Art as the basis of a novel – Headlong by Michael Frayn

I often wonder how writers decide on the story they want to tell in a novel. These days I seem to be reading so many stories which have a factual, underlying theme which has to be explained in great detail,  presumably to show what a clever author we are reading.  So what came first, the interactions of some characters who have a tale to tell, or a sudden interest in a topic  whether it be history, art, astronomy, science, medicine, travel etc, etc , using this interest as an excuse to spend time on research, later developing  a story involving those facts.

Take Art as an example   I know very little about Art.  I do like a pretty picture, or a nostalgic picture.  The colours might appeal to me or it might represent a time and place which has meaning to me. It might just make me feel good or in some cases quite emotional.  But I probably couldn’t put into words what it is about the painting which is affecting me. And dissecting it into little details in the background or what was happening in the artist’s life at that time diminishes my enjoyment of the painting. As my father used to say – Sex, Art and Politics are private and not for discussing. – a useful statement when you want to get out of a discussion.

But Michael Frayn  in Headlong is determined to educate me about Art, the History of Art and the History of the Netherlands.  The words Iconography, Iconology, Nominalism and Breugel whirl around in my head.  Don’t get me wrong.  I quite  enjoyed the book.  But there were times I wanted to scream.  GET OUT OF THE LIBRARY AND GET ON WITH THE PLOT !!

Basically it is a mystery story as Martin Clay tries to find proof that his accidental sighting of a long-ignored painting is a sighting of an unknown masterpiece. . There is also the dilemma about what leads a nice young man with a nice wife and a baby , an educated man, an academic, to behave in such an underhand manner, deceiving the rightful owner of the painting, at the same time justifying his actions as a necessary noble deed,

And then I started reading what other people had written.  Oh dear.  Am I so naïve that I didn’t see it was meant to be funny, hilarious, amusing, comic, engaging or with humorous overtones.  It seems that I  need to have relevant books labelled Do Not Take Me Too Seriously. I took it seriously It could have happened.  It happened with a low level academic  looking at a painting and seeing a chance of self-glorification. That is incredibly sad.

So Michael Frayn’s buckets of words communicated differently  to me compared to other people.  Perhaps it was because I had never heard of Frayn before whereas others talked of Headlong with references to previous works.

If you want to read more about the storyline one suggestion is

http://www.nytimes.com/books/99/08/29/reviews/990829.29cohen.html

When I get through my current reading list I intend to read some more of Frayn.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

A few weeks ago I read   David  Mitchell’s Black Swan Green  where the story is told as seen through the eyes of a thirteen year old boy. Paired with this I have now  read  The Sweetness at the Bottom of The Pie by Alan Bradley, this time narrated  by an eleven year old girl.sweetnessatthe bottomofthe pie

We’re taken back to 1950 where eleven year old Flavia de Luce lives in a grand old house in the English countryside

I don’t remember the book mentioning where Flavia was receiving her education but she had this wonderful, ancient, private laboratory at the top of the house, complete with bunsen burners,  test tubes, beakers, flasks and   glass retorts,  as well as the contents of a vast array of  stoppered bottles and a library of old-fashioned chemistry books. It had been set up by an earlier member of the family, and, left so much to her own devices Flavia became an intelligent self-taught chemist.

When a body is found in the cucumber patch Flavia’s analytical mind springs into action and  she is off on the chase to try and find out what has really happened.  How Did He Die and Who Did It ‘

So where did the author get his detailed knowledge of chemistry.  One has to assume that everything he has written is accurate if he wanted to maintain his credibility. And thankfully it is given to us in small doses so that it doesn’t distract from the story line. Chasing the author on Google shows him to have a quiet but  interesting background.

Flavia scampers all over the place on her bike Gladys. It made me realize I miss  seeing that in my town.  Most of the few children I see on bikes are of primary school age.   These days I rarely see a schoolgirl on a bike and I no longer  see groups of boys on the corner of the streets, ogling the girls as they go by ! Bike culture has changed.  At weekends you will see family groups of Mum, Dad and the littlies going for a sedate ride wearing the required helmets. Then there are the serious lycra-clad exercisers, heads down bottoms up eating up the roads.  Bikes are now an extra to a life, not an essential part.

From the Family Album – Young Ladies and their Bikes 1950

Bendigo Teachers College Residence 1950

While growing up I used to ride everywhere even out into the country side .One favourite destination was a fire-watching tower in a pine plantation. These towers were manned by people in the summer so that any column of smoke showing a potential bushfire could have its bearing taken to be triangulated with sightings from other fire towers.  Many of them are still in use.

Within town boundaries there was the swimming dam, sometimes used in preference to the small concrete town pool.  The dam was great, both socially and for the lovely dirty brown water. Well worth the ride to the outskirts of town. But no matter where you went there was that final steep hill to  home which defeated me every time.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the wanderings it induced in my own mind.