Four Thousand, Tops

Michael Wood

  • Headlong by Michael Frayn
    Faber, 395 pp, £16.99, August 1999, ISBN 0 571 20051 6

In Michael Frayn’s first novel, The Tin Men, there is a character who is supposed to be writing a novel, but mainly concentrates on devising the blurbs and reviews for the as yet unstarted book, as if the work itself was merely the plodding cause of a glittering celebrity effect, and ideally could be dispensed with altogether. Frayn specialises in this kind of comedy, the mind racing ahead of its occasions and then coming a cropper as the occasions catch up. I’m not sure who else works in this mode at the moment, but the fiction of Laurence Sterne is full of it, and its most notorious modern instance occurs in Duck Soup, where Groucho Marx, invited to hold out the hand of friendship to an enemy, imagines himself doing it, imagines the enemy’s response, imagines himself responding to the response, imagines a response to that, and by the time the enemy materialises has talked himself into such a state of indignation that he slaps the fellow’s face. The enemy himself has played no part in this little drama.

Headlong is built on this kind of premise, a dizzying vision or speculation which takes over the whole modest world of the central character. He is Martin Clay, a philosophy lecturer on sabbatical, diligently avoiding work on the book he is supposed to be writing on nominalism, and he is convinced that his disorderly neighbour in the country has, but doesn’t know he has, a lost Bruegel among the mountains of family junk in his rotting ancestral pile. The trick is to remove the painting from its owner without letting him know what he’s got, and this is how Martin thinks he will do it. It’s a piece of accelerated delusion. Groucho would have been proud of him. Martin will tell his neighbour (whose name is Tony Churt) he’s found a buyer for the painting, and

hang it on my own wall to enjoy it myself for a few days in transit; find myself falling in love with it; humbly raise several thousand pounds I can’t afford to buy my purchaser out and keep it for myself; become curious enough about it to take it to be examined by experts; am stunned to find that I’ve made one of the most important artistic discoveries of the century; behave with characteristic modesty as I receive public and professional recognition in equal measure; look with innocent amazement and heroic magnanimity at the huge sums of money dangled in front of me; regretfully decide that I must let the picture go out of my possession to some institution where it can be properly looked after and seen by a wider public; nobly insist that it must remain in the country; even though this means accepting a considerable financial sacrifice; contribute a remarkably generous proportion of the proceeds to help good causes in the arts; perhaps even make a small but entirely uncalled-for donation to Tony Churt himself.

At the moment of this fantasy, Martin doesn’t even know whether the painting is a Bruegel or not, hasn’t shared his guess with Kate, his recently married but long-suffering wife, and is discussing with Tony Churt only the possibility of helping with the sale of another painting, a vast Rape of Helen by Giordano. As with the blurb-dreaming novelist, the game here – Martin thinks of himself as painting a fictional landscape in time, ‘blue after blue’, into the ‘distant sea’ of the happy future – has several overlapping elements. First, the person’s belief that there is nothing unreasonable in his scheme, that he is entirely in control of a well-laid plan; second, the horrible conventionality of the script, the way it stumbles from one cliché to another (‘stunned to find’, ‘heroic magnanimity’, ‘nobly insist’, and so on), as if even dreams could only be plucked from a glossy magazine; third, the lip-smacking vanity which colours the whole project, with the accompanying sense of a man anxious to prove he’s not just a wet and penurious intellectual; and fourth, the well-groomed appetite for money, the implication that any ‘financial sacrifice’ to be made will still leave him rolling in it.

Of course, none of this happens, but the fantasy itself dominates the whole novel. What does happen is so intricate and farcical that it would be a pity to reveal it in advance. We know Martin has to get some kind of comeuppance, but guessing (wrongly) at its precise shape is part of the pleasure of reading the book.

It matters that the neighbour with the paintings should live in the country, and not down the road in Highgate or Hampstead. In fact, he couldn’t live down the road in London, and he wouldn’t be called Tony Churt if he did. Headlong is a novel which, like recent books by Julian Barnes (England, England) and Alan Hollinghurst (The Spell), treats rural England as if it was a domestic Transylvania, a place where normality can’t survive one uneasy night or apparently innocuous dinner party. Some of Frayn’s funniest writing here concerns not the country but what Martin calls the country, his idea of the real run-down thing, Cold Comfort Farm in receivership:

There’s a half-mile squish of mud and shit under the tyres 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.

Live cows. Just think. Tussocks. Lichen. It’s a mythical kingdom, however derelict it looks – because it looks derelict, perhaps. And all Martin’s errors are grounded in his belief that Tony Churt, when he appears to invite Martin and Kate to dinner, is the sheer incarnation of this kingdom, the human realisation of Martin’s idea of the rural.

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-coloured corduroy trousers, and a mud-coloured check jacket. There are holes in his mud-coloured 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.

Tony’s invitation is not just friendliness, of course, a bit of that country hospitality which makes people rush round to greet you after you’ve been there a few years. He has a few paintings he’d like an opinion on, and he’s heard from the neighbours that Kate’s an art historian. Apart from the Giordano, which he wants to sell, it turns out, without paying tax or auctioneer’s commissions, he has three Dutch landscapes; skaters on a pond, a group of cavalrymen and … the dark and dusty river and village and castle scene which Martin is instantly convinced is a Bruegel. Kate doesn’t see this painting until later in the novel, and at this point she offers no comment on the others. Martin, although not an art historian, does all the talking, as he earlier promised to. (‘“I’ll do all the talking,” I assure her. Silence. She means I always do.’) He thinks the Giordano is ridiculous, but is polite about it; guesses it might be worth about £4000 tops, but doesn’t give an estimate; identifies one of the Dutch paintings (correctly, as it happens) as a Philips Wouwerman, but doesn’t say so in case he’s wrong. There’s a nice little flicker of multiple error here, a bit of art historical ping-pong. Tony turns the painting over, and shows a label saying ‘Wouwerman’. Martin is undeterred and pedantic. The label may simply mean School of, Circle of, Follower of, Style of – ‘or nothing much at all’. ‘Too much to hope that “Wouwerman” might mean Wouwerman?’ Tony asks. Martin has no doubts at all about this. ‘That’s the one thing it doesn’t mean.’

