7. No two characters in Headlong place the same value on any of the canvases. Of all of the paintings in the Churts' possession, Tony is most possessive of the portrait of the dog, Martin is obsessed with what he thinks is a work by Bruegel, John Quiss recognizes the worth of the two anonymous Dutch paintings, and the expert at Christie's shocks Martin when he tells him how much the Giordano could sell for. What do these differences say about the value we place on art? How do these characters decide which painting they treasure? Is one of the four men best suited to selecting the most important painting? Why or why not?
8. On page 134, Martin wonders if Bruegel was a collaborator during the Inquisition. He then argues, "It would be unreasonable to expect some wretched painter to turn down professional success, even if he had much choice about it, just because some of his fellow citizens had died of burns and asphyxiation rather than smallpox or typhus." What kind of impact do you think artists' moral decisions have on the value of their art? Do a painter's personal choices affect our ability to appreciate his or her work? Should they?
9. What do you make of the painting's demise at the end of the novel? Why did the author decide to have it burn in the car accident? What do you think of Martin's choice to rescue Laura from the flames first and the painting second?