Brueghelian Obsession

The fourth and last in a series of novels involving the search for lost art. But a new slant here: this novel is for adults.

Headlong, Michael Frayn (1999), Picador, 342 pp.

Remember that Rod Serling story, where the Nazi war criminal (Richard Kiley) prays to escape the people after him and ends up in the wrong painting? (“Escape Route”, one chapter of 1969’s Night Gallery.)

Ever since seeing that episode–and I’m amazed that it’s been nearly 50 years, so it’s likely some of you don’t remember it; sorry–I’ve looked for the painting whose world I wouldn’t mind escaping to. Several by Van Gogh, Corot, Matisse, Cezanne; in short, just about any from the late 1800s.

But I’ve also had a soft spot for the works of Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569). Something about the feel of nature in each of them, even if nature is pushed off to a corner, as in Children’s Games. The people are colorfully dressed, well fed, doing stuff outside. Looks like fun, eh?

P Brueghel, Children’s Games (1560), Vienna Kunsthistorisches Museum

Well, this is a long way of getting to Frayn’s book, about Martin Clay, a happily married late-20th-century British academic whose life goes haywire when he thinks he’s discovered, in a neighbor’s house, a missing Brueghel masterpiece. Being an academic, he knows what to do next: he reads everything he can find on 16th-century Dutch art, tracks down and visits (as if running through an artwork bucket-list) every Brueghel painting he can afford to get to, and looks for the gap the possible masterpiece might fill. This may be part of why I so enjoyed this book. It’s art history without snarky elitism; or, better still, the elitism gets boffed every time it lifts its snarky head.

The conflict for Martin is how to get his hands on the painting he assumes/hopes/prays is by Brueghel, in order to graciously donate it to his nation and thereby garner the respect he feels he’s earned for doing all the grunt work, without tipping his hand to the man who currently owns it. Despite the monetary value of any new Brueghel that reaches the market (over a million pounds, in the 1990s), Martin keeps insisting he isn’t in it for the money. Truly, he isn’t. Part slap-stick, part social commentary, part art-heist, this novel is packed with the comedy you’d expect from the Noises Off playwright. But it’s also an astute analysis of the dangers of any obsession.

Frayn’s inspiration for the novel may lie in a controversy that arose a few years before the book was published. In the mid-1990s, researchers questioned whether Landscape with the Fall of Icarus was, in fact, painted by Pieter Brueghel the Elder (the arguments continue to this day; find an excellent analysis of the painting and the controversy here).

The novel’s title refers to the tiny figure of poor Icarus, falling headlong into the sea as life continues around him, no one noticing his death. So it goes. A perfect image for any obsession.

P Brueghel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1550s), Brussels, Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

PS: You can read W H Auden’s poem, “Musée des Beaux Arts”, here. It’s Auden’s response to seeing Landscape with the Fall of Icarus while in Brussels.

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Do the math

First edition cover by Ruth Robbins, Parnassus Press, 1968

Some days I think I’m an idiot, but other days the proof that I really am an idiot smacks me in the forehead.

Ursula K Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea was published in 1968.

That’s 50 years ago, folks.

Where’s the hoopla? the parades and fireworks? the admiring journal articles and all the other claptrap that makes us feel a little bit better that time goes by so quickly.

If not for the keen eyes of a blogging/twittering friend, I’d have missed the ironic significance of this year of Le Guin’s death. So it goes.

But now you have another reason to visit this blog (and Calmgrove’s here) for Witch Week 2018 (30 October – 6 November), where we celebrate Le Guin’s Earthsea with a focus on Fantasy+Feminism (or is it Feminism+Fantasy?). Either way, it’ll be great to see you there.

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The Borrowers Meet Don Marquis’ Archy

Third in a series reviewing novels about stolen paintings.

Masterpiece (2008), Elise Broach (illus. Kelly Murphy), 288 pp.

It’s a bit strange to read about “beetles” living under the sink of a NYC apartment, but I suspect Broach’s editors wouldn’t approve “cockroaches”. Beetles are cute and innocuous; cockroaches are disgusting and creepy. People tell ladybugs to fly away home, but no one is so kind to members of the Blattidae family.

