I knew Michael Frayn's work as a playwright, but until I stumbled on Headlong I didn't know he was also a novelist. I have seen two of his plays – “Noises Off” and “Copenhagen” - and they couldn't be more different. The first is an hilarious slapstick comedy about the performance of a dreadful play, viewed from both in front of and behind the curtain.. The second is a serious play based around an event that occurred in Copenhagen in 1941, a meeting between the renowned physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. So which would the novel be like – the slapstick farce or the serious history-based study? The answer is that it is both.
The novel's narrator, philosophy professor Martin Clay, has arrived for an extended stay at his country house, accompanied by his wife and baby daughter. His goal is to complete a book he is writing about “the impact of nominalism on Netherlandish art in the fifteenth century”. But Martin is easily distracted, and when country neighbor Tony Churt invites them for dinner at his estate, he accepts. Here's Frayn's succinct description of Tony's rundown mansion: “The Churts' tasteful avoidance of ostentation verges on the garish”.
The real motive for the dinner invitation soon emerges – Tony has several paintings that he wants Martin to help him evaluate and sell on the sly, including one that he has been using to block up a fireplace. Martin suspects that the sooty painting is a Bruegel, but instead of telling Tony, he devises an elaborate scheme in which he will help Tony sell the other paintings and keep the maybe-Bruegel for himself. Martin's powers of rationalization are astounding (...”he owns it no more than I do. No one can own a work of art.”) and what follows is an amazing mixture of Frayn's dual talents for comedy and erudition. On the one hand, I learned more about the art, religion and history of the Netherlands in the sixteenth century than I ever thought possible. But the comedy of errors involving a country house, paintings, dogs, mud, a vicar, a flirtatious wife, an angry brother and a beat-up Land Rover is as funny and farcical as “Noises Off”.
In the end the book is funny and sad, a serious examination of human pride and greed, a detective story where the clues keep shifting, and a delicious comedy of country life.