Tiepolo Blue by James Cahill: Dr Faustus, I presume?

Cover image for Tiepolo Blue by James CahillI knew about James Cahill’s Tiepolo Blue back in October, alerted to it by a copy editor friend who’d loved it. A knows her literary onions so I was primed and ready to go when Cahill’s debut started popping up on my Twitter timeline although even without her recommendation, I would’ve been keen. Set in the mid-90s, Tiepolo Blue follows Don Lamb, professor of art history at Peterhouse, Cambridge, who has led a life so attenuated he knows little or nothing of the world outside his college until he’s thrust onto the London gallery circuit.

Why should he care about the European parliament elections any more than Napoleon’s invasion of Venice? Politicians, he likes to say, are creatures of a day

Don caught the eye of Valentine Black, two decades his senior, on his first day as an undergraduate. From an ordinary background, he’s a diffident outsider who proved to be a brilliant student, now an acknowledged expert on Tiepolo. Don barely sets foot outside Peterhouse apart from professional outings. He’s appalled when the new Master approves the installation of SICK BED in the college quadrangle, dismissing it as nothing but a heap of rubbish. Asked to give his opinions on a Radio 4 arts programme, Don hesitates but is spurred on by Val with disastrous results. He’s out of step with the modern age, spending time measuring Tiepolo’s skies for his magnum opus seemingly oblivious that his career is in crisis. Val comes up with a suggestion, offering him the directorship of gallery in Dulwich, the use of his own house full of beautiful pieces, and the promise of a lost Tiepolo which has been bequeathed to the gallery. Hopelessly naïve, Don accepts, stepping on any number of toes, convinced of his own expertise but begins to explore the world, or at least Dulwich. By the end of the novel, his life has unravelled in spectacular fashion.

He is impressed, even startled, by his own lambent eloquence  

I’m wary of giving too much away about this one for fear of spoiling it. Suffice to say it’s very smartly put together. Cahill skewers the art world nicely and the pompous vanity of academia is excruciatingly well portrayed, bringing to mind a Kissinger quote much beloved by H: ‘The reason that university politics is so vicious is that the stakes are so small’. There’s a sadness about the main characters’ narrow, unlived lives in which sexuality is barely acknowledged, kept under wraps or portrayed in an exaggerated self-hating manner, made all the more poignant by its comic depiction. I’d guessed what was happening about halfway through this neatly constructed novel but it still had me gripped, wondering when the penny would drop for Don. A clever piece of tragicomedy, it would make an excellent TV series in the right hands

Sceptre Books: London ‎9781529369397 352 pages Hardback (read via NetGalley)

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