A few weeks ago, his lordship the Earl of Wemyss and March, master of Gosford House in the Scottish county of East Lothian, disburdened himself of Botticelli’s exquisite Virgin Adoring the Christ Child for a price of twenty million pounds sterling. Since the buyer was the Kimbell Museum in Texas, there was a fine old British row about treasures leaving the country, irresponsible noblemen denuding the national patrimony, and the failure of the National Gallery of Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” to come up with matching funds for the retention of the masterpiece. This is an old set-piece tale in Britain: I remember as a schoolboy at the age of ten being asked to subscribe my pocket money to keep a Leonardo cartoon in the United Kingdom. And the story loses nothing by the addition of a dim and acquisitive Scots peer. But what struck me most about the otherwise familiar newspaper coverage was this. Until the earl decided to realize his Botticelli on the Texas market, nobody knew it was there.
It happens all the time. A culture whose summa is the country house, and a culture to which Empire once afforded numerous possibilities of loot, and a culture furthermore where the eccentric collector is a stock character, is awash in unlocated paintings, manuscripts, and items of furniture. Since the landed and agricultural interest has been in decline for some time—indeed has been making a specialty of its deathbed speech for over a century now—the “discovery” of a trove is most commonly associated with the need for once-grand dynasties to pay off inheritance or estate taxes, or to get out of debt. Lord Cowdray’s family recently raised nine million pounds for these purposes by selling Rembrandt’s 1667 Portrait of an Elderly Man to the Mauritshuis in Amsterdam. Japanese banks, American galleries, and Swiss pension funds, one presumes, retain professionals to scrutinize old copies of Country Life magazine, in the hope of glimpsing a nice canvas in the background of a hunt-ball photograph.
This intersection of the art market, the class system, and what might be termed the English or British character furnishes an ideal locus for Michael Frayn. In his essays and in his plays and screenplays (Noises Off and Clockwise being notable here) he has raised an edifice of gentle but by no means innocuous satire of his fellow countrymen. His first novel, The Tin Men, published in 1965, was a mordant and hilarious account of the last version of “the New Britain,” with mad and manipulative computer scientists, housed in the “William Morris Institute of Automation Research,” being entirely unhorsed by a sudden royal visit. More than one reviewer compared the tempo to that of the young Evelyn Waugh, and indeed a subsequent novel, Towards the End of the Morning, is the only fiction set in Fleet Street that can bear comparison with Scoop.
Frayn’s preferred raw material is the status anxiety, and vulnerability to embarrassment, of the bien-pensant middle class. (Together with the late cartoonist Marc Boxer, he has in effect been the chronicler of this anxious and energetic stratum, with its gnawing guilts and worries about private schooling, the environment, and multiculturalism.) At the opening of Headlong, we are introduced to Martin and Kate Clay, respectively a philosopher and an art historian, as they set off from mid-bourgeois North London for their uneasily held country cottage. Martin’s initial reverie sets his tone as the narrator:
Where is the country? Good question. I privately think it begins around Edgware, and goes on until Cape Wrath, but then I don’t know much about it. Kate’s rather a connoisseur of the stuff, though, and it’s not the country for her, not the real country, until we’ve driven for at least a couple of hours, and turned off the motorway, and got onto the Lavenage road. Even here she’s cautious, and I can see what she means. It’s all a bit neat and organized still, as if it were merely a representation of the country in an exhibition…. I share Kate’s unease about this. We don’t want to drive a hundred miles out of London only to meet people who have driven a hundred miles out of London to avoid meeting people like us.
This passage acts, if somewhat obliquely, as an overture to Frayn’s chief theme—which is that of authenticity and the difficulty of deciding it—and also places it in a promising context of social insecurity. At the approach of journey’s end, authenticity can be more readily vouched for:
There’s a half-mile squish of mud and shit under the tires where a herd of live cows goes regularly back and forth between meadow and milking shed. Beyond the undergrowth on the left, at one point, is a scattering of bricks and broken tiles, growing a mixed crop of nettles and ancient leaky enamelware. Rusty corrugated iron flaps loose on ramshackle empty structures abandoned in the corners of tussocky fields. Lichen-covered five-bar gates lean at drunken angles on broken hinges, secured with rusty barbed wire. We begin to relax our guard; this is the real stuff, all right. This is what we pay a second lot of bills for.
