Friday, December 17, 2010

Bruegel and Stark and Frayn and Westlake

I recently finished reading Richard Stark's eighth Parker novel, The Handle.  I enjoyed it immensely, as I have all of the other Parker novels.  The Handle is about a job to knock off and knock out a casino on an island in the Gulf of Mexico.  (Had the casino survived Parker, BP will soon finish the job.)[Note: I started this post in May 2010 when oil was still pouring into the Gulf of Mexico.]

The name of the island is Cockaigne.  Karns, the head of the Outfit and the man commissioning the job, gives us the background on the name:

‘One of my lawyers told me what it is,’ Karns said. ‘There was an old legend in the old days in England about a country called Cockaigne where everything was great. Streets made of sugar, doughnuts growing on the trees and like that. Like the song about the big rock candy mountain. Idleness and luxury, that was Cockaigne, and that was what this bird Baron called his gambling island.’

And this rang a bell with me.  Just as Stark used the story of the Missing Mourners of Dijon in The Mourner, I wondered if he got the idea for The Handle from the world of fine arts - because there's a painting of it by one of my favorite artists, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, called "The Land of Cockaigne."
The place that Breugel paints is a lot like the island.  For more on the background on this painting, see

In Tuesday's New York Times, I read about the discovery of a new painting by Bruegel and this reminded me that I never finished this post.   An old painting has been found to be from the master himself and not one of his sons.  Michael Kimmelmen has a nice write up about it called When Overlooked Art Turns Celebrity.

Here's the painting:
It was painted shortly after the Cockaigne picture and it of a similar them - a crowd drinking wine and passing out.

Bruegel the Elder is one of my favorite artists and my interested in him originated in reading Michael Frayn's great comic novel Headlong, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1999.  In it a man notices a painting hanging in a decaying country house that he suspects is a lost painting by Bruegel.  He schemes to get it and things end badly.  Imagine one of Westlake's Dortmunder novels written in a way Docx would approve and you have Headlong.  This book is a real work of art and one of my favorite novels ever.

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