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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



Michael Frayn

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To purchase Headlong

Title: Headlong
Author: Michael Frayn
Genre: Novel
Written: 1999
Length: 342 pages
Availability: Headlong - US
Headlong - UK
Headlong - Canada
Headlong - India
Tête baissée - France
Das verschollene Bild - Deutschland

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Our Assessment:

A- : heavy on the art history and mystery, but an entertaining read

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
ARTnews . 11/1999 .
Daily Telegraph A+ 28/8/1999 Caroline Moore
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung . 12/10/1999 .
The Guardian . 2/6/2000 Nicholas Lezard
London Review of Books B+ 23/8/1999 Michael Wood
The LA Times B+ 5/9/1999 Judith Dunford
New Statesman A+ 13/9/1999 Terri Natale
The NY Rev. of Books A 2/12/1999 Christopher Hitchens
The NY Times A 24/8/1999 Michiko Kakutani
The NY Times Book Rev. A 29/8/1999 Randy Cohen
The Spectator A- 7/8/1999 Anita Brookner
The Spectator A+ 18/12/1999 Philip Hensher
Der Spiegel A 11/10/1999 Wolfgang Höbel
Sunday Telegraph A 4/9/1999 David Horspool
The Sunday Times A+ 28/5/2000 Phil Baker
TLS B 20/8/1999 Hal Jensen
The Washington Post B- 5/9/1999 Michael Dirda
Die Zeit . 23/3/2000 Hanns Josef Ortheil

  Review Consensus:

  Most are impressed, some dazzled. All agree the writing is very solid, but some found the two strands of the book too much at odds with one another.

  From the Reviews:
  • "The precision of plot is as sparkling as ever; but Fraynís dissection of his characters -- social, intellectual, ethical -- is even more dazzling. It is understanding, yet utterly unsparing. For, although the novel has elements of thriller, and elements of farce, it also offers an anatomisation of moral disintegration." - Caroline Moore, Daily Telegraph

  • "Auch wenn Michael Frayns Roman sich gelegentlich in kunsthistorische Exkurse verliert, so bietet er doch unterhaltsame Belehrung." - Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "What keeps the novel spinning so enjoyably are its tensions -- between what we are prejudiced to think of as city culture and rustic ignorance, between what is imagined and what is real; between husband and wife; between the ideas of plausibility and fictionality. It is a comedy of misattribution -- getting people's motives wrong, picking up the wrong signals." - Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

  • "You can't help feeling (...) that he may have conceived the book backward, with the plot patched on as justification and frame for Frayn's serious thinking about the malleability of meaning in the arts." - Judith Dunford, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Headlong is an intoxicating blend of farce and social comedy - a sustained history lesson on the Spanish conquest of the Netherlands and the 16th-century Dutch landscape painter Pieter Bruegel, and a study of the frailties of the human heart." - Terri Natale, New Statesman

  • "In his antic new novel, Headlong, the British playwright Michael Frayn has constructed an ingenious plot around a missing Bruegel painting, and in doing so, created his own resonant portrait of human folly. (...) (A) novel that turns out to be as entertaining as it is intelligent, as stimulating as it is funny." - Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times

  • "(R)ueful and amusing." - Randy Cohen, The New York Times Book Review

  • "(T)he scholarship is dreamy, persuasive, exalted, the present-day ruminations jaunty, defensive and equally misleading. Indeed the entire novel is an intricate brainwashing puzzle, alternating abstruse objectivity with feverish intentions." - Anita Brookner, The Spectator

  • "(A) reckless, vulgar, ceaselessly entertaining romp. The ferocious comedy that results when avarice collides with the high-minded purity of the art world is sustained by a fierce intelligence, a mind which is at least as fascinated by abstract thought as by the motives of human beings." - Philip Hensher, The Spectator

  • "Staunenswert leicht und oft zum Tränenlachen komisch ist der Ton, in dem Frayn seinen Erzähler Martin von erotischen Wirrungen und immer neuen Tiefschlägen berichten lässt ≠ und von immer neuen Zweifeln, die es zu entkräften gilt." - Wolfgang Höbel, Der Spiegel