But Marvin, the insect hero of this story (there’s a human hero as well), is never disgusting or creepy. He is considerate, loyal, and artistically inclined. His human friend, James, is considerate and loyal, but not artistically inclined.

And that’s where the problem for our two heroes lies.

Marvin draws a miniature masterpiece for James’ eleventh birthday and then, through some complications, ends up having to forge a Dürer drawing to foil some art thieves. An art historian from the Metropolitan Museum of Art thinks James is responsible for the drawing, and James’ father (a painter) is thrilled to think his son has such talent.

How will James and Marvin thwart the thieves? What will happen when the humans discover who the real artist is? And will Marvin be able to survive all the dangers of a human world (brooms, stiletto heels, rolled up magazines)?

We get a glimpse into the miniature world of Marvin and his family (including a venturesome aunt with wanderlust who uses an empty teabag to parachute from the apartment, never to be seen again), so appealing to fans of Mary Norton’s Borrowers series. We also get a glimpse into the world of museums and art theft, drawing parallels to E L Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Image courtesy

As for the most famous cockroach of literature, Don Marquis’ Archy of Archy and Mehitabel — his ghost is watching Marvin’s every move. Archy could type; Marvin can draw. Marvin must be a descendant of that clever Archy, who spent his nights diving headfirst onto a keyboard, letter by letter, to compose his poems.

Marvin’s lucky with his art — all he has to do is dip a leg into a jar of ink. No dazed heads for him.

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Magic, menace and the mundane

If you plan to participate in the Witch Week re-along but don’t have time to read the entire Earthsea series, you can find excellent reviews at this blog. Here’s Calmgrove’s review of ‘Tehanu’, which should help you better understand ‘The Other Wind’ if you’re a new visitor to Le Guin’s fantasy world.



Ursula Le Guin: Tehanu: the Last Book of Earthsea
in The Earthsea Quartet
Puffin/Penguin Books 1993 (1990)

As a fantasy novel Tehanu is a tough read: it touches on child abuse, rape, misogyny, prejudice, paranoia, xenophobia, torture and psychopathy. But against all these evils we also witness loyalty, support, care, consolation, compassion and love. Does magic come into it? Well, a bit. And let’s not forget dragons, or at least one particular dragon.

This instalment of the Earthsea series is set immediately after the events in The Farthest Shore. That ended with the promise of a crowning and Sparrowhawk’s return to his place of birth, the island of Gont. Great events had shaken the archipelago, but one might have hoped that the overthrow of one evil would have returned Earthsea to some stability. Much has happened in the twenty years since Tenar was rescued from the Place of the…

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Ars gratia artis

To keep with my most recent post’s art-mystery theme, I’ve resurrected this from my now defunct earlier blog, The Ineluctable Bookshelf. Two more will follow in the next few days.

Vermeer, A Lady Writing (1665), National Gallery of Art (Google Images)

Chasing Vermeer (2004), Blue Balliett, 254 pp. (+ two sequels)

Anything with “Vermeer” in the title gets my attention. I’ve been a huge fan since my teens, and it’s thrilling to live in a city that holds several of his works.

I spotted this book in DC’s Union Station Barnes & Noble (no longer there), and got it as well as the 2 sequels. It was only later that I figured out the author is the daughter of the late Whitney Balliett, one-time jazz critic for The New Yorker. Cool!

Anyway, Blue Balliett is on a mission. This series is all about art — how it can change lives, how it has to be part of everyone’s schooling, how it appeals to people in so many different ways. In the three books, she covers painting, architecture, and sculpture.

Wright, Frederick C Robie House (1910), Wikipedia

But I may be giving the wrong impression here. These aren’t academic books arguing to save arts education. Set in Chicago, each book features pre-teens solving a mystery, but also negotiating their way through an often confusing world. In Chasing Vermeer, we meet Petra and Calder, 11-year-olds who find themselves thrown together in search of a missing painting. Their individual skills combine well. Petra loves words, writes constantly, and notices things around her. Calder plays with pentominoes, thinks with numbers, and loves patterns. He invents a pentomino code for communicating with his best friend, Tommy (currently out of town, but soon to return). Will these two be able to rescue the painting before it’s too late?

