Art

Tracey Emin-esque shock art in Cambridge’s stuffiest college

Tiepolo Blue comes trailing clouds of glory. Clouds borne by winged putti, perhaps, to fit its subject matter; I have rarely seen a first novel by someone who is not already famous puffed so much with pre-publication quotes by people who are. This would be fine if the novel were a work of great talent but, while not actually bad, I am not sure it fulfils its promise. The plot: Professor Don Lamb is an art historian at Peterhouse, Cambridge’s oldest and weirdest college. (The name “Don” is deliberately unimaginative.) An expert on the great Italian painter Tiepolo, about whom he has been writing the definitive work for years, he has lately been outraged by a permanent exhibition of modern art on the lawn of the College’s main court (Old Court, fittingly).

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“The skeleton of a bed lies at the center of the grass – an iron frame packed with coil springs. It is propped up at one end by a mound of empty liquor bottles, crushed beer cans and snarled-up clothes. On the grass beneath is an industrial lamp that rotates with slow, robotic gyrations.” This is a piece by the artist Angela Cannon, called “Sick Bed”, and we are meant to think of Tracey Emin and her famous bed, but souped up with flashing lights. In short, nothing could have been better calculated to raise the hackles of poor, repressed, utterly conservative Professor Lamb. He tries not to look at it, but his rooms face out onto the court; even through closed curtains he can see its lights mocking him.

Cahill, who is an art historian himself, captures very well the strange atmosphere of Peterhouse. The novel is set in the early 1990s, not long after it started admitting women undergraduates (a decision which the late Professor Scruton said “gratuitously destroyed” the institution, and that’s all you really need to know about Peterhouse and, indeed, Professor Scruton) . The continuous present in which the entire novel is written – an irritating narrative technique, which, like tinnitus, you eventually get used to – does a good job of demonstrating its backward-facing nature.

The novel doesn’t stay there, though: like all such closed spaces, the people within them are prone to endless backbiting, gossip, and power games – indeed, such institutions demand them – and after one controversy, Professor Lamb leaves, and instead becomes the Director of a small but well-respected art museum in Dulwich. (I was slightly disappointed to leave Peterhouse, but I suppose we don’t really need another campus novel.)

Professor Lamb goes off the rails. The novel is not told in the first person, but it is entirely from his point of view, so in one sense he is an unreliable narrator. We learn of his suppressed homosexuality, his incipient alcoholism, his yearning for a young art student called Ben, and his refusal to accept just about anything of the modern world – until towards the end, when the dam holding his passions finally bursts. The problem is that it does so in a way we are meant to find squalid and sinister; and at times I entertained the suspicion that the entire novel is itself Professor Lamb’s reverie; and indeed, the whole tone of the novel has the clammy cling of an unsettlingly bad dream.

It is, I accept, a clever enough work which does pass the time quite well, but I kept having the nagging feeling that this kind of thing has been done before, and the closest comparison I can think of is with Martin Amis’s Money, in which the main character finds that he has been the unknowing – until the very end – victim of a years-long conspiracy of vengeance for an offence committed long in the past. (Unlike Money, though, it is not trying to be funny.) The thing is that one doesn’t really read Amis for the plot, but the language; it’s kind of the other way round with this novel.


Tiepolo Blue is published by Scepter at £14.99. To order your copy for £12.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books

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