And so Martin lays his plans. Help Tony sell the Giordano, offer to take the other paintings off his hands, and relax into fame and riches. But what if he’s wrong about the Bruegel? This is the obvious question, and the plot of the novel won’t work without it. But something goes slightly wrong with the novel itself at this point. The narrative of Martin’s altered life, his frequent trips from the country back to London to check things out in the V&A or the London Library, his need of Kate’s support and confirmation of his hunch combined with a need to keep her scepticism at bay – she is the art historian after all – and his growing neglect of their small child and indeed of their marriage as anything other than a research base, along with his increased entanglement with Tony’s wife Laura, who mistakes Martin’s deviously expressed interest in their paintings for a romantic interest in her … all of this is interspersed with Martin’s accounts of his progress towards identifying his briefly glimpsed painting as a Bruegel. He lectures us on Bruegel (‘There are some paintings in the history of art that break free, just as some human beings do, from the confines of the particular little world into which they were born’), first in order to show us (and himself) that the painting could belong to a series Bruegel painted in 1565, all representing the seasons of the year, and then with escalating partiality, to prove to himself (and to us) that the painting contains some incontrovertible mark of the identity of its author. Martin thinks Bruegel may have belonged to a secret Protestant sect, and gives us the theology to surround the speculation. Abandoning this hypothesis, he thinks that, although he worked for a cardinal – an important agent of Spanish repression in the Netherlands – Bruegel was a sympathiser with the Dutch resistance, smuggling little signs of dissent into the unnaturally calm world of these paintings, and he can only tell us this with the aid of a large history lesson. Martin is ingenious and lucid, but handicapped by a resolutely 20th-century sense of politics and meaning. The Emperor Charles V is ‘like a provincial English scholarship boy who’s absorbed into the London establishment’, and ‘the history of the Netherlands in the 16th century has a remarkably familiar ring to anyone reading about it today … However much allowance you make for the unbridgeable dissimilarities between one age and another, it reads like a first draft for the history of Occupied Europe under the Nazis, or Eastern Europe under the Soviets.’

These are historically parochial analogies, and Martin is making no allowance at all for unbridgeable dissimilarities, only gesturing towards the idea. The writing is perfectly in character, and there is no psychological reason why Martin should understand history any better than he does. But this is a plodding Martin, someone whom Frayn takes too seriously and gives too much space to. Martin the scholarly detective is supposed to be obsessed but merely seems solemn, loaded with inert information, just passing on to us the fruits of his reading. His reading is considerable, as Frayn’s note of acknowledgent makes clear, and I, for one, was glad to have much of the information, however inert. But the novel is not going anywhere at these moments, and I found myself missing the fellow who was so funny about the country and Tony Churt.

Frayn himself seems a little uneasy on this score, since he has Martin apologise at the outset for the levity of his tone. ‘My tone’s going to sound inappropriately light-minded at times. But that’s the way it was. The tone of most things we do in life is probably going to turn out to have been painfully unsuitable in the light of what happens later.’ This is a nice straightfaced apology which isn’t an apology at all, only a signal of the comic novel as a genre, and the suggestion that we get the tone of most things wrong feels like a modest universal truth, but the sentence makes us think about Martin’s tone in particular, and apart from the fine beginning and the hectic end, he spends too much time going stylistically straight. He’s not inappropriately light-minded enough for much of the novel, so that when he suddenly falls back into perfect, polished Frayn-speak, you wonder where he’s been. ‘The gallery inside is panelled, with period furnishings and a woman sitting at the scrolled table in the corner who appears to be carved out of various highly burnished hardwoods herself, hair included. A concealed mechanism snaps her lips into a brief smile as I approach.’ Is this the same Martin as the one who not only does his art history neat, but feels, as he has one of his few intermittent moments of worry about his marriage, that ‘something infinitely precious and good has slipped away from us for ever,’ who mutters sententiously about ‘judgment’ at the very end of the book?

Martin is an expert reader of silences, and some of the best comedy at the beginning of the book arises from his skill. It’s not that he gets things wrong, it’s that he gets so much out of so little: ‘Kate says nothing, which is a sign of disagreement.’ ‘More silence. I know what she’s thinking.’ ‘It’s a little unkind of her to bring the subject up now, however wordlessly.’ ‘Kate says nothing. But says it much more companionably now.’ Later Martin hears Kate’s silence as accusing him of failing to be absorbed enough in their child; thinks her silence is what has saved them from the rows they might have had; takes her silence on the subject of Bruegel as a clear indication that her assessment is different from his; reads a complicated irony into another silence on the same subject; and treats Kate’s smile as an eloquent form of radical scepticism. What happens here is that the hectic fantasy mode I have associated with Sterne and Groucho Marx turns subtly into something else: a curious version of the solipsism in which other people exist but don’t have to do anything, because the thinking subject has taken over all their roles and written all their dialogue. It’s a delicate and funny and rather desperate picture; the snag with Martin’s earnest Bruegel researches is that he forgets he’s a solipsist, and so disappears from view as the character who alarmed and amused us. Or if you prefer, he becomes an ordinary solipsist, the one who can’t see people or the country or a painting because his dreams are too thick.