Calder, Canine (1956), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

In the second and third books, Tommy joins the group, but the balance is off. He’s Calder’s best friend, jealous of Petra, and therefore snide and distrustful. Petra can’t stand his attitude, and Calder chafes at being in the middle. It takes a real threat, in the third book, to solidify this trio. Can they cooperate enough to save Wright’s Robie House from destruction in book two and to locate a missing Calder (both a sculpture and their friend) in book three?

Well, of course they do.

PS: The illustrator, Brett Helquist, does a wonderful job representing the characters AND the art in these books.

Sequels: The Wright 3 (2006), and The Calder Game (2008)





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Art in peril

Laura Marx Fitzgerald, Under the Egg (2014) and The Gallery (2016) (both read as e-books from the NYPL)

It’s no surprise that these two middle-grade novels by an art historian involve art: missing masterpieces, questions of ownership, and just plain how to look at a painting. I read these with my computer nearby, so I could look up the paintings referenced — and yes, they’re all real artworks. (In her author’s note to The Gallery, Fitzgerald mentions the fun she had “‘shopping'” the world’s greatest museums, building my own collection of paintings, and then arranging them to tell [the] story.” So, new parlour game: what 10 works of art tell your story? Penalties for using Munch’s The Scream or that painting of dogs playing poker.  © Lizzie Ross 2018.)

Under the Egg may start with a death, but it’s a sprightly tale. Theodora Tenpenny (great name, by the way) and her mother are barely scraping by, living on fresh and canned vegetables from their back garden. Theo wears found (and then adapted) clothing: she turns a bag of discarded cashmere sweaters into felted wool components for shirts, leggings, even patches, and for much of the action she dons an old negligee as a strappy summery dress. Her recently deceased grandfather has left her a mystery — something is hidden “under the egg” — and solving this mystery takes Theo to museums, libraries, art appraisers, and her new best friend’s fabulous house just down the block. Fitzgerald builds the plot so that the amazing denouement doesn’t seem impossible. In fact, the whole thing is quite satisfactory, with everyone getting their just desserts.

The Gallery is a combination artwork mystery, upstairs-downstairs social commentary, captive princess, and political revenge novel, with one of the best bring-it-back-to-the-starting-point endings I’ve ever read.

It’s fall, 1928. Martha O’Doyle and her mother work as servants at the home of newspaper magnate Archer Sewell and his wife, Rose. Rose never leaves her bedroom, where she hoards her art collection, occasionally sending as many as four pieces to display in the ground floor gallery. Questions trouble Martha — why these pieces? why now? what else is in Rose’s room? why does she never come out? The first set of four paintings each feature a pomegranate, so one day Martha sends one up the dumbwaiter as part of Rose’s lunch. Not Martha’s first misstep, but the one that commits her to finding out what’s going on in that bedroom.

At the end, when the 100-year-old Martha reflects on that year and the decades that followed, she explains her choices with a statement that could apply to what artists do:

Hasn’t the world always been full of monsters and lies? Isn’t it our place to fight them, to tell the truth, to rewrite the story? To ensure the return of spring in a world of winter?

In her commentaries at the end of these books, and on her website, Fitzgerald admits to being inspired by other MG adventure-mysteries about art and museums: E L Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967, reviewed on my blog here) and Chasing Vermeer (2004), the first book in Blue Balliett’s art-heist series. Fitzgerald has earned her place on the bookshelf next to these.

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My co-conspirator (Calmgrove at this website) is traveling, but I’m certain he’ll be posting similar information as soon as he returns.

WITCH WEEK. This is a yearly event named after the third book in Diana Wynn Jones’ Chrestomanci series. The week runs 30 October – 6 November, so it includes two great holidays: Halloween AND Guy Fawkes’ Day.

Remember, remember!
The fifth of November,
The Gunpowder treason and plot;
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot!

This year, our theme is Feminism + Fantasy, so our read-along book will be Ursula K Le Guin’s The Other Wind, the final book in the Earthsea series. You have plenty of time to get a copy and read it (perhaps the rest of the series as well) before 30 October. Then join the conversation as we discuss what happens when Le Guin throws a feminist dynamic into the fantastic world of Earthsea.

We’ll have guest bloggers, including this event’s originator and previous host, Lory at Emerald City Book Review.

More to come as we get closer to WITCH WEEK.

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