Blog 104: Headlong by Michael Frayn – Rambling Nonsense with a Spark of Genius


Martin Clay, a young would-be art historian, suddenly sees opening in front of him the chance of a lifetime: the opportunity to perform a great public service, and at the same time to make his professional reputation – perhaps even a lot of money as well. Thus he finds himself drawn step by step into a moral and intellectual labyrinth.

I’m normally a fan of all Frayn’s work and count him as one of the best living writers we have. However, I’m sorry to say this book is on the whole a significant error of judgement in a wide variety of ways, and only just managed to redeem itself in the last one hundred pages or so. This isn’t enough to make it a great work of literature or even a good book.

Here are the issues that are wrong with it:

  1. Martin is a dull and weak man, who thinks of himself far more highly than he needs to. As a result, he’s neither strong enough nor attractive enough as a character to carry this story.
  2. The characters, particularly the wife Kate, are very shadowy indeed and really more caricatures than genuine people.
  3. The long and dull ramblings about art and Bruegel are … well … long and rambling. Mind you, the ability to make the magnificent Bruegel dull is itself quite impressive. If Frayn had wanted to write an historical novel, he should have done so, as Martin is not strong enough to make the historical sections interesting. It’s more of an info-dump than a narrative.
  4. The first 280 or so pages are mind-numbingly tedious.
Here are the issues that are right with it:
  1. After page 280, the plot suddenly becomes interesting and fast-moving enough for the weak characterisation to be unimportant. Actually, the plot did very much remind me of one of the episodes of Midsomer Murders, but for me that’s no bad thing as it’s a crime series I enjoy.
  2. The Lady of the Manor Laura finally comes into her own at the end of the novel, though she’s still sadly underwritten.
  3. The final page is spot on, and (possibly, though the jury’s still out …) worth the 280 pages of drivel to get there. Much like Wagner then in that you have to suffer through one hell of a lot of opera boredom to arrive at that glorious final note.
Verdict: 2.5 stars (the 0.5 for that end page). Rambling nonsense, with an odd spark of genius here and there.
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