Headlong by Michael Frayn

A major disappointment…

😦 😦

headlongHere we have a perfect example of how a book can affect people in very different ways. Highly recommended by several people whose opinions I value and with whom I often find myself in agreement, I assumed I would love this book. Hmm!

When our first-person narrator, Martin Clay, is invited by his cartoonishly-oafish country bumpkin neighbour to look at his art collection, Martin (though hardly an expert) thinks he has spotted a missing Breugel. Martin then plots how to acquire this painting for himself, ostensibly to have the honour of being the one who discovered it, but the two million or so he expects to get for it is a further motivation.

There seems to be an unfortunate habit developing amongst authors whereby they do a ton of research and then decide they’re going to use it all – every single word – loosely bunging a flimsy plot into the gaps and then calling it a novel. At least sixty percent of this book is Frayn regurgitating the history of the 16th century Netherlands together with everything he could find on Breugel. Not subtly weaving it into the story and not with any redeeming beauty of writing – just pouring it out in a ‘Look what I know!’ kind of way.

“On the table in front of me I have Friedländer (of course), Glück, Grossman, Tolnay, Stechow, Genaille and Bianconi. They quote each other freely, together with various other authors not available in the London Library – Hulin de Loo, Michel, Romdahl, Stridbeck and Dvořák – and they refer to the often mutually contradictory iconography used in two breviaries illuminated by Simon Bening of Bruges in the second and third decades of the sixteenth century, the Hours of Hennessy and the Hours of Costa; in the Grimani Breviary, also done, a little earlier, by Simon Bening and his father Alexander Bening, although the calendar itself is attributed to Gerard Horenbout; and in our own dear ‘Calendrier flamand’, as I think of it, in the Bavarian State Library.”

The other forty per cent is a fairly unsubtle farce as our unlikeable, intellectually snobbish hero tries to do down his equally unlikeable ‘half-educated’ neighbours, while trying not to fall out with his enigma of a wife – the woman with the least personality of any fictional character I have encountered. There are some funny moments, but many of the jokes are inviting the reader to join with the author/narrator in laughing at the bumpkins for their ignorance of art and philosophy or in mocking the narrator for his snobbery. This combination means that the whole book has a sneering quality which left me unable to empathise with any of the overblown unattractive characters.

The Harvesters
The Harvesters

Despite the fact that by a third of the way through I began to skip whole sections devoted to presumably partially made-up art history, it still took me the best part of two weeks to plough through the remaining snippets of plot, mainly because I couldn’t bear to read any more about the tedious, self-absorbed and yet apparently irresistible-to-women Martin. And since the ending was pretty much inevitable it was hardly a surprise, except in that the author managed to make it more unpleasant than I anticipated by adding in an incident of entirely unnecessary animal cruelty.

Sorry to all of you who love Frayn – you’re obviously seeing something in this that I’m not…but I’m afraid I found this one a major disappointment and doubt I’ll be seeking out any more of the author’s work.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

24 thoughts on “Headlong by Michael Frayn

    • Yes, my minimum requirements are a plot and at least one character I care about. When you start hoping that they’ll all be bumped off in a freak accident, then you know there’s a problem… 😉

  1. Tough, tough review, but completely warranted in my opinion. I loathed this book and my only regret was hanging on to the end to finish it. The whole art sale feels false, and as you say, it was impossible to like the main characters. It is strange how much the critics love Frayn. Maybe there are better books out there by him…

    • It was the general smugness and superciliousness that did for me. (Well, that and the tediousness!) Maybe there are…but I don’t think I’ll be tempted to try to find out…

  2. 😆 I laughed when you said that the author managed to make the ending more unpleasant than you had anticipated! Awesome!

    So the hero’s wife–is she an uninterest? Like Malone?

    I’m not sure what to say about the author stuffing all of his knowledge into the book in a vexing way. The professor gives you a lot of credit and is very impressed. I fear this is a book that I would have never made it through…

  3. Ugh. This sounds terrible. I hate it when I don’t enjoy a book as much as my friends did, or vice versa…both sides end up disappointed (one by the book, one by the friend’s lack of enthusiasm for said book). Sorry you had to suffer through it!

  4. I love Spies, a book written by a man looking back/revisiting a childhood view of the world, but as it came out in 2002, this was long before i got into serious reviewing. But i guess if you have one particularly bad experience with a novelist, it does tend to put you off trying again.

    I’m always a sucker for books where the author can capture the child’s eye, and liked the flip between the past and the present. I even think it might be lurking somewhere on the shelves, and possibly require a re-read.

    How CAN I think of re-reads. Present UN read Kindle count 87. I bought another today (book, not Kindle). The real books waiting to be read pile has grown as well – a wretched friend who always brings me books from her ‘read this, thought YOU might like it pile, when we meet. Though i did return the favour, so i suppose its one out one in.

    • I have a particular dislike for intellectual snobbery and I’m afraid this book was filled to bursting point. Nope, I’m afraid Mr Frayn will have to look elsewhere for a fan. As I often do when I hate something, I looked at the Az reviews to see if it was just me and was relieved to find that, in comparison to some of the reviews, mine was quite restrained and considerably politer…

      I’m going to find a way to make time for re-reads – I often find them more pleasurable than new reads. Like shoes.

  5. What a pity you didn’t enjoy this. It is one of his best (my other favourite Spies is a very very different novel so do give him the benefit of a second go). I do understand your dislike of authors who stuff their research in just to pad out the text. I didn;t feel that way with Headlong to the extent it stopped me reading it unlike with some other examples

    • Indeed it would! It seems to be one of those books that really divides opinion – the reviews range from really loving it to some people who disliked it even more than I. Glad to hear the Summer School people were more enthusiastic!

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