Posted by: Lizzie Ross | April 12, 2010

Bruegelian Obsession

Headlong, Michael Frayn (1999), Picador, 342 pp.

Remember that Rod Serling story, where the Nazi war criminal prays to escape the people after him and ends up in the wrong painting? (one chapter of 1969’s Night Gallery) Ever since seeing that episode–and I’m amazed that it’s been just over 40 years–I’ve looked for the painting whose world I wouldn’t mind escaping to. Several by Van Gogh, Corot, Matisse, Cezanne; in short, just about any from the late 1800s.

But I’ve also had a soft spot for the works of Pieter Bruegel the elder, who dates from the 1500s. Something about the feel of nature in each of them, even if nature is pushed off to a corner, as in Children’s Games. The people are colorfully dressed, well fed, doing stuff outside.

Well, this is a long way of getting to Frayn’s book, about a happily married man whose life goes haywire when he thinks he’s discovered a missing Breugel masterpiece in late 20th century England. He becomes obsessed with Breugel, and this may be part of why I so enjoyed this book. It’s art history without snarky elitism; or, better still, the snarky elitism gets spoofed when it comes up.

The conflict for our hero is how to get hold of the missing work, in order to graciously donate it to his nation and thereby garner the respect he feels he’s earned for doing all the grunt work, without tipping his hand to the man who currently owns it.

The title refers to the tiny figure of poor Icarus in the lower right-hand corner of one of Bruegel’s paintings, falling headlong into the sea as life continues around him. A perfect image for any obsession.


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