A major disappointment…
Here 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.
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.