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

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