Practical Theory - The Origin
The Scholars in CyberEnglish
ToDaY's MeNu - Ted

Monday, July 3, 2017

Headlong by Michael Frayn


Headlong by Michael Frayn is about scholarship. “If I have any pretentions to be a scholar, then I have an obligation to put my findings on record, so that my colleagues and successors, now and down the years, can evaluate them.” Frayn has opened with my definition of scholarship: “publish, engage in peer review, and pass it on.” It was my pretention when I set out to create CyberEnglish. Was it the right thing to do or was it wrong? I, too, was in a quandary as I used my scholars’ published work to move CyberEnglish forward. As with our scholar hero in Headlong, only hindsight will give us the answer. For me with the emergence of both Facebook and Twitter, I feel justified in doing what I did with CyberEnglish, as it is a model for scholarship, unlike the rogue apps Facebook and Twitter, which are the opposite of scholarly as defined by both me and Frayn. CyberEnglish moves us away from the ideas espoused in 1984, whereas, Facebook and Twitter move us closer to the tenets of 1984.
This is an Ekphrastic novel. Brueghel or Bruegel, the Elder is the subject of this fanciful novel. Martin and Kate Clay have left London for the country with their newborn child, Tilda. Their neighbors, Tony and Laura Churt have artwork. The Clays are in the art world. The Churt’s invite them to dinner to get their advice on the value of the art. This is the first plot line. The other plot line is a study in Peter Brueghel the Elder. “They’re all iconographers. What this problem needs is an iconologist.” Martin thinks he has discovered a long lost Brueghel from The Twelve Months series. Martin wants the painting. Ekphrastic work is neither new nor unique. Usually it involves poetry and one famous example involves Brueghel’s Fall of Icarus in Auden’s poem, Museé des Beaux Arts.
The confidence game that Martin schemes eventually includes Kate. The foundation is built on scholarship; the knowledge of Brueghel in his time and that requires a great deal of research by Martin, so much research that the novel becomes historical in nature. We become art students studying the times of Brueghel so as to better understand him and to be able to determine if the painting that Tony owns is the missing Brueghel. The history lesson is comprehensive and interesting to the point I sometimes forget this is a novel with a plot and other characters and this part of it is just background to help the plot and the con carry on. As Martin learns more, he knows he wants the painting he only seen once even if it not real, he is obsessed, blinded by his desire, fueled by the history of it all. I do wish they had included prints in the book so I wouldn’t have to depend on the Internet to see the paintings as I read. I love the exhaustive research Martin is doing and it reminds me of my own days of pursuing scholarship. “I should be the man who’d finally solved the mystery of Bruegel. I should have lifted the veil, revealed the hidden figure behind the canvas. I should have found the thunder.” And as in all pursuits of scholarship, the mundane and everyday is lost and this causes problems in the real world. Research is the non-real world, we must remember, but Martin forgets. “I remember that I still haven’t looked up the Giordano. But by this time, the exact figures involved in the stupendous deal I’m about to do seem to me of remarkably little importance.” Is Martin dementing or just way ahead of himself? He went to town to find the price of the Giordano, but instead followed the rabbit down the rabbit hole in pursuit of Bruegel.
The human plot is filled with intrigue and twists and turns expertly executed by Frayn, but it is the study of Brueghel that captures my fancy as I jump from text to the Internet to examine and explore the paintings in question. The history lesson is also fascinating. The art and history plots upstage the human story of the Clays and the Churts.

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