  • "Fraynís ability to control a seemingly runaway plot is unmatched, and here he expertly alternates discovery and disappointment. More impressive, perhaps, is his placing of the painting itself - which, by definition, no one has ever seen - at the heart of the novel. First in an excited description of the work, then by explicating its iconography, its political, religious and art-historical context, Frayn brings the missing masterpiece to life." - David Horspool, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Frayn stirs some richly fascinating art history into a luxurious mix with lashings of funny social observation and sly philosophical humour. More than that (...) Frayn is a past master at tense farce. Far too brilliant and funny to win the worthy Booker prize, for which it was shortlisted, this is one of the most entertaining books for years." - Phil Baker, The Sunday Times

  • "There are flashes of thought, but no broad reflections; perfect mimicry, but no substantial characters; verbal and structural tricks, but little memorable description. His writing has only speed, not colour or texture. (...) As a thriller Headlong is an undoubted success (the tension of the denouement is brilliantly handled), but it is disappointing that what might have been an extremely interesting novel of ideas amounts to little more than a well-contrived page-turner." - Hal Jensen, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Michael Frayn's Headlong falls short in two ways: The book's comedy isn't quite uproarious enough, even in its moments of intended farce, and throughout the narrative the reader feels slightly disoriented, uncertain about the novel's tone. (...) There's certainly no want of artistry in these pages, but none of the effects seem quite right." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Michael Frayn's Headlong begins with Martin Clay, a philosopher taking time off to write a book about art, travelling to the country with his art-historian wife and infant daughter, there to work in quiet and seclusion on the book he has not quite managed to really get started. Once in the country they are invited to the run-down estate of their neighbors, the Churts. Tony Churt, always on the lookout for a way to make a quick bit of cash, has an ulterior motive in asking them over, wanting the Clays to have a look at some old paintings that he wants to unload. He doesn't trust the big auction houses (given recent charges against Sotheby's and Christie's he seems less paranoid than Frayn means him to appear), and hopes the Clays can give him a fair idea of their worth -- and perhaps a way of selling them. There is a huge and quite ghastly Giordano, two minor Dutch scenes, and then one more -- kept in the chimney since it fits just right and "those bloody birds in the chimney keep bringing the soot down."
       The last picture is -- so Clay believes -- a missing masterpiece by Pieter Bruegel (or Brueghel or Breughel). He doesn't tell the the Churts what he believes it is (and how much it would be worth), and begins hatching a devious plan to bring the picture into his own possession (from where he at least says he plans to pass it on to a museum).
       Stumbling headlong along Clay investigates the possibility that the painting is what he believes, and tries to figure out how to get Churt to part with it without arousing his suspicion. Complications abound. Clay puts considerable pressure on his marriage when he immediately pops back off to London to research the painting but, at least for a while, keeps his wife on his side. Tony Churt also proves to be considerably more devious than initially thought -- he is dodging taxmen left and right, and there are perhaps some doubts as to whether the paintings are actually his to sell. Tony's wife Laura takes too great an interest in Clay, causing further complications.
       Much of the book and poor Clay's plot to get the paintings plays out as a pleasant little farce, a bit simple at times but entertaining nevertheless. Alongside this are, however, Clay's serious considerations as to why the painting might be a missing Bruegel. The painter's life is examined in depth, as is the horrible Dutch history of that time, and the circumstances that might have led to the disappearance of this particular work. Frayn handles this very well, and these digressions entertain as much as the actual contemporary storyline. The theories and ideas and history make for fascinating reading -- but they do not necessarily meld ideally with the rest of the story. There is a bit much art history and mystery for what is otherwise a relatively light plot.
       The frantic ending, every bit as horrible (for Clay) as one might expect, is pulled off well as well. The book does not feel completely rounded, but it is a brisk and entertaining read, with some edifying value. Frayn writes particularly well, and the book is a great pleasure to read merely for its commanding style. (The only reservation we have regarding this is Frayn's unfortunate habit of contracting "is" which gets quite out of hand: "The suggestion's ludicrous !" he might (and does, in another context) say, but we found it annoying.)
       Polished, clever and fun, Headlong is certainly recommended.

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Headlong: Reviews: Michael Frayn: Other books by Michael Frayn under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the index of Contemporary British fiction at the complete review

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About the Author:

       British author Michael Frayn was born in 1933. He is best known as a playwright. He has also written several acclaimed novels.

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