In general and in the details (the herd of “live” cows is a nice touch) this again puts me in mind of Scoop, and of poor Mr. Salter’s calamitous visit to the Boot home in remote Somerset. The great secret about the English rural idyll—an idyll most harshly dissipated in Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs—is that the bucolic scene is very often one of cruelty, surliness, and resentment, rife with inbreeding and inefficiency, and populated quite largely by people who would, had they only the talent or the resources, do anything to sell up and move to the city. (Without elaboration, Martin alludes to “the lake that collects in the dip by the wood where we found the dead tramp.”) We are, in any case, very swiftly presented with a truly rebarbative example of the squire at his worst. Tony Churt, who calls abruptly on Martin and Kate, “has the grip of a man who’s used to wringing the necks of wounded game birds.” A gun crooked in the elbow, some muddy dogs cringing around his boots, “an effortlessly landowning kind of voice,” and the word-picture is complete. His rather peremptory invitation to dinner at Upwood, the local Big House, is accepted, which frees Martin to be mildly self-lacerating when alone with Kate again:
“So,” I say, sitting down beside her, “we’re in with the gentry. All our vaguely leftish prejudices down the drain. Instant corruption.”
And with that last attenuated and almost obligatory writhe, we leave conventional Frayn territory and are precipitated, or perhaps it would be more apt to say pitchforked, into a region of fantasy. Of course Churt has only asked this wet-behind-the-ears pair to dine because he wants something. He imagines that their citified and academic ways will permit a free valuation of some daubs in his possession, and some free advice about how to avoid taxes and commissions on the sale of same. One of the daubs he considers negligible. But at the very first view of it the mild-mannered and ironic Martin begins to vibrate and point like a well-trained setter on a shoot. He is convinced not just that the painting is a Bruegel, but that it is a Bruegel of Bruegels: the lost keystone to an arch of symbolic work. His abrupt farewell to reason and proportion is accompanied by a no less striking abandonment of any sense of self-preservation, and this descent into mania and obsession supplies the energy of the story thereafter.
Kierkegaard says that the whole problem with existence is that it has to be lived forward and can only be reviewed or evaluated, so to say, backward. How Martin the trained philosopher might have benefited from pondering this. To describe him as unreliable would be a kindness: he never actually gets another square look at the panel in question but when he is away from it he free-associates in the most torrential manner about its possible provenance. Auden in his “Musée des Beaux Arts” gives an unforgettable sketch of Bruegel’s Icarus, with its painted ship and the white legs vanishing into the ocean, while the onlookers continue their quotidian round. Frayn’s narrator almost skips the picture and instead gives us a frenzied tour, complete with much show of learning, of the whole Dutch school and indeed of the entire combat between Spain and the Netherlands. He consults, and cites at length, numerous authorities. He also succumbs to the lure of cupidity, quoting to himself from fabulous saleroom prices for comparable “finds.”
An anonymous wit once rewrote an old admonition and gave it the heading “A Word of Encouragement”:
O what a tangled web we weave
When first we practice to deceive.
But when we’ve practiced quite a while
How vastly we improve our style.
This doggerel recurred to me as I read through the torments visited by Frayn on his narrator. Martin has to deceive the ghastly Tony Churt about his real intentions, and pretend to be interested in selling and valuing another painting altogether. Having given Tony’s ill-used wife, Laura, the mistaken impression that he is interested more in her than in the pictures (he is interested, but only sexually), he has to string her along, too. And he has to keep this stringing-along from his own wife, who has recently become a mother and has brought them all to the countryside so that he, Martin, can do some solid parenting and some serious work on his philosophy.
Frayn’s gift for conveying embarrassment, especially sexual and matrimonial embarrassment, is considerable. In a moment of literal bedroom farce, Martin is about to be granted a view of his “Bruegel,” with Tony Churt absent in London and Laura as his guide. She gives him a drink and leads him upstairs, smoking:
She suddenly darts toward the dressing table. The insane idea flashes into my head that she’s going to stub the cigarette out on the picture. I hurl myself convulsively after her, with a kind of little groan, and fling out my arm to prevent her. My hand still has the glass of gin in it. It catches her on the elbow. She looks down at the silver splash of gin leaping out of the glass at her like a flying fish, then looks straight up into my eyes, startled.
