Most of my reading at the moment is centred on the books for this year’s Summer School which begins on August 19th. We’ll be discussing novels that are focused on works of art, starting with Michael Frayn’s Booker short-listed Headlong. As I said in my previous post, I first read this when it came out back in 1999 and loved it then. It was my initial encounter with Frayn as a novelist, but I’d known his work for the theatre long before that. The book brought together many of the features that I’d most admired in his stage work: the humour of Noises Off, the addressing of serious issues to be found in Benefactors and the painstaking research that lay behind the brilliant Copenhagen. Most of all, it was simply a rattling good read. Coming back to it fourteen years on I see no reason to change my original opinion.
Headlong tells the story of academic Martin Clay who, with his wife, Kate, and their baby daughter, Tilda, heads off to a cottage in the country to try and complete the book he is supposed to be writing on the impact of nominalism on Netherlandish art in the fifteenth century. The topic is already a departure for Martin as up to now his life has been spent studying philosophy. It is Kate who is the art historian. What worries Kate even more than this sudden shift in discipline, however, is her husband’s inability to stick to the task in hand. Eight months into his year’s sabbatical the book is nowhere near finished, sabotaged by Martin’s grasshopper like interest in anything that might provide a distraction from the work he is supposed to be focused on.
Inevitably, this being Frayn, their removal to the country merely precipitates the worst diversion yet, when, on a visit to a neighbouring land owner, Martin discovers what he believes to be a lost painting by the artist Bruegel. How he is going to get his hands on this painting (to save it for the nation, you understand, no question of filthy lucre ever enters his mind) and how he is going to take Kate along with him, make up the bulk of the plot.
This painting almost certainly did exist. It is the missing element in the six works known to have been painted by Bruegel in 1565 each depicting two months of the year. The whereabouts of the five shown here are known. Three are in Vienna, one in Prague and the fifth in New York. The sixth, which Frayn posits comes at the beginning of the cycle, has been missing for centuries. One of the features of the book is the detailed research that the author documents as the plot progresses, allowing the reader to follow the intricate workings of Martin’s mind as he tries to convince himself that the work keeping the soot from coming down his neighbour’s chimney really is the masterpiece he thinks it is.
In the hands of a lesser writer, such detailed excursions into the history of the Netherlands in the early part of the sixteenth century and the way in which the religious and political in-fighting of the time imposed on the lives of every day people could kill a book stone dead. And, indeed, one of the things I’ll want to discuss with the other members of the School is what they felt about the way Frayn handles this aspect of the novel. For me, however, it is saved by three things. First there is the placing of the information – a bit here, a bit there – but never so much that you are overwhelmed with it before the plot takes off again and you are caught up in the second factor, which is the humour that pervades the whole novel. The third of these saving graces, for me at least, is the precision with which Frayn catches the research process. Anyone who has ever undertaken a major piece of academic research will recognise every step along the path that Martin takes. From the moment the book begins, with Kate’s concern about her husband’s prevarication during his sabbatical, through his terror when he thinks that someone else might have spotted the object of his thesis, to the reformulation of ideas to fit new facts or worse the reinterpretation of facts to fit the thesis, Frayn is spot on. Sometimes I laughed out loud. Sometimes I winced with painful recollection.
Woven in amongst the plot, the humour and the history lesson there is also discussion of some of the philosophical ideas that Frayn so enjoys. Foremost of these is the issue of the morality behind duping someone who knows less about a subject than you do. You might think that this is mostly worked out in relation to Martin’s attempts to keep his neighbour from finding out the identity of the painting in question. When was Frayn ever that obvious? Working out who is pulling the wool over whose eyes is all part of the fun. And, lurking beneath this debate are others that are less apparent but rather more interesting, focussed around the difference between iconography (Kate’s subject) and iconology (of more interest to Martin). To quote Frayn:
I wonder whether to attempt to explain to Laura the difference between iconography and iconology. Iconography, I could tell her, informs us that a worn sofa and a vehicle held together with twine represent poverty. Iconology teaches us that the plain iconography has to be read in conjunction with a wider conception of style and artistic intention – that its real meaning is the opposite of what it appears to be. Iconography, I might go on, tells us that the look she’s wearing on her face is one conventionally adopted to represent the expression of interest. Iconology, on the other hand, involves understanding that in this particular context what this conventional expression of interest actually conveys is mockery.
In other words, you have to read a picture not only in the light of convention but also taking account of the specific circumstances behind its creation. What both Martin and Laura forget to take into account is the subjectivity of the person making the reading. They need to take a lesson from Reader Response Theory.
There is also an ongoing debate about the value of a work of art and how you reckon its worth. What is more important, a painting’s artistic merit or the lump sum you can get for it out of an unsuspecting dealer? And what is that same painting worth when you are forced to weigh it against a human relationship or even a life? Frayn didn’t study philosophy for nothing.
Two other topics came to mind as I re-read this novel, topics that I think will run throughout our week of discussions. The first of these is the question how do you attempt to convey the nature of a painting in words? Is it something that it’s possible to achieve and if not, why do so many writers choose to centre their books around something that cannot be described? The second is something I’m really interested in and that is the work of art as a fiction. Even a still life is conveying so much more than simply the presentation of a group of objects. To whom did they belong? Why did they come together in the way that they did? Why did the artist find them appealing?
You can see that we are not going to be short of material for debate when we meet to talk about Headlong later this month.