cover image Headlong


Michael Frayn. Metropolitan Books, $26 (342pp) ISBN 978-0-8050-6285-4

Frayn, a highly successful playwright (Noises Off) as well as a novelist of note (A Landing on the Sun; Now You Know), is an odd combination of skilled farceur and scholar, and these strands in his work seem somewhat at odds in this new novel, his first in six years. It is an intellectual comedy, veering occasionally into knockabout, revolving around a philosophical historian, Martin Clay, and his discovery, in the dilapidated manor house of a frightful country neighbor, of a painting he believes to be a missing Bruegel. The comedy arises from Martin's efforts to ascertain its provenance, raise some money for a token payment and somehow spirit the painting away from the churlish Tony Churt, calm the suspicions of his art historian wife, Kate, who is surprised by his sudden interest in her field, and fend off the advances of the highly flirtatious Laura Churt. Frayn is wonderfully funny about English country life, the mustier byways of art history, the art auction business and the deviousness that lurks within apparently mild-mannered art historians. But he has obviously read up extensively on Bruegel, his period and the possible political symbolism of the series of paintings of the seasons to which Churt's picture apparently belongs; and Frayn cannot resist giving the benefits of his scholarship back to the reader, at often exhaustive length, entirely halting his promisingly frolicsome narrative in the process. His attempts to give his lighthearted plot some intellectual weight almost sink the good parts--a pity, since Frayn proves himself again and again a highly civilized entertainer, and the good parts are both funny and true. 50,000 first printing; 7-city author tour. (Sept.)