“Wow!” she says, and laughs, amused and gratified….
Extricating himself from this—not without difficulty—Martin returns home, again thwarted in his desire to study the picture, and decides it might be prudent not to mention that Tony Churt had been elsewhere. Without lying directly, he contrives to give Kate the impression of having seen both Tony and the painting. But with witchlike timing, as he is rummaging in a cupboard, Kate mentions that Churt telephoned from London while Martin was out:
I don’t attempt to explain anything. I simply ask, with passing curiosity in my voice, even if I have to keep my head in the cupboard under the sink to hide my face, “What did he want?”
Martin’s consciousness of the inadequacy of this return of serve is acutely registered. I should have liked more such episodes, and more flesh on some of the rather skeletal characters who are granted minor parts. Tony’s braying South African brother is caught to perfection but then dismissed from the action. An obsequious rival art historian with the excellent name of John Quiss is likewise deployed rather perfunctorily. In part, this represents the obsessive narrowing of Martin’s own field of vision, to the point where he can only concentrate on the next detail of his deception, or on a potentially confirming detail in the painting. He does not succeed in improving his style.
Working from the context to the picture instead of the other way about, Martin decides what it ought to represent. Denied access, and going only on his first startled glimpse, he concludes that Bruegel was employing his brush in order to convey certain arcane political and religious points; painterly dissents from the terrifying clerical and monarchical authorities of his day. After a while, and as a result of immersion in the subject, he reaches the stage—a working definition of fanaticism—where everything seems to confirm his hypothesis. Those who have read Motley or Simon Schama on the Netherlands will not need a reference map; those who have not read them may be encouraged to do so, because Frayn’s educated interest and Martin’s hysterical absorption are alike infectious.
Looming over the whole plot is the extraordinary milieu of today’s frenetic art market, which makes terms like “commodification” seem understated. Having—he thinks—persuaded Churt that his interest lies in another of his pictures, Martin finds himself having to act out the whole deception, and hauls Churt’s suspected Giordano into the foyer of Christie’s to see what if anything it will fetch. His own indifference to the decoy is not matched by the suave young valuer who greets him:
He steps back and examines her. “No, of course—it’s Helen,” he says at once, with the gracious ability of the really polite to place the names of people they hardly know, and to find the right things to say. “Oh, yes! Yes, indeed! What a splendid piece! Such a bold, free treatment.”
I wonder if I should tell him the name of the painter, before he embarrasses us both with a wrong guess. But he already knows. “Absolutely off the cuff,” he says thoughtfully, “my feeling is that it may perhaps be the best of all his Helens. How good of you to bring her in. She’s been hiding away at Upwood for so long. Very exciting! Let me fetch Mr. Carlyle.”
Here, in a few deft phrases, Frayn has caught the world of the late Bruce Chatwin, where clever young men conjure mighty sums from the mold-covered contents of rural fastnesses. (When a figure is casually mentioned, Martin at first doesn’t realize that it’s in thousands.) And, just as the protagonist of Chatwin’s Utz is made a hostage and a martyr by his collection mania, so Martin finds that he has constructed a sort of prisoner’s dilemma for himself:
The only way I can fulfill my pledge is to study my picture until I find what I’m looking for. The only way I can study it is to acquire it. The only way I can acquire it is to break my pledge.
An antinomy, as we call it back in the department.
As if to confirm himself as antinomy man, Martin here means “pledge” in two declensions: his pledge to himself to unlock the secret of Bruegel, and his pledge to his sinister business partner to be an honest intermediary. His self-wrought dilemma doesn’t kill him, even though he is lucky to escape with his life, as he and we discover that Tony Churt is even nastier (and much less of a fool) than at first appeared. The closing passages are a sudden acceleration into shock, as the compounded illusions and deceits attain critical mass, and the ending is both more violent and more melancholy than anything in Frayn’s work thus far. In one of the middle chapters, Martin the philosopher and Kate the art historian have a sharp domestic dispute, about the relative value of works of art and human lives. She seems to imply that the survival of art can in certain circumstances take precedence. He is all enraged moralism, with a dash of logic-chopping. The achievement of the novel is to show the narrator changing sides in this essential argument, and for him to show us how he has done so, without ever coming to realize it himself.
December 2, 1999